But author Debra Gwartney’s identity as a fifth-generation Idahoan came with the feeling that she didn’t truly belong.
Gwartney’s family arrived in the Boise and Salmon areas of Idaho in the 1800s. In her latest memoir, “I am a Stranger Here Myself,” she explores her childhood as a lonely girl longing for connection juxtaposed with the story of missionary Narcissa Whitman, often credited as the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. Whitman, and her husband Marcus, ministered to the Cayuse Indians near modern day Walla Walla, where they were killed in a massacre.
“I thought, why not go back to the very beginning and look at the ideals and values that she and Marcus brought with them to settle the West. My family shared a lot of those values. While they weren’t fervently religious, there was this idea of progress. They were going to go in and take the land and make it profitable, without any thought to who already lived there,” said Gwartney, 60. She will talk about her work tonight at BookPeople during the Palouse Literary Festival in Moscow. She’ll be joined by CMarie Fuhrman, an author and University of Idaho graduate of Southern Ute heritage who will share an indigenous perspective on the subject.
Gwartney teaches memoir writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. She said one of her greatest teachers told her early on that the ultimate goal of memoir writing is self-awareness.
“To write a memoir to attack or blame someone is just kind of an empty shell. (Instead one should ask) what is it you need to discover about yourself by looking back at these relationships? It’s very hard work. It’s extremely challenging.”
In “I am a Stranger Here Myself” she wrestles with the legacy of being born into a patriarchal, white imperialist culture.
She was drawn to Whitman’s story after reading biographies about her including “Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman” by Julie Roy Jeffrey and “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,” by Patricia Nelson Limerick. As a child, Gwartney was taught to view Whitman as a hero and victim. After reading further as an adult she realized Whitman’s legacy was more troubled.
“Of course, I didn’t know as a child how hostile she was toward the native people; it was portrayed that they were hostile. She was very nasty to them and had this very narrow view of who God is and how to worship God. She had no (room) for their interpretation for the divine. They held this big hammer of Hell over the Cayuse all the time: If you don’t do it our way you’re going to suffer for eternity.”
There were many other points of contention between the couple and the Indians. Tensions came to a head after an outbreak of disease, introduced by European settlers, killed numerous Cayuse children.
“Some books I read said every single child was dead,” said Gwartney. “Of course that fomented tremendous anger. Who wouldn’t be angry?”
The Cayuse killed the Whitmans and 11 other people.
Once she was able to see Narcissa Whitman as a player in the tragedy, Gwartney said was able to work with her personal misgivings about her family’s heritage and arrive at a greater awareness of her place in the historical, physical and emotional landscape of the West.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Palouse Literary Festival.
WHEN: Thursday through Saturday.
WHERE: Downtown Moscow locations.
OF NOTE: Gwartney will read and talk about the craft at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople of Moscow, 521 S. Main St.