‘Changes in the Land’: The Making of a Literal New England

changes in the land - crononThis week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.

Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.

1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.

One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:

Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)

When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:

[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)

Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…

2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.

One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:

Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)

I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:

  • How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
  • How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
  • How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!

This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.

3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.

Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:

  • English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
  • Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
  • English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).

The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:

“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).

In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)

CONCLUSION

It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.

Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.

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

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

By the Shores of Silver Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birchbark House

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

omakayas lake superior islands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 6, Empty Woods and Good Indians

In the sixth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the Ingalls survive in the Big Woods and General Sheridan defines a “good Indian.” Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Laura in the “Big Woods”

little house big woodsOkay, first of all I have to have a little tiny nostalgic freakout moment, because I FINALLY got to a Laura book after 5 weeks! Woo! Also, this book takes places less than a 2 hour drive from my house! Double woo! (I might have to go on a field trip.)

That said, I didn’t get very far before I was reminded just how different this read-through will be:

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. (p.1-2)

Folks, this is literally the first page. And already there is a huge problem: “There were no people.” As if the woods are just pristine and untouched. There WERE people!

wisconsin Native tribes wLaura
Side note: For a great explanation of why mapping Native tribes is an inexact science, click this picture.

If we look at a map of now-Wisconsin marked with the names of the original inhabitants (a map to which I have added the Ingalls cabin, just north of Pepin, WI), we can see that Laura’s cabin was built on land that the Santee Dakota (Sioux) called home. As I’ve read/written about previously, the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died. So, there WERE people. But they were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.” (Also, some were still there.)

That all took place from 1852-1863 or so. Laura ‘s older sister Mary was born in their Big Woods cabin in 1865, followed by Laura in 1867, which means the Ingalls were there no more than two years after the Dakota were forced out. That totally blows my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting invasion and entreaties out west. This is happening at the SAME TIME, folks! And yet, there is a ginormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

Now — I realize and I will grant that this book is (a) for children and (b) narrated by a child narrator, so I get why there aren’t vivid descriptions of, for example, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1862. But it would have been nice — and more honest — if Author-Laura had included a little bit of historical context in her narrative. I’ll cross my fingers that perhaps we get some later. That being said, the lack of any humanization of Indians indicates that to most white settlers, the Native inhabitants just don’t matter. Out of sight, out of mind. The Ingalls are concerned with getting their piece of land and staving off bears and wolves and subsisting. They give no thought to the fact that there used to be other people living on that land. The land is just “theirs” and that’s that. This is what the doctrine of Manifest Destiny does: it allows the white settlers to feel entitled to something that isn’t theirs while also ignoring and dismissing an entire people group.

I guess I can move past the first page now… so here are some notes and themes from the other 237 pages:

  • The Big Woods are so vivid they are almost like another character. From the opening page and throughout the book, you get an overwhelming sense of the isolation and the “wildness” the Ingalls feel living out in the forest. One night Laura stays up to listen to the wolves howl outside their door, and there’s nothing between her and them but a door and the guard dog, Jack. (And Pa’s rifle.) I didn’t count, but I’d bet money there are more anecdotes in this book about the Ingalls interacting with wild animals (bears, panthers, etc) than there are about them interacting with humans!
  • Even though Laura is only a very young child, we can already see her precocity and struggle with gender roles. Because I’ve read the whole series, I already know that Laura is the feisty one and Mary is the “perfect” one, so it’s interesting to see that this dichotomy is already emerging as early as page 23 of Book 1. Also, later in the book Laura learns that her Pa letting play outside is unusual compared to the norm of “Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers” (p.96).
  • Weird casual racism… is weird. And racist. So I remembered that Pa played lots of songs on his fiddle all the time. But somehow I glossed over the part where he sang a song that prominently featured “an old darkey [whose] name was Uncle Ned” (p.100) ???? That was a really jarring cognitive dissonance for me. I mean, yes, this book was published in 1930, but still — I read this! As a six-year-old! It just clearly demonstrates to me how embedded in white/American culture racism was/is, that a children’s author would think it appropriate to include a song about a “darkey” with no explanations or notes (and that the publisher would, too!).
  • There actually are a couple historical/cultural references, but I just didn’t notice them as a kid. First, I forgot that Laura’s Uncle George, a Civil War veteran, makes an appearance in the book. So there is at least a slight mention of “the war” here. Second, we get a tiny hint of Ma’s “townie” past when she gets out her fancy party dress “made by a dressmaker … in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa. … Ma had been very fashionable” (p.128). So she’s come from relative wealth to isolation and total self-run subsistence forest living. Totally different than the girls, who have never seen a store or a town or a machine before.

