MAIN STREET: Our generations are few in restless West

<p>Rich Wandschneider</p>

When I first came to the Wallowas 41 summers ago, I heard that drum of old-timer lore: “you’re not an old-timer here and won’t really be accepted unless you can count four generations.” But I’d moved here after five years in Turkey, where old meant the Old Testament, and spent a couple of years on our own East Coast, where old meant the Mayflower, and I soon learned that white settlement here stretched barely a hundred years, and I took to saying that the only real old-timers around would be Indians.

In the course of time, I learned something of the Nez Perce, studied more American history, and thought about my own family’s migrations from Germany and Norway to Minnesota and then to California. In 1976 we started the Bookloft, and filled it with stories of the Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Umatilla, with diaries of pioneer women, journals of trappers and traders, and the histories and novels that try to make sense of it all.

At the Bookloft I met Alvin Josephy, who had happened on the Nez Perce story while working for Time Magazine in 1952, been taken over by it and spent stolen work and vacation time in traditional sweats with three Nez Perce War vets still alive and in museums and archives where old maps, pictures, and accounts of the earliest white people in the Northwest had left traces. The Josephys bought a small ranch here in the Wallowas, and he published “The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest” in 1965, and went on to other books about Indian people and tribes, and to work to make the nation realize what Indian peoples were before the Europeans arrived and that are with us still.

But I digress. I met Alvin in the bookstore and I met Kim Stafford in the bookstore. Kim was a poet in our schools in 1978. He lived in Wallowa for nine weeks, took guitar lessons from Linda McAllister, made a book of kids’ poems with his students, and took stories from the Wallowas he learned from Wilma Gillery and Grace Bartlett and others and wove them into his own books.

In 1988 Alvin and Kim and a gaggle of local friends Elizabeth Oliver, Sara Miller, Don Green and Eve Slinker and more got together and started “Fishtrap,” first a gathering of readers and writers and then an organization dedicated to promoting writing and writers in the West. Fishtrap is still alive. It celebrated 25 years this weekend with new director Ann Powers leading and new writers and old friends joining in the celebration. Locals Sara Miller, Mike Hale, and Pam Royce sang songs. Teresa Jordan, who wrote “Cowgirls,” and her husband Hal Cannon, who started the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada, were here. And Luis Urrea, who came to us a dozen years or more ago and keeps coming back with stories of the southern border. And David Duncan, whose “Brothers K” is still the most ambitious novel to come out of our country since “Sometimes a Great Notion.” And Kim Stafford.

These writers come to share stories and to tease them out of students in weeklong workshops. The Wallowa Valley, tucked inside mountains, bordered by rivers and canyons, is a safe place, a refuge place from which to look at the rest of the West.

One year historian Richard White told us that “the West before World War II was a hardscrabble place looking for population, capital, and an industrial base.” Without the war, he told us, most of us in the room would not have been here. Our parents and grandparents had come to build ships and planes and a nuclear facility in Richland.

And another year Stephanie Coontz told us that the West has always attracted the restless. The divorce rate, she pointed out, is higher in New England than in England, and higher yet in Oregon and Washington and California.

And one year, when almost all of the writers and story tellers were Indians, Alvin Josephy commented from the back of the room at Wallowa Lake Camp that the spirits of ancestors must be with us, and that they must be pleased.

The West even this Wallowa Valley is still a restless place, with people coming and going and rarely able to count four generations in any one place. But for Indians. This, Alvin would say, is the miracle of it, how despite diseases and wars, broken treaties and Indian schools trying to scrub the red away, and amidst a restless White, Asian, and African West, Indians and the salmon and steelhead, elk and bitterroot survive.

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