Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 8, Cattle Drives and White Papers

In the eighth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, a black cowboy travels the Chisholm trail and Indians struggle against white storytelling. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy

chisholm-trail-mapThe book I read this week was The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy: The Chisholm Trail, 1871. (p.s. Joshua Loper is a real person, and this book is based on his journal.) It’s written by Walter Dean Myers, who is pretty much the best. I was impressed throughout the book with how well he was able to weave LOADS of historical information into a story that also was a good story in its own right. Mad skills! But enough about Walter — let’s get to the story.

We meet sixteen-year-old Joshua Loper as he joins a cattle run up the Chisholm Trail in 1871. Joshua is one of three Black men on the expedition, along with two Mexican men and seven assorted white men. Here are my overarching thematic takeaways:

  • I learned a lot about cattle! Myers did his research, and it showed. We learned about the methodology of driving a herd of wild cattle across the prairie, the various “positions” of the riders around the herd, and the behavior of cattle.Plus Myers even worked in phrases like  ”my rear end felt like I had spent six months trying to hatch a porcupine” (p.43) Hilarious. These kinds of details really bring the story to life
  • The Civil War and Slavery still loom large. Although the war ended in 1865, its effects are still strongly visible in the book. Captain (the leader of the expedition) is so called because he was a captain for the Confederacy, and at one point when the group encounters some (mostly Black) Buffalo Soldiers in blue Captain puts on his gray army coat and has a weird standoff with them. At another point in the journey, Joshua notices some Black folks laboring in the cotton fields under a white overseer. He comments to his friend that they look like slaves, don’t they know they’re free? His friend retorts, “They ain’t got no money and no land and no learning. What’s free about that?” (p.38) One other note — this book doesn’t spend much time on the KKK, but it does mention that it was founded in 1866, immediately after the Civil War ended. (Did not know that!) Which leads us to…
  • Racism. It’s everywhere. Probably the most pervasive element of the book (other than cows and horses) was the racism faced by Joshua and the other Black people in the book. From the get-go, Captain “did not want to take three Coloreds on the drive” (p.4). Then later on the drive, some visitors come to the group because “We heard you had a reading Negro over here” (p.87). Joshua can, in fact, read and write (hence the journal), and he does read from a newspaper aloud for everyone, and feels proud of his learning. That being said, I got a bad taste in my mouth over the fixation about “a reading Negro” — it felt like they were talking about a zoo animal or something. He’s not a dancing bear — he’s a PERSON!
  • Same Osage as Laura… only different. On their travels to Abilene, KS, Joshua’s group actually passes right through Oklahoma (which was then all Indian Territory) and the Osage land where the Ingalls squatted back in Little House on the Prairie. (In fact, in LHotP Pa works for passing cowboys in exchange for a cow and some beef.) Here, the Osage make a brief appearance to charge essentially a toll to pass through their land. So same Indians, and similar length of “screen time” in the book. But the talk ABOUT Indians is a little different. The men on Joshua’s trip argue a couple times about Indians — whether they’re good or bad or “like us” — and I really appreciated how Myers was able to be real to the times (racism) while also humanizing the Osage. On the one hand, in a tall tale about Powder River a cowboy mentions the popular belief that an encounter with Indians would result in “hav[ing] my hair parted from the underside” (p.31). Later, however, another cowboy allows the Indians some humanity: “Taking stuff you need is part of life these days. Most of the land around here belonged to the Indians ‘fore we took it. And most of the cattle and all the horses we’re pushing know how to speak Spanish” (p.40). This simple statement acknowledges that Natives are people from whom property could be taken. It acknowledges that injustices were done to Natives (both on the “American” and “Mexican/Spanish” sides) WITHOUT trying to justify them with “Manifest Destiny”. But it still feels real the times and the characters. Brilliant writing.
  • The Cowboy Era was short. In the book, Joshua gets one look at the “boom and bust” cowboy life when all his mates blow their paycheck in the “big city” of Abilene (haha) and decides that he won’t do this forever. In the historical notes at the end, we learn that by 1890 the cattle industry had become sufficiently industrial as to no longer require humans to round up large drives of wild cattle to rail stations. So the Cowboy Era was a short bridge between pre-beef and beef-industrial-complex.

Although the Cowboy Era was super short (1860-1890), it has come to be this iconic thing in American Lore. What I really appreciate about this book is how it fleshes out the cowboy legend to be (a) more human and nuanced (like with debates about Indians instead of just caricatures) and also (b) more diverse — like it really was! Although the casts of most Westerns are primarily white, the cattle driving industry was actually one of the few post-Civil War job opportunities for many newly freed blacks. The racial and ethnic diversity of the “Wild West” is a big part of the American story that often gets overlooked, I think.

“Cochise and the Apache Guerrillas”

Apache map prior to US settlement

from Wikipedia

Chapter 9 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee focuses on three of the many subgroups of the Apaches: the Chiricahua (led by Cochise), the Tonto (led by Delshay), and the Aravaipa (led by Eskiminzin). After having dealt with incursions by the Spanish for many years previously, the Apaches (then led by war chief Mangas Coloradas [Red Sleeves]) clashed with both Bluecoats and Graycoats during the Civil War, despite an earlier peace treaty signed with the US in 1852.

In 1863, Mangas voluntarily rode into a US Army camp under a flag of truce to discuss peace (even though his people wouldn’t let him ride in until the soldiers also raised a white flag). After the commanding officer reportedly said “I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand, I want him dead (p.198), that night the two guards heated their bayonets in the fire and touched them to Mangas’s feet and legs while he tried to sleep. When this goaded him into sitting up, the soldiers fired on him with their muskets and “emptied their pistols into his body. A soldier took his scalp, another cut off his head and boiled the flesh away so he could sell the skull to a phrenologist in the East. They dumped the headless body in a ditch. The official military report stated that Mangas was killed while attempting escape” (p.199).

Unfortunately, this deliberate goading by white soldiers isn’t new — we’ve seen it before — but what is increasingly twisted to me is the greater and greater dehumanization of Native people by their killers. Maybe it’s only because of how it’s organized in this book, but it seems to me like the progression of murder to mutilation is going even farther over into weird commercialization. We saw the start of this with Colonel Chivington, whose troops took body parts as battle trophies, but now the body part harvesting is going commercial with the sale of skulls as curiosities out East. Not only does the killer want to gloat over his enemy, but now he wants to donate their body parts to “science”. It just feels ever farther twisted.

Anyway. After this, the Apache obviously wanted revenge (and/or to defend themselves…). Here’s what happened to each of the tribes this chapter follows:

  • Eskiminzin and the Aravaipa Apaches surrendered. They were settled as technical prisoners of war near Camp Grant, and so were under the protection of its commanding officer, Lieutenant Whitman. The Aravaipa began to farm and the neighboring soldiers and ranchers were impressed by their industry and hired them as laborers. Then, after four Tucsonites were killed by other Apaches (55 miles away from Camp Grant), Whitman got word that a posse had gotten together to attack the peaceful Aravaipa under his protection. Whitman immediately sent messengers to warn them and bring them safely inside the camp, but when they got there “they could find no living Indians” (p.204). The death toll eventually came to 144 Aravaipas, mostly women and children. Whitman assured the few survivors that he would ensure the Tusconites were brought to justice by testifying at the trial — but after 19 minutes of deliberation the jury acquitted them all, and Whitman was forced to retire in disgrace. Eskiminzin, heartbroken, said, “They must have a thirst for our blood… These Tucson people write for the papers and tell their own story. The Apaches have no one to tell their story.” (p.206) Eventually the rest of the Aravaipa were forced onto various reservations.
  • Cochise and the Chiricahua Apaches fled to the Chiricahua Mountains. For a while, Cochise stayed hidden. Eventually he agreed to meet and discuss peace. Cochise insisted that any reservation for the Chiricahuas must include their mountains. Initially this was the agreement, but when Cochise got word that an order had been issued to move his people off their land they all quickly fled. When another US emissary finally caught up with them, he stayed with the Chiricahua to negotiate and was so enamored of them that he arranged for them to have the reservation that they wanted, including part of their mountains. (There’s more… but that’s another chapter.)
  • Delshay and the Tonto Apaches offered to discuss peace. When they received no response, Delshay decided that since he had signed no treaty he could move about as he pleased. The US didn’t like this, and so sent Major George Randall (aka the Gray Wolf) to contain the Tonto. After surrounding the Tonto and forcing surrender, the soldiers took them to an existing reservation, where the already-there Coyoteros did not appreciate company and where the Tonto were forced to wear dog tags to ensure no one could leave without permission. Homesick, Delshay and the Tonto fled to another reservation on the Rio Verde closer to home, where they were promised they would be safe. When a soldier was killed in a nearby uprising, Delshay was accused of aiding and abetting the perpetrators. In 1874 the Gray Wolf issued a bounty for Delshay’s head and received not one but two heads.