There are a few other things, but for the most part this is a pretty simple book told in a simple, childlike fashion. Bottom line: it’s a different time and place in a lot of ways. I’m sure all these themes will get more complex as we read through Laura’s growing up years and her thoughts get more complex.

“The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

Chapter 7 of Wounded Knee finds us following the Southern Cheyennes who decided to head south to rejoin Black Kettle and the “peaceable” crew rather than stay up north with Red Cloud and the Lakota Sioux. Unfortunately, they arrive just in time to be subject to yet another ridiculously belligerent US Army General. Yes, friends, it’s time for Good News, Bad News!

  • Good news: Southern Cheyennes reunited!
  • Bad news: Almost immediately two factions re-form: the “friendlies” rejoin Black Kettle and the more militant Dog Soldiers split off to follow Roman Nose.
  • Good news: US General Hancock says he wants to meet to sign further peace agreements.
  • Bad news: He insists that both Roman Nose and all the Cheyenne women and children must be there, despite the fact that these Sand Creek survivors are CLEARLY (and rightly) suspicious and cautious about allowing soldiers to march into their village/camp. (So basically Hancock is SUPER SKETCHY.)
  • Good news: Our old Cheyenne ally friend Major Wynkoop was able to become the agent for the tribe, so officially their advocate.
  • Bad news: He has no power to protect them from other US military officials. He later resigns in protest.
  • Good news: When Hancock & co. arrive at the Cheyenne village/camp, most of the people are able to quickly flee on horseback.
  • Bad news: Hancock & co. methodically inventory and then burn the hastily abandoned camp and everything in it, leaving the people destitute.
  • Good-ish news: After Red Cloud’s successful resistance in Powder River, a peace commission is organized and General Sherman offers “one great reservation south of the Arkansas River” to be shared by the Cheyenne, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, & Prairie Apaches.
  • Bad news: The US Government is still “arguing over the treaty and had not provided money to buy [the Cheyenne] food and clothing as promised” (p.162), so the people suffer through a starving winter.
  • Bad news: When Roman Nose & Dog Soldiers try to mount some resistance against General Sheridan, the new general sent after them, Roman Nose is killed in battle. Sheridan orders General Custer (yes, that Custer) “to destroy their villages and ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children” (p.168).
  • More bad news: When the Cheyenne get wind of this, they ask a neighboring fort commander for protection. He tells them they will be fine and sends them back to be killed, even though he knows Sheridan’s plans… 
  • Worst news: Black Kettle decides in the morning he will take a delegation of warriors to meet the soldiers and convince them of their peacefulness… but before they even wake up the next morning Sheridan and his soldiers ambush the whole tribe out of the fog. “They killed 103 Cheyennes [even the conciliatory Black Kettle], but only eleven of them were warriors” (p.169).
  • Good-ish news: Few scattered Cheyenne survivors, as well as Arapahos and Comanches, come in to surrender peacefully, identifying themselves as “Good Indians.”
  • Ick: General Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” (p.170)

Good heavens, what is the deal with this strange fixation with being confusing and randomly destroying native people groups EVEN WHEN THEY WANT PEACE, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE WILLING TO SUFFER SIGNIFICANT LOSSES TO GET IT??? I am so DISCOURAGED about the evil that humans are capable of when I read this. Though, Major Wynkoop’s struggle to be a good advocate and Black Kettle’s persistent attempts to lead peacefully remind me of the good that humans are capable of. So I guess I should try to focus on that. It’s just hard to feel hopeful when it feels like the “bad guys” win.

(**Note: Since I already did the “Where are they now” for both the S. Cheyenne and Arapahos, and there are upcoming chapters about the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches, we’ll skip for this week.) 

Conclusion

Between the stubbornly white-focused Manifest Destiny worldview of most white settlers (and most of white American history!) and the actively destructive determination of the US military Indian extermination effort, I feel like I’m starting to understand a little bit of why many Natives today might feel so depressed and invisible and hopeless. The country and culture they’re surrounded by mounted a purposeful campaign to steal their land and destroy and whitewash them, and now it has written them out of history and made their ancestors and their people sound like a sad but inevitable stepping stone on the path of “Human” (aka white) “Progress”. I feel a little hopeless just reading about it, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up in this space. It must be exhausting to perennially be located in a space where your mere existence is active resistance to the dominant order, and to feel like you’re a tiny megaphone shouting into a hurricane of oppression and centuries of physical and psychological and spiritual trauma.

