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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2 thoughts on “Little House/Wounded Knee: Week 2, Broken Promises

  1. SIGH. Powerful stories. I’m so glad you’re sharing them with those of us who (at least for now) don’t have time to read them ourselves. Ugggggggh, I hate how terribly people can treat other people! I didn’t realize that Indians were being told to “keep their promises.” Oh the irony. Those passages from Harriet Jacobs were incredible. I can’t believe what kinds of decisions she was caught between. It’s no wonder womanist theologians emphasize that God “makes a way out of no way”–there really is no way out of those traps.

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    1. CarissaLick  Yeah, it’s mind-boggling the sorts of ethical and moral Catch-22s that keep arising as I read through this project. I knew I would read about lots of horrible atrocities, but I didn’t know how tied in with Christianity in particular it all would be. This project is a much more spiritual experience than I expected.

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