Your Chewing Gum is Made of Plastic, and Other Things I Didn’t Know

In this post, I finally read about how plastic is hiding in plain sight in all SORTS of things that we wouldn’t expect, and why that’s kinda not good. Curious? Let’s dive in!

Plastic Kills

Plastic Free - Beth TerryToday I’m reporting back on Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry.

The impetus for this book is the author’s experiencing of one day stumbling upon a photo on the internet of a baby albatross. It was dead and had decomposed to the point where you could see inside its ribcage… to the stomach full of plastic pellets. Its parents had tried to feed it, but they unknowingly fed it so many tiny plastic bits (that looked like fish eggs) that the baby bird starved to death.

plastic bird stomach
Not the same photo, but a similar one.

I mean, it’s pretty horrific, if you think about it: starving to death because you’re filling your stomach with something it can never process. Ugh.

It was an emotionally impactful moment for the author, and she decided to start exploring plastic: What was it? Where was it? Why didn’t it eventually go away? How did it relate to her? This book is the result of that questioning process.

So… what about plastic?

There is SO much information in this book — I could never remember it all, but thankfully the book is organized as sort of a reference manual, so I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. Here are some of the main “big picture” things I learned:

  • Most plastic NEVER goes away. EVER. To me, this is the same kind of “whoa”-ness as when I read the very first book in this project (like a million years ago) and realized that we have NO safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. We also have NO safe way to dispose of most plastic because IT NEVER BIODEGRADES. Like, when we think of decomposition, it’s not just that stuff sits around and slowly vanishes, it’s literally being chemically broken down by other organisms — basically eaten. So when a tree log decomposes, it’s becoming fungi food. Or when an animal decomposes, it becomes fly food. But most plastic doesn’t EVER decompose, because it’s not anything’s food!
  • Plastic’s longevity (aka FOREVER) is surprising considering our “disposable” attitude toward it. It’s cheap to make… so we feel like it’s “disposable” — but again, it NEVER goes away! Every bit of plastic that’s ever been made is still present SOMEwhere on the earth, as Wikipedia cites, “down to the molecular level.” So that plastic spoon I used to eat my soup after church this morning? I threw it away after using it once, but it’ll still be here — unchanged — when I’m dead. I will turn to dirt before that spoon does. And I used it once. As the author puts it, “Why create disposable containers and packaging out of a material that lasts forever?” (p.28) Well, because…
  • Plastic is flexible (literally) and cheap, so we give it a low value. Many objects in our society are valued based on the rarity of the material or the time or skill it took to make the item. Since plastic is in high supply and easy to mass-produce, that means we think of it as cheap — and it is cheap, monetarily and temporarily. But it’s costly in the long run, because someday we’re going to have to deal with all this non-biodegradable, non-edible, chemical-absorbing matter with which we’re blanketing our planet…
  • But can’t we recycle??? Well… only to a point. Recycling is toted as an environmental “solution,” but the problem is that each time we re-formulate a recycled material (whether paper or plastic), it’s lower and lower quality (it’s called “downcycling”) until eventually it won’t hold together anymore and needs to be discarded. The problem is that even after that much use, remember, plastic is still a polymer (aka holding together) at the molecular level — so even once we can’t recycle it anymore it’s still plastic and it will still last forever.
  • Things I didn’t know were made of plastic: most fabric (“synthetic” = made of plastic), every writing utensil I own, most carpet, many glues, books (plastic coated cover paper), toilet paper (ouch), and even chewing gum (p.206) – GROSS.

WOOF. I don’t know about you, but that feels a leeeeeetle bit terrifying. It’s so ubiquitous, and it’s never going away.

And you know what? I can’t honestly say anything to make it better. There’s not really a “happy ending” to this book…

So NOW what?

Despite the looming-ness of the plastic problem, this book does a GREAT job of keeping a positive, encouraging, non-shaming tone, which is important when you’re dealing with a topic where your reader realizes they are literally CLOTHED IN the problem. It can feel really overwhelming. But Beth Terry really takes time to say, “Hey — small steps. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t get paralyzed.” I really appreciate that about this book — it’s so user-friendly and accessible.

That said, and while I really do support personal steps to be thoughtful about plastic consumption, as Barack Obama is quoted as saying at the conclusion of this book, “We can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed the lightbulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” (p.309)

Yes, we started composting at our house. Yes, I stopped buying new clothing and have tried to shop only at thrift stores or on Craigslist for already-made items. Yes, we buy in bulk from the co-op using reusable containers as much as we can. Yes, I’ve been more aware when I’m using or buying a plastic object. Yes, I’ve even started washing out and reusing plastic Ziploc bags, even though I hate the smooshy feeling of washing warm, wet plastic.

BUT. Two things.

  1. Not everyone can afford to do those things. (Heck, not everyone even has access to a grocery store let alone a co-op.)
  2. Washing my plastic bags won’t save the world.

It’s REALLY important to remember that for things this big, change comes both at the personal level AND at the big, systematic level. I really like one idea from the book: the personal changes are daily reminders and conversation starters in the pursuit of bigger, wider change.

And especially because, as I learned in All Our Relations, environmental issues often disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of color, it is IMPERATIVE that we not buy a $30 zero-plastic water bottle, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleeping well at night. Environmentalism is not about assuaging our personal anxiety; it’s about working to care well for our fellow Earthlings (and ourselves!) on a large scale.