What really stands out to me in all of these stories is the lack of power that the Apaches had. No matter what they do — whether they want peace or want to resist — the Natives are completely subject to the whims of the US Government. Even the Chiricahuas — who ended up relatively well compared to the others so far — got what they got only because some white guy liked them and pulled a few strings. Eskiminzin (chief of the Aravaipa) sums it up well with his comment about the white Tucsonites controlling the press. The Apaches were talking, but few white folks in power listened. Not to mention the fact that the papers are written — white communication style — rather than oral — Native communication style. So the Apaches were forced to depend on white intermediaries. And even if they could find a willing advocate to tell their story, some were able to protect and help them and some were not.

The Apaches: Where are they now?

The exact breakdown of different Apache groups (and even the name “Apache”) is somewhat muddled, mainly because various outside folks classified the peoples differently at different times, and then of course there’s how the Apache prefer to group themselves. But here, roughly, is what I could find:

  • Yavapai Arizona Reservations Map

    #2 and #19 are Yavapai; #18 is Tonto. Click picture to go to the interactive map.

    The Aravaipa Apaches apparently melded into other Apache groups after the massacre at Camp Grant. I couldn’t find much about them today. But you can read a really cool history of the Aravaipa people here at Apaches Tell Their Stories.

  • The Chiriacahua Apaches appear later in Wounded Knee, so I’m going to wait on their “now” segment…
  • The Tonto Apaches today are spread across several reservations, including the smallest (in land) reservation in Arizona. After the reservation on the Rio Verde was dissolved in 1875 (something I bet I’m going to read about soon…) many Tonto joined up with neighboring Yavapai and are part of the modern Yavapai-Apache Nation. The Yavapai-Apache reservation is located in several small chunks in central Arizona and is home to about 750 people.

You can read more about all the different Apache groups here.


This week I’m especially struck by the power of agency in telling the story. Joshua was proud of his ability to read and write; he could tell his own story and it gave him greater opportunity, while the black cotton pickers he passed were either uninformed or unable to escape their situation. The Apaches were taken advantage of and killed by white folks who told their story so strongly and loudly that they literally get away with murder. If telling your own story doesn’t save you, then you’re forced to rely on other people to tell it for you, and that places you in a precarious position because you never know when they’ll start telling whatever version of your story they want. Again, I can see why to this day there is still so much tension and anger around white people coming in and writing about Native people. White folks have been writing about Indians for centuries, and what I’ve read so far (ironically, also written by a white dude) suggests that it rarely ends well for the Indians.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 10 & 11 and On the Banks of Plum Creek (LH #4).

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Why I don’t hate doing taxes

Why I don't hate doing taxes copy

Why I don't hate doing taxes copy

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Nerd-vana: Shakespeare Meets R2-D2

shakespeare star wars cover

Hi folks!

Soooooo It’s What to Read Wednesday… which means I *should* be posting another weekly installment of my Little House / Wounded Knee project… but here’s the thing… it’s not written. And I have actual people-pay-me-to-do-it writing that I reeeeeeally need to do BEFORE I spend two hours writing and revising my post. (Though I would like to note that I HAVE done my reading!) So I’m going to postpone the next LH/WK until next week.

shakespeare star wars coverIn the meantime, I would like to share with you some fun tidbits of a book that I was given and am finally getting around to reading: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.

First of all, I’d just like to say that this concept is GENIUS. I mean, Star Wars is a story of epic proportions. The iambic pentameter feels like a pretty natural companion to all the huge-screen happenings in this first book (which, by the way, is titled “Verily, A New Hope.” LOL).

Secondly, this book delivers an incredibly enjoyable mix of hilarious Shakespeare-ified movie quotes (mostly by 3PO and R2) and surprisingly deep, philosophical monologues. I expected the chuckle value, but I must say I am pleasantly surprised by the emotional response evoked by reading Darth Vader’s opening soliloquy (after he boards Leia’s ship and strangles the rebel pilot):

And so another dies by my own hand,
This hand, which now encas’d in blackness is.
O that the fingers of this wretched hand
Had not the pain of suff’ring ever known.
But now my path is join’d unto the dark,
And wicked men — whose hands and fingers move
To crush their foes — are now my company.
So shall my fingers ever undertake
To do more evil, aye, and this — my hand –
Shall do the Emp’ror’s bidding evermore.
And thus we see how fingers presage death
And hands become the instruments of Fate. (I.ii, ll. 27-38)

See? It’s actually really deep and kind of sad! And then, on the exact same page…

Thou overladen glob of grease, thou imp,
Thou rubbish bucket fit for scrap, thou blue
And silver pile of bantha dung! Now, come,
And get thee hence away lest someone sees.
Beep, meep, beep, squeak, beep, beep, beep, meep, beep, whee! (I.ii, ll.48-52)

What a delightful piece of literature.

Anyway, suffice it to say that if you AT ALL enjoy Shakespeare and/or Star Wars, GO READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW.

And with that, gentle readers, I leave you this image to be blazoned in thy brains:

Sir Jabba of Hutt

Sir Jabba of Hutt & Han Solo

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Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 7, Indian Commissioner & Indian Territory

In the seventh week of Little House/Wounded Knee, we meet the first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Ingalls move to Indian Territory. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Seneca Indian Commissioner

Donehogawa aka Ely S. ParkerChapter 8 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is titled “The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa”. As the title suggests, it focuses less on a group of people (though it continues the saga of Red Cloud and the Oglala Sioux) and more on one person: Donehogawa (so named because of his title among his native Seneca people), also known in white circles as Ely Samuel Parker. Donehogawa studied to be a lawyer, but was refused permission to take the bar because Indians were not citizens of the United States. (That was passed into law in the early 1900s.) So he studied engineering instead, and became a brilliant civil engineer. He also befriended Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, and when Grant was elected President he appointed his old friend Parker to be the first Native Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

As Donehogawa took office, many Indian tribes were unsettled by news of a group of soldiers who slaughtered an entire village of defenseless Blackfeet people in present-day Montana. To help avert crisis, Donehogawa invited Red Cloud and also Spotted Horse of the Brule to Washington and was able to offer some help to Red Cloud and the Lakota. As Brown foreshadowed when we last left our intrepid Oglala heroes, there was trouble with the treaty Red Cloud signed in 1868. Red Cloud was told that his people would have their agency (the post where they could officially trade with and relate to the US Government) at Fort Laramie, but the writing of the treaty he signed said their agency would be along the Missouri River, where the government wanted the Lakota to move. Red Cloud said the paper was “lies”; the government said he had signed the paper and was bound by it. (This reminds me of the discussions we have in my book group about how white culture privileges written communication while Native culture privileges oral communication.) Donehogawa was able to find an interpretation loophole to make everyone temporarily happy-ish so that the Oglalas could stay on their land.

But then, the other (white) men within the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t like how he interfered with their kickbacks… so they got him charged with a bunch of offenses. Donehogawa’s (white) second in command wrote a scathing letter of resignation in which he said that Donehogawa was “but a remove from barbarism” (p.189). While Donehogawa was exonerated of all charges, he resigned shortly thereafter to avoid the stress and potential greater harm of being a political lightning rod for racist sniping.

At first I found this story confusing as to why it was included. (Only really determined justice-fighters should get books about them!) But then I thought — Donehogawa just got tired. And that’s normal. And it’s important that any narrative about the various Native American nations and the people thereof show all sorts, both those whose whole lives are doggedly devoted to bettering the treatment of their race and also those who decide to bow out after a while. (In the rest of his time, Donehogawa made and lost a fortune on Wall Street.)

The Seneca: History & Where are they now?

The Seneca’s original homeland is in and around modern-day New York. After much conflict with other Iroquoian nations, in 1142 the Seneca joined them to form the Six Nations or Iroquois League and are the westernmost member of that group. This federation allowed its joint member tribes to have significant military and other advantages over its Algonquian and Siouan neighbors. The Seneca have a long and detailed history of contact with various early European settlers, including fighting alongside the British in the American Revolutionary War. Today, many Seneca people live on and around several reservations in New York, a large one across the border in Canada, and one in Oklahoma. You can read more about the Seneca Nation here.

You can also read more about the life of Donehogawa, aka Ely Parker, here.

Little House in Osage Country

Little House on the Prairie (LH #2) begins with the Ingalls family heading south and west to “Indian country” (present-day Kansas), where Pa has heard from a government official friend that some Indian land is about to be opened up to settlers. And wow. There is SO MUCH going on in this book that I could literally write a book about the book. To quote Inigo Montoya, “Let me explain — no, there is too much. Let me sum up.” I’ll focus on just a couple passages.

A main theme of this book is that pretty much all the white settlers dislike and/or fear Indians. This is reinforced at every turn by Author Laura’s consistent, repeated, beating-a-dead-horse use of words like “savage” and “wild” and “yelping” and “yipping” and “terrible” to describe her Native neighbors. That doesn’t sound to me like people — it sounds likes wolves. Or dogs.

Within the text, Ma straight-up says she doesn’t like Indians. And then Laura, bless her little heart, asks, “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?” Why indeed, Laura.

