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.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program… on to Week 3!

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.

Little House/Wounded Knee: Week 1, Molecules and Melons

In the first week of Little House/Wounded Knee, Indian nations are like gas molecules and melon-sized gold nuggets are apparently lying all over California. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

A word of introduction…

Before I begin talking about this first chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I first want to talk a little bit about the author, Dee Brown. Here’s what I found with a little research:

  • Dee Brown is of European (didn’t say what) descent and grew up in Arkansas in the early 1900s.
  • On his interest in and empathy for American Indians, Wikipedia says: “While attending home games by the Arkansas Travelers baseball team, [Brown] became acquainted with Chief Yellow Horse, a pitcher. His kindness, and a childhood friendship with a Creek boy, caused Brown to reject the portrayals of Indian peoples as violent and backward, which dominated American popular culture at the time.”
  • Brown developed a deep and abiding interest in all things American West. He later became an agriculture librarian and professor in addition to a part-time writer.
  • When Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was first released in 1970, many readers assumed that Brown was Native. (So I’m not the only one!)
  • This book was published right in the middle of the height of the American Indian Movement, which was founded in 1968 (in Minneapolis!) and occupied Wounded Knee in 1973. (You can read more about AIM here.)
  • The book was also published and became a bestseller right as Americans were learning about the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, causing many readers to draw parallels with the massacres of Indians.

So a lot of then-current events tied in with the publication of this book!

As I read the short Introduction, I also appreciated Brown’s perspective on viewing history from a different vantage point:

Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward.

To me, this encompasses the main goal of my LH,WK reading project: to see the “Age of Settlement” from more perspectives than just the dominant European settlers’ view. I think it’s easy and common, especially for Euro-Americans, to get nostalgic about “the way we were” by watching shows like Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons. “It was a simpler time,” we say. But the problem with this nostalgia is that in this reminiscent dream we’re only thinking about white people! Anyway, that’s why I read multiple perspectives, so…

On to Chapter One: “Their Manners Are Decorous and Praiseworthy”

This first chapter gives a brief overview of the big-picture relationship between Europeans and Indians as a whole. What first struck me is that many tribes had a sense that America was God’s gift, entrusted to them. A quote from Tecumsah of the Shawnees begins the chapter and says, in part, “Will we… give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, ‘Never! Never!'” (emphasis added). In school we learned about the settlers’ sense of “manifest destiny” — which is “the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.” But either we didn’t learn or I forgot (also possible) about the equally strong sense of divinely-ordained connection to the land felt by Native tribes, as evidenced in Tecumsah’s words above.

The difference, it seems to me — especially as I read about the larger sweep of Indian/Euro-American relations — is that the Indians’ posture towards the land was less possessive. In fact, several times even in this first chapter Brown mentioned the absurdity of the idea of land ownership to the various Indigenous groups. They viewed their occupation of the land as a more flexible arrangement. When I mentioned this to Daniel, he said, “Yeah, the tribes were like gases. The way they take up space is fluid and through dynamic pressure and movement. More population does mean more land, but not including fixed boundaries (like a solid) or even fixed volume (like a liquid).” (Trust my biochemist to take it sciencey!)

Native North Am. - gas molecules

For example, when European settlers first arrived, the initial reaction of most tribes was to shift to give them a little space. The problem was that “a little space” wasn’t enough, because Europeans didn’t behave like gas molecules. Europeans behaved like solids, establishing fixed boundaries as they took up more space and repelling gas molecules (Indians) that would approach. Not only that, but the “solid” Europeans kept advancing — “like a non-melting glacier”, says Daniel. They wanted to keep increasing the territory inside their boundaries, and they had the technology (guns, germs, steel) to come out on top and continue their expansion whenever they clashed with their neighbors.

So the European settlers didn’t respect the boundaries set by their neighbor Indian tribes. And later, when the U.S. Government passed legislation setting a “permanent Indian frontier” at the 95th meridian, white settlers didn’t even respect their OWN boundaries! In 1858, Minnesota became a state — with borders that crossed 100 miles beyond the “permanent Indian frontier”.

As the settlers pushed further and further west, Brown notes: “Because of the vastness of the Northwest country, the Nez Perces believed there would always be enough land for both white men and Indians to use as each saw fit” (p. 12). But they underestimated the vastness of the overflow that continued from Europe (and elsewhere) into the “New World”. By the 1860s, only around 300,000 Indians (1/2 to 2/3 the former number) were left, compared to over 30 million Europeans and Euro-Americans.  Basically, the co-existing gas-molecule Native tribes were steamrollered by the massive solid glacier of Euro-American manifest destiny.

North America colonized - solids v gases

The saddest thing to me is to see the missed opportunity of what might have been if settlers had actually treated the Native Americans they met as equals, rather than as expendable roadblocks between them and “their” land and “their” gold.

The story that struck me the most was that of Squanto — you know, the guy who helped the Pilgrims out. Do you know why he knew some English when the Pilgrims arrived? Because he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in England by an Englishman. With another Englishman’s help, he escaped and got back home (which is miraculous in and of itself). And you know what he did when more English appeared on his doorstep? He was nice to them and saved them from starvation. SERIOUSLY. The first Indian to be put in a superior position over Euro-settlers: teaches them to farm. The first Euro-settler (Columbus) to be put in a superior position over Indians: enslaves them to death. It’s disgusting! Even the title of this chapter — “their manners are decorous and praiseworthy” — is a quote from a letter Columbus wrote back home, praising how the Indians “love their neighbors as themselves.” HE LITERALLY SAYS THEY ARE FOLLOWING ONE OF JESUS’ MOST IMPORTANT COMMANDS. AND THEN HE ENSLAVES THEM.

