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A synthesis of culture and history

July 2, 2015

Cultural traditions and customs permeate nearly every aspect of our lives. Whether at AttheHearthoftheCrossedRaceshome, in the workplace, or parked in front of the television, we all prescribe in some way to the social guidelines and expectations tied to our cultural identities. But what does “culture” mean and where does it originate? Dr. Melinda Jetté, associate professor of history at Franklin Pierce University, tackles this complex issue in her latest book, At the Hearth of the Crossed Races: A French-Indian Community in Nineteenth-Century Oregon, 1812-1859.

 

In her work, Jetté examines the community of French Prairie in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, adding depth and cultural diversity to the popular Anglo pioneer narrative of the region. An astounding mix of French and Native American culture formed the foundations of French Prairie—a tantalizing and often overlooked history unearthed by At the Hearth of the Crossed Races. Jetté joins us today to reveal the inspiration and passion behind her work.

 

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As a youngster growing up in the Portland area during the 1970s, I imbibed a steady diet of popular culture through television, film, and radio. This included the great heyday of the American miniseries, musical variety shows, disco music, reruns of Star Trek, and the start of the Star Wars franchise. These pop culture creations were all quite interesting and exciting, especially when my siblings—following the interests of my mother—became involved in the theater. However, my own intellectual interests seemed to lie elsewhere: in the family stories recounted by my father about his French Canadian and Indian ancestors who had lived in and around Champoeg and St. Paul. And although we had some Anglo ancestors who came along later, our French-Indian forebears were apparently in the Willamette Valley prior to the Oregon Trail migrations of the 1840s. These family stories from my father, along with his own love of history, influenced my later decision to study French and history in college and then pursue graduate studies in history. I would often return to the intriguing, though largely undocumented, history of the French-Indian settlers in French Prairie. I would ask myself why their experience seemed less important than that of the Anglo-Americans emigrants who trekked to the Pacific Northwest on the Oregon Trail.

 

At the Hearth of the Crossed Races attempts to answer this question by placing the French-Indian community of French Prairie at the heart of a formative and tumultuous period in Oregon’s history: the Euro-American colonization of the Pacific Northwest that began with the fur trade, the mass migration of Americans to the region, Indian wars and forced removal, and the eventual incorporation of Oregon into the United States on the eve of the Civil War. The book’s multi-dimensional history of a bicultural community follows the lives of ordinary people facing extraordinary times—not only in relation to Native peoples and incoming American settlers, but also in relation to larger historical events and developments such as the transition to a modern, commercial economy and the institution of a civil society grounded in modern notions of racial separation, gender distinction, and social exclusion. What makes the story of French Prairie inhabitants so interesting is how their lives and decisions illuminate these changing times. In tracing the social history of the French-Indian community of French Prairie—warts and all—I have endeavored to dig deeper into Oregon’s history, to contribute to a more complex representation of the nineteenth century and to a more thorough understanding of the era’s ongoing legacy in the present. At the Hearth of the Crossed Races is the beginning of a lifelong journey to document the history of French North Americans in the United States. The next project awaits!

 

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Melinda Marie Jetté maintains roots in the very community she studies. A native Oregonian, she is a descendant of the French Canadians and Native women who resettled French Prairie. Having received an MA in History from Université Laval and a PhD from the University of British Columbia, she now teaches as Associate Professor of History at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

 

Dr. Jetté will make several appearances in the Pacific Northwest this summer. See her schedule below:

 

·       Wednesday, July 8 at 11:45 AMOPB Think Out Loud (Radio)

·       Wednesday, July 8 at 7 PM – Oregon Historical Society

·       Thursday, July 9 at 7 PM – Washington State Capital Museum

·       Saturday, July 11 at 1:30 PM – Benton County Historical Society & Museum 

·       Sunday, July 12 at 1 PM – Champoeg State Historic Area

·       Monday, July 13 at 12 PM – Chehalem Senior Center

·       Saturday, July 18 at 12-3 PM – Sons & Daughters of Oregon Pioneers (Champoeg State Historic Area) 

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