In which I flinch at road signs…

So last night at my church we watched the film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s fictionalized but loosely based on the last few chapters of the book by the same title (the one I’m reading). It gives a pretty decent overview of some of the context and events of the Wounded Knee massacre. I’d give it like 3 stars out of 5. (None of the white villains are as evil as Chivington, which made the white “side” a little too sympathetic for my taste, but it did a good job of showing some of the cultural whitewashing and the events surrounding the Dawes Act.)

Anyway. One of the big themes of the film is the power of names, which reminded me of an experience I had last week.

I was driving around the Twin Cities area when all of a sudden I realized — tons of things are named after Indians or generals or other figures or events in Minnesota’s “pioneer history”. A road (and a school) here in Chaska is Pioneer Trail, presumably named for the settlers who came here in wagons to fill the “empty” land. My town, Chaska, is the name of one of the 38+2 Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato in 1862. Heck, our whole state has a Dakota name — Minnesota, “sky-tinted water”.

In the film, the character of Henry Dawes (creator of the Dawes Act) tells Indians gathered to hear his offer for their land to basically “let us not dwell on the past — it’s behind us.” This is a statement I hear a lot when I talk with [non-native] people about Native people and the trauma they have suffered at the hands of white settlers. “That’s ancient history! Why are we still talking about this? It’s in the past!” I often hear. I confess that I myself have thought that.

Well, here’s the thing, folks and past-self — it’s not in the past. It’s literally freaking everywhere, and everywhere we look we can see reminders of the people and events that resulted in the Dakota (or whoever else’s land you’re on) losing their land, much of their way of life, and many relatives who were killed.

Now, when I’m out and about, I literally flinch when I read signs.

“Oh, look — an article in the Pioneer Press — **twitch** — holy crap, our newspaper is still called the name it had when Pa read it during the Long Winter in 1880.”

“Welcome to Sibley County — ARGH! That’s Henry Sibley, an Army general in the Battle of New Ulm who drove the Santee Sioux from Minnesota.”

“25 miles to New Ulm — **flinch** — that’s where Dakota and white settlers fought. There was a battle there.”

“Dinner in Mankato? Whoa, that’s where the largest mass execution in US history took place — and it’s also the name of a Santee man who fought against the settlers, and then was hanged in St. Paul.”

“Ooh, some nice Andrews Sisters music — What? Don’t fence YOU in? Give you land, lots of land??”

SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE — you cannot possibly know the story of this land and NOT have it smack you in the face every. single. day.

And I just learned all this! This has only been happening to me for a few weeks! And none of these people are related to me! And I’m not legally banished from my ancestral homeland because of some of these people!

I don’t know if Dakota and other Native people flinch like I do when they see this stuff — maybe they’re used to it, or maybe they can ignore it, or I don’t know what.

But it bothers me. And it reminds me that there’s a lot more to the story of the land I’m standing on than most of us want to think about today.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 12, Long Winter & Legality

In the twelfth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, the Ingalls (and the rest of North America) survive the Long Winter and the Poncas and Utes struggle with the law. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Frozen: Ingalls Edition

long winterOkay, Frozen jokes aside, The Long Winter is actually a pretty stark novel. In it Laura tells how her family and the other residents of De Smet, SD survived the seven-month-long blizzard-full hard winter of 1880-81.

The main theme of this book, of course, is survival. The first blizzard strikes in early October, cutting short the growing season and resulting in a fairly modest harvest for most crops. As the winter continues, the storms are so frequent and so severe that the train tracks become impassable and De Smet is cut off from all outside supplies. That means no coal, no kerosene, no store-bought salt pork, and no flour — which means no heat, no light, no meat, and no bread. As a result, the whole town (and especially the Ingalls, as there are six of them!) is forced to severely ration what food they have. Since there is also no wild game — all the critters having instinctively run off to their warm hidey-holes — this brings them all to the brink of starvation.

For the Ingalls, the supply shortage means they must grind raw wheat in a coffee grinder to make “flour” and twist hay into hay sticks for “logs” for the fire. As the long winter sets in and grinds down the Ingalls’ spirits, Author-Laura’s writing gets more vivid as she describes and even personifies the seemingly unending blizzard:

Next morning [Laura] got out of bed into the cold. She dressed in the chilly kitchen by the fire. She ate her coarse brown bread. She took her turns at grinding wheat and twisting hay. But she did not ever feel awake. She felt beaten by the cold and the storms. She knew she was dull and stupid but she could not wake up.
There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing. The storm was always there, outside the walls, waiting sometimes, then pouncing, shaking the house, roaring, snarling, and screaming in rage. (p.309-10, emphasis added)

The sense of dull, desperate, downtrodden discouragement here is palpable. I mean, really — imagine that on October 1st you got several feet of snow dumped on you, and then that kept happening over and over again for SEVEN MONTHS, with no access to the outside world, including food, and no electricity or decent fuel for a fire to keep warm. It’s clear that surviving this blizzard was a significant event in the lives of those who lived through it! (You can read more about this historic winter here.) One thing I kept wondering about was how the Indians stuck on reservations were able to survive, since they were essentially prisoners and often their supplies were “forgotten” in the hustle and bustle of Washington bureaucracy.

In this book, we also get to see a bit more of Almanzo, who has moved to De Smet with his brother, Royal, to file for a homestead. (More on him later.)

Wounded Knee Ch. 15: Standing Bear Becomes a Person

ponca original land map
Ponca original land map

The 15th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follows the Ponca, a tribe indigenous to what is now South Dakota / Nebraska. In 1868, their land was accidentally granted to the Lakota in a treaty, and in 1876, although they had no history of conflict with the US, they were included in a list of Plains tribes to be exiled to Indian Territory (aka Oklahoma). Though they protested, a troop of soldiers marched them southward anyway.