In addition to Ma’s not-really-veiled-at-all fear and dislike, we also meet another settler family, the Scotts, who pull no punches about their feelings about Indians. My jaw about fell off my face when I read this scene:

[Mrs. Scott] said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, “…they’d never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.

She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold. She said, “I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre. My Pa and my brothers went out with the rest of the settlers, and stopped them only fifteen miles west of us. I’ve heard Pa tell often enough how they–”

Ma made a sharp sound in her throat, and Mrs. Scott stopped. Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening. (p.211-212, emphasis added)

First of all, HOLY CRAP did Sheridan’s quote travel fast!!! (Or Author Laura just added it in for posterity. Which doesn’t feel very good either.) Actually the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” line is mentioned a total of three (count ‘em, three) times in this book.

Second, why is it okay to allude to a massacre in a children’s book???? I mean, really — this choice by Author Laura to include this ridiculously tantalizing bait about some sort of Indian-on-settler “‘massacre”‘ is baffling to me. (Presumably the “Minnesota massacre” refers to the Dakota attack on New Ulm in 1862.) Till now I’ve maybe been mentally cutting Author Laura some slack about leaving out so much history because this is a children’s book narrated by a child, but — sheesh, if you can mention “massacre” in a book starring a 4-year-old, then you can sure as heck spare a little wordage to humanize the people whose land your book is set on and/or talk about WHY some of them might have motivation to perpetrate said massacre.

Third, notice the not-very-subtle white superiority that Mrs. Scott uses to justify the fact that they are all squatting illegally on Indian land: “they’d never do anything with this country themselves,” as if land is something that must have something done to it, as if not squeezing every bit of productivity out of the land is wasteful, sinful, or savage — something only the “wild animals” (and Indians) would do. Personally, it seems to me that the supremacy of productivity is the most deeply-entrenched belief of white culture. And we see it a lot in these books too — all the talk about how “waste is sinful” and “laziness is sinful” — as if resting, or allowing the land to grow naturally, or hunter-gatherer-ing instead of farming, is somehow morally wrong. (“It’s just common sense and justice!” — JUSTICE!!! Because you stealing it and farming on it is more “just” than NOT stealing it and letting the Natives continue as they have for THOUSANDS OF YEARS!) For me, sometimes it’s tricky to tease out the threads of “Productivity Is King”, but as we can see here, that belief plays a huge role in underpinning the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and a larger overarching racism towards the Indians.

Throughout the book, the Scotts are used to vent some of the more vicious ideas about Indians — the more overt racism and hatred, like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Pa, by contrast, is framed as the moderate voice, and he does have a few quotes that frame him as the “Indian advocate” of the book. After the infamous “Indians in the house” chapter (which is one of the only Indian-related bits I remembered from reading this series), Ma freaks out and Pa reassures her that compliance and peace are important, and later repeatedly argues that Indians are quite peaceful:

“That Indian was perfectly friendly. … And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack [their guard dog], we won’t have any trouble.” (p.229-230)

[After stopping Jack the dog from accosting an Indian on the trail by their cabin] “Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.” (p.230)

“[Pa] figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were left alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.” (p.284)

But this “they were here first” attitude does not transfer across the board, and after Laura asks a piercing question about why Indians go west, Indian-advocating Pa drops the other shoe:

“Will the government make these Indians go west?”

“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”

“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to–”

“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.” (p.236-7)

Even though Pa discounts the fierce racism that assumes all Indians are war-like savages, he strongly espouses the racism that says that White is Right and the “natural order” of things is for the Indians to acquiesce to and react to white settlers’ entitled demands. In other words, Author Laura sets up Pa to argue against the “dead Indian” viewpoint, but she allows the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and white supremacy to be shared unopposed.

This reading is confirmed toward the end of the book when, after an Osage man named “Soldat du Chene” reportedly saves the illegally squatting white settlers from being attacked by other tribes, Laura describes him as “the good Indian” — good because he has proved useful to the white settlers. 

There is so much more that I wish I had room to talk about here… like:

  • Laura’s book-long craving to “see a papoose” that culminates in her telling Pa “get me that little Indian baby” when she finally sees an Osage child,
  • Theories about why Pa would settle “three miles over the line into Indian Territory” (actually more like 9 — see below) in the first place,
  • The passing-by of a group of cowboys,
  • Gender roles and individualism in white culture,
  • Even some really adorable teamwork and flirting between Pa and Ma!

…But there just isn’t time. So you’ll just have to ask me about it sometime. =)

map of Ingalls Osage Kansas

As you can see here, the Ingalls cabin was likely built 9 miles north of the Cherokee border, and 6 miles into Osage territory.

A note about the Osage and Indians in this book…

I did a little background digging on the situation with the Osage, since they don’t seem to be the subject of any of my upcoming chapters. Here’s some useful background info:

  • In the Wikipedia article on the Osage, you can see a pretty quick overview of their history, from their migration to the Plains from their original home in the Ohio River Valley (present-day Kentucky or so) due to conflict with the Iroquois federation, all the way to the modern-day Osage Nation.
  • This blog post on the character of “Soldat du Chene” in the book discusses a little more of the background surrounding the Ingalls’ encounter with him, and also sheds some light on how Laura came up with that name as she did her research to write this book.
  • I also found this really, really, really thorough research paper about the history of the Osage and Kansas in 1865-70 and the interactions surrounding the Ingalls’ settling on Osage land. I skimmed it — has some great maps, too!

One thing I really started to question in this book is the authorial intent behind Laura the Author’s decisions about things like word choice (e.g. “wild”, “savage”, “yowling”, etc) and what to include or exclude from the book (e.g. violence perpetrated by both whites and Indians). To me, it seems like a bit of a double-standard, and a one-sided one at that. I felt a little validated when I stumbled across this excellent blog post from Nambe Pueblo university professor Debbie Reese. Professor Reese, in doing some research about Laura, discovered the text of a speech in which Laura explained her decision not to include a story about Pa participating in a vigilante execution of a couple of pioneer serial killers (I’m not making this up — read the full post). Here’s what Reese has to say (emphasis added):

In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder presents Indians as frightening and menacing. Through Mrs. Scott, she tells us about an Indian massacre. Three times, Wilder’s characters say “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” And what about the terrifying tone at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when Pa stays up all night and the entire family listens to Indians “howling” for several nights in a row?

According to Wilder, it is “fit” for children to read about “wild Indians” but it is not “fit” for them to read about serial killers who are white, nor is it “fit” for children to read that Pa killed someone in order to protect his family from harm. 

Think about that omission and what it means.

I’ll just leave us with that, I think.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee chapters 9-10 and The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy.

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Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 6, Empty Woods and Good Indians

In the sixth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the Ingalls survive in the Big Woods and General Sheridan defines a “good Indian.” Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Laura in the “Big Woods”

Okay, first of all I have to have a little tiny nostalgic freakout moment, because I FINALLY got to a Laura book after 5 weeks! Woo! Also, this book takes places less than a 2 hour drive from my house! Double woo! (I might have to go on a field trip.)

That said, I didn’t get very far before I was reminded just how different this read-through will be:

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. (p.1-2)

Folks, this is literally the first page. And already there is a huge problem: “There were no people.” As if the woods are just pristine and untouched. There WERE people!

wisconsin Native tribes wLaura

Side note: For a great explanation of why mapping Native tribes is an inexact science, click this picture.

If we look at a map of now-Wisconsin marked with the names of the original inhabitants (a map to which I have added the Ingalls cabin, just north of Pepin, WI), we can see that Laura’s cabin was built on land that the Santee Dakota (Sioux) called home. As I’ve read/written about previously, the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died. So, there WERE people. But they were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.” (Also, some were still there.)

That all took place from 1852-1863 or so. Laura ‘s older sister Mary was born in their Big Woods cabin in 1865, followed by Laura in 1867, which means the Ingalls were there no more than two years after the Dakota were forced out. That totally blows my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting invasion and entreaties out west. This is happening at the SAME TIME, folks! And yet, there is a ginormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

Now — I realize and I will grant that this book is (a) for children and (b) narrated by a child narrator, so I get why there aren’t vivid descriptions of, for example, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1862. But it would have been nice — and more honest — if Author-Laura had included a little bit of historical context in her narrative. I’ll cross my fingers that perhaps we get some later. That being said, the lack of any humanization of Indians indicates that to most white settlers, the Native inhabitants just don’t matter. Out of sight, out of mind. The Ingalls are concerned with getting their piece of land and staving off bears and wolves and subsisting. They give no thought to the fact that there used to be other people living on that land. The land is just “theirs” and that’s that. This is what the doctrine of Manifest Destiny does: it allows the white settlers to feel entitled to something that isn’t theirs while also ignoring and dismissing an entire people group.

