Posts Tagged ‘Native Americans’

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.


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.


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.]



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.


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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.]



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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A Touch of Imagination

The traveler scrambled down the banks of Siphon Canyon. It wasn’t much of a canyon, really, more like a gully. It was the end of the dry season, but the creek still meandered between its banks. The traveler headed into that gully for a reason: it was far cooler in the shade of the ash, willow & mesquite trees fed by the perpetual, life-giving waters of the spring at the head of the creek.

It was that famed spring the traveler sought. Once he reached that spot, he would head east towards his destination. But a shadow in the trees moved in the wrong direction. There was something up ahead, blocking the path. Small eyes stared past a broad snout, straight at the traveler. The two, the wild boar who belonged, and the unarmed man who did not, locked gazes. One would react with instinct, the other needed to react with thought or risk being gored. This far from civilization, that would not be a good outcome.


It was dry up on the knoll, far to the east of the creek and spring. That’s where they built these forts back in the day: the inevitable filth from dusty soldiers couldn’t pollute the only reliable water supply. Despite the dry, hot air, there seemed to be a mist, a spectral haze, hovering over the ruins. The entire place was eerie. The air was still, not a leaf was blowing. There was no sound beyond the traveler’s own breathing. No squirrels were shuffling leaves in the woods, no birds were twittering in the trees. Even the ground was heavy, the traveler barely kicked up any dust as he wandered through the ruins.

The ruins themselves were downright ghostly. The remnants of adobe walls, white and rounded from decades of wind and monsoons, dotted the area like mournful apparitions. Nothing of substance grew on the pathways. Life, it seemed, wanted nothing to do with this place. This was a place of evil, a staging area for mayhem, conflict, abuse, and genocide. This was a place used by one people for the subjugation of another, used by the powerful to forcibly take the land and lifestyle from another. Now, the very place murmurs out a mournful “why?”, but of course, there’s no one to listen. No one but a lone traveler who briefly bows his head and continues on to his next destination.


I’m a firm believer in imagination, and in my view, there’s no better place to exercise one’s imagination than in the varied sites of the National Park System. Let’s face it, some of the sites are pretty lame: a four-room loft in a Philadelphia townhouse, an old steel foundry in a sleepy Massachusetts suburb, a forgotten fort in an unspectacular chunk of Arizona. A little imagination goes a long way in such places.

One can imagine the past and try to reconstruct how people lived and thought in days gone by. One can imagine the future by applying old lessons to today’s situations. Fort Bowie’s remoteness and appearance encourages imagination, perhaps the plot for some third-rate fantasy novel or Peter Jackson film project. Because of this, Fort Bowie is one of my favorite National Historic Sites.

Imagination is good. Exercise it from time to time. And take a trip out to remote Fort Bowie.

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Fort Bowie. Pics are public domain from the University of Arizona and a neat site I stumbled upon: Fort Wiki.]



Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Fort Wiki

The Capture of Geronimo

Google map to Fort Bowie

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G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C? B flat, C, A flat, (octave lower) A flat, E flat!!

In 1977, I was twelve years old, smack-dab right in the middle of the target audience for a blockbuster movie. A movie about two people whose mundane lives are interrupted by visitations from extraterrestrial beings and the government conspiracy to cover it up. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a huge experience for me back then. Mega-huge!!! I was all over those ads with the bright light at the end of the deserted highway. “Close encounters of the first kind: visual sighting. Close encounters of the second kind: physical evidence. Close encounters of the third kind: CONTACT!”.

Close Encounters Poster © 1977 Columbia Pictures

Oof, cue the chills down the spine! The posters, the collectible cards, all that sweet, sweet geeky goodness. Ambrosia! It’s almost as if Steven Spielberg woke up one morning and said “Hmmm, I think I’ll write a movie that’ll appeal to that scrawny kid with the Coke-bottle glasses from Western Massachusetts.”  I was all over that film like stink on roadkill. A couple of years later, we were one of the first houses in town to get cable TV, and my dad bought all the pay channels. I watched Close Encounters 18 times in one month, and was damned proud of myself for it!

You can be damned sure that visiting Devils Tower (no apostrophe, contrary to popular belief) was high on my list of must-see sites in the National Park Service. And when I rounded that corner of State Highway 14 and saw that great monolith sticking out of the low eastern Wyoming hills, I was as giddy as a 12-year-old boy in a movie line the night of the big premier (after months of soaking in shameless & targetted Hollywood promotion). I’m actually glad I was alone, I could just revel in the giddiness without apologizing to anyone. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was a pure geek fantasy come to life, and I was enjoying every rapturous moment of it!!

Tower and Clouds © 2009 America In Context

Devils Tower is truly a wonder to behold, even if you’re not into movies. It’s an enourmous volcanic extrusion that not only towers above the surrounding countryside but seems so alien to that landscape. It looks like it doesn’t belong, it’s like those Sesame Street clips: “one of these things is not like the other ones…” It’s almost as if those extraterrestrials placed it here millions of years ago as a signpost: “Gateway to the Stars — Free Anal Probes to the First 10,000 customers.”

A Shadow Passes © 2009 America In ContextIt’s easy to see how mankind has marvelled at it since the Bering Land Bridge first allowed humans to cross into North America. It’s held special significance to Native Americans for hundreds of years. The Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Lakota Sioux, the Eastern Shoshone, and many other plains tribes revered the spot, and gave it names such as “Bear’s Lodge”, “Tree Rock”, and “Mythic Owl Mountain”. To this day, their descendants return to Bear Lodge for ceremonies and to tie prayer offerings to the trees.