By 1878, a year later, a fourth of the Ponca were dead. A Ponca chief, Standing Bear, was asked by his dying son to bury him in their homeland. Standing Bear and a band of companions put his son’s body in a wagon and began their funeral procession journey north, but the US agent had them stopped and arrested in Omaha, to be returned to the reservation.

However, General Crook (who had previously fought against various Indian tribes but apparently had grown some sympathy over time) was moved by Standing Bear’s commitment to honoring his son’s last wishes. Crook alerted the local press as to Standing Bear’s plight and stirred up public opinion in Standing Bear’s favor. He also helped to bring a case before the courts to try to assert Standing Bear’s right to habeas corpus — which includes the right to not be taken anywhere (aka back to the Rez) against his will.

Initially a judge refused to hear the case, stating that “Indians [were] not persons within the meaning of the law” (p.360). Thus ensued a civil rights lawsuit, Standing Bear v. Crook, where Standing Bear sued for his legal personhood and thus his right to habeas corpus. He won, and the judge’s written decision stirringly defends Native personhood (while still describing them as second-class people…). Not only were Standing Bear and company able to complete their burial journey, but they were permitted to settle in their homeland. And there was much (white reporter) rejoicing — a “happy ending”!

The Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to keep this ruling from applying to other Indians, lest the resulting knowledge of freedom make the other native peoples “restless with a desire to follow [Standing Bear’s] example” (from a BIA document) and upset the BIA’s carefully crafted reservation system. This played itself out almost immediately thereafter in the case of Standing Bear’s brother, Big Snake. When he and a small group of Poncas decided to test the law by traveling 100 miles from their reservation in Indian Territory to the Cheyenne reservation, General Sherman ordered, “The release under writ of habeas corpus of the Poncas in Nebraska does not apply to any other than that specific case” (p.364). When Big Snake resisted imprisonment, he was shot and killed, and the rest of the Poncas were returned to Indian Territory, leaving the tribe split between Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Although I’m glad some reporters started to pay some attention, their goals were too local and short-sighted to have much of an effect on the course of Indian-US relations.

The Poncas: Where are they now?

Today the Poncas are still split between the two areas where Brown’s narrative ended: Nebraska and Oklahoma. Under the Dawes Act of 1891-2 the US Government dissolved the Poncas’ reservations in both Nebraska and Oklahoma and allotted land to individual members, with any remaining land sold off to speculators. In the 1950s, the northern Ponca group organized and became the federally-recognized Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Although they now have over 2,700 enrolled members, they are still trying to piece their ancestral lands back together and they are the only federally-recognized tribe in Nebraska without a reservation. The southern Ponca lands are also still individually held, and the tribe is part of Oklahoma’s Tribal Statistical Area system. Today they are are federally recognized as the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and have 4,200 enrolled members. You can read more about both branches of the Ponca here.

Wounded Knee Ch. 16: “The Utes Must Go!”

Original Ute Domain MapThis chapter follows the Utes, a tribe indigenous to the Rocky Mountains area. Their first treaty with the US left them control of their land west of the Rockies — but the US got mineral rights, and thus white prospectors could traipse wherever they liked. The Utes understandably did not enjoy this arrangement, plus the US decided they wanted to try to gain the land itself, so another talk was convened. Ouray, the straight-shooting representative for the Utes, held out for as many concessions as he could. But when the US government refused to enforce settlement restrictions on white squatters, the Utes sold their mountains for $25k per year — plus $1k annually for Ouray, as long as he remained head chief. What followed was ridiculous and awful:

  • The Utes were assigned a new agent by the name of Meeker who brought in some white farmers and craftsmen to teach the Utes how to create their own “agricultural commune” of his invention. Meeker’s personal mission was to “elevate and enlighten” the Utes from their “savage” state to “the enlightened, scientific, and religious stage” of development, which, of course, he had attained. (All this despite the fact that the mountain-dwelling Utes were completely self-sufficient without any outside help at all.)
  • In his faux-academic pompousness, Meeker wrote an article about how the Utes were hopeless and their reservation land belonged to the government, anyway — an article which was then picked up by (white) newspapers as fodder to fuel the removal of the tribe. The Governor of Colorado at the time, Gov. Vickers, got especially involved. He and a wealthy/greedy compatriot even began to spread false stories about the Utes (e.g. blaming them for forest fires in the region) because he wanted access to the wealth of land and minerals held by the Utes. Their rallying cry was “The Utes Must Go!”
  • Meeker, continuing his misguided attempts to “civilize” his Ute “children”, ordered a plowman to plow up the land the Utes used to graze their ponies. They tried to dissuade Meeker and the plowman, and then fired several warning shots to scare the plowman off. This incident, combined with a fairly gentle shake of Meeker’s shoulders (“What are you thinking??”) by one of the Ute chiefs, resulted in Meeker writing a letter requesting protection from the Army because of the “assault” on his person. Soldiers responded that they would march and camp at the Milk River, just outside Ute territory.
  • When the soldiers came, they decided not to stop at the Milk River and instead marched right into Ute territory — and right into a group of angry young men who had been trying to stay clear of what was supposed to start out as peaceful talks. A firefight ensued.
  • When Utes back at the agency heard about the fight, they assumed the worst and took violent action. They took over the agency, killed Meeker and all the white worker men, and captured and raped the three white women. Ouray sent word to stop all the fighting — but the damage was done.

