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Posts Tagged ‘Native Americans’

One of the first history books I read for my own enjoyment was A. J. Langguth’s 1988 work, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. I enjoyed that book immensely, Langguth does a good job narrating the sequence of events leading up to American independence after the Battle of Yorktown, and how the Founding Fathers shaped those events.

Langguth’s style is to dedicate each chapter to an individual as they affected events. Patriots, for example, starts off with a chapter devoted to James Otis, the Boston lawyer who spoke against bogus British practices in 1761. It then rolls from statesman to statesman, as Langguth relates the iconic tales of American rebellion. It’s a good book, I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about the Revolution beyond a high-school level.

That format works for a book about individuals, like Patriots. Driven West, however, isn’t that kind of book. It’s trying to tell the story of a great travesty: the uprooting of thousands of native peoples from their homelands in the Deep South, and their deadly relocation to the parched scrublands of Oklahoma. This is not a story about personalities, it’s a story of betrayal and trauma and sadness and death. Sadly, Mr. Langguth didn’t shift gears to a style that would suit this type of material.

He dedicates chapters to the titular 7th President, a man synonymous with native oppression. He dedicates chapters to Henry Clay, who opposed Indian relocation throughout most of his career; to Major Ridge, a key Cherokee negotiator; to Sequoyah, the creator of the written Cherokee alphabet; and a few others. It’s not like the cast list is any less stellar than during any other event in history, it’s just misplaced for the topic at hand.

The story of the Trail of Tears isn’t a tale of presidents and congressmen and chieftains. It’s a story about the 60,000 people who were uprooted from their homes; of the estimated 10,000 who lost their lives as a result; and of the decades and decades of oppression of the native peoples that followed. Focusing on individual personalities throughout this book cuts the philosophical and emotional core out of the story. Langguth spends barely a third of a chapter on the marches themselves, or of the trauma faced by thousands of faceless refugees as they lost their homes. I think the book suffers from this lack of attention. This is not a cry for schmaltzy heart-string tugging, this is a statement that a good writer needs to find a narrative style that suits the core of the story. A personality-driven story works for the Revolution, it doesn’t work for the Trail of Tears.

The book still contains a lot of value. There are many tidbits of this episode that Americans don’t know. Langguth covers tribal ownership of slaves, a travesty on top of a tragedy. He covers the massive inter- and intra-tribal infighting, up to and including murder, that occurred throughout the era. He covers all the back room shenanigans and profiteering that undercut any last smidgeon of decency in the whole wretched affair. And he covers the often-forgotten stories of Cherokee support for the Confederacy in the Civil War. All of these are useful, insightful additions to the book, and worthy of discussion.

Driven West provides thorough coverage of a sordid era of the nation’s history. Sadly, it misses the proper, emotive link to the true heart of the tale.

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Tales of Infinite Sadness

I started my expedition through all the units of the National Park System to satisfy my fascination with all aspects of nature (flora, fauna, geology, aquatics, atmospherics). I did not expect to quickly fall in love with the other side of the parks: the historical side. As I began to tour each of those smaller sites, reading up on the history of each and their placement in the overall scheme of things, I also began to see the Great American Narrative forming, piece by piece, and was inspired to blog about it. It is only by seeing all these bits and pieces, filling in all the gaps created by our own, pufferied view of history, can one really see who we are and what we’re all about.

Yes, we are writing the Great American Narrative. And oh, what a narrative! We have heroes and villains, success and failure, trauma and reprieve, disaster and rebuilding, winning and losing. But through it all, there is something that is clear: we are making forward progress. Oh, sure, we’ve had setbacks. Right now, between lingering recession, erosion of certain civil liberties, the War on Terror and a culture that pits right against left in a Kobayashi Maru of political degradation, it feels like we’re going backwards. But really, we’d have a long way to go before we fall back to where we’ve been. Think about it: there’s no way any of our founding fathers would ever have imagined us having a half-black President. Like him or not, that’s a massive advancement from our formation over 225 years ago, when we held nearly 700,000 souls in lifelong bondage (a number that would swell to nearly 4 million by the time the War of Emancipation).

OK, so maybe progress is a little stalled …

That’s the interesting part of the Great American Narrative: we always seem to come out ahead, one way or another. The slaves were freed, but then they had to suffer through Jim Crow segregation, racial discrimination, institutional poverty, entrapping government subsidy programs, and bad educational systems, yet are finally coming out the other side. Sure, we’re not post-racial yet, but you can tell we’re really, really close (I’m guessing one more generation and we’re done with it — the recent Trayvon Martin murder debacle notwithstanding). Women also have made gains, from being the Great Unseen to becoming the major breadwinner in 40% of households and damn near winning the Presidency themselves. We’ve seen advances everywhere else, from sanitation & health to science & technology to occupational safety and even how we treat our children. Yep, we’re winning everywhere.