Don’t really know what else to say about that, so I’ll just end there for today.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 8 and Little House on the Prairie (LH #2).

Little House/Wounded Knee: Week 2, Broken Promises

In the second week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the Navajos win the award for “Least Unfortunate Western Indian Nation” and a former slave shares her powerful life story. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

“The Long Walk of the Navahos”

This chapter follows the Navajos (aka Navahos) of the southwest, particularly one of their leaders, known as Manuelito. After reading last week’s overview of the myriad promises made and broken by the U.S. Government and its officials, I could more fully appreciate the irony of this start to Chapter 2:

Manuelito and other Navaho leaders made treaties with the Americans. “Then the soldiers built the fort here,” Manuelito remembered, “and gave us an agent who advised us to behave well. He told us to live peaceably with the whites; to keep our promises. They wrote down the promises, so that we would always remember them.” (p.14, emphasis added)

There is some SERIOUS hypocrisy going on here, especially considering that by this time (1860-ish) the “permanent Indian frontier” had already been totally run over by Minnesota becoming a state in 1858. Seems like the U.S. Government are the ones in need of some promise reminders.

Anyway, I found it interesting to read about the relationship between the Navahos and the “Mexicans” (presumably a mix of other indigenous folks and Spaniards) here. Brown notes, “For as long as anyone could remember, the Mexicans had been raiding Navahos to steal their young children and make slaves of them, and for as long as anyone could remember the Navahos had been retaliating with raids against the Mexicans” (p.14). This, while disturbing in its reference to child slavery, strikes me as at least a somewhat fair fight.

Extra reading from PBS confirms that when faced with a large group of Spaniards the Navahos had a rough time of it. I didn’t realize that the Navajo and other southwestern tribes would have had to deal with twice the colonizers — first the Spanish, who colonized Mexico, and then the U.S.ians, who took New Mexico and surrounding area from the Mexicans. So by the time we see Manuelito and his band in this snapshot, they’ve already been dealing with Spaniards and raiding Mexicans for livestock for a good couple centuries.

The Navajos and other southwestern tribes really got caught between the two polities. Brown notes that once the Americans “came to Santa Fe and called the country New Mexico, they protected the [former] Mexicans because they had become American citizens. The Navahos were not citizens because they were Indians, and when they raided the Mexicans, soldiers would come rushing into the Navaho country to punish them as outlaws” (p.14, emphasis added).  So already there’s this weird half-acknowledgement of Indian sovereignty. They’re separate enough that we’ll treat them like foreigners, but not foreigners whose laws or customs or boundaries we respect at all.

The rest of the chapter goes on to detail broken promise after broken promise and random massacre after random massacre. (Incidentally, Brown also discusses the origins of “scalping”, which was popularized when “Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonists made the custom popular by offering bounties for scalps of their respective enemies” [p.25].) Eventually nearly all the Navajos are starved off their land and forced to walk to a tiny, barren reservation at Bosque Redondo.

Then, in 1868, after a long line of government investigators, General Sherman arrived at the reservation and reportedly said, “My children, I will send you back to your homes.” After all the Navajo leaders (including Manuelito) signed a new perpetual peace treaty with the U.S. Government, a new reservation was established on a part of the Navajos’ ancestral home land (although “much of their best pastureland was taken away for the white settlers” [p.36]).

What really got me here, other than the repeated sledgehammer of U.S. Government infidelity, was the following conclusion: “Bad as it was, the Navahos would come to know that they were the least unfortunate of all the western Indians” (p.36). What a sad honor! Pushed around, tricked, scalped, massacred, evicted, starved to death, imprisoned and in danger of death unless they have a “pass off the rez”, and finally “gifted” with a small percentage of their original homeland. And this is the “least unfortunate” group.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a non-fiction narrative of the life of Harriet Jacobs, who wrote under the pen name Linda Brent. (You can read more about the historical real people here.) The book was published in 1861, just as the Civil War was starting, so its impact was somewhat muted until it resurfaced later.

I’ve read this book before, but even so I was still struck by the simple power of Jacobs’ writing. It really just smacks you right between the eyes. Jacobs, or “Linda,” as the narrator names herself, endures the long struggle of slavery and we feel her pain over and over as she is continually taken advantage of and oppressed. As a piece of writing, her narrative did a really good job of showing both the institutional oppression and pain caused by slavery as a whole and the personal wounds inflicted on individual black people by individual white (and black) people.