After the fact, events were sussed out and blame assigned. I appreciated Dee Brown’s assessment of the coverage: “The fight at Milk River was called an ambush, which it was not, and the affair at White River agency was called a massacre, which it was” (p.388). There’s never a good excuse for killing innocent people, although I can now better understand why the Utes had plenty of reasons to freak out when soldiers unexpectedly marched toward them. Of course, Governor Vickers took the opportunity to give a nice statement to the local papers which pretty much laid his motivations bare:

My ideas is that, unless removed by the government, [the Utes] must necessarily be exterminated. I could raise 25,000 men to protect the settlers in twenty-four hours. The state would be willing to settle the Indian trouble at its own expense. The advantages that would accrue from the throwing open of 12,000,000 acres of [Ute] land to miners and settlers would more than compensate all the expenses incurred. (p.388, emphasis added)

In the end, the Utes were rounded up and banished to a reservation in Utah “on land the Mormons did not want” (p.389). Other than a small strip in the southwest of the state, by mid-1881 there were no indigenous inhabitants left in the state of Colorado.

The Utes: Where are they now?

The Utes (after which the state of Utah is named) are today divided into three main groups, each with their own reservation. The Northern Utes (population about 3,000) are now consolidated onto the 4.5-million-acre Uintah and Ouray Reservation, which is the second largest Indian Reservation and is located in northeastern Utah. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe numbers just over 1,000 and is located on a reservation in a small strip of southwestern Colorado. The Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation is located near Four Corners and is home to the Mountain Ute Tribe (population around 1,300); also nearby is Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which contains many Anasazi ruins and is frequented by tourists from around the world. You can read more about all the Ute peoples here.

Conclusion

There is a ton going on here, and I’ve already touched on some of the individual themes within each section above. But when I put all three of these pieces together, what really stands out to me is that when it comes to US laws and enforcement thereof, double-standards abound.

Several times in Little House, we see both Pa (on Osage land) and Almanzo rationalizing their choices to disobey US laws. Here’s an excerpt from the section in The Long Winter where Almanzo justifies deceiving the homestead agent:

When he came West, Almanzo was nineteen years old. But that was a secret because he had taken a homestead claim, and according to the law a man must be twenty-one years old to do that. Almanzo did not consider that he was breaking the law and he knew that he was not cheating the government. … Almanzo looked at it this way: the Government wanted this land settled…. But the politicians far away in Washington could not know the settlers so they must make rules to regulate them and one rule was that a homesteader must be twenty-one years old.
None of the rules worked as they were intended to. Almanzo knew that men were making good wages by filing claims that fitted all the legal rules and then handing over the land to the rich men who paid their wages. Everywhere, men were stealing the land and doing it according to all the rules.
Anybody knew that no two men were alike. (p.90)

Here you can see how Almanzo simultaneously rejects and embraces the US government. On the one hand, he writes them off as “those silly Easterners who don’t understand life out West”; on the other hand, he claims to understand and embrace the true aim behind the laws: to get the land settled. Besides, he seems to say, everyone else is breaking the spirit of the law, and I’m only breaking the letter. To me, this is fairly unremarkable as classic disconnected politician rhetoric — by itself.

But then we add in this portion from Brown’s story of the Utes:

Brunot [the US government negotiator] replied frankly that if the government tried to drive the miners out [of Ute land], this would bring on a war, and the Utes would lose their land without receiving any pay for it. “The best thing that can be done,” he said, “if you can spare these mountains, is to sell them, and to have something coming in every year. … We could not keep the people away.”
The miners care very little about the government and do not obey the laws,” Ouray [the Ute representative] agreed. “They say they do not care about the government. It is a long way off in the States, and they say the man who comes to make the treaty will go off to the States, and it will all be as they want it. … Why cannot you stop them?” Ouray demanded. “Is not the government strong enough to keep its agreements with us?” (from Wounded Knee, p.370-1)

And also Sherman’s blatant instruction that the court ruling in Standing Bear v. Crook “does not apply to any other than that specific case”. 

Why is it okay for Pa and Almanzo to reason their way around the law and still embrace the US Government, but the law doesn’t apply at all when it would legally benefit Indians? In other words, how is it that the Utes and other Indians follow the law and get stomped while white settlers blatantly disregard both laws and government but can still rely on protection by the US Army? Why would the US government rather stomp Indians than enforce its laws on its own disobedient white settler citizens… who say the government is soft and dumb?

The answer is racism, and the power that comes with it. To the primarily rich white male US Government, the bonds of whiteness (“civilization”) are stronger than the bonds of rightness. Racism and privilege and power and greed trump law-abiding honor, because honor doesn’t get you as much power and wealth.

So when white anti-government settlers break the law in a way that harms Indians, instead of privileging Right or even Sovereignty or Legality and siding with their fellow Nation the Utes to enforce the law, the US undermines its own laws, sides with the white law-breaking settlers, and forces the Utes to relocate “or else”. Let me say that again, just to be clear: the US Government helped white settlers to break its own laws! It completely sacrificed all integrity to serve the greed of pioneers and politicians who looked at the Rockies and saw only minerals and 12 million acres of “profitable” land.

I’m gonna be honest — I just don’t get it. I mean, cosmically I do — sin and evil and all that — but it’s just so illogical, so irrational, so inconsistent, so hypocritical, so massively wrong. Especially from a bunch of people who frequently mention the “enlightenment” of their “advanced and christianized nation” (p.372). Pretty sure Christ never endorsed this.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 17, My Heart Is On the Ground, and As Long as the Rivers Flow.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 11, Spunky Girls & Self-Determination

In the eleventh week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura’s life is turned upside down and we meet another spunky (Ojibwa) heroine. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

By the Shores of Silver Lake

de smet sd mapIn this the fifth book in the Little House series, we follow the Ingalls as they leave their failing farm on Plum Creek and settle in what would become the final Ingalls home at De Smet, South Dakota.

