Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 9, Blizzards, Betrayal, and Buffalo

In the ninth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, the Ingalls brave some blizzards and Indians weather two Shakespearean tragedies. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

On the Banks of Plum Creek

on the banks of plum creekIn the fourth Little House book, the story pulls in to become much more nuclear family focused. By that I mean that the story is less tied to social or political goings-on, or to the land, or whatever and much more exclusively driven by whatever happens to the Ingalls. Also, the Ingalls lived through some weird-o stuff! Here are a few highlights:

  • walnut grove plum creek ingalls map
    The red A marks Walnut Grove, MN, where the Ingalls’ dugout house was located.

    At the start of the book, the Ingalls move to Minnesota and buy a dugout house from some Norwegians. Ma, the schoolteacher and voice of “civilization”, is very concerned about cleanliness and not stooping to sleeping on the ground. Pa reassures her that “Norwegians are clean people.” (p.6)

  • Everyone is soooooo happy to have finally escaped those troublesome wolves and Indians: “It is all so tame and peaceful. There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight.” (p.17) Again with the Indians = animals.
  • We see a lot more of Laura’s character development as a feisty and disobedient but take-charge little girl. When she goes too deep in the swimming hole and Pa dunks her, she wants him to do it again. (Hilarious, btw.) But when Ma and Pa get caught in a snowstorm, Laura — not her older sister, Mary — is the one who takes charge and makes sure the girls bring in enough firewood to last the storm. The girls — all three — have really grown in their self-sufficiency, even though in this book Laura is only 8! It’s clear both that necessity requires children to be useful very young, and that Laura is on a collision-course with 19th-century gender roles.
  • We also see a lot more of the financial struggles of 19th-century farmers in general and the Ingalls family in particular. Pa takes out loans against their future wheat crop — but when a swarm of grasshoppers comes and eats it all, he has no choice but to head east to hire out as a harvest laborer for those whose fields weren’t eaten. Not only does he struggle to afford a new pair of boots when his are falling apart, but the glowing Christmas story in the novel features Mary and Laura receiving charity Christmas gifts from their town neighbors to the east.
  • Minnesota is cold. There are lots of blizzards. And one of them is reeeeeeally bad. And Pa almost dies. …So, typical Minnesota weather.
  • School and church are a big deal. Several times Author Laura mentions that the reason they settled where they did is because Pa promised Ma the girls would go to school, and they need to be near a town to do that. Ma keeps her school books in “the box where she kept her best things” (p.140) and attending church is seen as a treat.
  • There is serious friction between country folk and town folk. The most apparent case of this is Nellie, a rich, spoiled town girl who harasses and insults both Laura and Ma (OH NO YOU DIDN’T) about their poverty and not-as-fine clothes. One of the best scenes of the novel is when Nellie gets her comeuppance — at Laura’s party, Laura tricks Nellie into standing in a creek bed full of leeches. Ah, sweet revenge.

Overall, this book showcases how much farmers are at the mercy of the elements. As a sub-theme to that, it sort of begs the question of why people are resettling all over and trying to make a go of it in places where they don’t know the land. And another theme that begins now and will get stronger as Mary and Laura grow up is the “civilization process”. Especially because they’re both female, there is a lot of pressure on both girls (but especially on Laura, since she’s a tomboy) to learn to be more “ladylike” the older they get.

“The Ordeal of Captain Jack”

In the 10th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee we take a little trip to present-day California. Brown gives us a brief background of the region, where the mostly peaceful coastal tribes greeted the Spanish with friendship and were quickly exterminated. The Modocs were the exception; “when the Modocs showed fight, the white invaders attempted extermination. The Modocs retaliated with ambushes” (p.220). It is here that we meet Captain Jack.

Captain Jack (aka Kintpuash) was a Modoc chief who had many white friends and strongly desired peace. He signed a treaty ceding Modoc land and removing his people to the Klamath Reservation — but the Klamaths were already there and didn’t appreciate company. When the Modocs began to starve, Captain Jack was convinced by his friend and fellow influential Modoc, Hooker Jim, that fleeing was preferable to death by starvation. The Modocs fled west to the California Lava Beds, with Hooker Jim taking “revenge” on the way by killing some white settlers — including Captain Jack’s friends.

