To the editor,
Thank you for last week’s thoughtful and powerful editorial. You were right to bring up dispossession of the Nez Perce and massacre of the Chinese miners as part of our legacy. It is important also to acknowledge the efforts of current residents in making amends and establishing a Wallowa County that is open and accepting of the people it once distained, and indeed open to all of good will and good heart. From the Nez Perce Homeland program in Wallowa to the demonstration on the courthouse walk on Friday night, this good work is getting done.
You also called attention to swastikas and other forms of local racist demonstration. I agree. In addition to the overt and institutional acts of Nez Perce removal and Chinese murder, and the less violent “redlining” of housing at the foot of the lake—restricted to white residents at one time by covenant—there are many subtler ways of discrimination, what some call “unconscious bias” of attitudes and actions that affect people who are different.
In July I will have lived in Wallowa County for fifty years. My early memories of Chief Joseph Days include broken bottles, slurred vocal confrontations and fights between Indians and whites on Main Street. It’s been a hard road, but through the efforts of many local leaders and Indians from three reservations, we now have friendly powwows and friendship feasts.
In 1983 my wife and I adopted a young boy from India. He was approximately six years old, with a hungry body and no English. For a few years, he was the cute little brown boy, and he, along with other little brown adoptees, played soccer and baseball, participated in school plays and sports. Gradually, as he entered junior and senior high school, the cute brown boy became the “other” to some people. In retrospect, most if not all of the other families with adopted children of color moved on.
When he was sixteen and at a high school party in Joseph, someone called him the “n” word, and he apparently replied that if it was said again he would go home and get a gun. Someone called the cops, and he spent the night in jail. The person who used the n-word got no reprimand that I know of. Tony Ramos, the Joseph high school principal at the time, was, we felt, losing control and enabling racist thinking, so our boy moved to Wallowa. On the first day of football practice, he got the n-word again. Coach Terry Crenshaw heard it, and said that the next player who used that word, whether his mom or dad was the mayor or school superintendent, was off the team.
I always thought that the Amos Marsh legacy—actually the Marsh family legacy of a Maxville black family--serves Wallowa well. I learn now from Amos’s sister, Pearl Marsh, that Amos was a popular boy and star athlete who could “dance with a white girl but not date her.” Pearl went through sixth grade in Wallowa, and recalls a Brownie troop that would not let her in, and a 4-H leader who said that Pearl was going to be in her club if it was a club of one.
We have to remember that there have always been people like Terry Crenshaw and that 4-H leader alongside the overt and quiet racism of others.
As many know, I have had two of that adopted son’s children with me for the past dozen years. Although their mom is Nordic white, there was local memory of their father, and their eyes are brown and skin a beautiful tan. And the pattern of cute little brown kids until junior high repeated, and both struggled in their own ways with being the “other.” Trey was and is a heckuva athlete. In his sophomore year, two teammates must have goaded each other into writing “How’s being black” and “White Supremacy” in his yearbook.
Trey occasionally got the n-word at ballgames, and sometimes he couldn’t quite control anger—or he would take it out with vengeance on the football field. I believe—and at least some of the coaches now believe—that referees were much more careful in monitoring Trey’s behavior than they were of white players.
But the biggest aha for me was when Trey went to college in La Grande last fall. He immediately called to say that there were smart Mexican kids (betraying his own stereotype of Mexican gangs) and he’d met black and Polynesian students. It was as if a blanket had been lifted.
Who knows what happens next. Trey did not like on-line college, but knows he wants college. His sister is working in Portland, making a go with on-line community college classes, and hoping to attend a university in the fall. Their dad is happily married to a woman from Uganda and driving city bus in Phoenix, Arizona.
Our community is gradually adding bits of color and enjoying foods from Mexico and Asia. The city of Wallowa welcomes the powwow each year, and many friendships with Indians have been formed. And more than 200 of us stood peacefully on a Friday night at our courthouse to say that we welcome this diversity.