The History of Me: My Next Project Begins

At the end of my last reading project, I said that I had an idea for another project and would be telling you about it soon. Well, that was almost exactly one year ago… and I’m finally ready to embark on my next project. But first — a little context.

Where am I?

When I first began doing this reading-blogging-project thing, it was kind of a fluke. I accidentally stacked two books together, realized they happened concurrently, and decided to take it as an opportunity to continue my education on the true history of the Native peoples of this land and how this country came to be. I learned a lot about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation and why it’s important that we admit and honor the truth, even if it’s painful.

Then, I got curious about the land itself — while European invaders and settlers killed and stole their way to pushing the Native peoples out of their homes, what was happening in the eco-realm? The answer I found was that imperialism and destruction happened on both a human level and an environmental level, as settlers tried to literally recreate Europe in both culture and ecology.

These two reading projects answered questions I had about the historical, cultural, and ecological context in which I find myself today, as a Euro-American resident where the Plains and the forests meet. What I learned helped me to know my location — in time, in space, in culture.

But all of these questions and answers just led me to another question.

How did I get here?

Now that I know roughly my sociopolitical and geographical location — now that I’ve surveyed the landscape — what I most want to know is, how did I get here?

I’m just like the plants I read about in Changes in the Land — a European flower, growing here in space cleared by violence and colonization, but also brought here on a specific journey. How did I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, a German/Slovak Lutheran-raised woman, get all the way over here to Dakota/Ojibwe country at the start of the 21st century? Where do I come from? Who are my people? What have they weathered, what have they lost or gained, and what do they pass down to me — both good and bad?

I’ve learned a lot more about the story of this land and its people — and now I want to learn more about the story of the land my people came from before they planted themselves — and me — here.

The Plan

Over the past year, I’ve begun to dive into family history research, based mostly on the incredibly in-depth work of several other genealogically-inclined relatives in several of my family tree branches. As such, I’ve identified five places that (I think) are where my great-grandparents (or their parents) lived before they immigrated to the US.

Great-Grandparents Map v2

  1. Pellworm, Nordfriesland, Germany: Small island home of my mother’s mother’s mother (nee Clausen) and her ancestors going back as far as anyone knows. This is the closest thing I have to a home land place.
  2. Hannover (or Hanover), Lower Saxony, Germany: A fishing town that has been at the center of several kingdoms and was the home of both my mother’s father’s father’s family (Hillmer) and mother’s mother’s father’s family (Heldt), which is pretty funny, since my grandparents met and married in northwest Iowa.
  3. Lachen, Switzerland: A rural, mostly German-speaking town near Zurich at the base of a long lake (hence the name) that was the home to my mother’s father’s mother’s family. (My great-grandmother was only half Swiss, which makes me — if my math is right — 1/16 Swiss. So I won’t spend much reading time on Switzerland specifically.)
  4. Treten, Kreis Rummelsberg, Prussia (now Dretyn, Poland): A small farming town that’s traded political hands quite a few times, and is home to my father’s father’s mother’s family (Schwichtenberg) as well as my father’s father’s father’s family (Schulz).  It was part of Prussia when they left there — now it’s well within the borders of Poland.
  5. Brezno, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia): Nestled in the Lower Tatra Mountains, Brezno and its neighboring towns were the home of both of my father’s mother’s parents, though they didn’t marry until they had both migrated to the US. My grandma was full Slovak — and I’m 1/4 — so I have sprinkled in a few specific resources about Slovakia and the Slavs throughout this project.

Since these places are scattered across mostly Western Europe — though focused in Germany — I’ll be reading a mix of books focused on both Germany and Europe at large throughout the centuries. Here’s my schedule:

HoM Reading Plan v2

Since I now have a full-time job (which I didn’t when I did my last two reading projects), I’ve spread the reading out to one group per month, rather than per week. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on track.

As a fun bonus… if I stay on schedule, I will finish this reading project right before my family and I go on a family history trip to Germany/Europe to visit the cities I’ve marked on the map above!!! I’ve been researching and preparing for this project for over a year now, so I’m SUPER excited to get going and prep for our trip, which I’m sure will be very emotional for me, especially since two of my grandparents (my mom’s parents) just passed away last summer. Family history has become a lot more personal for me now.

A Disclaimer, and a Hope

Before I really get into this project, I want to be clear: I’m not really a German person. Or a Slovak person. Or a European person. I don’t speak German, I have a single “ethnic” recipe from my Slovak grandma, and even the most recent of immigrants in my family died before I was even born. Digging back into the roots of my ethnos (people group) will not suddenly make me understand the land, or turn me into an indigenous person, or bring my grandparents back, or answer all the questions I have about who I am and where I come from. As a friend reminded me when I was wrestling with some of these questions, “Germany” is a set of lines on a map, not an actual place, and reading about it won’t restore the stories of my particular ancestors. Europe is a big place, political boundaries change, and for all I know I could be genetically part Italian or Asian or Russian. There is a strong temptation for me (and, I think, for many white folks) to use rediscovering my heritage as an escape. But I can’t turn back time and flee my complicity in American whiteness and become “German” again. (And, especially because what I’d be fleeing to is Germanness, I’m particularly aware that all identities come with their own complicities and responsibilities.)

The purpose of my reading quest is NOT to nail down all the answers, or to return to some idyllic vision of “the way it was.” I know even before I begin to read that my family’s past in Europe was not idyllic, and what has been lost to the sands of the time is comprised as much of pain as of joy.

My goal is simply what it has been the last two reading projects: to emotionally engage with and attempt to understand and walk alongside the stories of a place. In this case, the place where the known stories of my family begin.

