Lessons from a census past
Indian Country Today
A friend writes: “The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has announced that they have digitized 18,000 photographs from the BIA and they are asking for volunteers to add ‘tags’ to the photographs. … I thought Indian Country Today might be interested in looking at this project especially the tags — to see how NARA is proposing to represent the subjects of the pictures.”
This message led to a deep, wonderful well of family information and stories.
My great-grandfather, Fred Trahant, is not someone I know much about. Whenever I’d ask my father or grandfather I would not hear a lot. About the only thing I remember as a child was visiting his grave on memorial holidays. He was born in 1875, and he died at 57 years old in 1933. (I do remember meeting my great-grandmother as a child. She lived into her 90s, and I met her as a small boy.)
This weekend I learned a lot from those archives. He was one of 80 the Bureau of Indian Affairs considered farmers in the Lower Ross Fork District of the Fort Hall reservation. He cultivated wheat, oats and alfalfa. In 1919 his wheat produced a yield of 30 bushels, and he earned $20 (some $500 in today’s prices). He had two horses and two wagons.
Hard facts, lonely to be sure, but there are clues. One of the most interesting is only a reference to a lawsuit that Fred Trahant filed in 1916 or so. The note sent to the secretary of interior and the office of the attorney general says he filed suit against HW Kietz and CH RS Southworth. Nothing about what kind of suit or about the parties. It could have been a local issue but sent to Washington because of the involvement of a tribal citizen (who did not have legal standing in a courtroom in 1916.)
What’s particularly useful to our understanding of the time is to match family stories with the records. We get a picture that is richer than either narrative on its own. When I was young I spent a lot of time, and interviewed often, my grandfather’s cousin, George P. Lavatta. (I always called him “Uncle.”)
Lavatta was a graduate of the Carlisle Indian School and had built a successful career at Union Pacific, starting as a day laborer and working his way into management as the "advisor general" on Indian matters for Union Pacific's President Carl Gray.
“What was that job?” I asked. Lavatta has an empathic voice. “Organizing,'' he said. He was always organizing. He left the railroad in 1929 to work in what folks then called the “Indian service,” or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
He worked in a variety of roles, ranging from finding jobs for people to writing tribal constitutions. He also served as a wandering government official, leading official delegations into Yellowstone National Park or reviewing the staffing levels at an Indian hospital.
Indeed in our pandemic the window into another pandemic is particularly striking. The BIA compiled a disease report from Fort Hall from 1907 to 1923. Most years there is influenza, even a death or three. Other diseases that show up including whooping cough, measles, mumps, chickenpox and pneumonia. Then 1919 shows a spike: 162 influenza cases and 35 deaths. A year later the disease only slowed a bit, 132 cases and 12 deaths.
The agency report in 1919 by Henry Wheeler, M.D., was particularly bleak: “It has been out of management for the benefit of the sick so long that we have ceased to call it a hospital. The medical report said there were two hospitals, one at the school, and other at the agency. But the school hospital had no nurse so it closed. More and more people have given up and sought medical treatment in town. Others chose not to go, no matter the reason. The doctor said a real hospital would be expensive but the current set up he dismissed as a ‘white elephant.’
“The constant demand for a hospital there was many times greater than ever it was here, and yet the elephant was permitted to die from starvation for the reason that it cost so much to keep,” he wrote.
He called himself the “humiliated physician.”
A year later his report was late. “Epidemics of fatal consequences are of grave concern to every community and municipality,” Wheeler wrote. He said students fared better in the influenza pandemic than the Fort Hall community itself.
“The fatality of this disease is nearly nine percent of the patients affected,” Wheeler wrote. “Its fatal results have been more than four times greater than all other epidemics combined, due largely to the frequent return and the scourge of 1919 when thirty five perished.”
The BIA’s version of the census counted the ordinary. There was a Statistical Section of the Chief Clerk of the Indian Office. Each year agency superintendents were required to file these reports. “A few ambitious superintendents took time to illustrate with drawings and poetry the activities and lifestyles of the Indians in their jurisdiction,” says an introduction by Samella T. Anderson of the National Archives. Houses. Farms. Even toilets. The report showed the mechanics of its “entire canvass of the reservation twice with a revised identification of the Indian population with each observation.”
Looking back at this data, and the narrative, it reminds me how much tribal nations are losing because of the failed U.S. census that is 2020. Generations from now there is so much we will not know about this decade because it’s not recorded.
Family stories are, of course, powerful on their own. We have a way of telling our history. But without the record to spur memory (or even to challenge our retelling) we will be lost.
What was it like to stay at home? What does an empty casino feel like? How do people feel about the extraordinary actions by tribal governments to shut down a community and save lives?
Questions that should still have answers a century from now. But the BIA census is no more. Now the only collection point for this information is the U.S. Census.
My favorite part of these reports are the items that reveal human nature.
“I regret very much to report there is considerable gambling on the reservation … at least I have information supporting that belief, but unfortunately it is a difficult matter because the Indians use their own games and when they are caught in the act no money is found in evidence.” The agent continued. He could not even count on the police. “I have, a number of times, called upon our Indian force of policemen to arrest any person or persons found gambing, but thus far my attempts have been rather unsatisfactory.” He said the regular police probably helped warn and cover up the gambling because they did it too. “They have frequently suggested to me that I also attempt to break up gambling in nearby towns where the whites seem to engage in the practice promiscuously and apparently without interference.”
I only imagine that superintendent looking at the world of casinos today.
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.
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