This installment really started off with a shocker, as in the first two pages we learn that the entire family has been stricken with scarlet fever and, as a result of her illness, Laura’s  older sister Mary is now blind. BOOM! As the book progresses, we see how appropriate this sudden beginning is, though, because Mary’s blindness changes everything.

With Mary blind — and thus, in this relatively poor and isolated prairie family, rendered significantly less helpful to the family’s survival — Laura becomes the de facto eldest child. The shift is subtle, but even twelve-year-old Laura understands it very clearly. First, she must now be responsible to help Mary, as Pa says that “she must be eyes for Mary” (p.2). Second, when Pa leaves to begin a job elsewhere, Laura realizes that she now has primary responsibility for helping Ma take care of things: “Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore” (p.14). Mary’s illness and blindness force Laura to grow up all at once. It’s a lot for a little girl to bear, but in the midst of it I was struck by Laura’s “seeing out loud” for Mary on their very first train ride out to South Dakota:

“The sunshine comes slanting in the south windows, in wide stripes over the red velvet seats and the people. Corners of sunshine fall on the floor, and keep reaching out and going back. … Now I will see the people,” Laura went on murmuring. “In front of us is a head with a bald spot on top and side whiskers. He is reading a newspaper. He doesn’t look out the windows at all. Farther ahead are two young men with their hats on. They are holding a big white map and looking at it and talking about it. I guess they’re going to look for a homestead too. Their hands are rough and calloused so they’re good workers. And farther ahead there’s a women with bright yellow hair and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat with pink roses –” (p.23-24)

Laura’s descriptions really are lovely and vivid, and I wonder if “seeing out loud” for Mary is what helped her to develop a writer’s view of the world.

Finally, and more significantly, as a result of Mary’s blindness Laura discovers that she will be saddled with fulfilling Ma’s dreams of having another teacher in the family:

“Another thing, Laura,” said Pa. “You know Ma was a teacher, and her mother before her. Ma’s heart is set on one of you girls teaching school, and I guess it will have to be you. So you see you must have your schooling.”
Laura’s heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down. She did not say anything. She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher. Now Mary couldn’t teach, and — “Oh, I won’t! I won’t!” Laura thought. “I don’t want to! I can’t!” Then she said to herself, “You must.”
She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money. (p.127)

This whole development made me SO ANGRY!! First of all, I detest and protest that Laura’s entire profession should be decided for her because her Ma wants a teacher in the family — ESPECIALLY when we consider how much Laura has hated school and being cooped up indoors. This level of vicarious control — not to mention direct contradiction of Laura’s personality and natural outdoorsiness — makes me grind my teeth. This is NOT how children should be raised! Secondly, it’s an extra kick to my frustration with these circumstances to hear Laura say, almost forlornly, “Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.” Laura, the energetic child who wants to “fly like the birds” with her Pa and explore the outdoors, the girl who is clever and resourceful and brave, has NO OTHER OPTIONS to earn money. Because she’s a girl. The feeling we get from this passage is one of instant restriction. Laura goes from having access to the entire wide open prairie to having the entire course of her young life narrowed and chosen for her. It’s like she goes from Freebird to corset in 2.3 seconds. I feel so sad and frustrated reading this.

In addition to the official beginnings of Laura’s forced grown-up-ification, we also see the return of some pretty strong anti-Indian racism, especially from Ma. Author-Laura throws in a few “yelling like Indians” narration bits, but then she gives a couple pretty damning quotes to Ma:

“I’ve always heard you can’t trust a half-breed,” Ma said. Ma did not like Indians; she did not even like half-Indians.
“We’d all have been scalped down on the Verdigris River, if it hadn’t been for a full-blood,” said Pa.
“We wouldn’t have been in any danger of scalping if it hadn’t been for those howling savages,” said Ma, “with fresh skunk skins around their middles.” And she made a sound that came from remembering how those skunk skins smelled. (p.82)

Gee, Ma, tell us how you really feel! For me, I can glean two main nuggets from this exchange: (1) Some settlers reeeeeally hated Indians (like Ma); and some “only” stereotyped and stole land from them (like Pa). Also, note that Author-Laura lets Ma have the last word, thus “winning” the argument. (2) Between this unusually negative portrayal of Ma and the situation with the teaching, I’m getting a strong vibe that Laura didn’t have a very good relationship with her Ma. (In fact, after Pa passed away, Laura never saw her Ma again and didn’t attend her funeral.) And I, as a reader, am starting to really dislike Ma as a character.

Silver Lake continues the trend of the series focusing more and more on Laura personally and less and less on wider trends about migration and settlement. I really feel for Laura having to be scrunched into the narrow roles she’s expected to fill as she grows up.

The Birchbark House

birchbark houseAs I wrote about last week, this book (and its sequels) is a last-minute addition to my lineup, but I’m SO GLAD I found it. The Birchbark House follows Omakayas, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwa) girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family and community. Simply put, this book is beautiful. Reading it felt refreshing and rich and intimate. Not to mention, I loved getting an alternate perspective on white settlement, but in the same genre as LHotP. Louise Erdrich is a genius. Go read this book right now.

omakayas lake superior islands

Now, if you are bound and determined that you are not going to read this book (or you’re the kind of person who loves spoilers), here are some things I loved about this book:

1) It’s based on real events in the lives of the author’s ancestors. The fact that Erdrich uncovered this while researching her family and decided to write about it makes the whole book feel so much richer and more real to me. So that’s pretty cool. Also, Erdrich makes a point of including as many Ojibwa words as possible, which I liked and which I thought brought an extra layer of thoughtfulness and heritage to the novel.