Conclusion

To me, one of the biggest messages of this book is that even when something is “out of sight, out of mind” it still has an impact. When we put something in the trash (or even in the recycling), we forget about it. It’s done. But “trash” doesn’t mean “gone” — we can’t discard something outside the environment. Likewise, just because I don’t live on an Indian reservation or in Flint, Michigan doesn’t mean I can shut my ears and go back to my nice, clean tap water. Life is relational; ecosystems are relational; so our environmentalism needs to be relational, too, and advocate for all our relations.

Meta-Conclusion

Well, folks, that’s the end! I’ve completed my investigation into Imperial Geography (for now). I answered my questions about why the US government offered tree claims to homesteaders, what happened to the land when European settlers came en masse to Turtle Island, and why environmentalism matters for real people today. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’ll come right along with me as I dive into my next reading / learning / blogging project… which I’ll tell you about in another post. 😉

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about — I know I’ve got plenty. Thanks for reading along with me!  ~Rebekah

[EDIT] P.S. Want to join in the next reading project? Here’s the first post!

The World Through the Lens of “All Our Relations”

This week in Imperial Geography, I learn where we dump all the waste that no one wants… and why just reducing our carbon footprint isn’t gonna cut it. Intrigued? Then let’s dive in!

All Our Relations

all our relations - winona ladukeWhen I first planned out this project (now over a year ago, woof!) I was really excited to take a tour around the continent through the eyes of Winona LaDuke in her All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life.  I know she is a well-known political activist, and I was expecting exciting and powerful stories of daring protests and demonstrations.

But that’s not what I got. What I got was an eye-opening spotlight into why environmental issues are so vital to many Native communities and activists.

We put… what? Where?

Remember wayyyyyy back in my very first book of this project, when the geography textbook I read freaked me out about nuclear (and other undisposable) waste?

Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Well, here I am at All Our Relations, and yes, I have learned more. I wondered where all the waste no one wants near them goes in this country, and the answer is, it goes to Indian reservations.

Incredulous? I was, too. But one thing this book doesn’t skimp on is examples. Here are just a few:

  • “According to the Worldwatch Institute, 317 reservations in the United States are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.” (p.2 — yes, she hits you with that on PAGE TWO!)
  • “Today, an estimated 25 percent of all North American industry is located on or near the Great Lakes, all of which are drained by the St. Lawrence River.That puts the Akwesasne [Mohawk] Reservation downstream from some of the most lethal and extensive pollution on the continent.” (p.15) This has led to Mohawk mothers having contaminated breast milk. The “progress” so far on this is that GM agreed to dredge some of the gunk out of the river… and then shipped it off “to some unlucky community in Utah” (p.23).
  • In Florida, “America has lost half of its wetlands… due to agricultural conversion” (p.30), and the now-rare Florida panthers are being slowly killed off by infertility due to acute mercury poisoning.
  • In Canada, a US Air Force base runs test flights low over the forest where the Innu live, creating “sonic booms” that are “generally exactly at or above the human pain threshold of 110 decibels” and “produce a constant shock wave, traveling along the ground like the wake of a boat over water” that can “lift the water off the lake and tip a canoe and can drive animals insane: foxes have been known to eat their kits, geese to drop their eggs midflight, as a consequence of the sonic boom.” (p.55)

And these are just the first few chapters! As I read through case study after case study of governments and corporations dumping their unwanted chemicals/sound/industry/etc. onto or near Native peoples and Native land (what’s left of it), I started to see why environmentalism isn’t just a fad for many Indian folks: environmental issues are literally killing them. LaDuke sums up this urgency well: “We are the ones who stand up to the land eaters, the tree eaters, the destroyers and culture eaters” (p3).

Seriously — what’s more innocent and natural than a woman breastfeeding her baby? And yet that, too, has been made poisonous. As LaDuke writes in the chapter on poisoned rivers and contaminated breastmilk, “Women are the first environment” (p18). It’s atrocious to think about our waste causing a Mohawk woman to poison her own child.

And why does this keep happening to them? Because in a country where they make up like 1% of the population Native peoples and nations are relatively powerless to stop it. LaDuke does share stories of lawsuits and protests and attempts to get companies and/or governments to respect their sovereignty and treaty rights, and there is a little hope… but it feels like a very David-and-Goliath sort of a battle.

The Mirage of “Clean Energy”

Another huge theme in this book is that the solution isn’t just about limiting ourselves. I kept being like “Okay, so THAT kind of energy isn’t ‘clean’ either… so what’s left?”

But that made me realize that the point isn’t finding an unlimited energy source that keeps our hands clean in terms of environmental sustainability — the point is that we place our desire for unlimited energy and productivity above all else. We only question HOW we will get “all the energy we need”, not WHETHER we actually “need” it.

So the core of the environmentalist conflict, for LaDuke, is not “clean energy vs dirty energy”, or even “conservationism vs extinction” — the conflict is really about an extractionist, resource-based view of the earth and nature versus one that views the earth as an entity in its own right. This giant paradigm shift is summarized well by this passage:

There is no way to set a price on this way of life. That simple truth more than anything else encapsulates the Anishinaabeg [Ojibwe] people’s struggle with the federal government, the miners, and the logging companies. For the past hundred years, Native people have been saying that their way of life, their land, their trees, their very future, cannot be quantified and are not for sale. And for that same amount of time, government and industry accountants have been picking away, trying to come up with a formula to compensate Indians for the theft of their lands and livelihoods. So long as both remain steadfast, there appears to be little hope for a meeting of minds in the next generation.” (p116)

Rather than urging us to exercise self-control within the existing energy-consuming paradigm, LaDuke calls us to completely transform our relationship with the earth. Instead of our current linear, resource-focused, consumeristic, anthropocentric worldview, she offers a more indigenous perspective — one that holds a more spiritual, holistic, circular, relational attitude toward life and the earth.

