Posts Tagged ‘Native Americans’

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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