2) The story is intimate and relational. After reading Dee Brown’s historical writing and Author Laura’s somewhat didactic, reporter-style writing, this book was a surprising and refreshing look into Omakayas’s feelings and relationships as she grows up. From the Most Heartbreaking Opening Line Ever (“The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.”) to Omakayas’s real and (mostly) loving relationships with her adoptive family members and her home, I loved how connected I felt to this book and the characters, especially Omakayas and Grandma/Nokomis. In LHotP, I feel like Laura feels sort of real, and everyone else is sort of real only in relation to her. But in this book, I felt like the whole community was actually real.

3) I like the parenting/family model presented here WAYYYYYYYY more than Ma’s! First of all, I loved the strong communal emphasis in Omakayas’s family. Not only does her Grandma live with them, but they are also very close with the rest of the community. It felt much more supportive and less transactional than Pa’s feelings about good neighbors being valuable but not wanting to “owe” anybody. Second, there’s a really beautiful scene where Grandma/Nokomis, a medicine woman, simply asks Omakayas questions about the plants and animals talking to her:

‘Listen to them,’ was all Nokomis said, touching Omakayas’s face. She spoke so earnestly, with such emotion in her voice, that Omakayas was always to remember that moment, the bend in the path where they stood with the medicines, her grandmother’s kind face and the words she spoke (p.104).

This is such an honoring, empowering way to treat children — guiding them and supporting them, but not overriding them. I was really taken by it — especially just having gotten mad at how Ma was forcing Laura to teach!

4) I love the solemnity with which Omakayas is taught to interact with the natural world. There are too many examples to share them all here, but one that stood out was a scene where Omakayas meets and plays with some bear cubs in the woods and then is surprised by the mama bear. This is how she responds:

Nokomis,’ she said to the bear, calling her grandmother. ‘I didn’t mean any harm. I was only playing with your children. Gaween onjidah. Please forgive me. … I fed them some berries. I wanted to bring them home, to adopt them, have them live with me at my house as my little brothers. But now that you’re here, Grandmother, I will leave quietly. These scissors in my hands are not for killing, just for sewing. They are nothing compared to your teeth and claws'” (p.31, emphasis added).

From this passage and others, it is abundantly clear that (a) Omakayas treats other creatures — especially bears — as respected equals, and (b) someone has strongly modeled for her the importance of this, because she reverts to it even when she’s afraid. Overall, I was struck by how respectful this feels.

I really strongly recommend that anyone looking for a Little-House-esque book (or just a great children’s book) check this out. So good.

Also, there are several ways that this book is actually really similar to Little House. First, Omakayas is a strong female character — spunky and very human, much like Laura. She even has a perfect older sister, too (named Angeline). Second, like Laura in Silver Lake, Omakayas is forced to grow up quickly when a serious illness strikes her community, and a significant portion of the latter half of the book deals with her grief at the loss of loved ones. Third, there is, in a way, a similar dichotomy between the outdoorsy life and the “civilized” town life — but in this book “civilization” — represented by the literacy and Christianity taught at a white church in town — isn’t portrayed as inherently better or worthy of substantial sacrifice. Some people in Omakayas’s community decide to attend church and learn to read “chimookoman tracks” (white people writing), but that choice is left up to individuals. Nokomis sums it up: “Take their ways if you need them… but don’t forget your own. You are Anishinabe. Your mother and your grandmother are wolf clan people. Don’t forget” (p.110). The dichotomy is similar, but unlike Laura Omakayas is given a choice about her own destiny. Of course, it remains to be seen how long she’ll have the freedom to make that choice, since the threat of white settlement pushing the Anishinabe further west is murmured about in this book already. (Guess we’ll have to wait till book 2!)

(The “where are they now” for the Anishinabe/Ojibwa will come at the conclusion of the series.)

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much of the differences here can be chalked up to the authors’ different writing styles versus actual differences between white culture and Anishinabe culture… although I know those overlap some, too… but there are definitely some marked differences. Most notable for me are the treatment of children (as mentioned above) and the tone of each author. Author-Laura’s writing is significantly more factual and didactic (lots of little “lessons” built in) and less emotional, while Erdrich’s writing gives us a very personal look inside Omakayas’s thoughts and feelings and personal growth.  I look forward to seeing how these different themes and the spunky characters of Laura and Omakayas progress throughout the books.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 15 & 16 and The Long Winter (LH #6).

Stop Saying that Teachers are Inspirational

This morning on the radio the DJ reported a story about how a Nobel prize winner said he “owed it all to his bassoon teacher“, and then the DJ went on and on about how inspiring teachers are and how the station was going to have a series on inspirational teachers.

Now, I’m very glad that the laureate in question had such a wonderful bassoon teacher. Good for both of them. But I have to say — especially as a former teacher — I am tired of hearing about how “inspirational” teachers are. 

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come we pay them 60% of what we pay their education-level peers?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come so many of them want to escape the profession (and 46% of new teachers leave within 5 years)?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come everyone and their mother thinks they know more about educating children than teachers do?

If teachers are so “inspiring”, how come we degrade the teaching profession by saying things like “those who can do; those who can’t teach” or “you’ve got it easy — you get the summer off”?