I guess I can move past the first page now… so here are some notes and themes from the other 237 pages:

  • The Big Woods are so vivid they are almost like another character. From the opening page and throughout the book, you get an overwhelming sense of the isolation and the “wildness” the Ingalls feel living out in the forest. One night Laura stays up to listen to the wolves howl outside their door, and there’s nothing between her and them but a door and the guard dog, Jack. (And Pa’s rifle.) I didn’t count, but I’d bet money there are more anecdotes in this book about the Ingalls interacting with wild animals (bears, panthers, etc) than there are about them interacting with humans!
  • Even though Laura is only a very young child, we can already see her precocity and struggle with gender roles. Because I’ve read the whole series, I already know that Laura is the feisty one and Mary is the “perfect” one, so it’s interesting to see that this dichotomy is already emerging as early as page 23 of Book 1. Also, later in the book Laura learns that her Pa letting play outside is unusual compared to the norm of “Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers” (p.96).
  • Weird casual racism… is weird. And racist. So I remembered that Pa played lots of songs on his fiddle all the time. But somehow I glossed over the part where he sang a song that prominently featured “an old darkey [whose] name was Uncle Ned” (p.100) ???? That was a really jarring cognitive dissonance for me. I mean, yes, this book was published in 1930, but still — I read this! As a six-year-old! It just clearly demonstrates to me how embedded in white/American culture racism was/is, that a children’s author would think it appropriate to include a song about a “darkey” with no explanations or notes (and that the publisher would, too!).
  • There actually are a couple historical/cultural references, but I just didn’t notice them as a kid. First, I forgot that Laura’s Uncle George, a Civil War veteran, makes an appearance in the book. So there is at least a slight mention of “the war” here. Second, we get a tiny hint of Ma’s “townie” past when she gets out her fancy party dress “made by a dressmaker … in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa. … Ma had been very fashionable” (p.128). So she’s come from relative wealth to isolation and total self-run subsistence forest living. Totally different than the girls, who have never seen a store or a town or a machine before.

There are a few other things, but for the most part this is a pretty simple book told in a simple, childlike fashion. Bottom line: it’s a different time and place in a lot of ways. I’m sure all these themes will get more complex as we read through Laura’s growing up years and her thoughts get more complex.

“The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

Chapter 7 of Wounded Knee finds us following the Southern Cheyennes who decided to head south to rejoin Black Kettle and the “peaceable” crew rather than stay up north with Red Cloud and the Lakota Sioux. Unfortunately, they arrive just in time to be subject to yet another ridiculously belligerent US Army General. Yes, friends, it’s time for Good News, Bad News!

  • Good news: Southern Cheyennes reunited!
  • Bad news: Almost immediately two factions re-form: the “friendlies” rejoin Black Kettle and the more militant Dog Soldiers split off to follow Roman Nose.
  • Good news: US General Hancock says he wants to meet to sign further peace agreements.
  • Bad news: He insists that both Roman Nose and all the Cheyenne women and children must be there, despite the fact that these Sand Creek survivors are CLEARLY (and rightly) suspicious and cautious about allowing soldiers to march into their village/camp. (So basically Hancock is SUPER SKETCHY.)
  • Good news: Our old Cheyenne ally friend Major Wynkoop was able to become the agent for the tribe, so officially their advocate.
  • Bad news: He has no power to protect them from other US military officials. He later resigns in protest.
  • Good news: When Hancock & co. arrive at the Cheyenne village/camp, most of the people are able to quickly flee on horseback.
  • Bad news: Hancock & co. methodically inventory and then burn the hastily abandoned camp and everything in it, leaving the people destitute.
  • Good-ish news: After Red Cloud’s successful resistance in Powder River, a peace commission is organized and General Sherman offers “one great reservation south of the Arkansas River” to be shared by the Cheyenne, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, & Prairie Apaches.
  • Bad news: The US Government is still “arguing over the treaty and had not provided money to buy [the Cheyenne] food and clothing as promised” (p.162), so the people suffer through a starving winter.
  • Bad news: When Roman Nose & Dog Soldiers try to mount some resistance against General Sheridan, the new general sent after them, Roman Nose is killed in battle. Sheridan orders General Custer (yes, that Custer) “to destroy their villages and ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children” (p.168).
  • More bad news: When the Cheyenne get wind of this, they ask a neighboring fort commander for protection. He tells them they will be fine and sends them back to be killed, even though he knows Sheridan’s plans… 
  • Worst news: Black Kettle decides in the morning he will take a delegation of warriors to meet the soldiers and convince them of their peacefulness… but before they even wake up the next morning Sheridan and his soldiers ambush the whole tribe out of the fog. “They killed 103 Cheyennes [even the conciliatory Black Kettle], but only eleven of them were warriors” (p.169).
  • Good-ish news: Few scattered Cheyenne survivors, as well as Arapahos and Comanches, come in to surrender peacefully, identifying themselves as “Good Indians.”
  • Ick: General Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” (p.170)

Good heavens, what is the deal with this strange fixation with being confusing and randomly destroying native people groups EVEN WHEN THEY WANT PEACE, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE WILLING TO SUFFER SIGNIFICANT LOSSES TO GET IT??? I am so DISCOURAGED about the evil that humans are capable of when I read this. Though, Major Wynkoop’s struggle to be a good advocate and Black Kettle’s persistent attempts to lead peacefully remind me of the good that humans are capable of. So I guess I should try to focus on that. It’s just hard to feel hopeful when it feels like the “bad guys” win.

(**Note: Since I already did the “Where are they now” for both the S. Cheyenne and Arapahos, and there are upcoming chapters about the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches, we’ll skip for this week.) 


Between the stubbornly white-focused Manifest Destiny worldview of most white settlers (and most of white American history!) and the actively destructive determination of the US military Indian extermination effort, I feel like I’m starting to understand a little bit of why many Natives today might feel so depressed and invisible and hopeless. The country and culture they’re surrounded by mounted a purposeful campaign to steal their land and destroy and whitewash them, and now it has written them out of history and made their ancestors and their people sound like a sad but inevitable stepping stone on the path of “Human” (aka white) “Progress”. I feel a little hopeless just reading about it, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up in this space. It must be exhausting to perennially be located in a space where your mere existence is active resistance to the dominant order, and to feel like you’re a tiny megaphone shouting into a hurricane of oppression and centuries of physical and psychological and spiritual trauma.

Don’t really know what else to say about that, so I’ll just end there for today.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 8 and Little House on the Prairie (LH #2).

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Little House / Wounded Knee, Week 5: On Independence

In the fifth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, Red Cloud wins a rare victory (maybe) and Almanzo learns to be an Independent Farmer Boy. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

“Red Cloud’s War”

This sixth chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is basically a giant game of cat and mouse between Red Cloud, an Oglala (Lakota) chief, and various U.S. commanders, most notably General William T. Sherman (whom I’m sure we will meet again later). Here’s what happened:

  • While the events at Powder River were still going on, the US sent a “treaty commission” to boat along the Missouri River and try to get any official-sounding body from any tribe to sign a peace treaty. The commission sent special messengers to Red Cloud and the Oglala Lakota, because they occupied the Powder River area, which is where the US wanted to build a road.
  • Red Cloud and some other tribes came to camp and begin peace talks. Meanwhile, a large group of US soldiers arrived at that very site, with orders to begin construction on the road and forts no matter the outcome of the peace talks. Red Cloud thought that was pretty lousy – “Great Father [US President] sends us presents and wants new road. But White Chief goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no!” (p.130) — so he and most of the other Indians left.
  • Soldiers marched right into the heart of Lakota country, stopped on the best hunting grounds, and built a fort (to accompany the existing Fort Connor/Fort Reno).
  • Since the forts looked a little hard to crack, several Oglalas (including Crazy Horse) practiced setting traps and running decoys. They used these tactics to draw a group of soldiers out into an ambush in which the combined N.Cheyenne/N.Arapaho/Lakota warriors killed all 80-100 soldiers, an event known by settlers as the Fetterman Massacre. The Indians also mutilated many of the bodies, as Col. Chivington had done to the Cheyenne earlier at the Sand Creek Massacre. This battle was the “worst defeat the Army had yet suffered in Indian warfare” (p.138).
  • After this, the US Government took a decidedly more conciliatory and cautious tack with Red Cloud & Co. They sent General William T. Sherman to offer gifts to any chiefs who came to another set of peace talks in western Nebraska. Several chiefs came (Red Cloud only sent a representative), but when pressed Sherman revealed the real goal: to get the Powder River Lakota to move to a reservation elsewhere. “We therefore propose to let the whole Sioux nation select their country up the Missouri River, …to have their lands like the white people, forever…” (p.143)
  • Red Cloud let it be known loud and clear that he would sign no peace treaty until the white settlers removed themselves from Lakota land. “If the Great Father kept white men out of my country, peace would last forever, but if they disturb me, there will be no peace.” (p.144)
  • Finally, in July of 1868, the War Department ordered that all forts in the Powder River area be abandoned. Red Cloud and the Oglalas burned one, then the Cheyennes burned the other in celebration. Red Cloud made the treaty-makers wait a few weeks, then rode in to sign a peace treaty. The End… (Not.)

