‘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… =)

‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie destruction: trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he  explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag-and-it’s-yours ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey’s home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Reading this chart, I felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. The supremacy of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.

BUT.

We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.

————

*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry, not “not enough farms.”

‘Names on the Land’: The Book I Should Have Finished Months Ago…

If you’ve been counting, dear readers, you will have noticed that it’s been FOUR MONTHS since I posted my last Imperial Geography post. And for someone who is still quite excited about the rest of the reading list for that project, that’s a long time!

names on the land stewartThe culprit: my current book, Names on the Land by George R. Stewart.

You know how sometimes a book sounds really interesting, and then it turns out that the interesting-sounding part is only like 5% of the actual book? This is one of those books for me.

I was really excited to learn more about the social dynamics behind name-choosing — but it turns out much of this book is very detailed, very place-specific historical (or legendary) anecdotes about why such-and-so town and this-and-that river were given the names we use today. While bits of this were slightly interesting — learning why there are so many “brooks” and “vales”, for example — I just couldn’t make myself slog through another 300 pages. (Yes, this book is FOUR HUNDRED PAGES LONG.)

So I gave up.

I used to be a purist about finishing books I started, but when one’s reading list is as long as mine is, you learn not to waste time on books you don’t enjoy.

To be fair, though, there were a couple interesting things I learned from this book. So I’ll share those, and then we’ll be on our way!

Interesting Things I Learned from Names on the Land

1. Americanism vs. Americana

Stewart defines this binary as the conflict between “two primal forces in the American mind” (p.x): Americanism, which represents the large-scale, manifest destiny-like grandiosity of American character; and Americana, which is small-scale, local, and handmade. I think this contrast helps me to have a little more understanding for the “flyover zone” of the country — many of the people I know who live in rural areas seem to have a distant (but still fervent) relationship with Americanism, but are intimately intertwined with their immediate world of Americana.

2. Names, religion, and empire

Stewart notes at the start of the book that “naming was a part of holding empire” (p.12), which makes sense. But what surprised me a little — and sort of creeped me out, as a Christian — were the religious overtones: “The Spaniards, with their love of pomp and solemnity, sometimes took possession of a new country with high formality…. They set up a cross, and held mass; the soldiers paraded and fired guns. …sometimes water was taken from the ocean or a river, and poured upon the dry land as a kind of baptism” (p.13). This really fleshes out the ideology of the European conquerors that they were agents of a militant Christian campaign to claim and baptize “pagan” lands and peoples for the Christian empire.

3. Fake, romanticized Indian names

At the start of the book, I was annoyed that Stewart didn’t spend much time talking about how Native peoples named the land. So when I skipped ahead to the part about Minnesota (I had to at least skim it before I gave up…) I was glad that he at least addressed the wacky European appropriation and romanticization of these names. (Though I wish he did a better job of contextualizing some of the negative things he says about Indians. You’ll see what I mean.) Here are excerpts from the story of European attitudes towards Indian names, according to Names on the Land:

The earliest English explorers, like the Spanish, had recorded Indian names with respect; they were still hoping to discover another Mexico or Peru. The settlers soon came to look upon an Indian as a treacherous savage, dirty, ignorant, poor, and heathen. Indian names fell into the same disrepute. After the Revolution the Indian menace was wholly removed from the sea-coast areas, and at the same time the new doctrine of the noble savage was growing popular. …

The admiration of Indian names as such began with the new love of the strange, mysterious, and primitive. … The forties [1840s] indeed really saw the revival under way. New Englanders in the middle seventeenth century had been seeking an illusion of peaceful civilization by replacing Agawam with Ipswich; two hundred years later, their desires were reversed, and a new town was established as Agawam.

…Most of the contemporary literary figures either by practice or direct advocacy favored Indian names…. Whitman beat the drum [wow, thanks for that] loudly in his American Primer: “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names…. What is the fitness — What the strange charm of aboriginal names? … They all fit. Mississippi! — the word winds with chutes — it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” …

Although the revival of Indian names rested basically upon a genuine enthusiasm, it picked up much shoddiness and dishonesty. As the religious mind has often been too ready to admit a pious tale without questioning its actual truth, so the romantic mind accepted a pleasing story and shaped facts to its own wishes. With an old-established name, therefor, the romantics merely declared it to be beautiful anyway…. With other words they selected the least ugly forms, and shifted consonants as they preferred. Nibthaska became Nebraska. …

The romantics also desired names with a suggestion of poetry. The simple primitive descriptives supplied almost nothing of this, but such people generally know next to nothing of Indian languages, and so suffered little restraint. Mississippi, “big river,” was a simple Indian name, but a Frenchman’s false translation “vieux Pere des Rivieres,” led to millions of American schoolchildren being taught the falsehood that Mississippi meant “Father of Waters.” It was a falsehood not only about a single name, but about Indians in general — for such a figure of speech would hardly have been used for a river.

