Native American Histories and the “Big Tent”


A replica of a traditional “calendar ball,” a mnemonic aid for storytelling.

When Stuart Chalfort testified in a 1951 court case about Spokane lands, the tribe’s attorneys said it was “difficult to imagine on what basis defendant fathoms its contention” that Chalfort was an expert. He’d only interviewed two Spokanes, went the testimony, and one of them wasn’t considered an expert on the topic himself. (297) It’s an exchange that strikes at an open question: who speaks for oral cultures, and on what authority?

Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown’s The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun brings together a wide range of sources to tell the history of the Spokane Indians, from antiquity to the present. It’s a serious, nuanced history that describes the whole network of cultures that occupied the Columbia Plateau, with particularly accomplished scholarship on figures like Spokane Garry, who had a pivotal role in Indian-white relations during the westward expansion of the U.S. The authors call the Spokanes’ history a “microcosm” of the larger story of indigenous cultures adapting to a changing world. (ix)

After some discussion of origin stories and native ways of life, the book enters a thorough history of the fur trade, with events like the 1810 construction of Spokane House entrenching a new economic relationship. (40) The sparse white population over the coming decades lived in a relatively peaceful relationship with the plateau tribes, with the construction of missions and schools facilitating the exchange of cultural ideas, even if the exchange was a fairly one-sided imposition of agriculture and Christianity. The pressure of increasing white settlement, however, would drive more unpopular policies on the part of the U.S. government, particularly its military. An 1855 dispute between Colonel Bonneville and indian agent James Doty over Spokane Garry is shown as typical of the conflicting agendas of the military and the Bureau of the Interior. (90) These pressures eventually led to increased fighting and an equally-disastrous series of treaties and reservations, with the Yakima wars beginning in 1855. (110)

“Unschooled in war making against the whites,” Ruby and Brown write, “they were by the same token unschooled in peace making, too.” (122) The more recent history sees declining military conflict, and increasingly one-sided administrative battles over the Indians’ role in the new nation. After the arrival of railroads in the northwest, the fight was basically a legal one. (295) Indians were offered a series of land deals, some better than others, throughout the 19th century. The 1875 Indian Homestead Act, for instance, offered Indians citizenship and homesteads in exchange for their land along the proposed railroad route. (165) The maze of taxes and legal procedures, however, coupled with a history of broken promises concerning the Spokane reservation, discouraged most from taking up the offers. Even Spokane Garry and his wife Nellie entered into a long legal battle over their own farm. (195)


St. Paul’s Mission near Kettle Falls, WA. (Reconstructed.)

But this history of missions, wars, treaties, and court battles, as strong as it is, calls me back to the problem of sources. Is this a fair history of the Spokane Indians, or is it simply the best scholarship that can be done with the primary sources that exist? Granted, it’s a question we can ask of any history, but the sources seem especially lopsided on questions of Native American histories. This is the story of the Spokanes’ relationship to white institutions. Indians themselves only appear in the written record when they cross paths with other institutions. Figures like Garry or the other leaders who received the education to write letters and speak in an official capacity are so rare, and are such exceptional figures anyway, that they can’t be taken as representative of most Indians’ experiences.

Lulu O’Hara presents another example: as a child, she attended both the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania and the boarding school on the site of Fort Spokane. Her life is documented by sources like her applications to the schools, class photographs, and reports from the schools’ field agents. At some point later in her life, apparently back among the Spokanes, she gave an interview in which she described her life at school, giving us a rare record of her own words. Lulu’s story is as remarkable for the fact that it survives, or was recorded at all, as for the history it describes. Every one of the children who lived through Lulu’s historic moment had a story to tell.

One vision of digital history is of the “big tent,” in which non-traditional sources can be preserved and made available. Reading the stories, like Lulu’s, that are already coming to light as they become digitized and enter the realm of digital history, I’m impatient to see that vision realized. The title of Children of the Sun, according to its authors, comes from one of many explanations of the word “Spokane.” (8) Competing stories translate it as “power from the brain,” a title for a chief, or an onomatopoeia. We need to learn how to be scholars of that kind of knowledge. Moving past our fixation on the official written record and finally giving space to the oral tradition that documents the social history of Native American lifeways before colonialism is going to mean becoming more comfortable with the unsettled, the disputed, and the multifaceted.