Why I Think Paris Is More Important than Beirut

In the aftermath of the attacks on Paris, Beirut, and other cities around the world, I’ve been doing some thinking.

I’ve seen a lot of posts about what we should or shouldn’t do in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ve seen a lot of posts about how we should or shouldn’t pay attention to various disastrous events that happen. I’ve even seen some (really dialed-in) posts about the parallels to the story of the flight of the Holy Family as refugees, and our responsibility as Christians.

But I want to spend a few minutes writing the post that only I can write, which is the one about my own reaction to the two attacks.

I heard about the Paris attack first. I was at a fancy dinner event. The glitzy outfits and bubbling laughter seemed dissonant alongside the updating news reports of multiple shooters and over a hundred dead. I felt sad.

The next morning was the first time I saw any news about Beirut. Much has been made on social media now of the difference in grief and empathy and outrage expressed by Americans/Westerners on Facebook over the Paris attacks compared to the one just a day earlier in Beirut, Lebanon. At first when I saw an image pointing out this discrepancy, I shared it and chimed in with a mental, “Yeah! We should pay attention to both!”

But today, especially as I’ve been reading The New Jim Crow and thinking about the role of the unconscious, implicit gut impulses we have in our complicity in systems of inequality, I decided to take a look at the only realm over which I have total control: myself.

So let’s start here:

First things first, let’s just get it out there: it’s true. I do care more about the attack in Paris than about the one in Beirut. I react more strongly to the attack in Paris than to the one in Beirut. And, if we’re being totally honest, I probably also care more about the people in Paris than the ones in Beirut.

Why? Because when I think about Paris I think about people like me, and an attack there feels closer to home. And when it feels more personal, I react more. Because if it could happen to a city like mine, it could happen to me.

I am a third- and fourth-generation European American on both sides. Many of my forebears have trod the soil of France at various times, most recently by participating in the liberation of France during WWII. Heck, I’ve even been to Paris myself. My own personal history, culture, travel experience, and language all tie me to Europe and/or Paris.

Compare that to Beirut. I admit, I actually had to look it up to even know that it was in Lebanon. I know no one from there. My family is not from there. I have never been there. I would be hard-pressed to find Beirut on a map, let alone tell you much about the people. The little I do know is telling: I know it sounds Middle-Eastern. (Read: “foreign” / “brown” / “Muslim”)

That leads me to my next observation, which is that what I’ve learned over the years from school and media coverage plays a factor as well. It seems that there is “always” “some” explosion or suicide bomb or terrorist attack of some kind happening “over there”. Throughout my entire awareness of news media, I can’t remember a time where there wasn’t seemingly endless coverage of seemingly endless violence all across the Middle East. This leads me to assume that violence, even terroristic violence (perhaps especially terroristic violence), in the Middle East is normal and expected. Just another attack in a series of never-ending, normal, everyday events. Nothing to see here. Move along. It’ll stay over there.

Compare this to my shock at hearing of a terrorist attack in Paris. But this is PARIS! Things like that don’t happen there! Underlying those unthinking thoughts are more ugly assumptions: Paris is immune from violence. “We’re” more peaceful (aka civilized) than “them”. How did “those people” bring “their” violence to “our” impenetrable fortress of civilization?

Basically, if I’m totally honest, I’m pretty fine with violence and terror… as long as it doesn’t feel like it can get me. And that feels shameful.

It feels gross to look inside and see that all of those thoughts are inside of me. But they’re in there. And ignoring doesn’t make them go away. Just because I don’t want to think those things doesn’t mean I can just make them disappear from my brain!

But rather than hiding behind defensiveness, it’s better to just get it out and then start the work. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem!

So yes, we should pay just as much attention to violence in Lebanon as to violence in France. But don’t just jump straight from “error” to the “correct” thing — it’s also important for each of us to take the time to actually unpack the “what’s going on under the surface” of why we identify more closely with Paris. Only when we can honestly name and own our yuck can we confess, repent, and begin to open up and allow God to give us true compassion for all the people, not just the ones that look the most like us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

The Road to Hell is Paved with Blind Privilege

I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed today, just taking a little break between loads of laundry, when I saw this video, shared by a friend:

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=100000003056479&playerType=embed

The video explores the phenomenon of Germans who are obsessed with “Native American culture” — both those who “live like Indians” and the followers of the story — now in books, film, and a live-action show-town complete with museum — of a fictional “Apache chief” created by German author Karl May.

The more I watched, the more shocked and angry I got.