“When you step on one strand of a spider web, it all moves.” (p191)
“We are walking upon the faces of those yet to come.” (Iroquois teaching, p.194)

Conclusion

As I think I said at the start of this project, I never expected to be an environmentalist. I always thought environmentalism was like a hippie white people thing about saving the whales, and it seemed rather irrational and pointless to me, because humans > whales. What this book really cements for me is, (1) it’s really important to listen to people’s concerns without writing them off, because when you choose to care for the person by listening it lets you in to what really matters to them, and (2) environmental issues are less about restraint (aka only driving one car instead of two, or killing fewer whales) and more about fundamentally rethinking how our society and culture view our earth (aka why is our society car-based, and why do we feel we need to extract so much energy from the earth?). I’m excited to get practical with the last two books in this project!

Next up: Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World.

‘Grassland’: The Power and Flaws of the American Environmentalist Movement

This week, on Imperial Geography… my conflicted thoughts about Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning. Let’s dive in!

grassland - richard manningSo, I was actually really excited to read this book, because compared to Prairie, which seemed a lot more scientific, this book seemed like it was going to be really political, and I was excited for an alternate viewpoint. What I got was half a book of pretentious white liberal nonsense and half a book of excellent enviro-economic insights about American culture in general and the American environmentalist movement in particular.

Let me explain.

The Bad News

The book is written as a sort of creative nonfiction travel memoir, from the point of view of the author, as he travels through (mostly) Montana. The first half of the book is devoted primarily to exploring the history of the prairie — mainly the western prairie, since he’s based in Montana — through the people he meets as he drives around to talk to them. This sounds fine and harmless, but I was consistently frustrated by a couple things:

1. No Native people

Despite the fact that the first part of the book is all about the history of the prairie / Montana, Manning talks to a total of ZERO Indians! I kept waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and there was some mystical Indian hearsay (“I once heard a Native man quoted as saying…”, p.34)… and there was one part where he talked about talking to this old white rancher lady about an old Indian who used to live nearby but left… but that was the closest he got. SERIOUSLY??? Dude — yes, the original inhabitants of what is now Montana were forced off their land and into reservations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY left! I just Googled “Indian reservations in Montana” and there are seven scattered throughout the state. Seven! According to the state of Montana’s video about Indian nations (which I would recommend, BTW), there are over 65,000 Native people living in Montana. That means, Mr. Manning, that in a state of about a million total people Natives make up over 6% of the total population — well above the national average. And you couldn’t even find ONE to talk to about the history of the prairie???

Considering my previous reading — and my own blind spot with regard to including Native voices in said reading project — I get it. It’s easy to be a part of the national “leaving out” of Indians and Indian history, because “every(white)body does it”. BUT here’s the thing. Manning does include a pretty substantial bit about Native people at the end of the book, so you’d think he would have thought to question (or ask for input about) the lack of Natives in the rest of the book. We can’t personally check all our flaws — but we can and should surround ourselves with people to help us check them, and Manning missed a big opportunity here and contributed to the continued erasure of Native voices from the national discourse.

2. Unquestioned manifest destiny writing

In addition to literally leaving Native voices out of the first half of the book, I was frequently frustrated by the author writing things that seemed really pro-colonization or Euro-centric and leaving them completely unquestioned within the narrative. For example, after quoting US General Sheridan’s opinion that buffalo hide hunters who were exterminating the buffalo herds “have done more… to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years” (p.85), Manning then attempts to soften the impact of this quote on the readers: “It is easy to make too much of a statement such as this, as if the extermination of the bison were the product of a willed agenda” (p.85). Clearly Manning anticipates reader outrage at the government / army and is proactively deflecting that outrage and explaining it as “Industrialization drives extermination” (p.86). I agree with that statement in the context that industrialization dehumanizes people and incentivizes production over humanity, but that doesn’t take away the fact that the “vexed Indian question” was one that both the US government and the people who comprised it all were bent on “settling”. Putting the issue into abstraction ignores, but doesn’t erase, the real felt feelings and impacts.

Then on top of defensive language about white settlement, we see a double standard emerge. In a section explaining the irony that white settlers decided to teach Native people how to farm when many Indians had been farming the land long before white settlers came, we read this: “William Least Heat Moon, in PrairyErth, speculates: ‘Surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions'” (p.98). While Manning is uncomfortable with readers extrapolating any sort of larger intention from General Sheridan’s statement, he’s apparently fine with implying that Indians conspired to withhold information from white settlers. Yes, the conspiracy of the Indians could reflect more favorably on them, since it would be an act of active resistance — but STILL. The evidence for this is (a) described as “speculation” and (b) not given any particular source. In contrast, the buffalo hide quote is from a general in the US Army — by name — in his exact words. Seems like a lot of acrobatics to keep the US government clean.

3. Land / Science > Native people

It’s weird, but as I was reading through this book, I kept feeling like Manning was trying so hard to personify and dignify the land that he eclipsed Native people. Like he’d throw in a mystical Indian quote in order to serve his personified land thesis, but not talk to Indians about the history of colonization of them and the land. Or he’d talk about the land teaching us (Americans / white colonists) stuff, like science, but completely skip over any discussion of Native people’s learning from and relationship with the land. It just felt like there was this weird huge gap where Indians SHOULD be in this book.