The closest American equivalent of Minnesota would probably be “muddy river.”  That would never do! But –sota, the scholars admitted, might mean “cloudy.” Given an inch, the romantics took a mile. “Cloudy” suggested “sky,” and “sky” suggested “blue.” In the end  Minnesota was said to mean “sky-blue water”!

The fanciful interpretation of [a] Florida name supplied perhaps the height of the romantic. Itchepuckesassa, “where there are tobacco blossoms,” was probably only the Seminole’s equivalent of “tobacco field,” but it was rendered: “where the moon puts the colors of the rainbow into the earth and the sun draws them out in the flowers.” …

When such translations were circulated, it is no wonder that people believed Indian names to be sometimes remarkably descriptive, sometimes remarkably fanciful, poetic, and “full of meaning.”

The great majority of our present Indian names of towns are thus not really indigenous. Far even from being old, they are likely to be recent. Ipswich is two hundred years older than nearby Agawam. Troy or Lafayette is likely to be an older name in most states than Powhatan or Hiawatha. The romantics of the mid-century and after applied such names, not the explorers and frontiersmen. (p.275-279, excerpts; emphasis added)

Fascinating. From the Romanticists’ obsession with the “savage and luxuriant” exoticism they projected onto Indians, we get Longfellow’s made-up “Song of Hiawatha” and lots of random, relocated, and often outright false “Indian names” across our country. Not to mention some of the most RIDICULOUS falsehoods about what the words actually mean! As a Minnesotan, I’m glad to learn why I’ve always been confused about the name of our state. And that Florida one — my goodness! Go home, Romanticists — you’re drunk!

On a more serious note, interesting to see that the stereotype about Indian names being overly descriptive and poetic actually comes from white people “improving” translations of ordinary, commonplace Indian words. Just chew on that for a little bit.

Conclusion

Well, I can’t say I’m not glad to move on to the next book. BUT I also must say, I enjoyed learning that tidbit about how Indian names were romanticized and appropriated in the 1800s.

Linguists, if you enjoy an anecdote (or 400) and don’t mind a little dry prose, give this book a try! Perhaps you’ll be more successful than I at finishing it. You can tell me how it ends. 😉

Tune in next time as I FINALLY get to read about the PRAIRIE in Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage.

Imperial Geography: My Next Stack of Books

Since I finished my months-long self-imposed college course (lol) about the context and history surrounding the Little House on the Prairie books, I’ve been enjoying reading whatever I want, whether or not it fits my pre-determined schedule of interconnected research. I’ve breezed through a few fluff novels and savored a few books about excellent women.

But my brain has continued to percolate on all the stuff I put in it during my journey through Little House / Wounded Knee. And I still have questions.

The most notable one, for me, is, What happened to the land?

In LH/WK, I explored the human and historical context of the Little House events — I learned what life was like for some contemporary Native and African and Asian Americans —  but I never really thought much about the backdrop. Until I got to the eighth Little House book, These Happy Golden Years. In it, Almanzo and Laura discuss their future, including Almanzo’s plans to gain land by staking his claim (provided for by the Homestead Act, which divvied out land taken from Indians to white settlers in parcels). Here’s the section that made me scratch my head:

There was a small claim shanty on Almanzo’s homestead. On his tree claim there were no buildings at all, but the young trees were growing well. He had set them out carefully, and must cultivate and care for them for five years; then he could prove up on the claim and own the land. The trees were thriving much better than he had expected at first, for he said that if trees would grow on those prairies, he thought they would have grown there naturally before now.

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (p.170-1)

In my post, I pondered whether this was just another form of colonization — the US Government made plans to colonize the environment as well as the people of the Plains. But just supposing that didn’t go deep enough; I wanted to know more!

I asked, “Anyone have a connection with an ethno-environmentalist historian??? Is that even a thing???” And after a little thinking and chatting and research, I discovered that yes, that is a thing. It’s called a geographer.

So, long story short, I discovered that there is, in fact, a whole field of study that addresses some of the human-environment questions I’ve been having, and there are plenty of books about said questions, and I have a stack of those books sitting next to me on the floor as I write. And I am going to read them, and blog about what I learn.

As you may have noticed by the title of this blog post, my main theme in this reading project is “Imperial Geography”, better explained as learning about “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America? And what is the fallout for us today?”

Here is my reading list, in the (general) order I’ll be reading them:

  1. Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture — a textbook (for a quick geography primer, since I’ve never studied geography other than maps…)
  2. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  3. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
  4. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by George R. Stewart
  5. Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage
  6. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning
  7. Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World by Fred Pearce
  8. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke
  9. Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry

Before I dive in, I should say a few more things:

  • I never thought I would care about the environment. Seriously — I grew up with a theology of “subdue and dominate” environmental relations, and even later when I began to soften a bit I still separated the whole world into “human/important” and “everything else/less important”. Very binary. Very separate. But as I’ve been learning and thinking more — and especially after my recent trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — I’ve been thinking a lot more holistically about our existence on this planet. God didn’t just put humans here and then make us a bunch of stuff to entertain and sustain us — God created an entire planet full of beautiful, complicated ecosystems! And we’re all interconnected in ways we don’t even fully understand. So I’m excited for my very first, totally ignorant foray into the world of reading about environmental issues. I seriously know nothing! So this will be fun. =)
  • This reading project is going to be a bit different than the last one. Once I got going on LH/WK, I was very strict with myself about keeping up with my schedule. I’m glad I practiced being disciplined then, but for this project (a) I’m only reading one book at a time, (b) I might not make it through a book every week, and (c) the books are organized in the order I want to read them, not in a tight chronology. Basically, this is a gaggle of somewhat related books that I’ve made a connection between. So come along with me for a fun and slightly more relaxed reading journey!

All right, I think that’s all the notes I have. Let’s do this! =)

On to the first book…

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 16, Life & Death on the Plains

In the sixteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura, Almanzo, and Omakayas tough out life on the Plains, and we finally arrive at Wounded Knee. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Family

first four yearsThe First Four Years is the only book in the Little House series that was published posthumously. In fact, it was even published after the death of Rose, Laura’s daughter, whose birth takes place in this book and who served as Laura’s editor. As such, this short book is much less polished and feels much more like Laura’s unedited thoughts looking back — which is what it is.

The title of the book comes from a conversation that begins the book: we re-see the story of Almanzo and Laura’s engagement, but this time we hear Laura tell Almanzo that she doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife:

A farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money. (p.3-4)

In essence, Laura is asking why she should sign on for a life of dawn-to-dusk toil when Almanzo could easily do something else, live in town, and have a more stable source of income. Almanzo takes the same line as his father did back in Farmer Boy: “But you’ve got it all wrong. Farmers are the only ones who are independent” (p.5). After considering this, Laura agrees to try farming for three years, and Almanzo agrees he will make their living some other way if their farm is unsuccessful at that point.

I found this whole premise really interesting — it presents a much more nuanced partnership between Laura and Almanzo than anything we saw in the last book, which spent most of its time with Laura confused about whether she liked Almanzo or not. Out here in a brand new town, they really are partners. Later in the book, when Laura is pregnant and needs fresh air, she even lets the housework go and joins Manly (as she calls him) out in the fields. We get the sense that they really love each other, and that Manly is truly concerned with Laura’s happiness rather than her wifely submission and/or servitude (which would have been not uncommon at this time).

The main theme of this book, however, is not romance, or even marital partnership. The main theme is the “great American dream” struggle for individual success and against debt. As year after year the little Wilder farm encounters challenges, the debt mounts higher and higher, and Laura’s worry and tension are palpable. There are entire pages devoted to counting their hundreds of dollars of outstanding loans. As Laura struggles to keep up with all the farm chores, especially when she is ill during her pregnancy, she starts to see the farm as a burden rather than a dream like Manly does: “There was so much to be done and only herself to do it. She hated the farm and the stock and the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes. Oh, she hated it all, and especially the debts that must be paid whether she could work or not” (p.119).

By the end of the book, the Wilder family has added a daughter — Rose — and weathered many storms. Their financial situation is uncertain, but they decide to continue farming because “It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely [Laura] felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p.133). In fact, the prospect has Laura waxing poetic about the Spirit of the American Farmer:

The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that “it is farther on” — only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west. She was still the pioneer girl and she could understand Manly’s love of the land through its appeal to herself. “Oh well,” Laura sighed, summing up her idea of the situation in a saying of her Ma’s, “We’ll always be farmers, for what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” (p.134)

And so, what starts as doubt about the viability of farming ends as an ode to the Spirit of Individualistic Farmer Optimism — the American Spirit. And our series concludes. The tiny “Half-Pint” who was such a sassafras back in the Big Woods has now grown up to be a strong farmer woman who fully espouses the American Optimism of both her father and her husband and his father.

Laura Ingalls Wilder… What happened after?

laura and almanzoThe little homestead farm did not succeed, and after a brief few years of rest and recooperating with family the Wilders moved to a farm plot in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. They named it “Rocky Ridge” and this was their home for the rest of their days. There, Laura began to write a column on pioneer life, which began her professional writing career. Their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also became an accomplished writer. When the stock market crashed in 1929, finances got tough again. Laura asked Rose what she thought about an autobiographical story she had written, and after much expansion and editing with Rose’s help this story was published in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. The rest of the books were published thereafter, and Laura gained her fame as an author as well as financial security for their family for the first time.

Laura and Almanzo lived on their farm at Rocky Ridge until Almanzo’s death in 1949, at age 92. Laura lived on at the farm until her death in 1957 at age 90. You can read more about Laura’s life here.

The Omakayas and Animikiins Family

chickadee - erdrichChickadee, the fourth book in the Birchbark House series, jumps forward about ten years to Omakayas’s young family. All our favorite characters are still present — including Nokomis, who is still my favorite! — but the narration shifts to primarily focus on Omakayas’s son, Chickadee. I don’t want to spoil too many of the plot twists in this book, so I’ll just sum it up by saying that the story involves Chickadee taking a journey around Minnesota and the rest of the family relocating to the Plains (which is weird for them, as they’re from the North Woods).

One of my favorite things about this book is the loving care with which it shows how the strong familial relationships of the previous three books have expanded, but not weakened in the slightest, with the addition of another generation. Probably the most touching scene in the whole book comes when Chickadee has gone off alone into the forest after being harassed about his “weak” name, and Nokomis comes looking for him:

Although she was ancient, his great-grandmother always saw into his heart. Because she always listened to him, Chickadee always told her the truth. (p.27)

Not only that, but after she finds out that Chickadee is being teased, the next time she hears crap out of the teaser she literally whaps him on the head with her walking stick and squashes his hat. I LOVE NOKOMIS FOREVER!

As Omakayas’s family travels and expands, we start to see a lot more points of interaction between Anishinabe culture and white/Anglo/American/settler culture. A few examples:

  • Chickadee meets a group of nuns who take him in. One is kind, but one is overtly racist and cruel: “He is a filthy savage… He could kill us in our sleep” (p.87). Upon learning that his name is Chickadee, the cruel nun remarks, “He’ll be baptized and given a proper name, a saint’s name. How typically pagan, to be named after a bird!” (p.89)… which got me wondering, what do the saints’ names originally mean?
  • We learn that Quill is MARRIED! His wife is Metis, a people who blended Anishinabe and French culture. When Omakayas and family first arrive, she welcomes them, but “her face said, I wish you’d go away” (p.98).
  • Quill has a job driving an ox cart loaded with furs to trade them in St. Paul. We get to see quite a picture of Minnesota’s capital in 1866. As Chickadee views a big city for the first time, he has this to say: “The ones who built and lived in those houses were making an outsize world. … Everything that the Anishinabeg counted on in life, and loved, was going into this hungry city mouth. This mouth, this city, was wide and insatiable. It would never be satisfied, thought Chickadee dizzily, until everything was gone” (p.155).

I loved the way Erdrich uses the characters’ travels around Minnesota to give us a really diverse picture of what Minnesota was like for both white/Anglo/American/settlers and Anishinabe and other Indigenous peoples. And, of course, it’s extra delightful to explore all these different types of life with characters that I’ve already grown to know and love in the previous three books.

The Anishinabe: Where are they now?

turtle mountain chippewa reservationSince the Birchbark House books are loosely based on author Louise Erdrich’s ancestors, I’ll focus on the history of her band, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa IndiansChickadee takes place in 1866. In 1863, a treaty was signed by several Ojibwe bands ceding land to the United States. In 1882, the Turtle Mountain Reservation was established in North Dakota. Today, the Turtle Mountain Band has 30,000 enrolled members, nearly 6,000 of which live on the reservation itself. You can read more about the various branches of Anishinabe people here.

The Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek

The last two chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follow Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas and the rest of the Lakota people as they surrender onto the Great Sioux Reservation, are swindled out of much of their remaining land, have a last movement of hope, and then endure the slaughter of innocent people at Wounded Knee Creek.

As I read these final two chapters of the Lakota story (in this book anyway), what struck me was how twisted and convoluted it was.

  • Chief Sitting Bull was still safe in Canada with his people, but then the Long Winter of 1880-81 caused many to surrender rather than starve or freeze — eventually including Sitting Bull himself.
  • Originally all the Sioux had a pretty substantial “Great Sioux” reservation… but then it was carved up and swindled from them even further to the four smaller Sioux reservations we have today.
  • The agent at Standing Rock Reservation and other government officials weirdly made it their mission in life to de-leaderify Sitting Bull: “You are not a great chief of this country… you have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all you have and are today is because of the government. If it were not for the government you would be freezing and starving today in the mountains. …The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.” (p.425-6) They fail to mention, of course, that the only reason the Lakota were ever starving and freezing in the mountains is… because of the US government!
  • A “Paiute Messiah”, Wovoka, began to preach Jesus-like messages of hope and deliverance from the oppression of the whites, and to teach the Ghost Dance. Unsurprisingly, many wanted to cling to this hope and joined the dance. Also unsurprisingly at this point, large groups of Native people gathering and doing something that whites didn’t recognize as being basically a Christian revival freaked a lot of white people out.
  • Because Sitting Bull was so respected, the powers that be decided he was the source of the “rebellion” that was the Ghost Dances. They decided to stop it by arresting Sitting Bull. They sent a huge force to do it, and Sitting Bull was shot twice and killed.

As all this craziness got people scared, many fled to Ghost Dance camps for protection, and one group started toward Pine Ridge for safety. They were intercepted by a large Army group who told them they had orders to disarm them and bring them in. They camped overnight at Wounded Knee Creek — 120 men and 230 women and children. In the morning, everyone assembled to be disarmed. Then the Army searched people’s tents. Then the Army searched the people. One Minneconjou man, who was reported to be deaf and who had just purchased a brand new rifle, tried to say that he didn’t want to give it up and waved it around a bit.wounded knee massacre chief spotted elk Shots were fired, at which point the Army immediately began mowing people down. After the first volley, they brought out their huge artillery and fired on this group of innocent civilians, who tried to flee through the snow. As the killing ended, a blizzard began. The bodies were left overnight. When crews and photographers came the next day to clean up the bodies, many were frozen in grotesque shapes.

It seems to me that the Wounded Knee Massacre was a summary — a tipping point — a microcosm — of everything that had happened before. All the theft, all the domination, all the murder and the hatred and the fear and the religious hypocrisy that was planted earlier bore its poisonous fruit at Wounded Knee. And that, I think, is part of why it’s so infamous and remembered — because it contains all the pain that came before it, and it gave birth to all the pain that came after it. It’s like a funnel, or the narrow point on an hourglass.

When I first learned about the Wounded Knee Massacre in history class, I remember thinking, “How could they do that? Why would they ever?” But now that I’ve read about 50 years of US-Native relations, honestly, the circumstances of this massacre don’t really surprise me. It’s the same thing that happened at Sand Creek. It’s the same thing that happened at Camp Grant. The whites had so much fear of and hatred towards Indians in their hearts that the slightest excuse — even made up ones! — set them off and then they just kept firing.

How sad is it that after reading even a short segment of the history of US-Native relations, the senseless massacre of 150-300 women and children doesn’t surprise me?

There is so much brokenness and pain in our collective past here on this land. And because we have never dealt with it — because our government and all of us immigrant settlers continue to benefit from this pain without ever looking it squarely in the eye — there is still so much brokenness and pain in our collective present. We need healing. Individually, corporately, as a nation, as a family of humans surviving together in the same place. I don’t know yet what that looks like. I don’t know if anybody does. But I’m going to keep trying and muddling and praying and failing and trying again, because we are all still broken.

The Lakota: Where are they now?

By 1890, all the various tribes of the “Great Sioux Nation” had been defeated and relegated to a variety of reservations around the US. The Oglala, the tribe of Red Cloud, are today federally recognized as the Oglala Lakota nation. They primarily reside on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota. You can read more about the Oglala here. The Hunkpapa, the tribe of Sitting Bull, today have a large population at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the border between North and South Dakota. You can read more about the Hunkpapa here. In 1973, a group of Lakota associated with the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over and occupied the Wounded Knee site for several months. You can read more about that incident here, and more about the American Indian Movement here.

We’ve reached the end of my reading list for this project. 

A brief announcement: Next week I will be traveling to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a group from my church on a NON-mission trip. Our purpose is somewhat nebulous, but generally our goals are to learn, be present, discuss, and grieve in a place which has become such a lightning rod for American Indian issues. We will also be visiting the massacre site at Wounded Knee, which I’m sure will be an emotional day. I’m looking forward to a powerful trip, and I will likely write about it after I return.

In the meantime, thank you for reading along with me throughout this journey. I hope you will continue to ponder these issues — I know I will!

[Edit: Here’s my post about my trip… and here’s the first post in my next reading project about colonizing the land…]

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.