Monday, May 09, 2011

A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest
By Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown and Cary C. Collins
University of Oklahoma Press

This is also an important reference work that includes up-to-date information that changes the story it tells.  Part of the invaluable Civilization of the American Indian Series at University of Oklahoma Press, this third edition is substantially different from the 1992 second edition, with references as recent as 2010.  It is still organized as descriptions of all known tribes of the present states of Oregon and Washington, plus some with origins partly or wholly in British Columbia, and partly in other states such as California.

The history sections were drawn from oral accounts by elders of the tribes involved (where possible) as well as standard sources.  These have been refined for this edition, as there is more to say in the contemporary life and culture section for many tribes.  While some of these sections sound as if they were pasted in from tribal publicity, it's undeniable that both contemporary cultural awareness--grown over the past generation especially--plus the financial resources from gaming have made substantial differences.

 For example, after a complex and often dismal post-contact history, the reconstituted Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde became the wealthiest tribe in Oregon, with a net worth of $100 million in 1998, due to the most successful casino in the region.  This has enabled not only employment for some 1700 people, but a number of other companies such as Spirit Mountain Environmental Services, as well as a health and wellness center, tribal archives and library, language classes, active attempts to reclaim cultural objects, and millions of dollars in charitable donations.

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians of Washington State and northern Idaho have established the Indigenous Learning Company, the first Native-owned Internet publishing company that published web-based educational materials--just some of what gaming has helped finance.  But even those tribes without their own casinos have established thriving cultural and environmental programs, and nurtured college graduates and professionals in many fields.  The persistent problems on Indian reservations in every part of the country are well known, but this part of the story isn't often told, especially in a total context of tribal history (which includes summaries of relevant treaties, court cases and government activities.)

In the late 90s I spent several days at a Seventh Generation Fund conference in Seattle, in the company of representatives of some of these tribes (as well as from elsewhere.)   It was an amazing experience for me, so naturally I looked up the tribes of the people I remembered most, such as the Makah and the host tribe, the Skokomish--in their section I saw a photo of the flamboyant Bruce Miller and reference to the comparatively low-key Vi Hilbert, both cultural leaders who were major figures in that conference.  Vi Hilbert was one of the most impressive people I've ever met.  It was like meeting the Dalai Lama.

But while I missed hearing more of the voices of such leaders and elders in this book, surely the book's value is a great deal in bringing together in one volume these succinct summaries of all these tribes, including the many that no longer exist as tribal entities.  Just to sense the scope of Native life in this region is a major effect, and now to see the stories move into the twenty-first century.

I think perhaps the cover is a little deceptive, though.  A number of the tribes most associated with this style of carving--the Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Coast Salish, Westcoast, etc.--are outside the scope of this book, being located farther north in Canada and associated islands.  This also makes the title a little deceptive, although these tribes are often referred to as Northwest Coast.

Otherwise, the accounts in this book are individually and cumulatively powerful.  It is an outstanding reference book, that builds upon the impressive achievements of the first edition and is inspiring not only for the stories it tells, but for the dedicated scholarship and years of effort that went into making it.

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