Additionally, this book (especially the first half) is full of that particular science-worshiping humanism that I find frequently coincides with white male privilege, especially in nerd culture. This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, so I’ll just summarize by saying this: Go watch Star Trek: The Next Generation — even just the first episode — and watch Picard defend the “nobility of humanity” and the progress associated with science and the ever-present expansion of the “frontier” (which, by the way, implies that space exploration is a moral and natural outgrowth of westward manifest destiny expansion in the US — whoa.). That’s what I’m talking about. In this book, it shows up in little side comments like “Science is eventually self-correcting” (p.100) and “eventually the wanderings of the plains built a national tradition of science. Credit this to the power of the land” (p.100). It’s as if Manning is implying that the genocide of Native people was just “part of the circle of life” and “the Native people were gone, but at least the land remained to teach us (white Americans) things” and “at least we ended up at science”. Just plain false and bothersome, not to mention icky-feeling.

So basically, the first 150 pages of this book were like pulling teeth for me to read. Let’s just say there are many all-caps sentences scrawled furiously in my notes. But thankfully for my investment in reading this book, the last 130 pages were a lot more positive.

The Good News

It’s clear to me as a reader that the second part of the book, in which Manning begins his diatribe about modern environmental degradation, is where he really begins to hit his stride. To me, it felt like he had always wanted to write the second half of the book and he tacked on the first half to add length and/or make it cooler and more pretentious.

Anyway, the last 130 pages — especially the last 50 — of this book yielded some FANTASTIC insights about our national relationship to the land and the history of the American environmentalism movement. Here are the highlights:

1. Nature is not meant to be pristine

Through a brief history of the creation of the first national parks and forest preserves, Manning effectively argued that the early American environmentalist movement grew from a dualism that separated humans/civilization from nature and preserved nature by keeping it in a pristine little roped-off area for humans’ enjoyment. This coincides with the popular romanticization in the early 1900s of nature, Indian “noble savages”, and childhood — as the author notes, literature at the time frequently equated childhood with “savage” freedom in nature, “as if the state of nature is appreciated only by the unschooled and unspoiled minds of children and Indians” (p.201). In reality, however, nature is not pristine, Indians are neither savage nor uncivilized, and all we humans are a part of the natural world and not its observers in some sort of nature park museum gallery. This point really hit home with me, and I find myself still turning over in my “rock tumbler” of a brain because it’s just so deep into our national narrative.

2. Farming was/is viewed as war with the land

Manning frames settlement as an effort of Europeans to impose an unnatural, measured logic on the land, symbolized by the attempts of early American surveyors to literally map the land into squares (aka “rectilinear cadastral grid”. Look it up, I had to!). Additionally, Manning notes that “throughout prairie literature [e.g. Willa Cather], the landscape is the rock on which European pieties founder” (199) and paints a picture of imposing monocultural wheat (European grass) farming onto the prairie as unnatural, dominating, unsustainable, and even violent. To support this endeavor, government agencies were created to be “in the refuge business” and bend nature to our collective economic will. Manning argues that the Fish and Wildlife Service preserves “have amounted to little more than duck farms,” while “the US Forest Service exists to produce trees; the Bureau of Land Management, to produce grass for cows; and the National Park Service, to produce scenery and rubber tomahawk stores for tourists” (p.248). In this way, the environmentalist impulse in the United States has grown from the dualist view of nature as pristine entertainment into nature as commodity made to serve our economic engine of environmental exploitation even in its preservation.

Interestingly, and in probably the most powerful section of the whole book, Manning uses this idea to challenge the animal rights movement, who questioned the revival of buffalo ranching as a more sustainable alternative to cattle ranching:

The animal-rights movement is urban and derives from people who follow civilization’s idea of progress as it is removed from nature. In their epithets aimed at [a buffalo rancher], we can hear an ancient accusation, the same the Chinese leveled at the Mongol nomad and the same the Jeffersonian yeoman [farmer] leveled at the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Sioux. We hear the epithet: “Barbarian.”

…Why is it unethical to kill and eat a bison when all the rest of the bison and all the prairie life they stand for will go on? Why is it ethical, in the name of rights, to save a few bison in parks and zoos and eat instead wheat, to turn loose the plow that ensures, above all else, that nothing goes on? Why is the plowman not the barbarian simply because no one sees the blood on his hands? (p.245-246, emphasis added)

Essentially here, Manning argues that mass industrialized farming, which completely destroys the prairie ecosystem, is simply a more palatable and “civilized” destruction parallel to but less visible than the European settlers’ destruction of bison herds in the first place. We are appalled at the images of bison hunters standing on mountains of buffalo skulls, and we are appalled at images of mass graves at Wounded Knee, but we’re not appalled seeing images of farmers plowing up the prairie. Manning, I would argue, views them as inextricably linked pieces of the same destruction. He goes on to advocate a new kind of ethic:

The “ethic” that civilization would impose on the land is as artificially derived as the chemical fertilizers it would impose on a corn field. Aldo Leopold began tackling this notion a couple of generations ago with a call for a land ethic, which we took to mean an exhortation for an ethical treatment of the land. This has been the impetus for conservation.

But I think he meant to call for something deeper: an ethic derived from the land. Harley Frank [chief of the Blood Blackfoot, who celebrated the return of the buffalo to their land] had it right to assert that the return of the bison marked the return of the power of his people. Power, when it derives from the land, is a land ethic. (p.246, emphasis added)

Conclusion

So, while this book started out pretty shaky and questionably for me, it came home to end in some pretty thought-provoking and challenging ideas. All in all, a powerful reminder that humans are just a part of God’s creation, not separate from it, and that we are called to live with the land and all creatures, not divide it into boxes for our exploitation and profit.

Next up – All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke. And I’ll try to finish this one a little faster! …especially since I’m already brewing my next reading project… =)

I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas… There is Just One Thing I Need… Justice.

Hey friends!

