‘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.”

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‘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.

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…]

In which I flinch at road signs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 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 9, Blizzards, Betrayal, and Buffalo

In the ninth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, the Ingalls brave some blizzards and Indians weather two Shakespearean tragedies. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

On the Banks of Plum Creek

on the banks of plum creekIn the fourth Little House book, the story pulls in to become much more nuclear family focused. By that I mean that the story is less tied to social or political goings-on, or to the land, or whatever and much more exclusively driven by whatever happens to the Ingalls. Also, the Ingalls lived through some weird-o stuff! Here are a few highlights:

  • walnut grove plum creek ingalls map
    The red A marks Walnut Grove, MN, where the Ingalls’ dugout house was located.

    At the start of the book, the Ingalls move to Minnesota and buy a dugout house from some Norwegians. Ma, the schoolteacher and voice of “civilization”, is very concerned about cleanliness and not stooping to sleeping on the ground. Pa reassures her that “Norwegians are clean people.” (p.6)

  • Everyone is soooooo happy to have finally escaped those troublesome wolves and Indians: “It is all so tame and peaceful. There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight.” (p.17) Again with the Indians = animals.
  • We see a lot more of Laura’s character development as a feisty and disobedient but take-charge little girl. When she goes too deep in the swimming hole and Pa dunks her, she wants him to do it again. (Hilarious, btw.) But when Ma and Pa get caught in a snowstorm, Laura — not her older sister, Mary — is the one who takes charge and makes sure the girls bring in enough firewood to last the storm. The girls — all three — have really grown in their self-sufficiency, even though in this book Laura is only 8! It’s clear both that necessity requires children to be useful very young, and that Laura is on a collision-course with 19th-century gender roles.
  • We also see a lot more of the financial struggles of 19th-century farmers in general and the Ingalls family in particular. Pa takes out loans against their future wheat crop — but when a swarm of grasshoppers comes and eats it all, he has no choice but to head east to hire out as a harvest laborer for those whose fields weren’t eaten. Not only does he struggle to afford a new pair of boots when his are falling apart, but the glowing Christmas story in the novel features Mary and Laura receiving charity Christmas gifts from their town neighbors to the east.
  • Minnesota is cold. There are lots of blizzards. And one of them is reeeeeeally bad. And Pa almost dies. …So, typical Minnesota weather.
  • School and church are a big deal. Several times Author Laura mentions that the reason they settled where they did is because Pa promised Ma the girls would go to school, and they need to be near a town to do that. Ma keeps her school books in “the box where she kept her best things” (p.140) and attending church is seen as a treat.
  • There is serious friction between country folk and town folk. The most apparent case of this is Nellie, a rich, spoiled town girl who harasses and insults both Laura and Ma (OH NO YOU DIDN’T) about their poverty and not-as-fine clothes. One of the best scenes of the novel is when Nellie gets her comeuppance — at Laura’s party, Laura tricks Nellie into standing in a creek bed full of leeches. Ah, sweet revenge.

Overall, this book showcases how much farmers are at the mercy of the elements. As a sub-theme to that, it sort of begs the question of why people are resettling all over and trying to make a go of it in places where they don’t know the land. And another theme that begins now and will get stronger as Mary and Laura grow up is the “civilization process”. Especially because they’re both female, there is a lot of pressure on both girls (but especially on Laura, since she’s a tomboy) to learn to be more “ladylike” the older they get.

“The Ordeal of Captain Jack”

In the 10th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee we take a little trip to present-day California. Brown gives us a brief background of the region, where the mostly peaceful coastal tribes greeted the Spanish with friendship and were quickly exterminated. The Modocs were the exception; “when the Modocs showed fight, the white invaders attempted extermination. The Modocs retaliated with ambushes” (p.220). It is here that we meet Captain Jack.

Captain Jack (aka Kintpuash) was a Modoc chief who had many white friends and strongly desired peace. He signed a treaty ceding Modoc land and removing his people to the Klamath Reservation — but the Klamaths were already there and didn’t appreciate company. When the Modocs began to starve, Captain Jack was convinced by his friend and fellow influential Modoc, Hooker Jim, that fleeing was preferable to death by starvation. The Modocs fled west to the California Lava Beds, with Hooker Jim taking “revenge” on the way by killing some white settlers — including Captain Jack’s friends.

