The Legend of Squally John, Or, Why I am an Idaho Democrat

My name is Dean Ferguson and the “news” you read on this website usually includes my writing. That’s my job–along with advising on campaigns, working with activists, talking to the media, and whatever else I am needed to do.

As Communication Director, I could have weaseled out of this writing assignment. Coming up with a short piece about “Why I am an Idaho Democrat” is hard! But we made our fine Development Director Jennifer Martinez do it, and our Political Director and database guru Tom Hamilton as well. So, fair is fair and I guess it’s my turn.

Truth is, I am an Idaho Democrat for many reasons. I am baffled that anyone who has a sense of where Idaho Republican leadership has taken my beloved state would choose to be anything other than an Idaho Dem.

 

The Legend of Squally John

Or, Why I am an Idaho Democrat

snake river at lewistonA century ago, Squally John lived by himself 12 miles down the Snake River from Lewiston. He was a Nisqually tribal member—hence his name—but his Nez Perce neighbors weren’t fond of him. Those neighbors had good reason not to like him, according to an account written by a local from the area.

Squally John once had a wife. One day, she fell ill, so he took her 25 miles upriver to a medicine man in Lapwai. While in the healer’s care, Squally John’s wife died. Squally John’s despair made a terrible situation worse. Out of an antique sense of justice, he snatched the medicine man’s wife and took her kicking and screaming with him. He didn’t have her for long. Near Lewiston, a group of Nez Perce men caught up and beat the tar out of Squally John. He left the experience without a wife, but now blind in one eye and with a busted leg to boot.

From then on, Squally John lived alone.

Once in awhile, Squally John would catch salmon, pack them on his old white mule, and hike eight or so miles up the rugged Snake River Breaks to Colton, Washington. He traded the fish for staples such as flour and sugar. I imagine the trip was slow, each step on his bad leg a painful reminder of the wife he’d lost, the beating he took, the life he lived alone.

It was during those trips that my family remembers him.

Squally John timed his journeys, coming and going, so he’d show up at my great-grandparents’ house around suppertime. They’d welcome him, of course, share a meal, and sit on the front porch talking.

We have one Squally John story that involves an old-fashioned clothes washer springing a leak while he was sitting on the front porch. As water gushed around his feet, Squally John jumped up, did a jig, and, in his pigeon-English, exclaimed, “All the same duck! All the same duck!”

I guess the quirky episode survives in our family lore because it was funny watching the old folks do a jig while telling the story to kids. My dad sure looks goofy-delighted-animated when he tells it—probably the way his dad told it to him.

So, the title of this piece is “Why I am an Idaho Democrat.” Well, Squally John has something to do with that.

I think of Squally John and other century-old Ferguson family stories whenever politicians wax eloquent about “rugged individualism.” They seem to think that we all come from a time when folks could live alone and thrive. They want us to think that we didn’t need each other then and we don’t need each other now. They want us to think we are all in this alone and better off for it. They use that as a reason to let small towns fend for themselves when it comes to keeping the school open. They use that as a reason to ignore folks who are in worse situations than the shiny lobbyists the politicians share drinks with at the country club.

I can tell you that folks in Idaho have never thrived when we tried to go it alone. That’s never been the case, ever—especially in the West.

A century ago, even a tough man like Squally John needed help when a doctor was called for. He was at the mercy of his own bad decisions, as well as the decisions of his neighbors. He needed friends who would welcome him into the comfort and conversation of their home. He needed to trade for things like flour and sugar that he couldn’t fish out of the river.

My family was the same.

“Rugged individualism” really means that you were tough because you had to be and that you looked out for your neighbors because that was the right thing to do—no matter how “individual” that character might be.

Squally John died in a time when the robbing of Native American graves was not uncommon. He was buried near the canyon along the Snake River that today bears his name. Out of love for their friend and neighbor, my family moved the grave marker so that if anyone came digging they wouldn’t find his bones.

Protecting his final resting place wasn’t something Squally John could do alone either.

He needed neighbors who cared about him. My family gave him that, and he gave that to them. That’s a value that I carry with me today. That’s a value that I share with my fellow Idaho Democrats.

Dean A. Ferguson
Idaho Democratic Party

 

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