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”

i thought my soul would rise and flyThis fictional diary, based on a one-line description of a real person and other historical documents of the time, tells the story of “Patsy, a Freed Girl” right after the end of the Civil War in 1865.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.

Conclusion

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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3 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 4, The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

  1. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh. I totally agree with your feelings about Chivington. The privilege aspects were really interesting, too (in a horrifying way). That line about “too bad for you, because we found gold in your land so obviously our desire for gold is more important than your getting to live in your homeland” is just crazy, especially how it’s framed as if it’s helping the Indians by keeping them “safe.”

    At the UMC’s General Conference in 2012, there was a service of repentance to native peoples (especially Native Americans), and the denomination acknowledged its complicity in Chivington’s massacre and other acts of oppression and violence. But even though I’d heard about it before, I had no idea the scale and complete awfulness of all he did. As for the service of repentance, it was meaningful for a lot of people, but even so it’s just barely one step forward in trying to make things right.

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    1. CarissaLick  Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to read some of this stuff. By the time I read all of the stuff about Chivington, he felt almost demonic in my brain. Which is ironic considering he was a pastor. 

      It can be really disheartening to read about Chivington and his like, but it’s also really en-heartening (???) to read about some of the white allies to the Cheyenne (they’re mentioned a lot in Chapter 4, but I only had so much space) who fought hard to try to help them. Major Wynkoop’s story is pretty cool too — he actually fought against the Cheyenne at first, but when he was escorting two chiefs to a rendezvous as his prisoners he was so impressed by their honorable conduct that he “converted” and thereafter was a staunch supporter of the Cheyenne in that region.

      So there are good stories of white allies in there, too!

      Do you know if the UMC does anything in the way of like restoration or “making amends” work? Like our pastor has talked about how feeling sorry is a good start, but it’s important to DO something and take steps toward repairing the damage. One thing he suggested was to contribute to an Indian language and cultural preservation program.

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      1. RebekahSchulzJackson CarissaLickYeah, I was really happy to read about Major Wynkoop. It’s really frustrating that he was taken out of power, though. Sigh.

        From what I remember of the service at General Conference, the UMC’s “amends” at this stage are mostly raising awareness of our past and encouraging individuals to listen to one another’s stories. But there are a number of Native American UMC churches, and I found this page about some of what the denomination is doing with/for them. http://www.gbod.org/minister-to-people/native-american-comprehensive-plan-nacp It does include a commitment to nurturing and supporting leadership from within the Indian community, but that is mostly focused on the Christian Indian community. So we have a long way to go. Thanks for sharing that link!

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