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
The 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”
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:
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.
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).