Image provided by: University of Oregon Libraries; Eugene, OR
About Seaside signal. (Seaside, Or.) 1905-current | View Entire Issue (June 21, 2019)
A4 • Friday, June 21, 2019 | Seaside Signal | SeasideSignal.com
A frontier tragedy
with lasting legacy
Back on my wrist again, after a long hiatus.
of the Native
SEEN FROM SEASIDE
uthor Debra Gwartney is coming to
the South County this spring for a
signing at Beach Books. Her “part
history, part memoir,” “I Am a Stranger Here
Myself” links diverse threads of her life in
the Northwest and the saga of Narcissa Whit-
man, the ﬁ rst white woman to cross the Con-
Whitman’s daughter Alice was the ﬁ rst
white woman born in Oregon Country.
“As a whole, in the West we’ve never
really dealt with the attack that killed all
those people,” Gwartney said in a recent
radio interview. “We tend to isolate those
incidents and forget how they become part of
us, or embedded in us in some way.”
On Nov. 29, 1847, missionaries Narcissa
and her husband, Marcus Whitman, a physi-
cian, were among 12 settlers killed by mem-
bers of the Cayuse tribe.
The incident that was to become known
as the Whitman Massacre, took place at
Waiilatpu, the name Marcus Whitman gave
his mission in the fall of 1836.
On Nov. 29, 1847, several men, secretly
bearing hatchets and guns, visited Whitman
under the pretense of a medical visit.
In the ensuing attack, 60 Cayuses and
Umatillas killed the Whitmans, 11 or 12 at
the mission and took 53 people hostage. Eye-
witnesses — there were about 50 survivors,
mostly children — reported the assailants
used their tomahawks to release evil spirits
dwelling within the whites. Marcus Whitman
was battered beyond recognition, and Nar-
cissa was shot.
There were many versions of what hap-
pened that day, she said, but it was “bloody
and terrible,” In “I Am a Stranger Here
Myself,” the prose is dramatic and unsparing
in describing the massacre.
Narcissa Whitman “was shot a dozen
times on a cold day in 1847,” Gwartney
writes, “men whipping her laid-bare back
while she was still breathing. As darkness
was coming on, as temperatures fell below
zero, she was rolled into an irrigation ditch
and left to die.”
The killing of the missionaries came as
revenge for the seizing of Indian lands.
The incident was so brutal, Gwartney
writes, a Cayuse man returned to the ditch
to smash in Narcissa’s skull. “This was an
assurance, the tribe believed that
tion of a hanging I can remember.
“Without pausing he swung the
the missionaries who’d lived
hatchet as he took the last step
as increasingly unwelcome
and there was a solid chunk
neighbors for 11 years would
as the blade buried itself
be barred from the afterlife
they’d so loudly gloriﬁ ed.”
in the wood. The ends of
News of the violence
the rope whipped wildly
stirred outrage “all the
through the rings as the
way back to Washington,
tap dropped and banged
D.C., where legislators
against the supports of the
hired U.S. Marshall Joe
underside and the ﬁ ve Cay-
Meek to assign a governor
of the provisional govern-
Monday looked up at the
sky, Berry writes, “where the
ment, George Abernathy.
One of Abernathy’s ﬁ rst acts
indifferent sun poured joy and
as head of the state was to declare
energy into the world below. No,
war on the Cayuse Nation. “Nar-
he thought. No, not on a day like
cissa’s death along (was) justiﬁ -
cation enough raise an army to strike out in
And yet on a day like this in 1848 —
when ﬁ ve Indian chiefs suffered the ulti-
Retribution was fast and severe, with
mately punishment before the settlers of
exclusionary rules meting punishment who
the new world and their God — is where it
Native Americans who crossed “newly estab- begins. Violence begets violence and Mon-
lished and often invisible boundaries.”
day is soon to experience his own personal
The laws were to dictate the fate of gener- and family tragedy.
ations of Native Americans in our state.