There are a lot of mixed feelings here for me. On the one hand, it’s sad to see the mutilation continue, even if it is in retaliation. On the other hand, it’s pretty exciting to FINALLY see something go the Indians’ way. Red Cloud’s persistence and military strategy forced the US Government to respect his boundaries and treat him like a human being and a worthy adversary. HOWEVER… my excitement is a nervous, hesitant one, because I know it won’t end like this. Even Brown ends the chapter with doom-and-gloom foreshadowing. Why can’t you let me have my moment of wishful happiness, Dee Brown??

Wind River Indian ReservationThe Northern Arapaho: Where are they now?

(Since there are several more chapters about Red Cloud and the Oglala/Lakota, I will hold off on their “Where are they now” until that narrative concludes in the book. Today — the N. Arapaho!)

Today, the Northern Arapaho are a federally recognized tribe with over 9,000 enrolled members. After their initial treaty with the US was broken and their land taken, they were moved and now share the Wind River Reservation in west-central Wyoming with the Shoshone. You can read more about the Northern Arapaho here.

Farmer Boy

Ahhhhhh children’s books. So many memories. Actually, it was a little nostalgic and a little surreal to reread Farmer Boy. There were a lot of familiar stories — like my favorite, when Almanzo throws the blacking brush at Eliza Jane and makes a huge spot on the parlor wallpaper and thinks Pa is going to take him to the woodshed when he gets home! Dun dun DUNNNNNNNNNN! But there were also a lot of “teaching moments” and other little tidbits that I didn’t remember so much. It’s quite a long book, so I’ll just highlight a few overarching themes and trends that I noticed…

  • Almanzo’s family is (relatively) loaded. Much of the start of the book is dotted with Almanzo’s descriptions of his family’s farm in Malone, New York.  It is repeatedly made clear that the Wilder farm is NICE. Mr. Wilder is one of the wealthiest men in the area — his family can afford luxuries like store-bought cloth and white sugar, and the Wilders rent the best “parking shed” for their horses at church. (This is in contrast to Laura’s family, who we will see later are not quite so well-off.)
  • Despite their wealth, farm life is still depicted as a constant battle to survive. At one point Almanzo parrots his father and says “Idleness is sinful,” and you can definitely feel that axiom permeating the book, because little time is spent in what we would call recreation, and if it is, it’s either for a national holiday or on a day when it’s impossible to do anything else useful (e.g. a rainy day). After dinner, when it’s too dark to do farm labor, the family sits around the family room together and… does more work! Ma Wilder knits, Pa Wilder smooths down a new ax handle, big brother Royal whittles, one sister crochets, and the other sister reads the newspaper aloud to everyone (p.33). When the older children are away at school, Ma uses her “day off” to weave cloth while Pa trims new shingles for the roof. These folks simply never stop working, except when they sleep. Subsistence is their aim, and hard work is their game!
  • Life is very isolated. Except for intermittent school attendance and seeing folks briefly at church, the Wilders pretty much pass their days working alone or with each other on the farm. Additionally, when Almanzo is given time to play (i.e. when siblings are all away at school), he plays alone. When he gets a new sled for his birthday, he takes it out himself and sleds alone for an hour.
  • As such, community events are a big deal! The stop-the-presses importance of both the Fourth of July celebration and the State Fair are staggering, especially to 9-year-old Almanzo. Even small things, like the arrival of the travelling cobbler to make the family’s boots, is a notable event — because otherwise they’re all just at home, working on the farm as usual.
  • Indians are weirdly not present. As with the Wong Ming-Chung Diary in Week 1, I was surprised at how non-existent Indians seem in this book. There were a few passing references, but they were so small as to feel unimportant. For example, Almanzo wears moccasins “exactly like the moccasins that Indians wore” (p.4). Almanzo has a diatribe about how the Indians must have introduced popcorn to the Pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving (p.33). Mrs. Wilder tells the children not to ”yell like Comanches” (p.79). An Indian randomly runs in a horse race at the fair and people bet on him (p.265). Mr. Wilder sows “rye-n-injun” so that they can eat “rye-n-injun bread (p.93 et al). NONE of these references are in any way explained in the book, other than the Thanksgiving one, which is narrated almost like a fairy tale. To me, it feels a little bit like there is some shared knowledge about Indians that “everyone knows” that is being referenced in many of these cases, almost like a shared fairy tale canon. Whatever it is, Indians definitely don’t feel real in this book. More like mythical creatures, if anything. What’s weird to me is that everything else about farm life is explained so painstakingly — how to make butter, how to carve an ox yoke, how to cut and store ice — but these references to entire people groups are not. It just feels like a weird elephant in the room… er, book. I don’t know how else to explain it.
But by far the strongest theme of the book — mostly because this is what the main conflict/resolution of the plot revolves around — is this:
  • It is important to be an Independent Freedom Farmer because you can Be Your Own Man, and everyone else can’t. Two of Mr. Wilder’s biggest speeches in the book revolve around the nobility of farming. On the Fourth of July: “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9). And then this longer one at the conclusion of the book: “A farmer depends on himself, and the land, and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear…. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm” (p.370-1). Based on the time I spent living in farm-country western Kansas, I’d say this rugged individualism is still very much alive and well today (and not just on farms, either).

This is the backbone of the “pioneer spirit” at the root of white American dominant culture, I think — to be your own man and be beholden to no one. But it’s hard for me to reconcile that idea with the fact that a pretty similar goal — to live on and with the land as they had for generations and to be left alone by white settlers — was wrenched away from Native tribes all across the continent. To make room for (mostly) white farmers to “take all that country and make it America”.

I can really feel the disconnect — the not-honesty — when the story is told the way Mr. Wilder tells it, as if “taking the country and making it America” were the simplest, most innocent, most noble thing ever, and as if the Indians who already lived there didn’t even exist, except as a brief cultural touchstone to name your bread after. I can see the American pioneer spirit, and I can also see how it eclipsed (and is still eclipsing…) the Native story before (and during, and after) it.

P.S. I looked up a map of Malone, NY (where the Wilder farm was/is) and a map of Indian tribe locations. Turns out the Wilder farm was/is located on Mohawk land. You can read more about the Mohawk and their neighbors here.

NY Indian tribes


This week, the clear theme is independence. Red Cloud fought tooth and nail to force the US to treat him as an equal and to make sure he would only sign a treaty on his terms. He worked hard to make sure he could give his people the best chance at staying the independent, autonomous occupants of their land. Meanwhile, off to the east in New York, a bunch of white pioneers and farmers also valued stubbornness and independence. Buuuuuut between the two, there was this weird thing called the “Frontier”… where Indians were annihilated and/or relocated. I’m a Connector, so I’m really struggling with this GIANT disconnect between the lives and stories of Indian tribes and the lives and stories of many simple immigrant farmers. There’s a huge amount of violence in that disconnect… but it’s like it disappears! I don’t get it. Perhaps as we go on the stories will start to touch each other a bit more… we’ll see.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 7 and Little House in the Big Woods (LH #1)

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Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 4, The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

In the fourth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, freed blacks have to wait a lot and we see the best and worst of white settler behavior. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

[content note: graphic description of violence - not for children.]

“I Thought My Soul Would Rise & Fly”

This fictional diary, based on a one-line description of a real person and other historical documents of the time, tells the story of “Patsy, a Freed Girl” right after the end of the Civil War in 1865. I found myself a little bored reading this one, probably because the main concern of most of the book was waiting. The things Patsy and the other newly freed blacks waited for were actually pretty interesting, though.

  • They waited to see if they were still emancipated now that their emancipator, President Lincoln, was dead.
  • They waited for news of their loved ones who had been sold away from them, or they waited for a chance to leave themselves. (Side note: It was cool to see how black churches came to function as community centers for support, information, education, etc.)
  • They waited for the right to vote (and women had to wait till the 1900s).
  • They waited for a white teacher to come establish the school they were promised in exchange for continuing to work their plantation. (She never came, because no one would house her.)
  • They waited for the plots of land they were promised. (Instead, most land was returned to former slaveholders.)
  • Patsy waited to see if it was still illegal for her to read and write.

Overall, it was educational to learn about how long and confusing the emancipation process was for many of these black folks. They had been forbidden to learn to read or write, they had little access to information, and they were constantly being fed misinformation by their white former owners, so it’s not that surprising that it took a while for slavery to actually be done. Not to mention that once the white plantation owners went to Washington D.C. and took their oaths of allegiance they pretty much regained their former influence, which they used to codify new restrictions on free blacks (see the “Black Codes”).

Basically, the Reconstruction Era was chaotic because of all the migration and massive socio-political upheaval caused by literally reorganizing an entire society all at once. Some blacks were able to band together and purchase land through associations (as the folks in this diary do in the epilogue), but many were roped into the “new slavery” of sharecropping and never really got a chance to stand on their own two feet.