I’ve learned from both the Bible (which is full of powerful and complex stories) and the example of Native leaders in my life the immense, immeasurable power of storytelling. So now, I will read stories of Europe and of the place sometimes called Germany — because stories, like rivers, lay down layers of sediment on a place. I hope that digging my toes into each fertile layer will help me understand more about where my family once was rooted, why they chose to leave, and how I can grow my own roots here in another land.


P.S. Here are links to the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to follow along.

Little House, Wounded Knee: Beginning the Journey Toward “Un-Settlement”

NOTE: This post was originally written for and published in the January 2017 edition of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Newsletter. It was also read aloud at a September2016 church service at Church of All Nations (the recording is archived here).


I learned to read books when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology.

little house prairieBy first grade, I was hooked on my first big chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

According to my mother, I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. A book-tent on my face.)

I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. I loved that she was a tomboy who hated bonnets and dresses — just like me. Even as I grew older, I loved to follow along with the Ingalls family’s migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times, too.

Time passed. I went to college, got busier, wrote papers, got jobs, didn’t have much time for pleasure reading anymore.

Then, a few years ago, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved when I was seven. It had been 10 or 15 years since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

bury-my-heart-at-wounded-knee-dee-brownBut as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books lay Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

Ding! A lightbulb went on as I realized these two books happened at the same time.

Although what I remembered about Laura’s story was kind and fun-loving Pa, sibling love and rivalry, and the courtship of Laura and Almanzo, all of those beloved pioneer-enshrined events on the prairie happened during a largely unmentioned backdrop of Indian dispossession and genocide, black enslavement and migration, and even the Civil War!

I decided that, while I would reread the Little House books, this time would be different.

And so I began a project that spanned almost a year from conception to completion, in which I read the Little House novels in their historical context. I plotted the chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which proceed chronologically from 1838 to 1890, each focusing on a different Indian nation) and the books of Little House (which take place from 1866-1890) on a single timeline and added relevant historical events of the time. Then, since the Little House books are written for children, I searched for other historical children’s novels to help fill in some of the gaps in the timeline. Here’s the reading schedule I came up with:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

Thus began my Little House / Wounded Knee project. Over the next months, I read my reading each week and blogged my thoughts and analysis before moving on to the next assignment. I began with my childhood nostalgia still partially intact, but as the weeks progressed I began to shift my perspective from my Eurocentric view of “westward expansion” to a view of history that “faced east,” as Dee Brown says in his book’s introduction.

Today, so much white nostalgia is focused on “the good old days” when times were “simpler” and things were “better”. But as I discovered, the only reason these nostalgic white daydreams persist is because much of white America is ignorant of what “the good old days” were actually like. We reminisce about stories of our hardworking immigrant forebears, proud of their grit and perseverance. And it’s not that they weren’t determined or hardworking. But we are blisteringly unaware of the fact that our stories — the stories of white America — are told in total isolation, completely divorced from the concurrent stories of indigenous peoples (let alone black and brown immigrants, enslaved people, and settlers).

wisconsin Native tribes wLauraEven from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s very first book — Little House in the Big Woods — the disconnect is apparent. This book takes place a couple-hour drive from my house. So I did a little research to see where Laura’s cabin in the woods was on a map.

You can see that the Big Woods were already quite full of (Native) inhabitants — and yet the following is how Wilder begins book one in her Little House series:

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. (Little House in the Big Woods, p.1-2, emphasis added)

It’s literally the FIRST PAGE of the book, and already Wilder has erased at least five Indian nations and thousands of people from existence.

Honestly, it kind of gave me whiplash; I could hardly believe the casual ease with which Wilder simply writes “there were no people”. I could feel the violence in that statement when I read it. Because here’s the truth behind that casual opening paragraph: the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, bounty hunted for their scalps, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died before the survivors were legally expelled from the state of Minnesota (a law that is still on the books today). So, there WERE people. But many were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.”

That all took place from about 1852 to 1863. 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 blew my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that the renowned Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting white invasion and persuasion further west. And yet, none of this is mentioned, or even alluded to, in Wilder’s Big Woods. There is an enormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

As I continued through my reading list, I began to see these two narratives — that of the settler and that of the indigenous community — side by side.

Where before I only saw the “westward ho” adventures of the intrepid Ingalls family, now I also saw the uprootedness and disconnection of the “pioneer spirit” embedded in the founding DNA of this country.

I saw the entire story oozing with Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, treating the land as an empty place upon which European settlers “improved” — as Almanzo’s father says in Farmer Boy, “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9).

I saw the parallels between the way settlers treated the indigenous peoples and the indigenous ecosystems, as alluded to when Almanzo explains to Laura about the tree claim on his homestead. “These government experts have got it all planned. … 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…. 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” (These Happy Golden Years, p.170-1). (This quote spawned my next reading project, “Imperial Geography,” about the impact of white settlement on the land and ecosystems of Turtle Island.)

I also saw the violent disregard for indigenous humanity passed on in these “children’s” books — from less obvious little things, like constantly describing Indians as “savage,” “wild,” “yelping,” “yipping,” and “terrible,” to more apparent giveaways, such as including the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” no fewer than three times in a book whose protagonist is a four-year-old. (Side note: this phrase misquotes American Army General Sheridan, who originated the phrase when the Cheyenne survivors of two massacres cautiously approached his camp identifying themselves as “good Indians,” to which Sheridan famously replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, p. 170].)

