Book Review: “Murder at the Mission” by Blaine Harden

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On the bookshelf

Murder on the Mission: A Deadly Frontier, Its Legacy of Lies and the Capture of the American West

By Blaine Harden
Viking: 464 pages, $ 30

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Chinua Achebe once recalled an African proverb to an interviewer: “Until lions have their own historians, the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” His words seem to have added resonance in these times, when Americans rely on a white version of history. Last week officials in Washington made the withdrawal mandatory from the United States Capitol of the statue of a man long considered the “savior” of the state, correcting a destructive myth about how the territory of Oregon entered the United States.

Blaine Harden, whose latest book, “Murder at the mission, “Dismantle this myth, grew up in Washington, the son of a man who helped build the Grand Coulee Dam,” the the most powerful thing ever built by a man, ”as Woody Guthrie sang.

When we spoke on video in early April, he admitted that he never really thought about the connection between the electricity powering his home and the history of the Columbia River. Then he met Martin Louie Sr., a member of the Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Harden was working on a book on the Columbia, and when he told Louie about his dad, and how Harden himself had worked on the dam for a summer, Louie told him, “You guys who killed our fish. , and then you gave us nothing.

The septuagenarian slowly got up from his couch, Harden remembered, and walked over to his closet. He told Harden, “The only thing they gave us was this” – “then he shoved a can of government issued salmon in my face.”

The issue of tribal rights is inseparable from any discussion of water in the West, and it seems likely to come to the fore. again this summer as a continuing drought pits farmers against tribes. Unboxing the history of white settlement in the Pacific Northwest means facing one of the region’s founding myths: how the small mission murders in what is now eastern Washington led to to the establishment of the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Like Harden, I had my first encounter with the story of the hapless missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, at a school in Washington. For me, it was in eighth. For Harden, it was an elementary school play about the “Whitman Massacre,” the murder of the couple and 11 other white men by a delegation from the Cayuse tribe in 1847.

The Whitmans were celebrated as martyrs, and Marcus Whitman’s cross-country journey to lobby lawmakers to claim Oregon territory was seen in retrospect as the only event that ultimately brought the land under American control. . But as Harden’s research shows, the story was turned into a golden legend by fabulist and fellow missionary Henry Spalding. In fact, the account of the trip across the country bears little resemblance to historical truth. Not only did Spalding invent details that turned Whitman into a hero, but he and others also used those concocted details to raise funds and found a college named after the Whitmans.

“Whitman’s story was quite an exciting play in the Old West – or so it seemed,” writes Harden. “The violent death at the hands of hostile tomahawk throwers gave history a touching thrill of land martyrdom. He linked Whitman to General George Armstrong Custer in Little Bighorn, Davy Crockett in the Alamo, even Christ on Calvary. What no one told me at the time was that Whitman’s story was largely a bunch of lies.

While legend depicts the Whitmans as a soul-saving couple among local tribes, Harden says the Boston-based Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, which sent the Whitmans on a mission, had an “explicit purpose. [which] was to prepare the tribal people for the coming of the whites. To acculturate them, convert them and “civilize” them so that they can better adapt to the coming flood of whites.

This “civilizing” mission was a response to an increasingly harsh national policy towards Native Americans that included forced migrations such as the Trail of Tears. The missionaries “insisted that the Indians learn English, cut their hair, wear white clothes, give up their traditional nomadic life, give up collective ownership of the land, accept private property, settle down as farmers, accept hard work, learn to plow, and raise crops online – all while obeying the Ten Commandments… ”

When a measles epidemic began to kill the Cayuses and the Whitmans’ drugs failed to cure the sick, making Marcus a “failed medicine man,” the deadly events were triggered. The mission was already failing; the Cayuses had no interest in finding the white religion. The “increasingly bossy, arrogant and selfish” missionaries built large houses and brought herds of farm animals, but refused to pay rent to the Cayuses for their land. For the tribe, the disease they spread was the last straw, a “poisoning” of their people.

Spalding, who had settled among the nearby Nez Perce, profited from the killings. Harden describes him as a “conspiratorial peddler, an ad-savvy fabulist in the costume of a pioneer preacher.” Spalding dramatized his own escape from the Cayuse attacks and claimed Catholic priests in the local diocese orchestrated the murders.

Harden conveys in witty prose the consequences of the Spalding story’s rupture: a calculation at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, leading to the removal of a statue of Marcus Whitman from campus and, more recently, from Statuary Hall to the United States Capitol.

Journalist Blaine Harden, author of "Murder at the mission."

Journalist Blaine Harden, author of “Murder on the Mission”.

(Arno Harden)

The encounter with Louie that spawned “Murder at the Mission” came about during the work on “A lost riverA book about the dams that turned the once mighty Columbia into a series of mud puddles. Harden calls this his “most important experience as a journalist,” which speaks volumes. His long career has included stints with the Washington Post, The New York Times, the PBS documentary series “Frontline” and The Economist. In 2012 he wrote “Escape Camp 14The story of the only person known to have escaped a North Korean political prison camp. He has reported on North Korea, war-torn Yugoslavia and many places in Africa.

But it was the Whitmans story that “shocked” Harden like no other. It also seemed quite timely, he said, “especially in the Trump and post-Trump era, where people are willing to buy fake stories but feel good about themselves.” It draws a straight line between elementary school myths and today’s conspiracy theories. “In America,” he said, “a good story has an insidious way of outperforming a real one, especially if that story confirms our virtue, congratulates our election, and enshrines our status as God’s chosen people.

Yet Harden also sees the dismantling of the Whitman myth as a story of triumph. The Cayuses carried the stigma of murder for over a century, and it’s not just whites who blamed them. Other tribes resented the Cayuse for the repercussions of the murders. The true story – spelled out in Harden’s terrifyingly readable book – is part of a series of tragic misunderstandings in which the fuel of white expansion met one of the inevitable sparks of history.

Harden also sees the Cayuse story as an ultimately triumphant tale. The salmon returned to the waters the tribe fought to restore, and the tribe’s casino funded related activities and the redemption of reserve land.

As one tribe member in Harden put it, “Seeing all these white people playing these slots… We got our water and our fish. We have saved. All these Indians receive salaries, social benefits. Everything will be alright. All it took was subduing the greed of the white man, just as the white man had tapped their water.

Berry writes for a number of posts and tweets @BerryFLW.





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