“War Comes to the Cheyennes” & “Powder River Invasion”

In Chapter 4 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Brown relates the story of Black Kettle and the Cheyennes, who worked hard to maintain peace with white folks, even sending a few chiefs (Black Kettle included) to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. Black Kettle received from Lincoln a medal, papers, and a huge American flag, which he flew constantly and insisted would protect his tribe from being mistaken for non-peaceable Indians.

Despite this proactive diplomacy, and despite having several other local white advocates (I was happy to find a few finally, goodness!), the Cheyennes were still told to camp close to Fort Lyon to ensure that they stayed peaceable. This relatively neighborly arrangement continued under the sympathetic Major Wynkoop, until complaints from less Indian-friendly officials that he was “letting the Indians run the place” resulted in his being relieved of command. He was replaced by one Major Anthony who, along with his commanding officer Colonel Chivington, was bent on “collecting scalps” and “wading in gore” (Chivington’s words). They kept up a peaceful front with the Cheyennes and neighboring Arapahos until they had time to amass their troops. When some of Anthony’s officers objected that an attack on the Cheyennes would violate the peace treaty and “would be murder in every sense of the word”, Colonel Chivington replied, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians!” (p. 86) (Did I mention that Chivington was also an ordained Methodist minister?)

The ensuing Sand Creek Massacre was horrific. Due to the sense of safety from Major Wynkoop’s friendship and Major Anthony’s facade of peace, the Cheyenne camp was almost totally unguarded. A witness in the camp later remembered this scene:

…in the camps themselves all was confusion and noise — men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms. … I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camp. (p. 88, emphasis added)

The soldiers in this slaughter were particularly brutal, killing most of the 100-200 people and scalping and mutilating the bodies. One soldier graphically described the carnage: “In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner — men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c. …to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J. M. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them” (p. 90). Brown notes that “in a public speech made in Denver not long before this massacre, Colonel Chivington advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. ‘Nits make lice!’ he declared” (p. 90), thereby adding his name to a (sadly) long list of those who have justified extermination and genocide by comparing people to pests.

To me, this chapter illustrates both the best and worst of white-Indian relations. On the one hand, Major Wynkoop and many other soldiers lived in peace and perhaps even friendship with the Cheyenne. They knew and respected honorable behavior when they saw it, and spoke up even when their own people violated that honor. On the other hand, Colonel Chivington is clearly a man sick with hate and racism and violence, orchestrating and gleefully executing the slaughter and mutilation of hundreds of blatantly innocent people. If only, I keep thinking, if only the U.S. Government had listened to the Major Wynkoops and worked toward peace and stability instead of privileging the Colonel Chivingtons and participating in deceit, murder, and evil.

Unfortunately for Chivington’s goals of wiping out the Cheyennes, many of the tribe had been off hunting. The Indians he had slaughtered and desecrated were, in fact, the least threatening — over two-thirds women and children. The remainder of the Cheyenne split — a disheartened Black Kettle (who somehow survived) and several hundred followers headed south to join the Southern Arapahos, while the rest headed north to the seemingly impenetrable stronghold of the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux in the Powder River area to mass for a revenge attack. The Northern group defeated an outpost of soldiers and retreated to Powder River, hoping they would now be able to keep the whites at bay. (More on that later.)

Meanwhile, down south of the Arkansas River, Black Kettle and his band of Cheyennes joined with Little Raven and the Arapahos who had also been driven off of their land. Since the new territory of Colorado could be proved through previous (broken) treaties to stand on Cheyenne and Arapaho land, government representatives organized a council meeting to sign a new treaty. When Black Kettle and Little Raven argued that it would be difficult for their peoples to leave their homelands and fallen loved ones behind, they received this reply:

We all fully realize that it is hard for any people to leave their homes and graves of their ancestors, but, unfortunately for you, gold has been discovered in your country, and a crowd of white people have gone there to live, and a great many of these people are the worst enemies of the Indians…. Under the circumstances, there is, in the opinion of the commission, no part of the former country large enough where you can live in peace. (p.100, emphasis added)

What is so evident here is the instant privilege given to anyone who is white over and above anyone who is Indian, and the proprietary sense of manifest destiny. “Since we white folks have discovered gold,” it seems to say, “naturally we have a right to your land and will do nothing to prevent current and future whites from crossing your borders and taking your land.” Any white desire for Indian land is assumed and normalized — and granted — and the Cheyenne/Arapaho desire to maintain their land “just to be near their fallen ancestors” is not worth preserving in the face of such potential monetary gain. This whole statement is heavy with self-righteous inevitability.

Left with no other options to secure peace, the leaders of the remaining Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos signed the new treaty in October of 1865, agreeing to “perpetual peace” and totally relinquishing all claims to their former homeland in exchange for a tiny reservation in Kansas.

Chapter 5 of Wounded Knee is short; it details the ever-hardening resolve of both the white settlers and the federated Dakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho to entertain no other option than killing each other. We also meet our first Indian “mercenaries” in the Pawnees, who were old tribal enemies of the Dakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos and hired themselves out to the soldiers at Fort Connor. The aforementioned Connor (a general who named the fort after himself) took a band of soldiers and went out to “hunt like wolves” any Indians he could find. They destroyed a peaceful Arapaho village before being stopped and held in place by the Dakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho federation, who harried their supply trains to keep them starving and demoralized. The chapter ends at this uneasy stand-still, with the Indian alliance temporarily keeping the soldiers at bay but knowing they cannot match the firepower of Civil War arms and howitzers. We’ll read more about these tribes, I’m assuming, in Chapter 6, “Red Cloud’s War.”

The Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne: Where are they now?

Since there are many tribes in these and later chapters, I’ll try to break them up a bit and do a few at a time.

After the Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes were given a small reservation in Kansas, the land was not to their liking, so their reservation was relocated to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma. However, in 1907 the federal government dissolved all formal Indian reservations land ownership in order to allow Oklahoma to be admitted to the Union as a state. Today the state of Oklahoma has reinstituted tribal sovereignty, but in a non-land-owning way. Instead, it recognizes “tribal jurisdiction” of various sectors designated as ”Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Analysis (OTSA) areas“. You can see a map of the former Indian reservations below.

Former Indian Reservations in Oklahoma


Today, the Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes live together in the combined Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe in western Oklahoma. Of over 12,000 enrolled tribal members, over 8,000 live in Oklahoma. In 2006, the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe worked with Southwestern Oklahoma State University to found the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College. You can learn more about the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe here.


This week, the common theme is how far some people will go to defend the privileges granted to them by their entrenched beliefs and power structures. To me, Chivington is the epitome of evil in the book so far — his actions turn my stomach and makes me want to shrink away. But even though it really disgusts me how evil humans can be, I also believe it’s important for us to keep reading and knowing and sharing true stories, because that’s what happened. And even though it’s hard sometimes to admit “yes, my government endorsed deception and thievery and massacre and mutilation, and I still benefit from it today,” it is still true. I feel like the very least I can do is to tell the truth as best I can.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Chapter 6 and (finally) Farmer Boy (Little House #3).

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Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 3, Cardinal Directions

In the third week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the entire continent is in uproar as two totally separate wars go on in two totally different parts of the land. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Civil War — Emancipation & Gettysburg

This week I read a lot of history.

In fall of 1862, the Civil War had already been going on for over a year. In September, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that “on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. Most folks (including myself) think of the Emancipation Proclamation and immediately think, “Oh, that’s when President Lincoln freed all the slaves!” But in rereading the actual text I was struck by a few things I didn’t remember from history class.

  • The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery or free all slaves. You’ll note in the above-quoted snippet that only people held as slaves in states “in rebellion against the United States” are declared free. In fact, later in the Proclamation Lincoln specifically states that in parts of the U.S. that are not rebelling, that these “excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
  • It ends with an “Uncle Abe wants YOU for the U.S. Army!” I remember learning that part of President Lincoln’s motivation to issue this Proclamation was to try to gain support, military and otherwise, from freed slaves, but as a content writer I was a little surprised with the straightforwardness of the call to action at the end.
  • Slaves magically change from property to “persons”! Maybe there are lots of historical examples of whites referring to slaves as “persons”, but for some reason that language of personhood just struck me here. Perhaps I just feel the elephant in the room of there being no mention of slavery having been morally wrong. It’s “fixed” sort of, but there’s no hint of repentance, reconciliation, or closure.

Those things said, definitely still a historically important document, paving the way for the full abolition of slavery vis-a-vis the 13th Amendment and turning the tide of the Civil War.

The following July, the Union soldiers won the Battle of Gettysburg, but there was great loss of life on both sides. Later that autumn, in November of 1863, President Lincoln gave one of the most famous (and shortest) American speeches ever at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is simply an impressive work of oratory — especially when you consider that it’s less than 300 words! — but I couldn’t help hearing those words with different ears this time. For example, I couldn’t read “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation” without thinking about the nations those fathers steamrollered and deceived in order to establish their new nation. Everything sounds different when you try to read “facing east”.