As I delved deeper and deeper into the ugly, violent, and atrocity-filled history of American Indian “removal”, I began to be really angry at Laura Ingalls Wilder and the culture in this country that continues to think her books are good reading for children. These books are VIOLENT. They erase and dehumanize an entire CULTURE. They persistently portray Indians as subhuman and savage, and they portray a blackface minstrel show as a jolly evening of entertainment.

At first I thought, no one should ever read these books! But the more I sat on it, the more I thought the opposite: everyone — especially white Americans — should read these books, but with a critical eye. Because these stories of Ma and Pa and eking out a living on the “wide open prairie” are inextricably wound up in the mythology of this country.

We still believe this country is founded on lofty ideals, even though it’s actually founded on theft, murder, and slavery. We still believe that the mainstream white narrative is the truest and most important story. We still believe that we can make our country better by using and consuming the land, that we improve the land by our efforts. We still believe that the stories of black, brown, and Native communities are ancillary appendices that we can choose to leave out and not miss much.

These are blatant and harmful lies.

Mark Charles, a Navajo pastor, speaker, and blogger, often speaks of the need for a common memory before the people here in this land can attempt reconciliation. And if white America is ever going to move forward in the effort toward racial justice and healing, we need to take a long, hard look at the stories we tell ourselves about the way things used to be. We need to mend the rift in the stories we tell, stitch back together the narratives of the settlers and the indigenous peoples, and look with honest eyes on the tall tales of our pioneer heritage. We need to let go of our nostalgia for a time that never was and instead begin the process of undoing what we have done, of pulling up our stakes, of beginning to be “un-settlers” in a land not our own.

—–

Rebekah Schulz-Jackson lives in Minneapolis with her husband and housemates and works toward unsettled-ness with the beautiful community at Church of All Nations. You can read more about the Little House / Wounded Knee project at thesjs.com/littlehousewoundedknee.

If you’re interested in Rebekah’s reading list, here is a full list of all books/articles she read:

  • Little House on the Prairie boxed set of original 9-book series (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown)
  • The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung, A Chinese Miner (Laurence Yep)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)
  • Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past (Diane Wilson)
  • Emancipation Proclamation; Gettysburg Address (Abraham Lincoln; found online)
  • I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (Joyce Hansen)
  • The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West (Lillian Schlissel)
  • My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl (Ann Rinaldi)
    **Do not read this book without also reading Debbie Reese’s review of this book, found on her excellent blog, American Indian Children’s Literature.
  • As Long as the Rivers Flow (Larry Loyie)
  • The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee (all by Louise Erdrich)

A Letter to My Fellow White Christians about #BlackLivesMatter

blacklivesmatterDear Fellow White Christians,

Here’s the deal: I’m a little confused.

I hear some of you talk about why you don’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and I don’t get it! So I thought I’d talk about it in a blog post (especially since I already talked about it on Facebook, so consider this a more organized recapturing of a great conversation with some of you, friends). First off, the basics…

Don’t ALL lives matter?

Or, as presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently commented, “When I hear people scream, ‘black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. … I think he’d [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

To this I say, yes, he would be appalled — we just need to get on the same page about which “some lives” are being elevated more than others!

When I think about the question “What are black lives worth?” the first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in U.S. History class — the 3/5 clause written into the U.S. Constitution. According to our most sacred founding document, black lives are literally worth just over one half of white lives.

The second thing I think of — again from history class — is slavery. In 1860, an enslaved black person’s life was valued at around $800, or around $130,000 in today’s currency. (I thought that sounded like a large sum — then I thought about how I would feel if someone offered to pay me $130,000 in exchange for unlimited physical labor for my whole life and the right to separate me from my husband and family at their convenience. I no longer find it a large sum.)

To me, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is about reminding the rest of us that black people are created in the image of God, too. Consider this powerful paragraph from a New York Times article I posted earlier today:

The Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police, and is of a piece with this history [of the Civil Rights Movement]. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. (emphasis added)

Let me say that again: saying that Black Lives Matter DOES NOT MEAN that “other” lives don’t matter. It simply seeks to correct the false belief, prevalently visible throughout our country’s history, that black lives matter less by speaking the truth even louder: in other words, not just BLACK lives matter, but Black lives DO matter!

But what about BLM’s questionable methods?

Okay, you may say, fine — a noble goal. But this just isn’t the same as the Civil Rights movement. That was about respectable, peaceful protest, and these folks’ methods are rude and not okay.

Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. Even this black former Civil Rights activist has some questions about BLM’s methods and leadership. That said, here are two thoughts I would like you to consider as you continue to form and inform your opinion:

1. Practice listening to black people.

I’m not black — and neither are you, dear fellow white Christian. It’s not our movement. So when I am talking about BLM, I defer to and try hard to LISTEN to black people, especially before I open my big mouth and start to tell other people how to run their movement. Just like that Jesus guy. He was really good at listening to people’s pain and asking thoughtful questions before offering his opinion.

Additionally, I implore you to stay away from sensationalist exaggerations like that Dr. King would be “appalled” or “rolling in his grave.” First of all, this is just an emotion-yanking tactic to try to invoke a sense of violation of one of our most beloved and popular-to-invoke figures. Secondly, remember that the reason we don’t actually know what Dr. King would think is that he was shot by a white supremacist. As this thoughtful and hard-hitting reflection by a black activist puts it, “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.” So next time you think of invoking Dr. King’s ghost on a black activist, maybe consider another tactic instead. Remember, the authorities on being black in America are black people. So even when it feels hard, even when it feels uncomfortable, cultivate an attitude of listening, not scolding.