A big way Jacobs shows the injustice and unfairness of slavery and discrimination is through juxtaposition. For example, at the start of the book she describes her early life, being raised by a “kind mistress” who “had been almost like a mother” and “had promised [Jacobs’] dying mother that her children should never suffer for any thing.” However, when that mistress dies and her will is read, Jacobs learns that she has been bequeathed to her mistress’s five-year-old niece. So much for her promise to a dying slave woman! Jacobs delivers a simple but searing indictment of such “Christian” hypocrisy:

My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. (p.7)

And this from a “kind mistress.” Jacobs’ trials only worsen from there. Her new mistress’s father, “Dr. Flint”, takes control of her in his daughter’s name and begins a campaign to seduce her. She eloquently illustrates the Catch-22 in which she and many female slaves find themselves:

No pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery. The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear. The lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers. When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will. She may have had religious principles inculcated by some pious mother or grandmother, or some good mistress; she may have a lover, whose good opinion and peace of mind are dear to her heart; or the profligate men who have power over her may be exceedingly odious to her. But resistance is hopeless. (p.32)

On a historical/cultural note, Jacobs also takes note of the difference in the treatment of owner/slave liaisons based on the gender of the owner:

I have myself seen the master of such a household whose head was bowed down in shame; for it was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild. … In such cases the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who know its history. But if the white parent is the -father-, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. If they are girls, I have indicated plainly enough what will be their inevitable destiny. (p.33)

It’s pretty weird and contorted that, on top of this institutional racism and slavery and rape, there is also a strict double-standard that shames white women for the “sin” of sleeping with a black slave while giving total license to white men to do whatever they please. I’m not sure which is worse though — murdering your biracial children so no one knows about them or unabashedly selling them into slavery even though everybody knows about them.

Anyway, back to Jacobs. At first, embarrassed by her master’s filthy comments (she is, after all, only 14), Jacobs tries to ignore them. But as he invents crazier and crazier schemes to pursue her, eventually she realizes that one way or another he means to force her, so she decides to have a sexual affair with a (slightly friendlier… ish) white neighbor in hopes of retaining some control over her life and perhaps even driving Dr. Flint to sell her. This relationship results in the birth of her two children, “Benny” and “Ellen”.

The rest of the book goes through many notable, horrific details of the abuses suffered by Jacobs and her family members.

  • Dr. Flint leverages Jacobs’ children to try to control her, so she has her lover purchase them. He promises that he will free them…  but (surprise) he doesn’t.
  • In order to avoid being sent to work in the field (bad news), Jacobs arranges with her grandmother, “Aunt Martha”, to pretend that she’s run away north while actually hiding herself away in a tiny crawl space in her grandmother’s attic to avoid detection.
  • For seven years.
  • No, really — she hid in a space so small she couldn’t even sit up… FOR SEVEN. YEARS.
  • After seven years (yes, I said it again) in the crawl space, Jacobs escapes north by boat. She finds employment and can see her children for a while, but is continually worried that Dr. Flint will find her (because he keeps looking because he’s weirdly obsessed with her).
  • Shortly after she arrives in the North, the Fugitive Slave Law is passed, and Jacobs is terrified that she will be kidnapped or re-enslaved.
  • Against Jacobs’ wishes, her friend and employer, “Mrs. Bruce”, purchases Jacobs and presents her with the papers, thus securing Jacobs’ freedom.

Two things really stood out to me in the otherwise “happy-ish” conclusion to Jacobs’ story. First, although Jacobs finds greater freedom in the North, she notices many disturbing similarities that mirror the South:

(From a free black man) “…They don’t allow colored people to go in the first-class cars.” This was the first chill to my enthusiasm about the Free States. Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind white people, at the south, but they were not required to pay for the privilege. It made me sad to find how the north aped the customs of slavery. (p.98, emphasis added)

Though blacks are systematically de-humanized in the established slave order of the south, in the north their “humanity” seems to get them lip-service “freedom” that “allows” them to pay for their second-class train car.