So if you happen to be my Facebook friend, you’ve probably noticed a lot of pictures of me in a dress over the last week. That’s because… I’ve been posting a lot of pictures of myself in a dress (or more specifically, dresses) all week. The reason? It’s DRESSEMBER!!

dressember days 1-5 2014

Dressember is a month-long fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to fight slavery and trafficking, especially slavery and trafficking of women and girls. (Hence the dresses.) Funds raised will go to International Justice Mission, which is:

ijm logoBasically, they’re my heroes. They fight for freedom and dignity for women, children, and men, and they do it even in long, boring court proceedings and endless piles of paperwork. (Seriously, if you’ve never dug into IJM, check them out. They have some SERIOUS bad-guy-busting chops.)

Anyway — so here I am at the end of Week 1 of Dressember, and I have currently raised $85. If you have some dollars floating around that need a home, I — and more importantly IJM — and more importantly, the folks IJM works for — would love if you would add those dollars to the fight for justice for women and girls!

You can donate to me specifically at my Dressember page. Or, if you want, donate to the team I’m on, which is a few of us ladies from my church doing Dressember together. My personal goal is $300 (but I’d love to beat it!) and our team goal is $2000 — so please consider chipping in!

OR, if you don’t have any dollars floating around, or if your floaty dollars need to float in another direction but you still want to support Dressember/IJM, consider donating your social media juice! Share this blog post, or share my donate page, and tell your friends why you support the mission of IJM. Then THEY can send THEIR floaty dollars — and it doesn’t cost you a thing!

International Justice Mission is working like crazy to provide much-needed advocacy to end slavery — so thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider financial and/or moral support of this incredibly important cause!

 

1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

Since my last post it’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)

What I Expected to Find…

1491 charles c mannWhen I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what the earth looked like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.

Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:

  • What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
  • The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
  • A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).

One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:

Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)

To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.

What I Didn’t Expect…

Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.

Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70’s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)

Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:

  • Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed  maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
  • Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
  • Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.

Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.

Confession Time

Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke  book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?

At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).

My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”. 

There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.

Conclusion

Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.

Next up: a book that Charles Mann references in 1491 — William Cronon’s  Changes in the Land. Hopefully it won’t take me three months this time! =)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 13, Boarding Schools & B.S.

In the thirteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, I read a crappy book, a good book, and a fantastic critical review, and I finally meet Geronimo. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

My Heart Is On the Ground is a crappy book.

my heart is on the ground cover ann rinaldi
Do not pay money for this book!

There’s just no other way to say it, folks. Despite the fact that I knew there was some controversy surrounding this book, I tried to come at it with an open mind. I’ve actually read 8-10 other books by Ann Rinaldi, who is a prolific author of children’s historical fiction, and I really liked some of them. So I really, really tried to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

But once I started reading, there was no denying the awfulness.

From the start of the novel, where Rinaldi has the protagonist, Nannie Little Rose, write her “die-eerie” in stereotypical broken “Indian English”, to the afterword, where Rinaldi says of the Carlisle Indian School children whose gravestones inspired her to create this novel, “I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it” (p.196) — this novel is just bad.

And not only is it bad — it’s just plain fake.

The whole time I was reading, my Spidey senses were tingling. Wouldn’t Nannie say “Lakota” and not “Sioux”? Why did she just blame her chiefs for giving away their land? Did she just describe white people as “very powerful” and say that “They know almost everything on the earth’s surface and in the heavens, also!” (p.7) ?? (No, I did not make that up.)

When I got to the end, I immediately read a review of the book co-authored by Debbie Reese (who runs the blog American Indian Children’s Literature) and eight other native and non-native women. And there, I learned that my Spidey senses had been right.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I will simply excerpt some of Ms. Reese & co’s fantastic article below. I strongly recommend reading the review in its entirety, as it is impressively thorough and very educational in and of itself. (All quotes below are from the above-linked article by Reese & co. All emphasis is mine.)

In response to Rinaldi’s depiction of Native children wanting to stay at Carlisle rather than go home with their parents:

In her autobiography, Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi) remembers that parents taught their children to play a game similar to hide-and-seek to avoid being taken away to boarding school. In Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940, Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe) reports:

“The most painful story of resistance to assimilation programs and compulsory school attendance laws involved the Hopis in Arizona, who surrendered a group of men to the military rather than voluntarily relinquish their children. The Hopi men served time in federal prison at Alcatraz” (p. 13).