2. Remember that the black community is NOT monolithic.

Just like the white community, the Christian community, the Minnesota community, etc etc, black people often disagree with each other! (Shocking, I know.) Some black people will support BLM’s methods and some won’t, but they are entitled to their opinions! If someone thinks interrupting political candidates on stage is a good idea, go for it! If someone thinks that’s rude and won’t get the movement anywhere, more power to ’em! This debate and disagreement is part of making our way forward together, and I think it’s unreasonable for us white folks to hold the BLM movement to standards so high as to not allow for normal growing pains and disagreement as BLM finds their way.

So you’re anti-cop? Don’t Blue Lives Matter?

No! First of all, let me state very clearly: killing police officers is not okay.

Police perform a difficult and invaluable function in our society, and I think it’s appropriate that cop-killers receive harsh punishments in our society. THAT BEING SAID…

Using “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” or saying that “cops are now being killed indiscriminately” (as one of my friends stated) is a falsehood and gross misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, this site that tracks the deaths of law enforcement officers says that deaths of officers in the US due to gun violence in 2015 total 24 and are DOWN 20% since last year. Overall line-of-duty deaths total 83 and are down 2% from last year. Hardly an escalation to “indiscriminate” open season on police!

By contrast, The Guardian estimates that police in the US have killed upwards of 500 people this year so far. Additionally, in examining a claim that “police kill more whites than blacks”, Politifact found that while this claim is true, it’s true only because whites make up more than 50% of people in the US, and in fact, “When comparing death rates, blacks are about three times more likely than whites to die in a confrontation with police.” 

SO — again, I reiterate that I am saddened by the deaths of police doing their best to “serve and protect” — this should not happen. I do NOT support hatred towards police (nor does BLM) and I support efforts to bring officers home safely and alive from their rounds of duty. But bringing this up as a way to minimize or dismiss claims about the systemic bias against black people by our society and by our law enforcement practices is misleading and ignores the very real concerns of the BLM movement about consistently high rates of black deaths by police officer in comparison to other racial groups.

What about BLM telling black people to kill white people?

After a lot of Googling, I found one article from a sort of questionable-looking source I’ve never heard of claiming that the “leaders” of BLM had told their followers to “kill a white person, hang them from a tree, upload a pic to social media”. Apparently this occurred shortly before the tragic shooting of two young news professionals in Virginia — the implication being that BLM is implicitly (or explicitly) responsible for the death of these two young people.

Two things.

First, look at the names of the “main ring-leaders” this site lists: Carol “Sunshine” Sullivan, Nocturnus Libertus (Sierra McGrone), Palmentto Star, and Malcom Jamahl Whitehead. Now, look at the names of the founders of the BLM movement, according to Wikipedia, the BLM website, and an article by the Associated PressOpal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Notice anything? Hint: the names don’t match. It’s okay to be alarmed that somewhere, a couple of black people are making threatening statements about killing white people. BUT, it’s also important to recognize that most groups have radical extremists. As my friend on Facebook aptly pointed out, “It’s like pro-life people killing abortionists, it tarnishes the message.” Yes, friend — yes, it does. Which is why generally these extremists — both these couple black people talking about killing white people on the radio and the few pro-life people who advocate murdering abortion doctors — are generally viewed as extremists, and NOT as representatives of the movement at large. Ergo, if you are pro-life, you have just as much moral ground to support that cause as BLM advocates have to support theirs — you both have the preservation of undervalued life as your core goal, and you both have tiny splinter groups of extremists who think that taking life is an appropriate way to achieve that goal. (In fact, I find that the BLM movement should align perfectly well with conservative Christian views about the sanctity of life — one of the most challenging Christians I know is a deeply faithful and conservative black pastor who is a staunch pro-life advocate as well as a staunch #BlackLivesMatter supporter.)

Secondly, while receiving threats of being killed, hung from a tree, and photographed simply for being born with a certain color of skin can be pretty terrifying, I’m pretty sure black people have received that threat wayyyyyy more times than they’ve made it. Between 3,000 and 4,000 black people were actually lynched (aka killed and hung from a tree) in the U.S. between about 1850-1960. And those are only the ones that were actually carried out! As for the “post a pic” part — many of these lynchings of black people were not only attended by spectators as if they were sporting events, but profiteers actually made photo postcards of the lynchings that included the bodies of the black victims, and white people actually sent these to their friends!! (Sound like horrific early social media photo posting to anyone else?)

I’m not saying that this makes threatening white people’s lives okay — but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are NOT isolated incidents, but parts of a larger social and historical narrative of race relations in our country.

Okay, but what about black-on-black crime?

Okay. Here’s the thing.

Yes, statistics show that there tends to be more crime among black communities than among white communities. HOWEVER, as this article points out, “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said. “It is the most difficult and searing problem in this whole mess.” The article also said that when you control for poverty, (poor) whites have about the same rate of crime as (poor) blacks. SO, until we can fix poverty and/or erase the poverty gap that currently disproportionately affects the black community, we will continue to have more crime in the black community. And they will continue to have more encounters with the police. And they will continue to be killed at a disproportionate rate to whites. And that is not okay. Hence #BlackLivesMatter, because the rest of us need a reminder sometimes when it’s not right in our faces.