The second thing, and I think this is really important, is how conflicted Jacobs is over finally obtaining her freedom through being purchased. Her reaction to being sold is a writing masterpiece, so I’ll conclude with her words:

My brain reeled as I read these lines [news of her freedom]. A gentleman near me said, “It’s true; I have seen the bill of sale.” “The bill of sale!” Those words struck me like a blow. So I was -sold- at last! A human being being -sold- in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his. (p.118)

You can feel the conflict here, many emotions — the outrage at the depravity and ridiculous hypocrisy of society, the choice to be grateful to her friend, and the pain and anger at having been treated like property.

And I didn’t even TALK about Grandma/Aunt Martha, the fantastically strong and faith-filled matriarch who spends her whole life trying to earn freedom for her children and grandchildren and literally dies not sure if she’s fully succeeded. Basically, you should really just read the book for yourself. It’s vivid, heartbreaking, insightful, totally honest, and a little bit hopeful — mostly cuz Jacobs is awesome and you’re really rooting for her by the end.

In conclusion…

In both of these narratives this week, the strong theme that comes through is the systematic, widespread, institutional infidelity towards and abuse of both Natives and Blacks by the U.S. Government and Americans in general. In both stories there is a kernel of hope — both the Navajos and Jacobs end up getting some measure of “freedom” — but it is a very compromised hope, a costly hope, bought with much pain.

Tune in next week for: Wounded Knee chapters 3 & 4, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address.

The problem with feminism

The problem with feminism
is that we are no longer
separate-but-equal rulers of our
separate-but-unequal spheres;
you are no longer the
undisputed Master of Monies,
but neither am I the
undisputed Queen of the Kitchen.

The problem with feminism
is that while I can be
totally self-righteous and justified
in asserting my right to have input into our
work life, financial life, sex life, spiritual life,
I also find it incredibly difficult
to relax my desperate iron grip
on my distaff domain
when you assert your right
to have input into our
Christmas card template.

The problem with feminism
is that it requires me to change, too.

Upside-Down Authority and Women in the Church

At the end of my last post I wondered why we humans turn God’s model of servant-leadership into dictatorship when we lead. This idea of “but a leader should be humble, at the bottom of the ladder” reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend one summer.

This was the summer that I began to question my denomination of origin — not with the goal of leaving (though I eventually did), but simply to answer my questions. My friend had plans to be a pastor someday, so I thought he would be a good person to help me understand my denomination. Regarding my questions about women being excluded from pastoral ministry, he said:

Well, being a pastor isn’t about being “in charge” — it’s about service, and pastors are supposed to be at the bottom of the ladder, leading out of humility. So all the women and feminists should stop feeling like they’re being denied some spotlight or authority — being a pastor isn’t about power, it’s about service. What’s the big deal about being excluded from that?”

There are two main problems with this statement.

1. Pretending pastors do not have authority in the church is unrealistic. 

Although my friend is correct in stating that the Jesus model for pastoring is one of servant-leadership and humility, that is rarely the reality today. Most pastors I know (with the exception of my dad and a few others) lead much more like presidents or CEOs than servants.

Even pastors who do lead with humility still wield a tremendous amount of influence. For children growing up in traditional churches, their shiny, white-robed pastors often mix with their image of Jesus and set the tone for those kids’ early faith. And most pastors generally get 20-60 minutes of uninterrupted speaking time from the pulpit each Sunday. So saying there is no authority or power to be had as a pastor is just plain unrealistic.

2. A lack of power or prestige does not make exclusion okay.

Even if pastoring was a low-influence sort of job in real life, does that make it any more just to exclude 50% of the population from it because of their anatomy? Yes, there are many other ways to serve God — but who are we to say that it’s impossible for God to call any woman to any of those ways, whether that be to preaching, legislating, or trash-collecting? I would much rather have a woman preacher who has a true and humble call to serve than a man preacher who seeks the influence that leading a church can give him. Which leads me to my next thought…

Doesn’t humility make a better pastoral baseline virtue than maleness?

I mean, really — if pastoring without a desire for power or control is *so important*, then isn’t it better to have humble servant-leaders for pastors no matter their sex than to be forced by gender exclusion to accept less-than-servanty pastors? Doesn’t excessive pride and desire for power corrupt the pastorate (and the church) more than having a vagina does?

I know I’m thinking practically here, with little biblical evidence. But I’m no Bible scholar, so I’ll let the real ones do that. My point here is simply to say that if it’s so easy for us humans to get God’s example wrong, then maybe we should be a little more careful before we start making rules about who’s allowed to do what.

What do you think? Should pastors focus more on humility? Do you think women can be called to pastoral ministry even if their church doesn’t allow it? Let me know in the comments!