When soldiers arrived to arrest the murderers, Captain Jack refused to give up his friend Hooker Jim. Captain Jack tried to compromise — but he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He couldn’t get General Canby to talk peace. His own people, now including a vocal opposition led by Hooker Jim, refused to consider peace (they voted 37-14 to fight to the death) and thought he was a coward. In a desperate attempt to save face with his fellow Modoc leaders, Captain Jack promised that he would shoot General Canby when he next came to talk. When General Canby arrived Captain Jack tried to back out, but was forced to go through with it. Then, even after all the faith he had shown his people, Captain Jack was betrayed and captured by Hooker Jim and his followers, who surrendered and promised to bring in Captain Jack in exchange for supplies and amnesty. At his trial, Captain Jack stated, “You white people conquered me not; my own men did.” (p.240)

It’s a story of betrayal upon betrayal; it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, almost. But what really gets me about this story is what happened to Captain Jack after he was convicted:

Captain Jack was hanged on October 3. On the night following the execution, his body was secretly disinterred, carried off to Yreka, and embalmed. A short time later it appeared in eastern cities as a carnival attraction, admission price ten cents. (p.240)

When I read this, at first I didn’t really know what to do with it. It’s just… weird. I mean, who does that? “Well, we’ve rounded up this criminal guy, and now he’s hanged… I think I’ll dig up and preserve his body so I can exhibit it at a circus.” To me this is the epitome of dehumanization and fetishization of Indians. It takes General Sheridan’s “only good Indians are dead” comment to a whole other level, because now it’s not only that Indians are “better” when dead (aka not being a “nuisance”) but that whites are actually commercializing and profiting from the corpse of a dead man after his death.

The Modocs: Where are they now?

This chapter concludes: “As for the surviving 153 [people]…, they were exiled to Indian territory. …[In 1909] the government decided to permit the remaining fifty-one Modocs to return to an Oregon reservation” (p.240). In 1954, the Klamath Reservation was terminated by the US Government and its inhabitants were bought out, except for a few who insisted on receiving title to their ancestral lands instead of money. Today the Modoc people are split between those two places — the Quapaw Indian Reservation (home of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma) and Klamath County, Oregon (home of the Klamath Tribes, which includes Modocs descended from people who didn’t flee with Captain Jack and from people who chose to return to Klamath after the war). You can read more about the Modoc people here.

“The War to Save the Buffalo”

The 11th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follows the Kiowas (the group who refused to surrender to General Custer back in chapter 7) and the Comanches, particularly the Kwahadi Comanches. I’m noticing that as the book (and history) progresses, tribes are getting increasingly mixed together as fragments and survivors of various traumas flee to the few remaining free groups. There is a lot of back-and-forth conflict in this chapter — and I invite you to read it all for yourselves, because it enriches the context behind the major events here — but I’m going to sum up.

1. Like most other tribes we’ve read about so far, the Kiowas and Comanches bifurcated under pressure.

When faced with General Sherman’s ultimatum — “Surrender yourselves to the reservation at Fort Sill or be killed” — both the Kiowas and the Comanches split into “the surrenderers” on the reservation and “the free roamers” who fled further west.

2. The “free roamers” didn’t even really want war — they just wanted to be free to hunt the buffalo.

Those who escaped or refused to surrender sometimes raided white settlements, especially to recoup supplies or horses. But their main stated goal was to be free to hunt as they were promised in a previous treaty, on the land they were guaranteed access to “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase” (p.243). Unfortunately, this was getting harder and harder, as white buffalo hunters were systematically slaughtering millions of buffalo to aid in the “progress” of settlement and railroads and to make it difficult for Indians to survive and resist. General Sheridan (“the only good Indians are dead”) was quoted as saying, “It [buffalo extermination] is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance” (p.265).