I literally cannot comprehend it. Does not compute.

Anyway. To sum up: Indigenous nations = gases floating around areas of the Americas based on food sources and population fluctuation. European settlers = conglomeration of solids that steadily and forcefully pushed native tribes outside “their” new borders with glacier-like implacability.

Now on to the other part of my week one reading…

The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung, A Chinese Miner

journal of wong ming-chung - laurence yepThis fictional (but history-based) journal takes place first in rural China and then in California at the time of the Gold Rush in 1852. First of all, let me say that I am thrilled that this book was written by Laurence Yep, who is a fantastic children’s and fantasy author and a Chinese-American. That said, it was a little weird to read this account right after starting off with an overview of Indian/Euro-American relations because there are no Indians in this book. Zero. Like not even a side-mention.

This narrative is, first and foremost, an immigrant’s narrative. Wong Ming-Chung, nicknamed “Runt”, follows his carpenter uncle to “The Gold Mountain” to help him “pick up gold nuggets as big as melons”. When he arrives in California, however, he discovers that gold comes in tinier portions and is a bit harder to find than just picking it up off the ground.

I appreciated how Yep portrayed the immigrant’s journey through relationships and changing affinities. When Runt first leaves home, he finds comfort in meeting several other folks who are from his district (like a county); migration stretches his definition of kinship from same-town to same-county. Then when he makes it to California, Runt’s kinship is stretched even farther when he befriends four other boys from different places — Esteban from Chile, Hiram from Euro-something, Brian from Ireland, and Jubal (a slave) from Africa-something. Though they spend relatively little book-time together, Yep uses these “friends of many colors” to explore the differing levels of discrimination for different groups at this time. For example, as white settlers become increasingly violent towards Chinese immigrants, Runt learns that he can’t complain because Chinese are not allowed to testify in court. He then also learns that Esteban and Jubal can’t testify either, because their skin is dark like his. To me, this “friends of many colors” device felt a little simplistic — but this book is written for 9-12 year olds, so it’s actually pretty genius.

The quote that stuck out most to me in this book comes when Runt and Hiram discuss what Hiram will do now that his gold prospecting site has run out. Runt assumes Hiram will go home, where his family and land and ancestors are, but Hiram decides to stay and farm in California because he’s okay leaving all of that behind. This confuses Runt: “Americans are so rootless. I almost feel sorry for them” (p. 145). I totally resonate with this because we moved around when I was growing up, so I sometimes feel a little rootless myself. But I think “rootless” is a legitimate and insightful encapsulation of the “spirit of the American West” at this time. “Serial settlers” got the wanderlust and always wanted to see what was beyond the next hill.

On a deeper level, I think “rootlessness” is the flip side of the “American melting pot”. It can be good to learn new ways — but it can also be sad or even traumatic, especially if done forcibly, to leave behind old or familiar ways, especially when you add relocation to the mix. I’m sure this theme will come up again later.


Overall, it’s a little wonky to read two such disparate perspectives to start. It’s weird to me to think about second-wave immigrants not even realizing that the land had been taken through displacing Native Americans. But, in fairness, this is a short children’s book, so it may have been too much to tell the story of both Chinese immigration AND Indian displacement. …But I’m still going to point out the weird disconnect between initial Indian displacement and later waves of immigration. I’ll be interested to see how this topic is treated in some of my other books.

Tune in next week for: Wounded Knee, Chapter 2 and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

In Which Rebekah Revisits a Childhood Milestone with Grown-up Eyes

I learned to read when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology. For example, the book with which I taught myself to read (The Ernie & Bert Book, I’ll have you know) is the same one that I immediately turned around and read to my just-born sister. Apparently this book has magical powers, because she grew up to be a bookworm too!

But the phase of bookwormish childhood that I want to focus on today is my first foray into chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series.

Apparently I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. Like a book-tent for my face.) I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. Even as I grew older, I still loved to follow along with their migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times too.

Recently I reorganized my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved in first grade. It’s been about 10 or 15 years now since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

But as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (subtitled, “An Indian History of the American West”).

All of a sudden a lightbulb went on: at the same time Laura’s family was wagon-riding around the Midwest, natives were being pushed off their land. Cowboys were ranching even farther west. THE CIVIL WAR was happening, for goodness sakes!

This may sound like a stupid realization, but I never really thought before about how the Ingalls fit into history. I never learned or thought about who ELSE was living on the prairie. As I looked up the dates of when the events in the Little House books took place, I realized that A LOT was going on in the U.S. A lot more people than just “the settlers” were busy living life — and even “the settlers” are more complex, because, people, there were (and still are) BLACK COWBOYS AND FARMERS. And I know nothing about them. I wanted to learn more.

So, I will be re-reading the Little House series… but in its historical context. As I read my way through the 1850s-1890 with the Ingalls, I will also be reading the corresponding chapters from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as well as several other (mainly children’s) historical fiction diaries of the time. You can see my full reading list/schedule below:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

And here are links to all the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to join me for any of them!

I’m really excited to revisit the Little House on the Prairie. But this time, I’m excited to meet the neighbors, too.

Let’s dive in!

*Edited to update book list / reading list based on books and resources added mid-project.