My main sense, though, was how surreal it felt to read all this about the Civil War and have no sense at all that thousands of Indians were also fighting a war to preserve their nations. It’s almost like there were two totally separate parallel wars going on at this time — the Civil War between the Union/North and the Confederacy/South and the War for Survival between the Indians/West and the settlers/East. 

As the war between the Bluecoats and the Graycoats increasingly consumed national attention, federal distraction set the stage for the spark that would ignite the tinderbox of decades of frustration between the Eastern Dakota and Euro-settlers.

“Little Crow’s War”

In Chapter 3 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we make the acquaintance of Little Crow (Ta-oya-te-duta) and the Santee Dakota. Just to clarify for all us non-native folks, there are multiple tribes that fall under the umbrella of “Sioux”, the main three being the Dakota (east), the Nakota (central) and the Lakota (west). All of these three larger tribes also have sub-groups (e.g. the Mdewakanton Dakota). The Santee Dakota are the easterly, forest-dwelling members of the Sioux relations. (Or they were before they were relocated. But I get ahead of myself.)

This particular chapter and story really hits home with me, because these are the people whose land I’m sitting on right now, as I write this. The state of Minnesota was created from land “acquired” by deceptive Euro-American traders whose false treaties tricked the Santee into signing away 90% of their ancestral land to whites. I’ll sum up the whirlwind of events that followed, because I want to have time to unpack it all.

  • In the 10 years before the Civil War, Little Crow (a Mdewakanton Dakota chief) was tricked into signing treaties that allowed whites to take land and confine the Santee to smaller and smaller reservations, living on a paltry monetary allowance from the U.S. government.
  • In 1862, because of funds being occupied fighting the Civil War, the Santees’ payment from the government was delayed, leaving them starving and angry. A couple rash young men got in an argument about who was too coward to kill a white man and ended up shooting five white settlers.
  • When they told their chief and Little Crow, it was decided that the tribes should band together to pre-empt the settlers’ revenge attack. Little Crow gave a masterful speech about the feeling of inevitability surrounding this conflict: “…Braves, you are little children — you are fools. You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon of January. Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward; he will die with you.”
  • While initially successful at taking several hundred white and mixed-race prisoners, the group of Dakota warriors was unable to fully defeat either the settlers at New Ulm or the soldiers at Fort Ridgely.
  • When Little Crow refused to surrender his warriors or the prisoners, another of the chiefs in the group sent a secret message to the white commander saying that he and his followers would surrender themselves and the prisoners.
  • At this point, the Santee Dakota split: Little Crow and his followers fled west to join up with the prairie Dakota, while the rest surrendered themselves and their prisoners into the hands of Commander Henry Sibley, who assured them that they would be treated as friends. He immediately sent all of them to a camp where they were prisoners.
  • 330 Santee men were “tried” in a kangaroo court. 303 were sentenced to hang. With a goal “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other,” President Lincoln insisted the cases be examined by lawyers and approved 39, then 38 of the executions. On the day after Christmas, 1862, these 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato, MN. It is the largest mass execution in American history to this day.
  • The remaining Dakota were then transported to a tiny, barren reservation at Crow Creek where over 300 of the 1,300 brought there didn’t survive the winter.

Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past

I made a slight addition to my reading plans and read chapters 1-4 of Spirit Car, in which Diane Wilson imagines a fictional (but historically based) scene of the events of the Dakota War based on the life of her great-great-grandmother, who was married to a French-Canadian man and was able to hide with him and their children inside Fort Ridgely. (A big thanks to Pastor Jim Bear Jacobs for this great addition to my list!) I won’t retell the whole sequence of events. What really got me about this book is how caught between two worlds Rosalie (the great-great-grandmother) and the other mixed-race folks were. She laments that her eldest son, who enlisted in the army to fight “the Graycoats” but is called back to quell the fighting between the Santee and whites, will have to choose which family members to shoot at, his French-Canadian and mixed-race relatives or his Dakota ones. These multicultural families really got caught in the middle of things. It’s an interesting perspective to add.

The most powerful point in this reading for me, though, was this passage that occurs right after the remaining Santee were marched to the camp at Fort Snelling:

They [the Dakotas] were told to surrender their medicine bundles and sacred objects, all of which were burned in a large fire. Missionaries… immediately began the work of converting the vulnerable prisoners to Christianity. (p.42)

When I read this, my stomach sank. I feel so gross seeing my faith used as an excuse to strip an already beaten-down people of their last remaining ties to their culture. The simple brute force of single-minded destruction in this story is mind-boggling. Not only did the settlers cheat the Santee out of their land, not only did they imprison and hang their men, not only did they treat them as less than human for decades, but then on top of that they took what few sacred objects the Santees had left to cling to and threw them into the fire. And then, with no time for grief or processing, picked up with the imperialist push of white Christianity.

So much for the “friendly reception” promised to those who surrendered peacefully.

Spirit Car also notes that missionaries were able to baptize most of the 38 who were hanged. As a Christian, I’m used to baptism being cause for celebration, so my younger self would have been totally thrilled at this fact. But now that I’ve read the whole story, and seen so much questionable power usage and advantage-taking going on here, I feel totally conflicted. I want to feel happy that baptism happened… but I don’t. Do you?

The single-mindedness with which the Minnesota government pursued the destruction of the Dakota is horrifically thorough.  Then-Governor Ramsay of Minnesota publicly stated that all the Santee Dakota needed to be “exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of our state”. Then he declared a $200 bounty for Dakota scalps. A few years later, Little Crow was shot dead while picking berries with his son. His skull and scalp were collected and displayed in a museum. Even the Dakota who fled were reachable targets for vengeful settlers.

Dakota land mapThe Santee Dakota: Where Are They Now?

Today the Santee Dakota reservation is located in Knox County, Nebraska, where it was moved in 1863. The passage of the Homestead Act, which provided land to non-Indian settlers for $1.25 per acre, caused the reservation land to be cut by half. You can see on the map at right the difference between the original ancestral land of all the Sioux (in green) and the land they occupy today in the form of reservations (in orange).  The total tribal enrollment of the Santee Dakota today is around 2,600, about 900 of whom live on the Nebraska reservation. You can learn more about the Santee Dakota here.

To learn more about the executions in Mankato, watch the excellent documentary Dakota 38. You can watch/download it for free here.


So basically… during the Civil War there were TWO separate and parallel wars. With the story of the Dakota, you can really see encapsulated the single-minded, no-mercy destruction with which many settlers pursued the Indians. Also, we get another perspective from the mixed-race white/Indians, who were caught between worlds as their two sides faced off.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 4 & 5 and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly.

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Little House/Wounded Knee: A note about Native peoples

At my church, I’m participating in a group reading and discussion of Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn. (READ IT. So good.) As a part of this group discussion, last week we talked about how many Americans and other non-natives often view Indians as a group of people from “back then” rather than a modern, still-active group that still exists today. One of our group co-leaders, our pastor who is a member of the Mohican Nation, commented that lots of non-natives act as though all Indians and tribes ceased to exist after 1890, when the Wounded Knee Massacre took place — that many of us have trapped Indians in the 19th century in our heads.

Well, this, of course, got my attention, since my current project is slated to end exactly then — at Wounded Knee. So I sat and thought about what I should do.

Then this week while on vacation in California, Daniel and I saw a really cool exhibit at a local museum about the various arts and handicrafts practiced by “native Californians.” (I’m not sure which tribe. I think it started with an A… Tried to look it up but there are a lot!!) Anyway, we got to the end of this exhibit and… It just stopped. I looked around for a minute, then turned and said to Daniel, “What happened to them??”

And I still don’t know!

So, in an effort to treat these Indian nations like people whose stories we actually care about (which I do, and I assume you do because you’re reading along), from now on I will be incorporating a short “Where are they now?” section into each post that focuses on a particular tribe.

Since I’ve already read and written about the Navajos (here), I’ve included their modern snippet below.

Thanks for reading along with me as I learn.

The Navajo: Where Are They Now?

Today the Navajo, also called the Diné in their language, are the largest Tribe that is recognized by the United States government. Their more than 300,000 enrolled members reside primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation (reservation), which is home to over 170,000 Navajos. Though the modern day Navajo Nation now covers only a portion of the lands originally inhabited by Navajos, it is the largest reservation in the U.S. Some Navajos also served in WWII as code-talkers by communicating information in their language. Check out Wikipedia as a starting place to learn more about Navajos past and present.

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Little House/Wounded Knee: Week 2, Broken Promises

In the second week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the Navajos win the award for “Least Unfortunate Western Indian Nation” and a former slave shares her powerful life story. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

“The Long Walk of the Navahos”

This chapter follows the Navajos (aka Navahos) of the southwest, particularly one of their leaders, known as Manuelito. After reading last week’s overview of the myriad promises made and broken by the U.S. Government and its officials, I could more fully appreciate the irony of this start to Chapter 2:

Manuelito and other Navaho leaders made treaties with the Americans. “Then the soldiers built the fort here,” Manuelito remembered, “and gave us an agent who advised us to behave well. He told us to live peaceably with the whites; to keep our promises. They wrote down the promises, so that we would always remember them.” (p.14, emphasis added)

There is some SERIOUS hypocrisy going on here, especially considering that by this time (1860-ish) the “permanent Indian frontier” had already been totally run over by Minnesota becoming a state in 1858. Seems like the U.S. Government are the ones in need of some promise reminders.