Many children died at Carlisle, and they died running away from the institution. Child (1995), in her study of boarding schools, found that running away was a universal thread that ran across boarding schools and across generations. Physical and emotional abuse, including sexual abuse, is well documented in the stories of survivors of the boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Children were beaten and worse for not understanding English, for speaking their languages, for minor infractions of military rule, for running away, even for grieving. Many died of illnesses, many died of abuse, and many died of broken hearts.
On Rinaldi’s appropriation and story-invention of the names of the children who died at Carlisle:
Appropriation of our lives and literatures is nothing new. Our bodies and bones continue to be displayed in museums all over the U.S. and Canada. For the last hundred years, many of our traditional stories have been turned into books for children without permission and with little if any respect given to their origins or sacred content. Now, Rinaldi has taken this appropriation of Native lives and stories one step further. That she would take the names of real Native children from gravestones and make up experiences to go with them is the coldest kind of appropriation. These were children who died lonely and alone, without their parents to comfort them. They were buried without proper ceremony in this lonely and sad place. Native people who visit the cemetery today express a profound sense of sadness.
On Rinaldi’s lack of both accuracy and cultural authenticity:
Contrary to Rinaldi’s statement in the historical note that “most of the graduates were able to earn a living away from the reservation,” and “others went on to higher education,” evidence points to the opposite. Earning a living “away from the reservation” meant going into Indian service and working on a reservation or agency— or in one of the dozens of off-reservation boarding schools modeled after Carlisle. And very few children graduated. Of the total population of 10,000, only 758 students—or fewer than 10%—graduated. More students ran away than graduated—1,758 runaways are documented.
The events in My Heart Is On the Ground are not plausible. In 1880, a Lakota child of the protagonist’s age would have been well-educated by her aunties and grandmothers in Lakota tradition and lore, and ways of seeing the world and behaving in right relation to it. She would probably have had younger children to care for, as well as older sisters in her extended family, her tiospaye, to emulate.
A Lakota child in 1880 would not have referred to herself as “Sioux.” (beginning at p. 6) It is a French corruption of an enemy-name used by the Ojibwe. She would have referred to herself by her band (Sicangu) or location (Spotted Tail Agency) or from a much smaller familial group, her tiospaye. And she would certainly not have referred to Indian men as “braves.”
On putting stereotypes in a Native protagonist’s mouth:
Throughout, Rinaldi uses stereotyped language to express Lakota (or “Indian”) speech and thought patterns. These include over-emphasis on compound words (e.g., “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us,” “Time-That-Was-Before,” “night-middle-made”) to “sound Indian,” when there is no basis for such use. For instance, Rinaldi makes up the term “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us” as Nannie’s word for “interpreter.” Yet there is a Lakota word for “interpreter”: iyeska, literally, one who speaks well. The original term meant “translator,” since most translators at the time were the mixed-blood children of Indian women and white traders.
In response to every possible objection:
Individuals in the field of children’s literature may dismiss our concerns and ask, “But is it a good book?” We think not. From a literary perspective, it lacks consistency and logic. As a work of historical fiction, it is rife with glaring factual errors. As a work of “multicultural” literature, it lacks authenticity.
Seriously, folks — I cannot overstate the awfulness and potential damaging-ness of this book. Please, if you ever see someone about to read it, kindly say to them, “I’ve heard there are some major inaccuracies in that book…” and then send them a link to AICL’s review. (Here it is again, just to keep it handy.) There are WAY better books about both young Native people and the history of Indian boarding schools.
Speaking of which…

A great children’s book about Indian boarding schools

As a native-authored counterpoint to Rinaldi’s disasterpiece, I grabbed a copy of Larry Loyie’s As Long as the Rivers Flow. This beautifully illustrated (and autobiographical) children’s book tells the story of Larry’s last summer before being sent away to boarding school.

larry loyie family illustration
Larry & family (dad, siblings, grandparents) as the kids imitate their owl

This might be like any other “I’m gonna miss my family while I’m away at school” book… except that Larry’s parents were forced by the Canadian government to send him to a mission school for First Nations children or be jailed.

While the bulk of the book focuses on Larry’s time spent with his family (including siblings nursing a baby owl back to health and grandma shooting dead a huge grizzly bear), the epilogue includes photos and biographical information about the time that Larry and his siblings spent attending St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Alberta.

You may remember from early on in the Little House series that I have previously struggled with how and when children should be told about difficult events. What most impressed me about this book is how truthfully AND appropriately it teaches children about an important topic in our history.

This book was the perfect truthful antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s fake stuff. Difficult truth > easy lies.

Wounded Knee Ch. 17

In this chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we pick up with the Chiricahua Apaches (whom we saw last in Chapter 9). Their part in this book concludes in what is becoming an all-too-predictable fashion: Indians do things US doesn’t like, US tells Indians to surrender, Indians resist and/or flee for X amount of time, eventually US catches Indians and forces them to go somewhere else than where they want to be. Bada bing, bada boom. It’s like a really predictably awful sitcom, except full of death and sorrow.

Anyway, since that outline is pretty familiar, I’ll just pull out a couple of unique points that struck me while reading the story of the Chiricahua Apaches:

1) It’s cool to see the “character development” of General Crook — he finally treats the Apaches like PEOPLE!

Brown notes this attitude change himself in his narration about Crook, but it’s cool too just to see the change in Crook’s own words. When he is called in by the US to “deal with” the Apaches, his first move is to… search out individual Apaches and sit down to talk with them. I was SHOCKED when I read this! Imagine — asking the people you’re supposed to supervise what THEY think! It’s a sad commentary on the rest of the book that this seems like such a refreshingly novel concept to me at this point. Anyway, here is an excerpt from Crook’s assessment after his chats with some Chiricahua folks:

“I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people [whites/Americans] existed among all the bands of the Apaches. It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me … that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe. … [The Apaches] had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace” (p.403-4, emphasis added).

Oh my goodness — THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING THIS. I have been SO impressed SO many times with various Indigenous folks’ commitment to honoring their peace agreements throughout this book, and Crook is the FIRST white person in this book to acknowledge the strength of character it takes to get kicked around all the time and STILL keep up your end of the deal. (Again, the fact that he is a rarity speaks volumes about the crappiness of most of the rest of the US representatives in the book.)

2) We finally meet the famous Geronimo and — surprise! — he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty warmonger.

Geronimo was just another regular guy trying to take care of himself and his people in whatever way he could. But the white newspapers made him into a monster. In fact, one of the strong themes in this chapter is how the anti-Apache sensationalism of the newspapers (beginning with those near the US-Mexico border, which then fed other papers around the country) had a strong negative effect on all efforts to have straightforward communication and relations with the Chiricahuas. In the end, when Crook promised Geronimo & co. a peaceful return to their White Mountain Reservation if they surrendered, stories about “dangerous Geronimo” probably strongly influenced the US Government’s refusal to meet those terms, and the rumors flying around contributed to Geronimo getting spooked and fleeing the scene. After Geronimo fled, the papers eviscerated Crook and he was reprimanded and forced to resign.