As the video begins, it seems as though there’s this nice group of Apache/Lakota-culture-loving Germans who are inspired (though perhaps a bit ignorant and naive) by what they learn from this story of an Apache hero. But as I watched more, I saw all those excuses disintegrate.

  1. They don’t love real Apache or Lakota cultures, because this story and “culture” they keep reproducing is (a) an amalgam of many Native peoples, plus (b) the author never even went to North America before writing his books, so he probably made a ton of it up anyway!
  2. They’re not naive or really even ignorant — or at least the main actors aren’t — because they know the story of the author, Karl May, and they are aware of the fact that he made this story up and that the “Apache” culture they’re peddling is fake.
  3. As regards the other German “Indian hobbyists,” one says it’s fine for him to do this because “black and white people lived with Native tribes all the time.” But he’s not living with Native people — he just copied some of their ways and is now living a semblance of their traditional life in a vacuum in Germany. Not the same.

I can arrive at no other conclusion than that the people involved with this movement and production in Germany are willfully ignoring any pricks at their conscience, and purposefully avoiding consulting (or listening to) the counsel of actual Native people. I mean, at the show they had a German who had studied Indian Art in New Mexico and stood there and said that their dances were fake, stereotypical, and harmful. And the museum with the scalp in it! They had at least the one man the documentary interviewed (if not more) tell them, directly, that keeping human remains from being properly buried was unacceptable. And yet they refuse to release it!

I can’t comprehend why every(white)one seems to think that they know better than actual Native people what will honor or hurt Native peoples. I saw SO many examples of ridiculous, self-centered illogic in this film that I just want to smack something. The fact that this entire thing sits on such a huge throne of lies is proof of the chasm of cognitive dissonance that these German faux-Indians are straddling — and ignoring — every day.

Why does someone not have the right to respectfully bury their relative? Because it’s apparently more important that some museum of white people try to prove (or disprove) whether it’s measurably your relative, and then maybe they’ll think about permitting it. Why is it okay to reproduce on a massive scale a representation that slurs together hundreds of real people groups? Because it’s all in good fun — they don’t WANT to hurt anyone, so surely no one gets hurt!

This kind of willfully blind, arrogant, asinine privilege makes me sick.

If people want to learn from a Native tribe — like one actual group rather than a conglomeration of all of them — they should do it the old fashioned way: sit at their teacher’s feet like disciples instead of stealing their stuff and selling it to anyone who’s feeling existentially insecure.

This is the same sort of patronizing, dehumanizing, self-centered exercise of privilege that gets people saying “But the Washington R**skins ARE respectful!” or even, “Calm down, I’m sure the officer had a good reason to shoot, and more importantly, why do you keep looting stuff?”

When we relate to and talk about our sisters and brothers — whether they’re of the same groups as we are or not — it is incumbent upon us to do it in a way that THEY find respectful and humanizing, not one that meets our own definition of respect.

To look at it biblically, time and time again we see Jesus empathizing with people, differentiating his words and his approach based on who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re feeling. To Zacchaeus, he said, “I’m coming for dinner.” To the woman at the well, he said, “I will give you Living Water, and whoever drinks it will thirst no more.” With Nicodemus, he had a complicated theological discussion and gave no straight answers. With the disciples, he called them to drop everything — literally everything else — and gave them the gift of his physical proximity for three whole years. In dozens and dozens of other stories, Jesus rarely does the same thing twice. He relates to each person not based on the approach that is in his “wheelhouse”, but based on their unique selves.

Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. But the willfully blind privilege of “but I meant well” loves only ourselves, at the expense of our neighbors. Focusing on “good intentions” is about keeping our hands clean, and not about truly loving our neighbor. We are not called to have good intentions. We are called to have compassion.

I truly believe that if Jesus were here today, he would say to the Apache and Lakota (and all the other Indian nations), “What do you think is respectful? How would you like to be treated?” And to the angry, grieving, frustrated black community, “I grieve with you. I feel compassion for you. How can I be with you in your pain?”

I’ll conclude with a quote from a piece that (though I disagree with its assessment of liberation theology) I think speaks powerfully to a Christian response to the Michael Brown shooting, written by Pastor Brian Loritts and titled “It’s Time to Listen”:

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just get over this [the injustices of the past]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each others skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it. Tragedies like Ferguson are like MRIs that reveal the hurt that still lingers. The chasm that exists between ethnicities can only be traversed if we move past facts and get into feelings.

…Facts are a first and last resort in a court of law, but when it comes to human relationships, let us first stop and feel, before we go to facts.The communication pyramid offers a revolutionary paradigm in our journey to understanding.

