Sunday, September 1, 2013

On the Need for a New Spokane Garry Biography

Garry, meet Barry. (Photo courtesy of the Spokesman-Review.)
I love this story in today's Spokesman-Review, about how local teachers and historians Brian Huseland and Barry Moses uncovered Spokane Garry's native name, which had been lost to history for 200 years. They discovered a transcription of an 1828 letter written by Garry when he was at the Red River school, a letter he signed "This from your son, Slough-Keetcha.”

Now we do not know what Slough-Keetcha meant or even how it was pronounced--yet. We do learn from the article that Barry Moses is on the job, so I think we are going to find out. Barry is a professor at Spokane Community College where he works in their Institute for Extended Learning. He blogs quite actively at Sulustu, often on historical topics, and sometimes even in the Salish language. He is active in the local historical community as well. I am pretty sure that Moses will figure it out.

Here in Spokane we talk about Spokane Garry all the time, but not with any discernment or wisdom. The broad outlines of his life are often retold: He was born around 1811 to Spokane Chief Illim-Spokanee, sent to a missionary school at Red River in 1825 where he learned the English language and Christianity, and returned to Spokane in 1829. Garry set up a school near present-day Drumheller springs for a few years but soon gave it up, and died (poor and forgotten, it is usually told) in a tepee in Indian Canyon in 1892. All over Spokane, markers and monuments retell the story, always in the same manner.

There are numerous problems with this telling. The first is the condescending, "Lo! The Poor Indian!" nature of the tale. Garry--a dynamic and important leader and historical actor--is presented as someone who was acted upon, a supporting actor in a familiar pageant of white conquest. He is presented as a helpless object of pity, another of Edward Curtis' Vanishing Race. Even most modern stories continue in this tone from the HistoryLink article to a 2008 piece in the Spokesman ReviewThis interpretive sign near Garry's last home summarizes the usual maudlin story:

At Indian Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Sulutsu.)
The second problem is how much of Garry's long and important life get left out of the traditional story. Garry's story is truncated, jumping sixty years from the young man who established a school to the very old man who died on the edge of a fast-growing city. Oh sure, a few incidents from those decades get retold, usually items that reinforce the above narrative. Left out or insufficiently explored are the extent of Garry's leadership in the 1840s and 50s, an 1844 Indian expedition to California that Garry led, his participation in the Walla Walla Indian Council, his evolving religious views (though often presented as a Christian hero, Garry took two wives and seemed to practice his own syncretic sets of beliefs), and his role interpreting between his people and the white invaders who began to flood the region in the 1860s and 70s. The last decades of Garry's life are particularly ripe for exploration--he may very well have watched Spokane burn in 1889. One wonders what he thought?

For such an important figure, Garry has largely eluded the attention of biographers. The best thing we have is William S. Lewis' The Case of Spokane Garry, published by the Spokane Historical Society in 1917. Yes, 1917. There is also Thomas Edwin Jessett's 1960 Chief Spokan Garry, 1811-1892: Christian, Statesman, and Friend of the White Man. Garry has had a large role in many other works about Plateau peoples, from Ruby and Brown's The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun to my own Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power. All of these books are either hopelessly out-of-date of deal with Garry only tangentially.

So we need a new biography.  A new study could probably turn up new facts about the life of the man who we now know was Slough-Keetcha. More importantly, a new biography could turn up new perspectives and insights. Slough-Keetcha's life included the fur trade, the arrival of the first missionaries, the coming of white settlers, the Indian Wars of the Plateau, various and important negotiations with the government, the shrinking of the tribe due to malnutrition and disease, native economic adaptations to their new realities, the rise of the city of Spokane, mining opening up in much of the Spokane Indian homelands, the creation of the Spokane Reservation, and the relocation of much of the tribe. Every one of these events is under-studied, and in every one of them Slough-Keetcha had an important role. A proper biography of Slough-Keetcha would be a retelling of the early history of the Inland Empire, from a native point of view.

If only there was someone--a Spokane Indian with a scholarly bent, a graduate education, knowledge of the language and culture, a tireless researcher with the good will of the scholarly community--to undertake such a work. Anyone know such a person?