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Roberta Ulrich on American Indians

Roberta Ulrich worked as a reporter for 50 years, starting with her hometown weekly newspaper when she was just 13. Her vast career includes 25 years as a reporter for United Press International (UPI), followed by 13 years at The Oregonian, where she created the paper's first beat covering Native American issues.

Though she grew up 35 miles from the Nez Perce Reservation in eastern Washington, Ulrich says she learned nothing about Indians in school or in the wider world. As a young reporter, an interview with the Quinault Indian Nation’s tribal chairman revealed "the huge hole in my knowledge," she explains. "That sparked my interest in Indian issues." 

“In the 1970s, I was outraged when I learned that the federal government had not fulfilled promises to replace Columbia River tribal fishing sites destroyed by construction of Bonneville Dam completed more than 30 years earlier.“

Upon retirement, Ulrich funneled her outrage into writing books, producing groundbreaking works: Empty Nets: Indians, Dams and The Columbia River and American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration 1953-2006.

"Unlike my early days," she says, "many books now provide tribal perspectives on history and life." Here are three of her favorites:


The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest
by Alvin M. Josephy Jr.

This massive book was unusual when it was published in 1965: it included the Indian point of view in a gripping tale of struggle and loss. A reporter before he was a historian, Josephy interviewed descendants and other relatives of the Indian participants in the so-called Nez Perce War. He examined tribal records as well as the European-American accounts and archives that serve as the foundation for most history. “He listened,” Indian people say of Josephy. Here is his description of Chief Joseph after the Nez Perce surrendered at the end of a 1,700-mile chase in which the Indians often outwitted the Army:

They were terrible days for the defeated, full of dejection and suffering and through the despair and hardship Joseph rose to greatness, never ceasing his efforts to win fair and just treatment for his people. Fairness seemed so simple: merely adherence to the promise [Generals) Howard and Miles had made to the Indians at Bear Paws. 

Seven Hands, Seven Hearts
by Elizabeth Woody 

I was introduced to Elizabeth Woody’s writing some years ago when she read one of her short stories at a gathering at the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. I found myself howling with laughter at her self-deprecating humor. Woody is a Warm Springs tribal member and a visual artist as well as a poet and writer of essays and short stories. I was leafing through her third book, Seven Hands Seven Hearts, to select a few lines for this piece when I learned that she had been named Oregon’s Poet Laureate. Her writing reflects traditions of her tribal people, close bonds of family and sensibility to the world around her in terms of common humanity. In the poem “Chinle Summer” she writes:

Loneliness for me is being a daughter of two landscapes
distant from the horizon circling me. The red earth completely round.
The sky a deep bowl of turquoise overhead.
Mother and father. Loneliness
Rising up like thunderheads.

She has won both the American Book Award and the William Stafford Memorial Award.


Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes
Edited by Alvin Josephy Jr.

This collection includes essays by nine members of tribes contacted by the explorers on their epic journey to and from the Pacific Ocean. Edited by Alvin Josephy Jr. (his last work), the collection ranges from historian Vine DeLoria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux to Roberta and Richard Basch, she Puyallup and Coeur d’Alene and he Clatsop Nehalem. Each writer reflects on the effect the Corps of Discovery had on the tribal people. Roberta Conner is Cayuse, Umatilla and Nez Perce and the director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Tamaskslikt Cultural Institute. In her essay “Our People Have Always Been Here” Conner said non-tribal people tend to see the expedition as “a snapshot in time.” However, she wrote:

It is more. It is the first incursion and the beginning of the invasion of the Columbia Plateau. It is the advent of dispossession of our tribes.  

Conner, by the way, served as vice president of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Board of Directors. 



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