May we stop and feel what our sisters and brothers feel, as Jesus did. Amen.

In which I’m a (recovering) racist

“So, are you reading any books by Native authors?”

A few days ago, my husband asked me this seemingly innocent question, and I froze in shock.

I had just been filling him in on a little bit of the controversy behind one of the books I’m reading. It’s a book in the Dear America series about a Lakota girl who is sent to a white boarding school, and it’s written by a white woman. I won’t say anymore, because I haven’t read the book yet and I don’t want to spoil anything. But suffice it to say that I was speculating that some of the controversy involves the fact that a white author was asked to write the book instead of a Native author, and she may have made some hurtful generalizations or misrepresentations in her book.

“So lame,” I vented. “They could have gotten any number of Indian authors to write this book and it would have been so much richer. But instead it’s just another instance where white people get to tell the story of Native people. Stupid.”

It was at this point that Daniel made his astute observation.

“Are you reading any books by Native authors for your project?”

The room was still. My wheels were frantically spinning, mentally scanning my reading list, hoping, praying, but alas —

“No, I guess not.”

“Well… isn’t that a little racist?”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, self-proclaimed social justice advocate and truth-in-history enthusiast, embarked on a four-month-long intensive project to learn the “Native side of the story” of American settlement… and I didn’t include a SINGLE book written by an Indigenous person.

Well, let me tell you, I think we can all (especially me) learn a few things from this:

  1. Everyone’s a little bit racist. …or a lot bit. But the point is we all make mistakes. And clearly I will be the first to admit that I do racist things, not to mention benefiting from lots of race-based privileges. (But that’s a whole nother blog post.) Anyway, with personal racism, the important thing is to…
  2. Confess, apologize, and move on. Being called racist is only a mortal insult if you take it personally. But you know — just like any other mistake and/or sin, if you own up and honestly feel sorry, you can ask for forgiveness. And that helps make everything better. Like this: Dear friends, I confess that I am a recovering racist, and I have allowed my white-centric blinders to interfere with my learning and to make my storytelling dishonest. Not only that, but then I pooh-poohed another author for doing the same thing. (I’m also a recovering snooty hypocrite.) Please forgive me. (And thanks to Daniel for being willing to call me a racist!)
  3. Then… make it right! As I mentioned in my last Little House / Wounded Knee installment, I’m adding a few new books to my project. I took this opportunity to do some digging and discovered a wonderful series by Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwa author and fellow Minnesotan, that follows the life of a young girl growing up in 19th-century North America… much like another series I’m reading… so I’ll be reading the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, for next week’s LH/WK. (I’ll also be reading two more in the series, as well as As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie.)

In conclusion — I hope we’ve all learned a lesson about the ubiquity (and addressability) of personal racism. So remember, kids, if I do something racist, please tell me! I’ll probably say thank you! =)

(And now, if you’re following a long with the LH/WK project, back to our regularly scheduled program…)

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

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

Laura in the “Big Woods”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 4, The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

In the fourth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, freed blacks have to wait a lot and we see the best and worst of white settler behavior. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

[content note: graphic description of violence – not for children.]

“I Thought My Soul Would Rise & Fly”

i thought my soul would rise and flyThis fictional diary, based on a one-line description of a real person and other historical documents of the time, tells the story of “Patsy, a Freed Girl” right after the end of the Civil War in 1865. I found myself a little bored reading this one, probably because the main concern of most of the book was waiting. The things Patsy and the other newly freed blacks waited for were actually pretty interesting, though.

  • They waited to see if they were still emancipated now that their emancipator, President Lincoln, was dead.
  • They waited for news of their loved ones who had been sold away from them, or they waited for a chance to leave themselves. (Side note: It was cool to see how black churches came to function as community centers for support, information, education, etc.)
  • They waited for the right to vote (and women had to wait till the 1900s).
  • They waited for a white teacher to come establish the school they were promised in exchange for continuing to work their plantation. (She never came, because no one would house her.)
  • They waited for the plots of land they were promised. (Instead, most land was returned to former slaveholders.)
  • Patsy waited to see if it was still illegal for her to read and write.

Overall, it was educational to learn about how long and confusing the emancipation process was for many of these black folks. They had been forbidden to learn to read or write, they had little access to information, and they were constantly being fed misinformation by their white former owners, so it’s not that surprising that it took a while for slavery to actually be done. Not to mention that once the white plantation owners went to Washington D.C. and took their oaths of allegiance they pretty much regained their former influence, which they used to codify new restrictions on free blacks (see the “Black Codes”).

Basically, the Reconstruction Era was chaotic because of all the migration and massive socio-political upheaval caused by literally reorganizing an entire society all at once. Some blacks were able to band together and purchase land through associations (as the folks in this diary do in the epilogue), but many were roped into the “new slavery” of sharecropping and never really got a chance to stand on their own two feet.

“War Comes to the Cheyennes” & “Powder River Invasion”

In Chapter 4 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Brown relates the story of Black Kettle and the Cheyennes, who worked hard to maintain peace with white folks, even sending a few chiefs (Black Kettle included) to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. Black Kettle received from Lincoln a medal, papers, and a huge American flag, which he flew constantly and insisted would protect his tribe from being mistaken for non-peaceable Indians.

Despite this proactive diplomacy, and despite having several other local white advocates (I was happy to find a few finally, goodness!), the Cheyennes were still told to camp close to Fort Lyon to ensure that they stayed peaceable. This relatively neighborly arrangement continued under the sympathetic Major Wynkoop, until complaints from less Indian-friendly officials that he was “letting the Indians run the place” resulted in his being relieved of command. He was replaced by one Major Anthony who, along with his commanding officer Colonel Chivington, was bent on “collecting scalps” and “wading in gore” (Chivington’s words). They kept up a peaceful front with the Cheyennes and neighboring Arapahos until they had time to amass their troops. When some of Anthony’s officers objected that an attack on the Cheyennes would violate the peace treaty and “would be murder in every sense of the word”, Colonel Chivington replied, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians!” (p. 86) (Did I mention that Chivington was also an ordained Methodist minister?)

The ensuing Sand Creek Massacre was horrific. Due to the sense of safety from Major Wynkoop’s friendship and Major Anthony’s facade of peace, the Cheyenne camp was almost totally unguarded. A witness in the camp later remembered this scene:

…in the camps themselves all was confusion and noise — men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms. … I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camp. (p. 88, emphasis added)

The soldiers in this slaughter were particularly brutal, killing most of the 100-200 people and scalping and mutilating the bodies. One soldier graphically described the carnage: “In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner — men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c. …to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J. M. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them” (p. 90). Brown notes that “in a public speech made in Denver not long before this massacre, Colonel Chivington advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. ‘Nits make lice!’ he declared” (p. 90), thereby adding his name to a (sadly) long list of those who have justified extermination and genocide by comparing people to pests.

To me, this chapter illustrates both the best and worst of white-Indian relations. On the one hand, Major Wynkoop and many other soldiers lived in peace and perhaps even friendship with the Cheyenne. They knew and respected honorable behavior when they saw it, and spoke up even when their own people violated that honor. On the other hand, Colonel Chivington is clearly a man sick with hate and racism and violence, orchestrating and gleefully executing the slaughter and mutilation of hundreds of blatantly innocent people. If only, I keep thinking, if only the U.S. Government had listened to the Major Wynkoops and worked toward peace and stability instead of privileging the Colonel Chivingtons and participating in deceit, murder, and evil.

Unfortunately for Chivington’s goals of wiping out the Cheyennes, many of the tribe had been off hunting. The Indians he had slaughtered and desecrated were, in fact, the least threatening — over two-thirds women and children. The remainder of the Cheyenne split — a disheartened Black Kettle (who somehow survived) and several hundred followers headed south to join the Southern Arapahos, while the rest headed north to the seemingly impenetrable stronghold of the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux in the Powder River area to mass for a revenge attack. The Northern group defeated an outpost of soldiers and retreated to Powder River, hoping they would now be able to keep the whites at bay. (More on that later.)

Meanwhile, down south of the Arkansas River, Black Kettle and his band of Cheyennes joined with Little Raven and the Arapahos who had also been driven off of their land. Since the new territory of Colorado could be proved through previous (broken) treaties to stand on Cheyenne and Arapaho land, government representatives organized a council meeting to sign a new treaty. When Black Kettle and Little Raven argued that it would be difficult for their peoples to leave their homelands and fallen loved ones behind, they received this reply:

We all fully realize that it is hard for any people to leave their homes and graves of their ancestors, but, unfortunately for you, gold has been discovered in your country, and a crowd of white people have gone there to live, and a great many of these people are the worst enemies of the Indians…. Under the circumstances, there is, in the opinion of the commission, no part of the former country large enough where you can live in peace. (p.100, emphasis added)

What is so evident here is the instant privilege given to anyone who is white over and above anyone who is Indian, and the proprietary sense of manifest destiny. “Since we white folks have discovered gold,” it seems to say, “naturally we have a right to your land and will do nothing to prevent current and future whites from crossing your borders and taking your land.” Any white desire for Indian land is assumed and normalized — and granted — and the Cheyenne/Arapaho desire to maintain their land “just to be near their fallen ancestors” is not worth preserving in the face of such potential monetary gain. This whole statement is heavy with self-righteous inevitability.