When soldiers arrived to arrest the murderers, Captain Jack refused to give up his friend Hooker Jim. Captain Jack tried to compromise — but he was caught between a rock and a hard place. He couldn’t get General Canby to talk peace. His own people, now including a vocal opposition led by Hooker Jim, refused to consider peace (they voted 37-14 to fight to the death) and thought he was a coward. In a desperate attempt to save face with his fellow Modoc leaders, Captain Jack promised that he would shoot General Canby when he next came to talk. When General Canby arrived Captain Jack tried to back out, but was forced to go through with it. Then, even after all the faith he had shown his people, Captain Jack was betrayed and captured by Hooker Jim and his followers, who surrendered and promised to bring in Captain Jack in exchange for supplies and amnesty. At his trial, Captain Jack stated, “You white people conquered me not; my own men did.” (p.240)

It’s a story of betrayal upon betrayal; it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, almost. But what really gets me about this story is what happened to Captain Jack after he was convicted:

Captain Jack was hanged on October 3. On the night following the execution, his body was secretly disinterred, carried off to Yreka, and embalmed. A short time later it appeared in eastern cities as a carnival attraction, admission price ten cents. (p.240)

When I read this, at first I didn’t really know what to do with it. It’s just… weird. I mean, who does that? “Well, we’ve rounded up this criminal guy, and now he’s hanged… I think I’ll dig up and preserve his body so I can exhibit it at a circus.” To me this is the epitome of dehumanization and fetishization of Indians. It takes General Sheridan’s “only good Indians are dead” comment to a whole other level, because now it’s not only that Indians are “better” when dead (aka not being a “nuisance”) but that whites are actually commercializing and profiting from the corpse of a dead man after his death.

The Modocs: Where are they now?

This chapter concludes: “As for the surviving 153 [people]…, they were exiled to Indian territory. …[In 1909] the government decided to permit the remaining fifty-one Modocs to return to an Oregon reservation” (p.240). In 1954, the Klamath Reservation was terminated by the US Government and its inhabitants were bought out, except for a few who insisted on receiving title to their ancestral lands instead of money. Today the Modoc people are split between those two places — the Quapaw Indian Reservation (home of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma) and Klamath County, Oregon (home of the Klamath Tribes, which includes Modocs descended from people who didn’t flee with Captain Jack and from people who chose to return to Klamath after the war). You can read more about the Modoc people here.

“The War to Save the Buffalo”

The 11th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follows the Kiowas (the group who refused to surrender to General Custer back in chapter 7) and the Comanches, particularly the Kwahadi Comanches. I’m noticing that as the book (and history) progresses, tribes are getting increasingly mixed together as fragments and survivors of various traumas flee to the few remaining free groups. There is a lot of back-and-forth conflict in this chapter — and I invite you to read it all for yourselves, because it enriches the context behind the major events here — but I’m going to sum up.

1. Like most other tribes we’ve read about so far, the Kiowas and Comanches bifurcated under pressure.

When faced with General Sherman’s ultimatum — “Surrender yourselves to the reservation at Fort Sill or be killed” — both the Kiowas and the Comanches split into “the surrenderers” on the reservation and “the free roamers” who fled further west.

2. The “free roamers” didn’t even really want war — they just wanted to be free to hunt the buffalo.

Those who escaped or refused to surrender sometimes raided white settlements, especially to recoup supplies or horses. But their main stated goal was to be free to hunt as they were promised in a previous treaty, on the land they were guaranteed access to “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase” (p.243). Unfortunately, this was getting harder and harder, as white buffalo hunters were systematically slaughtering millions of buffalo to aid in the “progress” of settlement and railroads and to make it difficult for Indians to survive and resist. General Sheridan (“the only good Indians are dead”) was quoted as saying, “It [buffalo extermination] is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance” (p.265).