Later, when European settlers and their descendents crisscrossed the west looking for furs, or gold, or a path to the Pacific, they gave it the dramatic name “Devils Tower”, and eventually the greatest environmental president, Teddy Roosevelt, signed the law protecting it as America’s first National Monument. How could you not?? To this day, I have yet to see a natural wonder of such singular, unique stature in the United States.

rock-scrambleNowadays, people think of Devils Tower and think of Spielberg’s film, and I guess that’s OK too. A nation’s culture is defined by its arts, and in America’s case, our arts is really defined by our films. So I’m cool with the fact that this great wonder of nature has been immortalized by a blockbuster movie and not by the simple fact that it’s so fascinating.

Of course, some people can’t separate film from reality: when I came back to tell folks of my visit, a lot of people asked “did you see any aliens when you were there?” Um, well, no, that was a movie. But I did dream up a sequel to Close Encounters called Close Encounters: The Return, wherein the extraterrestrials come back to Earth and return Richard Dreyfuss. “Please, take him back. His liberal politics and sappy, pedantic movies are ruining our culture!”

I don’t see that appealing to any 12-year-old kids.

Departure © 2009 America In Context

[All photos, except the Close Encouters poster, are mine and thusly copyrighted. Please do not use without my permission. More of my Devils Tower pics are here.]



Devils Tower National Monument

Close Encounters of the Third Kind on IMDB

Lakota Archives: Bear Mountain

Google map to Devils Tower

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Mother Nature Gives a Sign

Imagine you’re part of a wagon train during the great westward migration. For days on end you’ve seen nothing but flat grassland prairie. You’re only marker on the trail is the rising and setting sun, and the North Star. You wonder if you’re even making any progress, of if you’ll even manage to keep your sanity amongst the boredom.

Suddenly, it looms before you. Chimney Rock, sticking straight up into the sky, visible for miles around. The first sign that the plains are ending, the first sign that the next phase of the journey – the crossing of the great Rocky Mountains – is coming. At least it represents change.

Chimney Rock © 2008 America In Context

The story of Chimney Rock is the story of westward migration, but (like most of the nation’s natural landmarks), it was also of sacred importance to the native people of the land. Then again, like almost everything else, that meant little to the newcomers, the white man. Just like the land and the environment, Chimney Rock was a cast-off on the way to prosperity, something to be used and then discarded. The sacred pillar was even used for target practice by army gunners during the Indian Wars, how’s that for a slap in the face?

When I see Chimney Rock, I don’t see the spire as a pointer to riches in California. I see the Great Nature Spirit giving us all the finger.

The Finger © 2008 America In Context

[A short post for a small site. Pics are mine & copyrighted thusly.]


Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Google map to Chimney Rock

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Valiant Efforts in Preservation? Or Goofy Self-Serving Construct?

Casa Grande Ruins -- public domain photo from www.ohranger.comWhen I was a boy, I remember seeing pictures of the Casa Grande Ruins in my school textbooks. It would be in the American pre-history section, the “time before the Pilgrims” when the native tribes ran the place. Back then, I found it bizarre that a modern pavilion had been built over the ruins. The textbooks would talk about the great adobe homes of the early tribes, but they’d never, ever mention this canopy. The pictures were a bizarre mix of old and new that made no sense.

Twenty years later, when I finally arrived at the site in person, it still looked goofy. Obviously this canopy was intended to protect the ancient structure from the Arizona monsoons (an infrequent but torrential series of rainstorms), and I suppose that’s goodness, but it still seems as if it’s manufactured for our pleasure, like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. The surroundings made it seem worse: a gigantic Volde-Mart, replete with acres and acres of SUV-laden parking lots, sits right across the street. “Come and see the ruins, then spend your hard-earned cash on Made in China crap that will kill your pets and poison your children!!”

Bumper sticker available at www.stampandshout.com

There’s actually a huge controversy in the American preservation movement. How far should the government or private interests go to preserve historical relics such as the Casa Grande Ruins? After all, entropy is part of human existence as well. Does this preservation serve the interests of history and culture, or does it simply serve the interests of developers looking to profit off a landmark? Should nature be allowed to take its course, or should we spend millions preserving relics?

Casa Grande Walls -- public domain photo from www.ohranger.comThere was a story on NPR this week about German castles. See, most of the great castles in Germany were destroyed in World War II. Now that Germany is back from the brink of destruction, they find they miss their castles. So they are in the process of re-building their old castles from scratch to house … shopping malls. Oh yes, there’s historical context for you. “And here, the Earl of Salzburg would enjoy an Orange Julius while his daughters leered at the 12-foot, half-naked himboes plastered on the windows of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

There are a lot of naturally preserved tribal dwellings all over Arizona, mostly cliff dwellings in places like Walnut Canyon and Canyon de Chelly. So you have to wonder why they went to such great lengths to preserve this one in 1932. Tourism, no doubt. But at one time native Americans lived in grand adobe buildings on the open flatlands, at the crossroads of enormous north-south, east-west trade routes. Casa Grande is the best example still standing on this continent. It fills an important niche in the physical historic record of the country.  In 1932, at the height of the Depression, it must have been hard to get the funding to build the canopy. I guess we should be thankful.

But to look at the site with its own personal pavilion, you have to ask yourself “is this too goofy?”

Public domain photo taken from Wikipedia

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visted Casa Grande. All photos are public domain, hover over each pic for source info]



Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Wikipedia Article on the Hohokam Period

Google map to Casa Grande

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