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d pay them livable (or even generous!) wages instead of empty applause and flattery for a select few who rise to the top.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d treat them like the co-parents to our children that they are instead of like stupid babysitters who aren’t working hard enough to make sure our kid gets an A.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d let teachers figure out how best to educate our children instead of tying their hands and forcing them to chase an ever-moving and impossibly high bar.

If we truly believed that teachers were inspiring, we’d stop using their love of educating children as an excuse to take advantage of them.

So you can call teachers lots of things. 

Call them “professional”. Call them “educated”. Call them “mentors”. Call them “graceful”. Call them “patient”. Call them “loving”. Call them “thoughtful”. Call them “passionate”. Call them “creative”. Call them “dedicated”. Or, call them “ineffective” or “impatient” or “frustrating.” They’re people — so call them whatever they are.

But don’t call them “inspirational”. That’s just an excuse not to call them “equal”.

In which I’m a (recovering) racist

“So, are you reading any books by Native authors?”

A few days ago, my husband asked me this seemingly innocent question, and I froze in shock.

I had just been filling him in on a little bit of the controversy behind one of the books I’m reading. It’s a book in the Dear America series about a Lakota girl who is sent to a white boarding school, and it’s written by a white woman. I won’t say anymore, because I haven’t read the book yet and I don’t want to spoil anything. But suffice it to say that I was speculating that some of the controversy involves the fact that a white author was asked to write the book instead of a Native author, and she may have made some hurtful generalizations or misrepresentations in her book.

“So lame,” I vented. “They could have gotten any number of Indian authors to write this book and it would have been so much richer. But instead it’s just another instance where white people get to tell the story of Native people. Stupid.”

It was at this point that Daniel made his astute observation.

“Are you reading any books by Native authors for your project?”

The room was still. My wheels were frantically spinning, mentally scanning my reading list, hoping, praying, but alas —

“No, I guess not.”

“Well… isn’t that a little racist?”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, self-proclaimed social justice advocate and truth-in-history enthusiast, embarked on a four-month-long intensive project to learn the “Native side of the story” of American settlement… and I didn’t include a SINGLE book written by an Indigenous person.

Well, let me tell you, I think we can all (especially me) learn a few things from this:

  1. Everyone’s a little bit racist. …or a lot bit. But the point is we all make mistakes. And clearly I will be the first to admit that I do racist things, not to mention benefiting from lots of race-based privileges. (But that’s a whole nother blog post.) Anyway, with personal racism, the important thing is to…
  2. Confess, apologize, and move on. Being called racist is only a mortal insult if you take it personally. But you know — just like any other mistake and/or sin, if you own up and honestly feel sorry, you can ask for forgiveness. And that helps make everything better. Like this: Dear friends, I confess that I am a recovering racist, and I have allowed my white-centric blinders to interfere with my learning and to make my storytelling dishonest. Not only that, but then I pooh-poohed another author for doing the same thing. (I’m also a recovering snooty hypocrite.) Please forgive me. (And thanks to Daniel for being willing to call me a racist!)
  3. Then… make it right! As I mentioned in my last Little House / Wounded Knee installment, I’m adding a few new books to my project. I took this opportunity to do some digging and discovered a wonderful series by Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwa author and fellow Minnesotan, that follows the life of a young girl growing up in 19th-century North America… much like another series I’m reading… so I’ll be reading the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, for next week’s LH/WK. (I’ll also be reading two more in the series, as well as As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie.)

In conclusion — I hope we’ve all learned a lesson about the ubiquity (and addressability) of personal racism. So remember, kids, if I do something racist, please tell me! I’ll probably say thank you! =)

(And now, if you’re following a long with the LH/WK project, back to our regularly scheduled program…)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 10, Bucking Broncos & Beat-downs

In the tenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, black rodeo heroes ride broncos and Indians get repeatedly beaten down. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Black Frontiers

I was excited this week to finally get to read Black Frontiers, a kids’ book (with lots of pictures!) about black Americans on the “frontier” in the late 1800s to early 1900s. There were some cool stories of some pretty tough individuals. My favorite features of this book were:

  1. Jesse_Stahl black cowboy
    Jesse Stahl, widely considered the best bronco-rider of his time.

    All the awesome old photographs! I always love being able to actually look at photos of what life was like for these folks.

  2. The focus on the substantial black community of cowboys and rodeo-ers. I was somewhat exposed to this when I read the Diary of Joshua Loper, but I really enjoyed seeing photographs of real African-American cowboys and rodeo champs, such as Bill Pickett and Jesse Stahl. I didn’t realize that there’s a significant history of black rodeo-ers even today.
  3. The acknowledgement of the mingling between the African-American and Indian communities. There is an entire section devoted to examples of interaction and mixing between Natives and blacks — both free and enslaved (mostly slaves who ran away to enjoy freedom in a Native tribe).

I loved the specific examples in this book. There was even a shout-out to Kansas City Negro League baseball, which is cool because I’ve been to the Negro League museum in KC! Awesome and educational to learn about real people and how they survived (and sometimes thrived!) despite some of the difficulties of this time period.

One thing I didn’t love was that the tone of the book was decidedly pro-settler. I felt uncomfortable at the repeated use of “red men” to describe Indians generally, there was a really long quote from a book that used “r–skin” repeatedly (with no context or disclaimer given), and the book mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers capturing “the dangerous Apache chief Geronimo” (p.57). While I appreciated that the black community was fleshed out, I felt like we got an expanded settler perspective at the expense of perpetuating stereotypes about Indian savagery and Otherness. It could have done better and been more compassionate, I think.

BUT, as I said, I appreciated an expansion of my mental picture of “settler”. Lots of good stories of real life black folks, making it work and thriving on the prairie despite being segregated from most white folks.