3) Carlisle Indian School is far-reaching and terrifying.

After Geronimo & co. were later convinced to surrender, both they and the “friendly” Apaches (including the Aravaipas, who we met back in Chapter 9) were shipped to Florida, where many died from consumption and suffered in the humid climate. (Not quite like Arizona!) Additionally, Brown notes that “the government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there” (p.412). This is terrifying and sad, because the government is totally destroying all connection between the generations and all connection to the land each people is tied to, thus totally disintegrating every major thread of the fabric of Apache society (and others…). Not to mention, here they are sending children who are from Arizona, and have been shipped to Florida, to live in Pennsylvania! With no family and maybe no one else who speaks their language! Wow. Talk about total uprooting and disconnection. Seeing it here in the “real life history” section makes Carlisle even more sinister in my brain, and it makes me even madder that Rinaldi portrayed it so falsely and toothlessly.

The Chiricahua Apaches: Where are they now?

Because Florida was such a bad climate for the Chiricahuas, Crook and other white allies worked to get them permission to return to the Southwest. They succeeded — but Arizona refused to allow them inside its borders, so the Mescaleros allowed the Apaches to live on part of their reservation. Today there are two federally-recognized Chiricahua/Apache tribes: one, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, lives in Oklahoma in their tribal jurisdictional area and numbers around 650; the other is the joint Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose reservation is located in south-central New Mexico and numbers just over 3,000 tribal enrollees. You can read more about all the Chiricahua peoples here.

Conclusion

As I near the end of this project, I keep coming back to the importance of telling true stories. When false stories are told, it can do a lot of damage. Rinaldi’s false story has probably taught a lot of children a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about Lakota people and Carlisle. The southern newspapers made the climate incredibly volatile for US-Apache relations in the 1880s. On the other hand, pursuing the true story can also have powerful impact. Larry Loyie’s sharing of his experiences of being torn from his family is a powerful witness that is accessible even to children. When Crook took the time to hear the true story of the Chiricahuas people he was supposed to serve, he gained their trust and did his job better for it (even though his compassion got him fired).

The moral of the story: Take the time to learn the true story. And then, fight the false ones. Because which story we tell matters. 

Tune in next week for Little Town on the Prairie (LH #7) and The Game of Silence (Birchbark House #2 — YAYYYYYY!).

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 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.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 3, Cardinal Directions

In the third week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the entire continent is in uproar as two totally separate wars go on in two totally different parts of the land. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Civil War — Emancipation & Gettysburg

This week I read a lot of history.

In fall of 1862, the Civil War had already been going on for over a year. In September, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that “on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. Most folks (including myself) think of the Emancipation Proclamation and immediately think, “Oh, that’s when President Lincoln freed all the slaves!” But in rereading the actual text I was struck by a few things I didn’t remember from history class.

  • The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery or free all slaves. You’ll note in the above-quoted snippet that only people held as slaves in states “in rebellion against the United States” are declared free. In fact, later in the Proclamation Lincoln specifically states that in parts of the U.S. that are not rebelling, that these “excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
  • It ends with an “Uncle Abe wants YOU for the U.S. Army!” I remember learning that part of President Lincoln’s motivation to issue this Proclamation was to try to gain support, military and otherwise, from freed slaves, but as a content writer I was a little surprised with the straightforwardness of the call to action at the end.
  • Slaves magically change from property to “persons”! Maybe there are lots of historical examples of whites referring to slaves as “persons”, but for some reason that language of personhood just struck me here. Perhaps I just feel the elephant in the room of there being no mention of slavery having been morally wrong. It’s “fixed” sort of, but there’s no hint of repentance, reconciliation, or closure.

Those things said, definitely still a historically important document, paving the way for the full abolition of slavery vis-a-vis the 13th Amendment and turning the tide of the Civil War.

The following July, the Union soldiers won the Battle of Gettysburg, but there was great loss of life on both sides. Later that autumn, in November of 1863, President Lincoln gave one of the most famous (and shortest) American speeches ever at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is simply an impressive work of oratory — especially when you consider that it’s less than 300 words! — but I couldn’t help hearing those words with different ears this time. For example, I couldn’t read “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation” without thinking about the nations those fathers steamrollered and deceived in order to establish their new nation. Everything sounds different when you try to read “facing east”.

My main sense, though, was how surreal it felt to read all this about the Civil War and have no sense at all that thousands of Indians were also fighting a war to preserve their nations. It’s almost like there were two totally separate parallel wars going on at this time — the Civil War between the Union/North and the Confederacy/South and the War for Survival between the Indians/West and the settlers/East. 

As the war between the Bluecoats and the Graycoats increasingly consumed national attention, federal distraction set the stage for the spark that would ignite the tinderbox of decades of frustration between the Eastern Dakota and Euro-settlers.

“Little Crow’s War”

In Chapter 3 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we make the acquaintance of Little Crow (Ta-oya-te-duta) and the Santee Dakota. Just to clarify for all us non-native folks, there are multiple tribes that fall under the umbrella of “Sioux”, the main three being the Dakota (east), the Nakota (central) and the Lakota (west). All of these three larger tribes also have sub-groups (e.g. the Mdewakanton Dakota). The Santee Dakota are the easterly, forest-dwelling members of the Sioux relations. (Or they were before they were relocated. But I get ahead of myself.)

