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.

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2 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 12, Long Winter & Legality

  1. Thanks for another great post. I think your analysis of all the ridiculousness was really good, and I appreciated reading it. It is totally crazy (and wrong!) that the government was encouraging [white] law-breakers while illegally persecuting [Indian] law-abiding people. And the irony/hypocrisy of the way some whites were trying to “civilize” or “Christianize” the Indians is just soooooooo frustrating.

    Like

  2. CarissaLick Yep. It’s sort of like history turns into this crazy carnival funhouse thing with wiggly mirrors. It’s pretty surreal! And yet, that’s part of our nation’s history. Wacky.

    Like

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