The Cayuse were losing the war, Gwart-
Another Northwest author, the master-
ney picks up in her narrative.
ful Don Berry, who died in 2001, ﬁ ctional-
“Less than half were still alive, most hid-
ized the immediate aftermath of the Whit-
den in the mountains, sick and starved. They
man massacre and the sense of fear that
no longer occupied any of the land around
pervaded the territory in his
Waiilatpu. No one did. The place was empty.”
novel, “Moontrap,” sec-
In years to come, the govern-
ond of the “Oregon Trilogy,”
ment “pretty much wiped out that
with “Trask” and “To Build a
tribe and took all the land for white
settlers,” Gwartney said. “Their
Berry, his widow Kajira
deaths made a huge difference in the
Berry recalled last fall, loved
the Northwest in “all its
Two Cayuse chiefs remained
among the tribal leaders to negoti-
rainy glory,” and spent spent
ate a treaty in Walla Walla, about eight
many days wandering or
miles from the Whitman Mission.
hunting all over Clatsop
The sovereign nations of Walla Walla,
County. He was one-eighth
Umatilla and Cayuse secured a reserva-
Native American, Fox, and
tion of 510,000 acres, but surrendering
always had an afﬁ nity for
“Moontrap,” set in
their access to traditional hunting and
As Gwartney seeks to ﬁ nd 1850, by author
ﬁ shing grounds.
the biographical narrative
Today, the visitor’s center of Waii-Lat-
core of Narcissa and Marcus
Poo is “sparsely visited,” Gwartney writes.
Whitman, Berry stepped into
A visitor can peer through smudged
the subjective realm of the observer at the
glass to study excavated items from the site: a
courthouse, where tribal men accused of mur- pair of broken eyeglasses, chipped plates and
der were on trial for their lives.
cups, a torn Bible and a set of mannequins
Berry’s protagonist, Johnson Monday, a
enacting the ﬁ rst encounter between Cayuse
witness to the courthouse scene, is caught
between two worlds: a settler married to a
“On one side, a tall man and woman —
Native woman, emotions are ripped asunder.
her knees bent as if in prayer, her long arms
His Shoshone wife, Mary, recognizes
stretched out, palm raised in supplication
the complex net they have both entered as a
— who look down on small brown Native
“mixed race” couple in those frontier days. “I women on the other side,” Gwartney writes.
say, you wish to be Shoshone, you must do
“Most of the Native women are kneel-
what the Shoshone headmen say. You wish to ing in the dirt, planting seeds, with woven
be white, you must do what the white
reed hats atop their heads,” the author writes.
“Every time I take in this scene, I ﬁ nd myself
At the courthouse for the trial,
wishing that both sides had remained exactly
“Indian women on the stairs began
this far apart for the decade they were around
to howl a death chant for their people
each other. Curious about each other, but
already dead and about to die,” Berry
protected from whatever harm they could
writes. “The keening was uncanny in
the crowded room.”
Gwartney’s conclusion reﬂ ects the con-
The courtroom scene and verdict are
ﬂ icted feelings we all feel as we inherit this
practically a foregone conclusion, as ﬁ ve
beautiful land around on.
chieftains of the Cayuse tribe are sen-
“I’m still trying to ﬁ gure it out,” she
tenced to hanging.
writes. “I’m trying to make my way through
It is Marshall Joe Meek himself who
a miasma of doubt to give permission to
“I Am a Stranger “clumped heavily on the steps and strode
call myself a woman of the West — even
Here Myself,” by across the platform” of the scaffolding,
on the days I can’t quite grasp what that
Debra Gwartney. Berry writes in the most lyrical descrip-
John D. Bruijn
n college, living in a little college town,
there was a shop in that town selling
what was known as hippie-dippy things.
There was a shelf of hand-thrown pottery,
mostly cereal bowls and coffee mugs; there
were candles and handmade soaps and batik
bedspreads. There was incense. You could
buy macramé plant-hangers and small batch
potpourri. In addition to a limited line of
denim (I remember purchasing my one and
only pair of overalls), in a locked case along
one wall there was a selection of ﬁ ne hand-
made jewelry, some of it Native American.