Left with no other options to secure peace, the leaders of the remaining Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos signed the new treaty in October of 1865, agreeing to “perpetual peace” and totally relinquishing all claims to their former homeland in exchange for a tiny reservation in Kansas.

Chapter 5 of Wounded Knee is short; it details the ever-hardening resolve of both the white settlers and the federated Dakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho to entertain no other option than killing each other. We also meet our first Indian “mercenaries” in the Pawnees, who were old tribal enemies of the Dakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos and hired themselves out to the soldiers at Fort Connor. The aforementioned Connor (a general who named the fort after himself) took a band of soldiers and went out to “hunt like wolves” any Indians he could find. They destroyed a peaceful Arapaho village before being stopped and held in place by the Dakota/Cheyenne/Arapaho federation, who harried their supply trains to keep them starving and demoralized. The chapter ends at this uneasy stand-still, with the Indian alliance temporarily keeping the soldiers at bay but knowing they cannot match the firepower of Civil War arms and howitzers. We’ll read more about these tribes, I’m assuming, in Chapter 6, “Red Cloud’s War.”

The Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne: Where are they now?

Since there are many tribes in these and later chapters, I’ll try to break them up a bit and do a few at a time.

After the Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes were given a small reservation in Kansas, the land was not to their liking, so their reservation was relocated to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma. However, in 1907 the federal government dissolved all formal Indian reservations land ownership in order to allow Oklahoma to be admitted to the Union as a state. Today the state of Oklahoma has reinstituted tribal sovereignty, but in a non-land-owning way. Instead, it recognizes “tribal jurisdiction” of various sectors designated as “Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Analysis (OTSA) areas“. You can see a map of the former Indian reservations below.

Former Indian Reservations in Oklahoma

 

Today, the Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes live together in the combined Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe in western Oklahoma. Of over 12,000 enrolled tribal members, over 8,000 live in Oklahoma. In 2006, the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe worked with Southwestern Oklahoma State University to found the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College. You can learn more about the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe here.

Conclusion

This week, the common theme is how far some people will go to defend the privileges granted to them by their entrenched beliefs and power structures. To me, Chivington is the epitome of evil in the book so far — his actions turn my stomach and makes me want to shrink away. But even though it really disgusts me how evil humans can be, I also believe it’s important for us to keep reading and knowing and sharing true stories, because that’s what happened. And even though it’s hard sometimes to admit “yes, my government endorsed deception and thievery and massacre and mutilation, and I still benefit from it today,” it is still true. I feel like the very least I can do is to tell the truth as best I can.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Chapter 6 and (finally) Farmer Boy (Little House #3).

The Racial Dot Map and Me: A Cartographical Biography

So this morning I stumbled across this fantabulous interactive map that plots US Census data on a map of the United States. Each dot represents one person, broken down and color-coded by which “race box” they checked on the census. Census Map - KeyMe being a map-lover (thanks, Dad!), I just started zooming in and out and around — it’s fascinating (and somewhat sobering) to see how separated the color blocks are in a lot of places. THEN I wondered what each of the places I’ve lived looked like on this map… so I had to look them up.

In order from earliest to most recent, here are snapshots of all the places I’ve ever lived:

Omaha, NE: 1987-1992 (Blondo St.)

Census Map - Omaha

Itasca, IL: 1992-1999 (Rush St.)

Census Map - Itasca, IL

Lake Forest, IL: 1999-2005 (Deerpath Rd.)

Census Map - Lake Forest

Overland Park, KS: 2005-2010 (Eby St.) [concurrent with college] 

Census Map - Overland Park

St. Peter, MN: 2006-2010 (On-campus at Gustavus Adolphus College) [concurrent with OP, KS]

Census Map - St Peter

Liberal, KS: 2011-2012 (New York Ave.) [That’s the OK state line at the bottom.] 

Census Map - Liberal KS

Chaska, MN: 2012-present (Liberty Heights)

Census Map - Chaska

Hmm. Super interesting to see it laid out in front of you like this. No particular conclusions at the moment — just noticing a looooooot of blue in a few of those places. (Well, in all of them, but exclusively in some.) Also, population density. Dude.

Check out the neighborhood where you live! What do you notice about your area? Or what thoughts do you have about mine? =)