This particular chapter and story really hits home with me, because these are the people whose land I’m sitting on right now, as I write this. The state of Minnesota was created from land “acquired” by deceptive Euro-American traders whose false treaties tricked the Santee into signing away 90% of their ancestral land to whites. I’ll sum up the whirlwind of events that followed, because I want to have time to unpack it all.

  • In the 10 years before the Civil War, Little Crow (a Mdewakanton Dakota chief) was tricked into signing treaties that allowed whites to take land and confine the Santee to smaller and smaller reservations, living on a paltry monetary allowance from the U.S. government.
  • In 1862, because of funds being occupied fighting the Civil War, the Santees’ payment from the government was delayed, leaving them starving and angry. A couple rash young men got in an argument about who was too coward to kill a white man and ended up shooting five white settlers.
  • When they told their chief and Little Crow, it was decided that the tribes should band together to pre-empt the settlers’ revenge attack. Little Crow gave a masterful speech about the feeling of inevitability surrounding this conflict: “…Braves, you are little children — you are fools. You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon of January. Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward; he will die with you.”
  • While initially successful at taking several hundred white and mixed-race prisoners, the group of Dakota warriors was unable to fully defeat either the settlers at New Ulm or the soldiers at Fort Ridgely.
  • When Little Crow refused to surrender his warriors or the prisoners, another of the chiefs in the group sent a secret message to the white commander saying that he and his followers would surrender themselves and the prisoners.
  • At this point, the Santee Dakota split: Little Crow and his followers fled west to join up with the prairie Dakota, while the rest surrendered themselves and their prisoners into the hands of Commander Henry Sibley, who assured them that they would be treated as friends. He immediately sent all of them to a camp where they were prisoners.
  • 330 Santee men were “tried” in a kangaroo court. 303 were sentenced to hang. With a goal “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other,” President Lincoln insisted the cases be examined by lawyers and approved 39, then 38 of the executions. On the day after Christmas, 1862, these 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato, MN. It is the largest mass execution in American history to this day.
  • The remaining Dakota were then transported to a tiny, barren reservation at Crow Creek where over 300 of the 1,300 brought there didn’t survive the winter.

Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past

spirit car - diane wilsonI made a slight addition to my reading plans and read chapters 1-4 of Spirit Car, in which Diane Wilson imagines a fictional (but historically based) scene of the events of the Dakota War based on the life of her great-great-grandmother, who was married to a French-Canadian man and was able to hide with him and their children inside Fort Ridgely. (A big thanks to Pastor Jim Bear Jacobs for this great addition to my list!) I won’t retell the whole sequence of events. What really got me about this book is how caught between two worlds Rosalie (the great-great-grandmother) and the other mixed-race folks were. She laments that her eldest son, who enlisted in the army to fight “the Graycoats” but is called back to quell the fighting between the Santee and whites, will have to choose which family members to shoot at, his French-Canadian and mixed-race relatives or his Dakota ones. These multicultural families really got caught in the middle of things. It’s an interesting perspective to add.

The most powerful point in this reading for me, though, was this passage that occurs right after the remaining Santee were marched to the camp at Fort Snelling:

They [the Dakotas] were told to surrender their medicine bundles and sacred objects, all of which were burned in a large fire. Missionaries… immediately began the work of converting the vulnerable prisoners to Christianity. (p.42)

When I read this, my stomach sank. I feel so gross seeing my faith used as an excuse to strip an already beaten-down people of their last remaining ties to their culture. The simple brute force of single-minded destruction in this story is mind-boggling. Not only did the settlers cheat the Santee out of their land, not only did they imprison and hang their men, not only did they treat them as less than human for decades, but then on top of that they took what few sacred objects the Santees had left to cling to and threw them into the fire. And then, with no time for grief or processing, picked up with the imperialist push of white Christianity.

So much for the “friendly reception” promised to those who surrendered peacefully.

Spirit Car also notes that missionaries were able to baptize most of the 38 who were hanged. As a Christian, I’m used to baptism being cause for celebration, so my younger self would have been totally thrilled at this fact. But now that I’ve read the whole story, and seen so much questionable power usage and advantage-taking going on here, I feel totally conflicted. I want to feel happy that baptism happened… but I don’t. Do you?

The single-mindedness with which the Minnesota government pursued the destruction of the Dakota is horrifically thorough.  Then-Governor Ramsay of Minnesota publicly stated that all the Santee Dakota needed to be “exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of our state”. Then he declared a $200 bounty for Dakota scalps. A few years later, Little Crow was shot dead while picking berries with his son. His skull and scalp were collected and displayed in a museum. Even the Dakota who fled were reachable targets for vengeful settlers.

Dakota land mapThe Santee Dakota: Where Are They Now?

Today the Santee Dakota reservation is located in Knox County, Nebraska, where it was moved in 1863. The passage of the Homestead Act, which provided land to non-Indian settlers for $1.25 per acre, caused the reservation land to be cut by half. You can see on the map at right the difference between the original ancestral land of all the Sioux (in green) and the land they occupy today in the form of reservations (in orange).  The total tribal enrollment of the Santee Dakota today is around 2,600, about 900 of whom live on the Nebraska reservation. You can learn more about the Santee Dakota here.

To learn more about the executions in Mankato, watch the excellent documentary Dakota 38. You can watch/download it for free here.

Conclusion

So basically… during the Civil War there were TWO separate and parallel wars. With the story of the Dakota, you can really see encapsulated the single-minded, no-mercy destruction with which many settlers pursued the Indians. Also, we get another perspective from the mixed-race white/Indians, who were caught between worlds as their two sides faced off.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 4 & 5 and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly.