Perspectives on American Indians in Oregon’s Historic Newspapers

Researchers seeking information on first peoples of the Northwest will discover a wealth of relevant material in Historic Oregon Newspapers. Entering the word ‘Indian’ in our web site’s search engine currently turns up 2,852 page hits–and there will be still more material coming as further titles are digitized and added to the site. While these stories provide a wealth of valuable knowledge, they must always be regarded and weighed in light of historical context.

"Lightering Freight From Steamer To Shore" via Native longboat, from Portland Oregonian, May 1, 1904, p.32

The relationship between indigenous Oregonians and the Euro-American settlers who began arriving in 1811 evolved along much the same pattern as we find in other regions of the country. Beginning in early editions of the state’s first newspapers, Oregon journalists have devoted not inconsiderable column space to stories about American Indian people, events and issues. No one could reasonably say that Indians were ‘invisible’ to the historic press in Oregon. However, serious questions concerning accuracy, integrity and inclusiveness begin to arise when we consider the tone and coverage of much of this material. Most newspaper writing from the period covered by our digitization(1846-1923) comes larded with the common and unfortunate prejudices of the day, and practically all of it is told from the point of view of Euro-Americans.

"Chief Doloose of the Coos Bay Indians: An Old Friend Of White Settlers." From Sunday Oregonian, March 18, 1900, p.19

The very first issue of Oregon’s first newspaper–the February 5, 1846 Oregon City Oregon Spectator–includes an item concerning native people: it reports that Doctor White, recently appointed Indian Agent for Oregon Territory, has been waylaid by Sioux on his journey west.  As Oregon Trail pioneers continued to set out from the east in ever-growing numbers, the April 29, 1847 Spectator offered advice to prospective newcomers: “Treat the Indians kindly along the road, but trust them not.”

Cobless corn of the "teosante" type first domesticated and improved by American Indians. From Medford Mail Tribune, April 19, 1914, Second Edition Supplement, p.11

Press coverage often turned overtly hostile during the various Indian Wars of the territorial and early statehood periods. For example, on April 26, 1873, the Jacksonville Oregon Sentinel editorializes in favor of forcefully disarming all Indians on reservations and aggressively waging the Lava Beds War with the Modocs  in Southern Oregon. The author writes: “The milk-eyed, sentimental, blubber-hearted fellows of the East who never saw an Indian are besieging the President with letters, imploring him to be merciful with the Indians, and not exterminate them on account of the treachery of the Modocs.”

A few decades later, with the wars resolved in the newcomers’ favor and all Oregon’s first peoples now pacified under a system of treaties and reservations, we can observe a dramatic shift in the tone of journalistic coverage. An idealized, romanticized view of the American Indian begins to be promulgated in the dominant society–‘Indians’ as cherished and colorful role-players in the emerging mythology of the ‘Old West.’ Former enemies who were once scorned now appear as revered elder statesmen of a bygone era: see ‘Joseph in Wallowa’ from the June 24, 1900 Portland Sunday Oregonian. Also popular in the newspapers of this period are nostalgic and rose-tinted reminiscences of White-Native relations during earlier times. Witness another item from the Sunday Oregonian (1905), ‘John Davenport, An Oregonian Whom The Indians Loved Because He Never Told Them A Lie.’

"Honest" John Davenport gets some love. Illustration from Portland Sunday Oregonian, June 11, 1905, p.39

Thankfully, another point of view begins to emerge in the early decades of the 20th century–just in time to fall within the scope of our digitization project. For lack of a better or more all-encompassing term, this frame of mind may be labeled ‘proto-Anthropological.’ Although still fraught with their own biases and blind spots, stories written from this point of view provide some of the earliest examples of a less ethnocentric, more rigorous approach to documenting the heritage, history and life-ways of indigenous peoples. Two more samples from the pages of the Portland Oregonian: a story from 1900 entitled ‘Festivities of The Buck Moon on Umatilla Reservation’, and a 1905 photographic feature, ‘Stone Implements Used By The Oregon Indians.’

Photo from Pendleton East Oregonian, February 9, 1897 (Special Edition) p.3

Another type of story that is common throughout the digitized run of papers is the more dry and news-like reportage of legal issues and government affairs relating to the administration of Indian treaties, reservations and schools. From the Daily Astorian in 1884 comes ‘Northwestern Indians: What the Indians require and what the government must pay.’ In 1905, the Oregonian covered a Portland-area conference on the reform of Indian Schools. In a stroke of irony that was no doubt unintended–but nonetheless may be savored by those who are familiar with the checkered early history of Bureau of Indian Affairs education policy–this story ran beneath a large photograph of the crowd at Barnum & Bailey’s circus, coincidentally doing business in town that very same week.  —Jason A. Stone

All-American Indian football team, circa 1905

Sherman Institute (Indian school in Riverside, CA) varsity football team that played a tie game with Multnomah in 1905. Image from the Sunday Oregonian, November 19, 1905, Section 2, pg.17.

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