Additionally, notice how I said “black communities” and “white communities”? That’s because, as mentioned in this excellent article addressing the question of black-on-black crime,

African Americans are twice as likely to live in black neighborhoods, not because they necessarily want to but because, most of the time, they just have to. With limited social mobility in comparison with whites, most black families can’t just pack up, leave and move to Any Location USA. Instead, they find themselves in majority-black neighborhoods, many of which are ravaged by stubborn trends of low income, poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

Oh yeah, and crime. But not because those neighborhoods are black “hoods” or black people are culturally or genetically predisposed to homicidal crime. Areas challenged by poverty indicators, as this Census Bureau American Community Survey analysis shows, are places where “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.” Some of the 10 most dangerous states in the nation admittedly have large—20 percent-plus—black populations concentrated in urban centers, but they’re also places with the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The article also notes that

The three most dangerous states in America are Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—all states ranging from 70 to over 80 percent white. And not so surprisingly, 6 out of 10 dangerous states are places with open-carry gun laws, which Stanford University researchers suggest contribute to an overall spike in aggravated assaults. Yet we’re loathe to call any of that an upward trend in “white-on-white crime,” just as you wouldn’t hear Russian President Vladimir Putin lamenting the rise in “Russian-on-Russian” murder rates (among the highest in the world, and higher than those in the United States).

So basically, let’s stop focusing in on “black-on-black” crime as a thing.

BUT even if you really want to, I say to you this: even if black-on-black crime is a problem that needs addressing, why do you assume it’s not being addressed? A quick search for “what is the black community doing to prevent black on black crime” quickly reveals that there is already much being done to address this issue — including this conference specifically about addressing crime in black communities, which is celebrating its 30th year! I think it’s safe to say that the black community is well aware of this issue, and don’t need us to remind them.

In conclusion…

If you still have qualms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, gentle reader, that’s okay. My point isn’t to force you to agree with me. My point is to help us all think deeply and self-critically about the hidden assumptions we hold about black people, how our value of people stands up to God’s value of people, and the role of protest in our shared life together. I hope you’ll keep an open mind — I try to! — and I hope you’ll feel welcome to continue to ask questions, do research, and pray about how we as white Christians might best come alongside our black (and brown) sisters and brothers to communicate in ways that can’t be misunderstood, “Your life MATTERS, to God and to me!”

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 14, Maturity & Minstrels

In the fourteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Omakayas and Laura are both growing up, and I discover a terrifying surprise… Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Game of Silence

game of silence - louise erdrichIn the sequel to The Birchbark House, we pick back up with Omakayas and her family of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people the following year. The book begins with a rather terrifying event: the arrival of an entire village of starving, frightened people who have left their village never to return. Their village has been destroyed by the Bwaaneg (a neighboring and apparently horrifying tribe). The silver lining of this is that we get to see the automatic and deep hospitality of Omakayas’s people, who immediately clothe, feed, and house an entire village of people, just like that. And for the long haul, too. Omakayas’s family basically adopts a baby boy, which Omakayas appreciates since she has a baby-shaped hole in her heart.

As the book progresses, this early foreshadowing of the threat of the Bwaaneg is coupled with the growing threat of the whites from the east, who are insisting that the Anishinaabe must move further west — right into Bwaaneg territory. This plotline is not really resolved by the end of the book, and I imagine it will be dealt with more thoroughly in The Porcupine Year (BBH #3).

I appreciated being able to see the Anishinaabes’ reaction to this demand from the whites in a fictionalized/narrative format, since I’ve already read it so many times in Wounded Knee. Omakayas’s people decide that if they are being asked to move, someone must have broken the treaty — so they literally send an expedition of men to travel around to all the different villages to ensure that they have kept their word before they decide how to respond to the whites. That is integrity, right there! Unfortunately when the men ascertain that they have, in fact, KEPT the treaty, they discover that it’s just that the whites broke it. Surprise surprise. (Not to me — but it is to them a bit. Remember, this book takes place earlier than most of the events of Wounded Knee.)

Other than the increased interaction with and mention of whites in this novel, the other thing I really noticed and appreciated was the level of insight into Anishinaabe society and child-rearing. Over and over again I got to see the care with which Omakayas’s family not only teaches her important survival skills (like gathering food or processing animal hides), but helps her to identify and grow her unique personality and calling as a member of her people group. Check out this amazing quote from an elder after Omakayas dreams a dream that helps her people:

You have done a great thing…. Gizhe Manidoo gave you a very great gift, but you must remember that this gift does not belong to you. This gift is for the good of your people. Use it to help them, never to gain power for yourself. For as soon as you misuse this gift, it will leave you. Mi’iw minik! (p.221, emphasis added)

WOW. This is such a powerful affirmation of Omakayas personally, but it also redirects that sense of value and purpose back to Omakayas’s role in her community. Her gifts are not simply for her to enjoy — they are given in order to serve and bless others. And if they are not used for their intended purpose, there will be consequences. What a powerful and meaningful moment in a young person’s life! This especially struck me in contrast to LHotP, where Laura is also taught responsibility, but in a way that subsumes her personality. Here we see that it is not only possible but WONDERFUL to teach children responsibility AND affirm their unique personalities.

Okay, enough parenting talk. =)  A quick note about the title — it refers to a game the elders use to teach the children to practice silence. It struck me as a slightly more fun version of “children should be seen and not heard” — and it also weirdly reminded me of a game I still played when I was in school — “INDIAN SILENCE, ONE TWO THREE GO!!!” Anyone else? Apparently our weird “Indian” game may actually be based in a grain of truth… much like many other stereotypes…

As I prepare to read The Porcupine Year, I’m really looking forward to seeing how Omakayas will continue to grow into her adult role in the community and [[SPOILER WARNING!!!!]] how the Anishinaabe will survive the Bwaaneg and still try to appease the whites.

Little Town on the Prairie

little town on the prairieIn this, the seventh book in the Little House series, the town of De Smet, South Dakota is beginning to grow into a “real town”, and as it does we get to see more of the accouterments of “civilization” in the 1880s. For example, the town gets a church, there are several parties, and a Literary Society forms and even hosts a town-wide spelling bee! (Hilarious.) We also — HOORAY!! — finally get to see Mary go to college!

This development of the town handily parallels the entering of Laura into relative adulthood. (Despite being not quite sixteen, Laura is in the most advanced class at school and she and her friends begin to be concerned with keeping up with trends in fashion and other social niceties. Laura even is forced to begin wearing a corset, which is a SAD DAY.) Laura fully participates in nearly all of these new events, and we see her take on even more of an adult role in helping Ma and Pa continue to care for her two younger sisters (Carrie and Grace). Laura even gets a job (nearly unheard of at the time for “respectable” girls) sewing piecework in town — and then studies for her teaching certificate — all in order to help pay for Mary’s college tuition.

By the end of the book, we also see more clearly the beginnings of Laura’s relationship with Almanzo Wilder. Throughout the book, Laura is aware of Almanzo — he’s the one with the beautiful horses who saved the town over the winter! — but one of the other girls is infatuated with him, so Laura doesn’t really pay attention. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, Almanzo all of a sudden starts talking to Laura and offering to escort her home from things. (Apparently he’s heard feisty tales about Laura from his sister, who was Laura’s school teacher, and was impressed!) Their courtship will comprise much of the next book, so it’s kind of funny to see how their acquaintance begins a bit randomly.

On a cultural note, there was one APPALLINGLY AWFUL thing in this book that I DID NOT REMEMBER from reading these books as a child: a minstrel show. For those of you who don’t know, a minstrel show is a comedic song-and-dance schtick popular in the mid- to late 1800s (though they still appeared as late as White Christmas in the 1950s!) where the performers put on blackface and act out stereotypical black characters, such as the “Mammy”. These shows are pretty much a giant pile of “let’s all laugh at stereotypical jokes about black people!!” I think my mouth dropped open at the first illustration and stayed that way through all nine repetitions of the word “darky”:

little house minstrel showThe whole crowd was carried away by the pounding music, the grinning, white-eyed faces, the wild dancing.

There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.

When the five darkies suddenly raced down the aisle and were gone, everyone was weak from excitement and laughing. (p.258-9)

Pa is even one of the performers — he’s the one playing the bones.

Once I got past my shock that this was in a children’s book that is so widely recommended in schools, I had a few thoughts:

  1. These events take place in 1881, at pretty much the height of minstrel shows.
  2. This book was first published in like 1940, only forty years after the height of minstrel shows, and a time when segregation was still legal.
  3. This event portrays an accurate picture of what sorts of things have happened in our past.
  4. Even though #1-3 are all true, I still feel pretty icky when I read this. Especially since there’s no CONTEXT for this! If a (white) kid just reads this book for fun, there is ZERO context or explanation to help them understand that this was a racist and degrading part of our racist and discriminatory history, and that they should not go call a black person a “darky”. Let alone how it makes black kids feel!

Not to mention the delightfully folksy impromptu speech by the town’s only elected official on the 4th of July:

Well, boys, I’m not much good at public speaking, but today’s the glorious Fourth. This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe. … They had to fight the British regulars and their hired Hessians and the murdering scalping red-skinned savages that those fine gold-laced aristocrats turned loose on our settlements and paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children. (p.72, emphasis added)

Holy terrifying and unopposed racism, Batman! That is NOT the Independence Day story I would want MY children to read! At this point, any brownie points Author-Laura gained from having Pa somewhat defend Indians have been wayyyyyyy outweighed by the repeated and un-contradicted negative and violent depictions of Native peoples.

Anyway. Let this be the decider — if you are planning on reading these books with your children, prepare to explain/discuss lots and lots of discriminatory remarks and events! They will quickly gain a pretty good historical understanding of systematic oppression in our country’s history. The fact that this sort of thing is treated so normally — minstrel shows are normal, Ma hating Indians is normal, a mayor denigrating Indigenous peoples at a public event is normal — tells us a lot about the inherentness and ubiquity of racism in our country’s history and structures. We have a lot of work to do.

Conclusion

What really is almost laughable is rereading the line from the 4th of July speech — “murdering scalping red-skinned savages, paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children” — and then scrolling back up to read about the Anishinaabe carefully investigating their keeping of the treaty and Omakayas being gently and thoughtfully raised to responsible adulthood by her elders. These two depictions of Native people are about as opposite as it’s possible to be. And that dissonance, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m glad that I’m doing this project, and why I’m glad that resources like American Indian Children’s Literature exist. Because while that gap is slowly shrinking, it certainly is still there. Just go to a football game in Washington. (Or don’t.)

Tune in next week for The  Porcupine Year (BBH #3) and These Happy Golden Years (LH #8).

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 12, Long Winter & Legality

In the twelfth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, the Ingalls (and the rest of North America) survive the Long Winter and the Poncas and Utes struggle with the law. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Frozen: Ingalls Edition

long winterOkay, Frozen jokes aside, The Long Winter is actually a pretty stark novel. In it Laura tells how her family and the other residents of De Smet, SD survived the seven-month-long blizzard-full hard winter of 1880-81.

The main theme of this book, of course, is survival. The first blizzard strikes in early October, cutting short the growing season and resulting in a fairly modest harvest for most crops. As the winter continues, the storms are so frequent and so severe that the train tracks become impassable and De Smet is cut off from all outside supplies. That means no coal, no kerosene, no store-bought salt pork, and no flour — which means no heat, no light, no meat, and no bread. As a result, the whole town (and especially the Ingalls, as there are six of them!) is forced to severely ration what food they have. Since there is also no wild game — all the critters having instinctively run off to their warm hidey-holes — this brings them all to the brink of starvation.