Anyway, I found it interesting to read about the relationship between the Navahos and the “Mexicans” (presumably a mix of other indigenous folks and Spaniards) here. Brown notes, “For as long as anyone could remember, the Mexicans had been raiding Navahos to steal their young children and make slaves of them, and for as long as anyone could remember the Navahos had been retaliating with raids against the Mexicans” (p.14). This, while disturbing in its reference to child slavery, strikes me as at least a somewhat fair fight.

Extra reading from PBS confirms that when faced with a large group of Spaniards the Navahos had a rough time of it. I didn’t realize that the Navajo and other southwestern tribes would have had to deal with twice the colonizers — first the Spanish, who colonized Mexico, and then the U.S.ians, who took New Mexico and surrounding area from the Mexicans. So by the time we see Manuelito and his band in this snapshot, they’ve already been dealing with Spaniards and raiding Mexicans for livestock for a good couple centuries.

The Navajos and other southwestern tribes really got caught between the two polities. Brown notes that once the Americans “came to Santa Fe and called the country New Mexico, they protected the [former] Mexicans because they had become American citizens. The Navahos were not citizens because they were Indians, and when they raided the Mexicans, soldiers would come rushing into the Navaho country to punish them as outlaws” (p.14, emphasis added).  So already there’s this weird half-acknowledgement of Indian sovereignty. They’re separate enough that we’ll treat them like foreigners, but not foreigners whose laws or customs or boundaries we respect at all.

The rest of the chapter goes on to detail broken promise after broken promise and random massacre after random massacre. (Incidentally, Brown also discusses the origins of “scalping”, which was popularized when “Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonists made the custom popular by offering bounties for scalps of their respective enemies” [p.25].) Eventually nearly all the Navajos are starved off their land and forced to walk to a tiny, barren reservation at Bosque Redondo.

Then, in 1868, after a long line of government investigators, General Sherman arrived at the reservation and reportedly said, “My children, I will send you back to your homes.” After all the Navajo leaders (including Manuelito) signed a new perpetual peace treaty with the U.S. Government, a new reservation was established on a part of the Navajos’ ancestral home land (although “much of their best pastureland was taken away for the white settlers” [p.36]).

What really got me here, other than the repeated sledgehammer of U.S. Government infidelity, was the following conclusion: “Bad as it was, the Navahos would come to know that they were the least unfortunate of all the western Indians” (p.36). What a sad honor! Pushed around, tricked, scalped, massacred, evicted, starved to death, imprisoned and in danger of death unless they have a “pass off the rez”, and finally “gifted” with a small percentage of their original homeland. And this is the “least unfortunate” group.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a non-fiction narrative of the life of Harriet Jacobs, who wrote under the pen name Linda Brent. (You can read more about the historical real people here.) The book was published in 1861, just as the Civil War was starting, so its impact was somewhat muted until it resurfaced later.

I’ve read this book before, but even so I was still struck by the simple power of Jacobs’ writing. It really just smacks you right between the eyes. Jacobs, or “Linda,” as the narrator names herself, endures the long struggle of slavery and we feel her pain over and over as she is continually taken advantage of and oppressed. As a piece of writing, her narrative did a really good job of showing both the institutional oppression and pain caused by slavery as a whole and the personal wounds inflicted on individual black people by individual white (and black) people.

A big way Jacobs shows the injustice and unfairness of slavery and discrimination is through juxtaposition. For example, at the start of the book she describes her early life, being raised by a “kind mistress” who “had been almost like a mother” and “had promised [Jacobs'] dying mother that her children should never suffer for any thing.” However, when that mistress dies and her will is read, Jacobs learns that she has been bequeathed to her mistress’s five-year-old niece. So much for her promise to a dying slave woman! Jacobs delivers a simple but searing indictment of such “Christian” hypocrisy:

My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. (p.7)

And this from a “kind mistress.” Jacobs’ trials only worsen from there. Her new mistress’s father, “Dr. Flint”, takes control of her in his daughter’s name and begins a campaign to seduce her. She eloquently illustrates the Catch-22 in which she and many female slaves find themselves:

No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. She may have had religious principles inculcated by some pious mother or grandmother, or some good mistress; she may have a lover, whose good opinion and peace of mind are dear to her heart; or the profligate men who have power over her may be exceedingly odious to her. But resistance is hopeless. (p.32)

On a historical/cultural note, Jacobs also takes note of the difference in the treatment of owner/slave liaisons based on the gender of the owner:

I have myself seen the master of such a household whose head was bowed down in shame; for it was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild. … In such cases the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history. But if the white parent is the -father-, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. If they are girls, I have indicated plainly enough what will be their inevitable destiny. (p.33)

It’s pretty weird and contorted that, on top of this institutional racism and slavery and rape, there is also a strict double-standard that shames white women for the “sin” of sleeping with a black slave while giving total license to white men to do whatever they please. I’m not sure which is worse though — murdering your biracial children so no one knows about them or unabashedly selling them into slavery even though everybody knows about them.

Anyway, back to Jacobs. At first, embarrassed by her master’s filthy comments (she is, after all, only 14), Jacobs tries to ignore them. But as he invents crazier and crazier schemes to pursue her, eventually she realizes that one way or another he means to force her, so she decides to have a sexual affair with a (slightly friendlier… ish) white neighbor in hopes of retaining some control over her life and perhaps even driving Dr. Flint to sell her. This relationship results in the birth of her two children, “Benny” and “Ellen”.

The rest of the book goes through many notable, horrific details of the abuses suffered by Jacobs and her family members.

  • Dr. Flint leverages Jacobs’ children to try to control her, so she has her lover purchase them. He promises that he will free them…  but (surprise) he doesn’t.
  • In order to avoid being sent to work in the field (bad news), Jacobs arranges with her grandmother, “Aunt Martha”, to pretend that she’s run away north while actually hiding herself away in a tiny crawl space in her grandmother’s attic to avoid detection.
  • For seven years.
  • No, really — she hid in a space so small she couldn’t even sit up… FOR SEVEN. YEARS.
  • After seven years (yes, I said it again) in the crawl space, Jacobs escapes north by boat. She finds employment and can see her children for a while, but is continually worried that Dr. Flint will find her (because he keeps looking because he’s weirdly obsessed with her).
  • Shortly after she arrives in the North, the Fugitive Slave Law is passed, and Jacobs is terrified that she will be kidnapped or re-enslaved.
  • Against Jacobs’ wishes, her friend and employer, “Mrs. Bruce”, purchases Jacobs and presents her with the papers, thus securing Jacobs’ freedom.

Two things really stood out to me in the otherwise “happy-ish” conclusion to Jacobs’ story. First, although Jacobs finds greater freedom in the North, she notices many disturbing similarities that mirror the South:

(From a free black man) “…They don’t allow colored people to go in the first-class cars.” This was the first chill to my enthusiasm about the Free States. Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind white people, at the south, but they were not required to pay for the privilege. It made me sad to find how the north aped the customs of slavery. (p.98, emphasis added)

Though blacks are systematically de-humanized in the established slave order of the south, in the north their “humanity” seems to get them lip-service “freedom” that “allows” them to pay for their second-class train car.

The second thing, and I think this is really important, is how conflicted Jacobs is over finally obtaining her freedom through being purchased. Her reaction to being sold is a writing masterpiece, so I’ll conclude with her words:

My brain reeled as I read these lines [news of her freedom]. A gentleman near me said, “It’s true; I have seen the bill of sale.” “The bill of sale!” Those words struck me like a blow. So I was -sold- at last! A human being being -sold- in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his. (p.118)

You can feel the conflict here, many emotions — the outrage at the depravity and ridiculous hypocrisy of society, the choice to be grateful to her friend, and the pain and anger at having been treated like property.

And I didn’t even TALK about Grandma/Aunt Martha, the fantastically strong and faith-filled matriarch who spends her whole life trying to earn freedom for her children and grandchildren and literally dies not sure if she’s fully succeeded. Basically, you should really just read the book for yourself. It’s vivid, heartbreaking, insightful, totally honest, and a little bit hopeful — mostly cuz Jacobs is awesome and you’re really rooting for her by the end.

In conclusion…

In both of these narratives this week, the strong theme that comes through is the systematic, widespread, institutional infidelity towards and abuse of both Natives and Blacks by the U.S. Government and Americans in general. In both stories there is a kernel of hope — both the Navajos and Jacobs end up getting some measure of “freedom” — but it is a very compromised hope, a costly hope, bought with much pain.

Tune in next week for: Wounded Knee chapters 3 & 4, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address.

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