3. Ironically, Indians who surrendered were forced by the whites to farm corn…

…a skill which Indians kindly taught to early white settlers in order to save them from winter starvation, because they had no idea how to survive in America.

Even more ironic is the fact that the Comanches were originally an agricultural society — but the loss of their land earlier resulted in them being forced to hunt buffalo to survive. …Which they were now being forced to abandon so they could be “taught” to farm corn.

4. In the end, the Army won.

When the remaining Kiowas, Kwahadi Comanches, and a few Cheyennes holed up in the last place they could hunt buffalo (Palo Duro Canyon, just south of present-day Amarillo), General Sherman responded by calling up soldiers from all quarters. Brown put it well, I thought:

Thousands of Bluecoats armed with repeating rifles and artillery were in search of a few hundred Indians who wanted only to save their buffalo and live out their lives in freedom. … Across the Plains the Indians scattered on foot, without food, clothing, or shelter. And the thousands of Bluecoats marching from the four directions methodically hunted them down… (p.269-70)

The Kiowas and Comanches were all put back on reservations. The people were corralled and disarmed, their property was burned, their animals were shot, and suspected leaders were jailed awaiting trial. (Something about this process reminds me eerily of the systematic rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany.) By the end of 1875, the main Kiowa leaders — Lone Wolf, Kicking Bird, and Satanta (who threw himself from a window in a prison hospital) — were dead, and so were almost all the buffalo.

The Kiowas & Comanches: Where are they now?

The Kiowa people today are federally recognized as the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and reside mainly in southwestern Oklahoma. (What used to be their reservation was transitioned to a “tribal jurisdictional area”, as mentioned previously.) As of 2011, there were 12,000 enrolled tribal members. One particularly notable Kiowa person is author N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. You can read more about the Kiowas here.

The Comanche people today are federally recognized as the Comanche Nation. An estimated 8,000 of its 15,000 enrolled members reside within the Comanche tribal jurisdiction area in southwestern Oklahoma. (Again — no longer a reservation.) You can read more about the Comanches here.

Conclusion

Last week I was asked a really great question about my reading: “Have you encountered any examples of inter-tribal violence in your research?” It’s a totally legit question, and I plan to dig into it more thoroughly once I finish this project.

I actually get asked this question a lot when I talk about this LH/WK project. I’ve even wondered about it myself. I think part of the reason I have struggled to answer satisfactorily is that I often perceive (whether it’s really there or not) a subtextual question attached to that question, which is, “Isn’t all this stuff white people did to Indians just another war? Didn’t the Indians make war on each other too? Why is this particular war any different?”

Well, after this week’s readings, I can finally articulate an answer to that subtextual question.

Yes, we are all human and capable of both good and evil. I’ve written about several examples of both compassionate whites and traitorous Indians — and even more in today’s post. It’s not that Indians are squeaky clean and totally innocent — it’s that the white-on-Indian war is different than Indian-on-Indian wars. And the reason is that Indian-on-Indian wars were wars — they had honorable things, they had disgraceful things, but the various Native groups that engaged in wars (and not all did) fought against relatively equal opponents over things like borders, hunting rights, and population — all of which could even out over time. But this white-on-Indian war isn’t war; it’s genocide disguised as war.

Again, don’t get me wrong — there were definitely white allies of various Indian nations, and not every white person personally carried out genocidal acts. And there are multiple examples of Indian mercenaries from enemy tribes. But for whatever reason, the white (and black, but mostly white) representatives of the US government and military at the time were overwhelmingly focused on the extermination not only of any reasonable Indian threat of war, but of all Indians (including civilians) and of the various Native ways of life.

This was a war against a way of life. This was cultural extermination.

And that’s why it’s important to me to read and share the story, because if we talk about it — if we speak honestly about what happened — then it’s like the extermination efforts were a little less successful, and the truthful story is a little more alive.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 12-14 and Black Frontiers.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 3, Cardinal Directions

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

The Civil War — Emancipation & Gettysburg

This week I read a lot of history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Little Crow’s War”

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

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

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

Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakota land mapThe Santee Dakota: Where Are They Now?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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