Wounded Knee — Three Chapters!

I’ll give a few notes on each of the three chapters I read this week, and then I’ll comment on them as a whole.

Ch. 12 – “The War for the Black Hills”

As the title suggests, this chapter follows the struggle for the Black Hills, focusing around 1874-5.  A previous treaty in 1868 granted the Oglala right of refusal over any whites who would seek to settle in the Black Hills. But when gold was discovered there in 1872,black hills map hundreds of white settlers forced their way in. Their presence was used as justification for why the Indians “needed” to sign a treaty granting the US ownership (or at least mining rights) of the Black Hills, because “we can’t stop the settlers from settling, so you’d better leave so that you can be safe.” 

In an attempt to crack down on “hostile” Indians who would neither sign the treaty nor report to an agency in the dead of winter, General Custer (assisted by Shoshone and Crow scouts) attacked a large hunting group/settlement composed of Oglalas (including Crazy Horse), Brules, Sans Arcs, Blackfoot Sioux, Cheyennes, and Hunkpapas (including Sitting Bull). Brilliant tactician Crazy Horse and Gall, Sitting Bull’s lieutenant, led the defense as Custer and his troops attacked up the Bighorn River. When Gall and the Indian warriors realized that Custer and his men were totally surrounded, they closed in and killed them all. This event is known in history books as “Custer’s Last Stand”, or “the Battle at Little Bighorn”.

The sensational news of an “Indian massacre” spread like wildfire back east, and the US Government lost what little restraint it had. They couldn’t punish Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse or other “hostile” Indians, because they still roamed free, so they cracked down on Indians who were under their control; Indian residents of reservations became “prisoners of war” despite the fact that they had no connection to the battle. Additionally, the US drafted a treaty ceding the Black Hills to the government and “dropped strong hints” that they would “cut off all rations” (p.300) unless captive chiefs signed, so they did.

Roaming bands of soldiers killed off-reservation Indians they encountered out of revenge. Survivors fled to join either Crazy Horse and the Oglalas, or Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapas, who decided to flee to Canada. After constant flight that drove the people to starvation, Crazy Horse and his Oglala-and-friends group surrendered. Crazy Horse was bayoneted and died while resisting imprisonment, and the people were shipped south to a reservation far away from the one they were promised in their home country.

Ch. 13 – “The Flight of the Nez Perces”

nez-perce-map
Dark green = Nez Perce reservation today. Light green = land ceded to US. Brown = Columbia Basin, much of which Nez Perce roamed seasonally.

This chapter began with a bit of history about the Nez Perces’ long-standing friendship with white settlers, beginning with Lewis and Clark (who gave them their name, which means “pierced noses” — even though the Nez Perces don’t practice nose-piercing). This friendship extended for 70 years, during which Nez Perces boasted that “no Nez Perce had ever killed a white man” (p.317).

White settlement and a subsequent treaty resulted in the loss of a large chunk of Nez Perce land, and whites attempted (over the objection of Chief Joseph) to establish a white-run school. However, the discovery of gold in the remainder Nez Perce territory pushed the situation to a boiling point. Men with dollar signs in their eyes spread reports in Washington, DC that the Nez Perces were “a threat to the peace,” and Chief Joseph was told that he and his people had a month to clear out of their remaining small valley to make room for white settlers. Chief Joseph urged his people to go peacefully — but several angry young men killed 11 whites in revenge. The people elected to flee to join Sitting Bull in Canada.

On their flight north, the Nez Perces evaded major conflict with multiple soldier groups who were patrolling the region. Finally, a group of soldiers caught and surrounded them within a few days’ walk of the Canadian border. To ensure the safe conduct of his people, Chief Joseph surrendered. Overnight a determined few Nez Perces slipped away and ran until they found Sitting Bull in Canada, but the majority of the people were shipped not to their promised reservation near their homeland but south, where hundreds died of malaria and heartbreak. Despite imprisonment, Chief Joseph remained an impassioned speaker on behalf of his people:

Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. … I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises. … You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. … I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
          Let me be a free man — free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself — and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty. (p.330)

Despite his Declaration of Independence-like appeals, Chief Joseph lived out his life in exile, deemed too dangerous to be released to join the rest of his people, and died in 1904 of (according to the physician) “a broken heart”. (p.330)

Ch. 14 – “Cheyenne Exodus”

This chapter follows the Northern Cheyenne, and can be summed up pretty well by two statements from two N. Cheyenne chiefs:

All we ask is to be allowed to live, and live in peace. … We bowed to the will of the Great Father [President] and went south. There we found a Cheyenne cannot live. So we came home. Better it was, we thought, to die fighting than to perish of sickness. … You may kill me here; but you cannot make me go back. We will not go. The only way to get us there is to come in here with clubs and knock us on the head, and drag us out and take us down there dead. (Dull Knife, N. Cheyenne – p.332)

We have been south and suffered a great deal down there. Many have died of diseases which we have no name for. Our hearts looked and longed for this country where we were born. There are only a few of us left, and we only wanted a little ground, where we could live. We left our lodges standing, and ran away in the night. The troops followed us. I rode out and told the troops we did not want to fight; we only wanted to go north, and if they would let us alone we would kill no one. They only reply we got was a volley [of gunfire]. After that we had to fight our way, but we killed none who did not fire at us first. My brother, Dull Knife, took one-half of the band and surrendered near Fort Robinson. … They gave up their guns, and then the whites killed them all. (Little Wolf, N. Cheyenne – p.331)