Well, we’re winning everywhere, unless you’re talking about the American Indian. When it comes to the Native American, there are no tales of victory. There is no Appomatox. There is no Seneca Falls or Nineteenth Amendment. There is no VE Day or the fall of a Berlin Wall. There is no eonomic security or energy independence. When it comes to the Native American, there is only one narrative, and that is a long tale of misery and betrayal and hardship and defeat and pain and infinite sadness.

The Parks reflect this in spades. Every park has some tiny, preamble segment of its visitor center museum dedicated to “early inhabitants”: always some native tribe who “lived off the land” only to, inevitably, be driven out of their homeland, be defeated in battle, be wiped out by some disease or pushed into starvation through overhunting or economic blockade. The lucky would be stuck on some downtrodden reservation, their pride replaced by the plagues of alcoholism, obesity and diabetes.

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North Dakota reservation house, circa 2009

Horseshoe Bend is just one of hundreds of chapters in this sad, sordid book of misery. In this case, it is a tale pitting one side (the Cherokee tribal nation) against the other (the Creek) for the benefit of the middle (white Southerners). This particular Creek tribe wanted to keep their lifestyle and land and resisted American assimilation. White European settlers wanted the land for their own expansion. The Cherokee were allies of the U.S. and joined up with the militias of several states (led by future New Orleans hero and President, Andrew Jackson) to take Creek land through “justifiable” retaliation for some Creek raids on farms and forts throughout Alabama. The Creek, despite fortifications that impressed even Old Hickory, were eventually surrounded and horribly defeated. Out of a thousand Creek warriors, only about 200 escaped to south Florida to join up with the Seminoles. They had to surrender 23 million acres of land to Alabama and Georgia (2 million of which would go to the same Cherokee who turned their back on their brethren). It would end up being a short-loved victory for the duplicitous Cherokee: within 25 years those same people were expelled from Georgia & Alabama and forced to march down the Trail of Tears to dusty, infertile Oklahoma, where they would lead a hardscrabble life for generations. In the end, the only victor would be the white Europeans who used trickery, deception and long-standing inter-tribal rivalries to defeat the natives and take their land.

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Only those with the bleakest heart can travel through Horseshoe Bend and the rest of the 400+ units of the National Park Service, and not be touched by the Tales of Infinite Sadness of the Native American.

[Unfortunately, I did not own a digital camera when I visited Horseshoe Bend.]

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Links:

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

Creek-Cherokee War

Scientific analysis of the demise of the Native American

Google map of Horseshoe Bend

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I am a full-fledged agnostic, have been for most if not all of my life. I may even be called “atheist” in practice, but I do wish I could be more spiritual, and have the inner peace earned through a spiritual life. That is the theory of it, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, theory and reality often conflict. The current crop of religions and spiritual movements proves this out. At best, they’re social clubs no more “spiritual” than a college fraternity, a place to be with your neighbors and try to get laid. Some are no more than line items on a personal resume, like a gaggle of IT certifications. Some are inertial organizations where folks belong simply because they’ve always belonged, like their fathers before them. Some are escapist fantasies, allowing the cowardly to retreat into blissfully ignorant “happy places”, occasionally assisted by various mind-altering substances. At the very worst, religions and movements are controlling forces, wielded by the wicked for their own benefit or profit, to the detriment of the adherents. Somewhere along the line, I think Mankind has lost the true meaning of spirituality.

In my view, the true meaning of spirituality is the understanding we’re all self-aware cogs in a greater machine known as The Universe, and if we understand, obey and serve the laws of The Universe, then we’ll have a decent existence. Fight the laws of The Universe and you’ll be a miserable SOB. Like it or not, we’re part of something greater than ourselves. Everything is connected, and the failure of one equals the failure of all. Spirituality is only valid when it ties one to the practical universe, the real world of life, nature, human interrelationships, etc. It’s only valid when it helps all of us survive and thrive. That’s why I enjoyed “The Wind is My Mother: The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman” by Bear Heart.

Bear Heart is a member of the Muskogee Nation , a father, a husband, a psychologist, a writer, and, above all, a shaman. He was selected to be a medicine man by other shamans of his tribe, men who saw he had the responsibility, courage, and compassion to be a medicine man. The story of how that came to pass is one of the prime tales in his memoir, “The Wind is My Mother”. But “Wind” is not wholly a memoir. Yes, there are plenty of autobiographical stories in the book, written in that simple, but powerful, spoken-word narrative style indicative of Native American writings. More potently, “Wind” is a collection of anecdotes illustrating basic tribal beliefs. Bear Heart explains concepts such as the significance of each of the four compass points, each of the four seasons, and of the sun, and the moon, and the earth, and the sky. This is all very fascinating, and I’m sure many readers will become enthralled by this. But it’s not really what’s important about the book.