3. Ironically, Indians who surrendered were forced by the whites to farm corn…

…a skill which Indians kindly taught to early white settlers in order to save them from winter starvation, because they had no idea how to survive in America.

Even more ironic is the fact that the Comanches were originally an agricultural society — but the loss of their land earlier resulted in them being forced to hunt buffalo to survive. …Which they were now being forced to abandon so they could be “taught” to farm corn.

4. In the end, the Army won.

When the remaining Kiowas, Kwahadi Comanches, and a few Cheyennes holed up in the last place they could hunt buffalo (Palo Duro Canyon, just south of present-day Amarillo), General Sherman responded by calling up soldiers from all quarters. Brown put it well, I thought:

Thousands of Bluecoats armed with repeating rifles and artillery were in search of a few hundred Indians who wanted only to save their buffalo and live out their lives in freedom. … Across the Plains the Indians scattered on foot, without food, clothing, or shelter. And the thousands of Bluecoats marching from the four directions methodically hunted them down… (p.269-70)

The Kiowas and Comanches were all put back on reservations. The people were corralled and disarmed, their property was burned, their animals were shot, and suspected leaders were jailed awaiting trial. (Something about this process reminds me eerily of the systematic rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany.) By the end of 1875, the main Kiowa leaders — Lone Wolf, Kicking Bird, and Satanta (who threw himself from a window in a prison hospital) — were dead, and so were almost all the buffalo.

The Kiowas & Comanches: Where are they now?

The Kiowa people today are federally recognized as the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and reside mainly in southwestern Oklahoma. (What used to be their reservation was transitioned to a “tribal jurisdictional area”, as mentioned previously.) As of 2011, there were 12,000 enrolled tribal members. One particularly notable Kiowa person is author N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. You can read more about the Kiowas here.

The Comanche people today are federally recognized as the Comanche Nation. An estimated 8,000 of its 15,000 enrolled members reside within the Comanche tribal jurisdiction area in southwestern Oklahoma. (Again — no longer a reservation.) You can read more about the Comanches here.


Last week I was asked a really great question about my reading: “Have you encountered any examples of inter-tribal violence in your research?” It’s a totally legit question, and I plan to dig into it more thoroughly once I finish this project.

I actually get asked this question a lot when I talk about this LH/WK project. I’ve even wondered about it myself. I think part of the reason I have struggled to answer satisfactorily is that I often perceive (whether it’s really there or not) a subtextual question attached to that question, which is, “Isn’t all this stuff white people did to Indians just another war? Didn’t the Indians make war on each other too? Why is this particular war any different?”

Well, after this week’s readings, I can finally articulate an answer to that subtextual question.

Yes, we are all human and capable of both good and evil. I’ve written about several examples of both compassionate whites and traitorous Indians — and even more in today’s post. It’s not that Indians are squeaky clean and totally innocent — it’s that the white-on-Indian war is different than Indian-on-Indian wars. And the reason is that Indian-on-Indian wars were wars — they had honorable things, they had disgraceful things, but the various Native groups that engaged in wars (and not all did) fought against relatively equal opponents over things like borders, hunting rights, and population — all of which could even out over time. But this white-on-Indian war isn’t war; it’s genocide disguised as war.

Again, don’t get me wrong — there were definitely white allies of various Indian nations, and not every white person personally carried out genocidal acts. And there are multiple examples of Indian mercenaries from enemy tribes. But for whatever reason, the white (and black, but mostly white) representatives of the US government and military at the time were overwhelmingly focused on the extermination not only of any reasonable Indian threat of war, but of all Indians (including civilians) and of the various Native ways of life.

This was a war against a way of life. This was cultural extermination.

And that’s why it’s important to me to read and share the story, because if we talk about it — if we speak honestly about what happened — then it’s like the extermination efforts were a little less successful, and the truthful story is a little more alive.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 12-14 and Black Frontiers.

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).

Nerd-vana: Shakespeare Meets R2-D2

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

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 prairieLittle 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.