For the entirety of my ﬁ nal semester, senior
year, I coveted a rather spendy sterling silver
Native American cuff bracelet whose cen-
ter was an oblong stone of green turquoise.
There was a hairline crack in the stone that
to me only made the bracelet more beauti-
ful. I tried it on a few times, but I never had
enough money to purchase.
At graduation, my college boyfriend’s
mother surprised me by gifting me the brace-
let. I was overjoyed and oblivious to the
notion she might have thought of the brace-
let as a sort of pre-engagement present. Her
son and I never did become engaged as I
went off to graduate school and he fell in
love with a red-haired beauty who he mar-
ried shortly after. I wore the bracelet every
day because I loved it and was glad to see it
on my wrist. Only after I married someone
else and had a child did I ﬁ nally take it off. I
put it in my jewelry box and there it stayed
for 15 years.
At which time I took it out and in a fever
of purging my belongings, I gave it to the
15 year old daughter of my best friend who
wore it a few times before putting it to rest in
her own jewelry box.
Fast forward to last summer when Mr.
Sax and I visited Santa Fe. It wasn’t the
greatest trip as they were experiencing a
shocking to me heatwave. We went to the
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and we booked
a private hot tub and sauna at the spa Ten
Thousand Waves. We had dinner one night
with an old friend. It being too hot to sight-
see, we spent most of our time drinking mar-
garitas. We spent an inordinate amount of
time in the shops looking at Native American
jewelry. I fell in love with a few pieces but
they were way out of my price range, and
then I remembered I had a beautiful Native
American bracelet that I had given away.
My whole life I’ve had a fascination with
Native American jewelry. For the record, I
also love moccasins, deerskin apparel, dream
catchers, and tipis. I don’t have a drop of
Native ancestry. And yet I feel completely
drawn to their jewelry.
Back home, I found a website called
Pueblo Direct that sells the Tommy Singer
cuff bracelets I’d so admired in Santa Fe.
Singer, who was born in 1940 and passed
away in 2014, was a world famous Navajo
silversmith with a distinctive style. He
learned silversmithing from his father, a
Navajo Medicine man, when he was just a
lad. Singer’s early works were done in the
silver overlay technique, but over time, he
began to work more with turquoise. Using
scrap turquoise chips, he pioneered the tech-
nique of chip inlay. I beat myself up a little
after we got home that I didn’t just fork up
and buy a piece when we were in New Mex-
ico. The guy’s dead. He’s not making any
The thought I might die and never see
my old silver and turquoise bracelet again
haunted me. I hadn’t laid eyes on it in 17
years. But it was seven months before I
brought up the subject of the bracelet to my
best friend. I asked if her daughter still had
it and she said she would ask. Her daugh-
ter lives very far away, although close to her
mother, my friend. Four years ago, I moved
across the country. To my amazement I went
to the mailbox about a week later and there
was a package. Inside was the bracelet.
Miracles do happen. I’ve got one on my
wrist to prove it.
The Seaside Signal
is published every other week by
EO Media Group,
1555 N. Roosevelt, Seaside, OR 97138.
Copyright © 2019 Seaside Signal. Nothing
can be reprinted or copied without consent
of the owners.
The Seaside Signal welcomes letters to the editor. The
deadline is noon Monday prior to publication. Letters
must be 400 words or less and must be signed by the
author and include a phone number for veriﬁ cation. We
also request that submissions be limited to one letter
per month. Send to 1555 N. Roosevelt Drive, Seaside, OR
97138, drop them oﬀ at 1555 N. Roosevelt Drive or fax to
503-738-9285, or email email@example.com
Annually: $40.50 in county • $58.00 in
and out of county • e-Edition: only $30.00
POSTMASTER: Send address changes to Seaside
Signal, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103. Postage Paid at
Seaside, OR, 97138 and at additional mailing oﬃ ces.
Copyright © 2019 by the Seaside Signal. No portion
of this newspaper may be reproduced without written
permission. All rights reserved.