Bear Heart doesn’t just talk about the Wind Spirits. The book is also peppered with philosophies on life and living. Again through anecdotes, Bear Heart talks about happiness, and pain, and loss, and joy, and redemption, and death. He talks about the harm of an unbalanced life, the trouble caused by arrogance, the damage caused by materialism, and the pain brought about by drug and alcohol abuse. He tells all these tales, straight from his life and experiences as a Muskogee medicine man, in this tremendously humble, non-accusatory, parable manner. “The Wind is My Mother” is a good, uplifting read, and I recommend it as a respite from heavier fare (like the tomes on history I usually read).

I think Native American beliefs, as described by Bear Heart, were closer to the truth than any other religion out there. I’m not talking about the beliefs in the Wind Spirits or any of that (and I know all about the recent, scary “sweat lodge” incidents), but theirs was a belief structured around the concept that Nature is actually the Great Spirit, that we’re all interrelated, and that we all need to obey and serve natural laws in order to live well. Theirs was a belief rooted in the fact that you defy Nature at your own peril, and it’s far better (and easier) to let her guide your path down the road of life. Pay attention to the world around you, both the natural world and the voices of the people around you. Listen, act accordingly, respect others, and be the best cog in that universal machine you can be.

Of course, in a society dictated by the philosophy of “me me me me me me me!”, that’s not that easy.

http://www.bearheart.info/index.html

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Peace, Quiet and Thought

I’ve said this before, but I love visiting the Great Plains. There’s something about the vast open spaces, the capacity to see for miles and miles, that frees my mind from the cluttered inanity of the world. Having a broad field of vision in the physical world leads to having a broad field of vision in the metaphysical world. OK, fine, that last sentence was a bit over the top. I’m just fishing for fancy ways of saying “open spaces make me feel better”.

New England, much as I love it, tends to be a bit claustrophobic. The hills, mountains and forests restricts field of vision; the constant clamor of a high population density clutters the mind with noise. There ends up being so much noise, so much distraction, it’s hard to stay focused on a task, think through life’s bigger challenges, or simply sit and listen and appreciate a moment in time. Clarity and depth of thought requires personal space and lots of it; the lack of such space clutters the mind like the spare room of a chronic hoarder.

Eastern Wyoming (where Fort Laramie sits) is vast, open, and sparsely populated. It’s so easy to find peace and quiet, to be alone with one’s thoughts. This lends itself to observation, contemplation, and (yes, I’ll say it) spiritual reflection. Even the chronic prevailing winds of the western plains assist. A good, stiff wind in your face cleanses the soul like a sand-blaster cleans painted brick. Wide open spaces and weather: these are a few of my favorite things.

Add in historic Fort Laramie, with its crumbling brick facades, you find yourself reflecting on the past. Like most historic sites west of the Mississippi, Fort Laramie is part and parcel of Native American history, in this case the history of Indian suppression. A visit there makes one specifically reflect on that part of America’s past.

I feel like I could type forever, spewing forth my thoughts about the tragic conflict between the tribes of the Americas and the white settlers. I’d make a blog post so massive and unreadable it’d go down in the annals of bad web content forever. Instead, let me just give a short list of some observations I made at Fort Laramie and similar sites across the country:

  • Did you ever notice that great swaths of the Plains cleared of Indians by the U.S. Army are still pretty empty?
  • Did you notice that people are actually moving out of rural areas in the midwest? Depopulation of the plains has been going on for some time now.
  • Did you know that much of the land taken from tribes was given to cattle ranching? Did you notice that overconsumption of beef is now deemed a health hazard, and current factory-style, corn-fed beef production is considered bad for the environment?
  • Did you notice that family farms, another beneficiary of U.S. Indian relocation policies, are dying out and being replaced by corporate farming concerns that no one seems to like?
  • Have you noticed that California, the “promised land” for wagon trains and railroads, is, well, kind of a mess right now?

It’s been well over a hundred years since the government’s longstanding programs effectively nullified the Indians as a resistance movement and nearly eradicated tribal culture completely. But now, after all this time, I think the question needs to be asked: was it really worth the price?

Playing “what if” games is rarely productive. Nothing can undo what was done, and Monday-morning quarterbacking has as much value as Monopoly money. But maybe, hopefully, we can take the lessons we learned and teach them to others who sit along a similar precipice we sat upon in our expansionist phase. You don’t need to extinguish a competing culture or civilization to succeed and grow. In fact, it’s quite likely it leads to an opposite result.

[The pictures on this blog entry are mine and copyrighted thusly. More are here.]

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Links:

Fort Laramie National Historic Site

Change of Heartland: The Great Plains

Holy Cow: The Wide Impact of Eating Red Meat

Google map to Fort Laramie

Just for the heck of it, I added a picture of a bunny….

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