After the surviving Northern Cheyennes were corralled, they were transferred to Fort Keogh, where many enlisted as Army scouts. Noted one Cheyenne scout, “For a long time we did not do much except to drill and work at getting out logs from of the timber. … I learned to drink whiskey at Fort Keogh.” (p.348)

A few thoughts…

In terms of the story arc of this book’s window of Indian history, I can tell that we’re approaching the climax/end. It’s clear that the conflict at Little Bighorn was a major turning point in US-Indian relations, resulting in the loss of any appearance of fairness or need for justification on behalf of the US Government. The Army increasingly flattened all Indian peoples into a savage stereotype crystallized by reports of the massacre at Little Bighorn. Out of necessity many tribes were forced to somewhat flatten and fuse into conglomerate multi-tribes — survivors banding together to grasp at any straw that might mean a peaceful home. But we see that the US is increasingly determined that no Indian will be able to have a free and peaceful existence. As I read through the twists and turns of the Nez Perce flight to Canada, the feeling of claustrophobia was palpable. There is no escape anymore.

And what awaits Indians once they are caught or surrender? Either death, if they resist at all (like Crazy Horse), or a sedentary life of enforced inactivity and boredom. I’m no longer surprised that the Native community on reservations has struggled with alcoholism, suicide, and depression. When you are consistently viewed as inhuman by your oppressors; when you get dogged attention when you’re an obstacle and no attention to the point of starvation when you comply; when your hard-fought submission to the powers that be is then turned back on you as an example of your own nuisance and worthlessness; when you are told that you can’t live peacefully on your land, can’t hunt, can’t farm, can’t have a gun, can’t have a horse, can’t visit anywhere else because you can’t leave the Rez, and most of all you can’t bother the Authorities even if you’re starving — but you CAN sit on the Rez and drink whiskey — well, when you’re that beaten-down and restricted, you’re really vulnerable and that’s not a very healthy place to be stuck in.

It’s just…. broken. And hopeless.

Conclusion

I cannot overstate the feeling of weightiness and long, incessant bludgeoning that I get from reading about all of this trauma and oppression — and I’ve only covered from 1860-1880 so far! I mean, yeah, I’m an empathetic reader, but honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could survive this amount of historical and cultural and PERSONAL trauma and still be able to get up in the morning. I feel inadequate and speechless to describe the chasm that I feel from the mere echo of the stories of these many First Nations and their people’s lives.

The Nez Perces and N. Cheyenne: Where are they now?

I decided to end with this so it would be a little less hopeless. Also, the Oglalas and Hunkpapas play a big role in later chapters, so we’ll save them for later.

After many deaths from malaria in the south, the Nez Perce people were allowed to return to the Lapwai Reservation, closer to their homeland in the northwest. Today the federally-recognized Nez Perce Nation still inhabits that area, which is located in present-day north-central Idaho and is home to 18,000 Nez Perce. Additionally, descendants of the “Chief Joseph group” of Nez Perce (kept in exile from the rest of their kin) today live on the Colville Reservation in present-day north-central Washington with 11 other tribes. You can read more about the Nez Perce here.

The Northern Cheyenne were eventually granted a piece of land on the Tongue River in present-day southeastern Montana for their reservation. Today that land is the modern Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, home to about half of the 10,000 enrolled tribal members. I also noted that the N. Cheyenne reservation encompasses part of Custer National Forest and is only 20 miles from the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn (aka “Battle of Greasy Grass”, to the Lakota). You can read more about the Northern Cheyenne here.

Tune in next week for By the Shores of Silver Lake (LH #5) and The Birchbark House (Birchbark #1). (And watch for a note about this new addition to my list…)

Albert Einstein or Bob Roepke? Condi Rice or Virma Behnke?

In history class, children see and learn about the most famous people in modern history.

  • Albert Einstein
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Henry Ford
  • etc.

So the children’s imaginations of what it means to grow up and make a difference in the world are sculpted to envision success and impact of cosmic proportions.

Maybe 0.001% of the kids who learn about all these famous history figures will ever become as famous and important as them.

The rest of them (us) (ME) get to be 25, realize they haven’t and never will live up to that bloated sense of what it means to do good, then face a quarter-life crisis, their ideals erode, depression, whining, and all other sorts of first-world-problems ensue.

What if we spent 25-50% of our history classes teaching kids about women and men in their local and state communities? People like:

  • Bob Roepke, former mayor of Chaska, board member of every local nonprofit ever, who has devoted his life to things like education & anti-homelessness / affordable housing, etc., making Chaska a great place to live and raise a family no matter what your income level.
  • Virma Behnke, a cultural liaison for Chaska middle schools who helps struggling minority students to get the support they need at home to succeed in school by working with organizations like Love INC to make sure students have things like beds to sleep in and their parents can find some employment. (Oh, and she’s a mom, too!)

Methinks that perhaps, without robbing our youth of the notion that Abe and Ghandi scale impact is possible, we could also be showing them that even Virma and Bob scale impact is also incredible and powerful and worthy to be the stuff of one’s life.

 

Disclaimers / Clarification:

  • I — not my elementary school — am responsible for my (bloated) outlook on life and what it means to succeed / meaningfully contribute. I’m not intending to shirk responsibility for this.
  • I am fully aware that I, like so so many, am spewing my opinionated thoughts about how education should work. Dear every teacher/administrator I ever have known: You probably know better than me about how to teach kids to dream well. I’m just thinking out loud, that’s all.
  • “Local” itself isn’t really the point. “Medium scale” is the point. “Attainable by more than 5% of people” is the point. I should probably have added some person who went abroad and did small/medium-scale helpful things too. Meh. You get the point.