For the Ingalls, the supply shortage means they must grind raw wheat in a coffee grinder to make “flour” and twist hay into hay sticks for “logs” for the fire. As the long winter sets in and grinds down the Ingalls’ spirits, Author-Laura’s writing gets more vivid as she describes and even personifies the seemingly unending blizzard:

Next morning [Laura] got out of bed into the cold. She dressed in the chilly kitchen by the fire. She ate her coarse brown bread. She took her turns at grinding wheat and twisting hay. But she did not ever feel awake. She felt beaten by the cold and the storms. She knew she was dull and stupid but she could not wake up.
There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing. The storm was always there, outside the walls, waiting sometimes, then pouncing, shaking the house, roaring, snarling, and screaming in rage. (p.309-10, emphasis added)

The sense of dull, desperate, downtrodden discouragement here is palpable. I mean, really — imagine that on October 1st you got several feet of snow dumped on you, and then that kept happening over and over again for SEVEN MONTHS, with no access to the outside world, including food, and no electricity or decent fuel for a fire to keep warm. It’s clear that surviving this blizzard was a significant event in the lives of those who lived through it! (You can read more about this historic winter here.) One thing I kept wondering about was how the Indians stuck on reservations were able to survive, since they were essentially prisoners and often their supplies were “forgotten” in the hustle and bustle of Washington bureaucracy.

In this book, we also get to see a bit more of Almanzo, who has moved to De Smet with his brother, Royal, to file for a homestead. (More on him later.)

Wounded Knee Ch. 15: Standing Bear Becomes a Person

ponca original land map
Ponca original land map

The 15th chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follows the Ponca, a tribe indigenous to what is now South Dakota / Nebraska. In 1868, their land was accidentally granted to the Lakota in a treaty, and in 1876, although they had no history of conflict with the US, they were included in a list of Plains tribes to be exiled to Indian Territory (aka Oklahoma). Though they protested, a troop of soldiers marched them southward anyway.

By 1878, a year later, a fourth of the Ponca were dead. A Ponca chief, Standing Bear, was asked by his dying son to bury him in their homeland. Standing Bear and a band of companions put his son’s body in a wagon and began their funeral procession journey north, but the US agent had them stopped and arrested in Omaha, to be returned to the reservation.

However, General Crook (who had previously fought against various Indian tribes but apparently had grown some sympathy over time) was moved by Standing Bear’s commitment to honoring his son’s last wishes. Crook alerted the local press as to Standing Bear’s plight and stirred up public opinion in Standing Bear’s favor. He also helped to bring a case before the courts to try to assert Standing Bear’s right to habeas corpus — which includes the right to not be taken anywhere (aka back to the Rez) against his will.

Initially a judge refused to hear the case, stating that “Indians [were] not persons within the meaning of the law” (p.360). Thus ensued a civil rights lawsuit, Standing Bear v. Crook, where Standing Bear sued for his legal personhood and thus his right to habeas corpus. He won, and the judge’s written decision stirringly defends Native personhood (while still describing them as second-class people…). Not only were Standing Bear and company able to complete their burial journey, but they were permitted to settle in their homeland. And there was much (white reporter) rejoicing — a “happy ending”!

The Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to keep this ruling from applying to other Indians, lest the resulting knowledge of freedom make the other native peoples “restless with a desire to follow [Standing Bear’s] example” (from a BIA document) and upset the BIA’s carefully crafted reservation system. This played itself out almost immediately thereafter in the case of Standing Bear’s brother, Big Snake. When he and a small group of Poncas decided to test the law by traveling 100 miles from their reservation in Indian Territory to the Cheyenne reservation, General Sherman ordered, “The release under writ of habeas corpus of the Poncas in Nebraska does not apply to any other than that specific case” (p.364). When Big Snake resisted imprisonment, he was shot and killed, and the rest of the Poncas were returned to Indian Territory, leaving the tribe split between Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Although I’m glad some reporters started to pay some attention, their goals were too local and short-sighted to have much of an effect on the course of Indian-US relations.

The Poncas: Where are they now?

Today the Poncas are still split between the two areas where Brown’s narrative ended: Nebraska and Oklahoma. Under the Dawes Act of 1891-2 the US Government dissolved the Poncas’ reservations in both Nebraska and Oklahoma and allotted land to individual members, with any remaining land sold off to speculators. In the 1950s, the northern Ponca group organized and became the federally-recognized Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Although they now have over 2,700 enrolled members, they are still trying to piece their ancestral lands back together and they are the only federally-recognized tribe in Nebraska without a reservation. The southern Ponca lands are also still individually held, and the tribe is part of Oklahoma’s Tribal Statistical Area system. Today they are are federally recognized as the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and have 4,200 enrolled members. You can read more about both branches of the Ponca here.

Wounded Knee Ch. 16: “The Utes Must Go!”

Original Ute Domain MapThis chapter follows the Utes, a tribe indigenous to the Rocky Mountains area. Their first treaty with the US left them control of their land west of the Rockies — but the US got mineral rights, and thus white prospectors could traipse wherever they liked. The Utes understandably did not enjoy this arrangement, plus the US decided they wanted to try to gain the land itself, so another talk was convened. Ouray, the straight-shooting representative for the Utes, held out for as many concessions as he could. But when the US government refused to enforce settlement restrictions on white squatters, the Utes sold their mountains for $25k per year — plus $1k annually for Ouray, as long as he remained head chief. What followed was ridiculous and awful:

  • The Utes were assigned a new agent by the name of Meeker who brought in some white farmers and craftsmen to teach the Utes how to create their own “agricultural commune” of his invention. Meeker’s personal mission was to “elevate and enlighten” the Utes from their “savage” state to “the enlightened, scientific, and religious stage” of development, which, of course, he had attained. (All this despite the fact that the mountain-dwelling Utes were completely self-sufficient without any outside help at all.)
  • In his faux-academic pompousness, Meeker wrote an article about how the Utes were hopeless and their reservation land belonged to the government, anyway — an article which was then picked up by (white) newspapers as fodder to fuel the removal of the tribe. The Governor of Colorado at the time, Gov. Vickers, got especially involved. He and a wealthy/greedy compatriot even began to spread false stories about the Utes (e.g. blaming them for forest fires in the region) because he wanted access to the wealth of land and minerals held by the Utes. Their rallying cry was “The Utes Must Go!”
  • Meeker, continuing his misguided attempts to “civilize” his Ute “children”, ordered a plowman to plow up the land the Utes used to graze their ponies. They tried to dissuade Meeker and the plowman, and then fired several warning shots to scare the plowman off. This incident, combined with a fairly gentle shake of Meeker’s shoulders (“What are you thinking??”) by one of the Ute chiefs, resulted in Meeker writing a letter requesting protection from the Army because of the “assault” on his person. Soldiers responded that they would march and camp at the Milk River, just outside Ute territory.
  • When the soldiers came, they decided not to stop at the Milk River and instead marched right into Ute territory — and right into a group of angry young men who had been trying to stay clear of what was supposed to start out as peaceful talks. A firefight ensued.
  • When Utes back at the agency heard about the fight, they assumed the worst and took violent action. They took over the agency, killed Meeker and all the white worker men, and captured and raped the three white women. Ouray sent word to stop all the fighting — but the damage was done.

After the fact, events were sussed out and blame assigned. I appreciated Dee Brown’s assessment of the coverage: “The fight at Milk River was called an ambush, which it was not, and the affair at White River agency was called a massacre, which it was” (p.388). There’s never a good excuse for killing innocent people, although I can now better understand why the Utes had plenty of reasons to freak out when soldiers unexpectedly marched toward them. Of course, Governor Vickers took the opportunity to give a nice statement to the local papers which pretty much laid his motivations bare:

My ideas is that, unless removed by the government, [the Utes] must necessarily be exterminated. I could raise 25,000 men to protect the settlers in twenty-four hours. The state would be willing to settle the Indian trouble at its own expense. The advantages that would accrue from the throwing open of 12,000,000 acres of [Ute] land to miners and settlers would more than compensate all the expenses incurred. (p.388, emphasis added)

In the end, the Utes were rounded up and banished to a reservation in Utah “on land the Mormons did not want” (p.389). Other than a small strip in the southwest of the state, by mid-1881 there were no indigenous inhabitants left in the state of Colorado.

The Utes: Where are they now?

The Utes (after which the state of Utah is named) are today divided into three main groups, each with their own reservation. The Northern Utes (population about 3,000) are now consolidated onto the 4.5-million-acre Uintah and Ouray Reservation, which is the second largest Indian Reservation and is located in northeastern Utah. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe numbers just over 1,000 and is located on a reservation in a small strip of southwestern Colorado. The Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation is located near Four Corners and is home to the Mountain Ute Tribe (population around 1,300); also nearby is Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which contains many Anasazi ruins and is frequented by tourists from around the world. You can read more about all the Ute peoples here.

Conclusion

There is a ton going on here, and I’ve already touched on some of the individual themes within each section above. But when I put all three of these pieces together, what really stands out to me is that when it comes to US laws and enforcement thereof, double-standards abound.

Several times in Little House, we see both Pa (on Osage land) and Almanzo rationalizing their choices to disobey US laws. Here’s an excerpt from the section in The Long Winter where Almanzo justifies deceiving the homestead agent:

When he came West, Almanzo was nineteen years old. But that was a secret because he had taken a homestead claim, and according to the law a man must be twenty-one years old to do that. Almanzo did not consider that he was breaking the law and he knew that he was not cheating the government. … Almanzo looked at it this way: the Government wanted this land settled…. But the politicians far away in Washington could not know the settlers so they must make rules to regulate them and one rule was that a homesteader must be twenty-one years old.
None of the rules worked as they were intended to. Almanzo knew that men were making good wages by filing claims that fitted all the legal rules and then handing over the land to the rich men who paid their wages. Everywhere, men were stealing the land and doing it according to all the rules.
Anybody knew that no two men were alike. (p.90)

Here you can see how Almanzo simultaneously rejects and embraces the US government. On the one hand, he writes them off as “those silly Easterners who don’t understand life out West”; on the other hand, he claims to understand and embrace the true aim behind the laws: to get the land settled. Besides, he seems to say, everyone else is breaking the spirit of the law, and I’m only breaking the letter. To me, this is fairly unremarkable as classic disconnected politician rhetoric — by itself.

But then we add in this portion from Brown’s story of the Utes:

Brunot [the US government negotiator] replied frankly that if the government tried to drive the miners out [of Ute land], this would bring on a war, and the Utes would lose their land without receiving any pay for it. “The best thing that can be done,” he said, “if you can spare these mountains, is to sell them, and to have something coming in every year. … We could not keep the people away.”
The miners care very little about the government and do not obey the laws,” Ouray [the Ute representative] agreed. “They say they do not care about the government. It is a long way off in the States, and they say the man who comes to make the treaty will go off to the States, and it will all be as they want it. … Why cannot you stop them?” Ouray demanded. “Is not the government strong enough to keep its agreements with us?” (from Wounded Knee, p.370-1)

And also Sherman’s blatant instruction that the court ruling in Standing Bear v. Crook “does not apply to any other than that specific case”. 

Why is it okay for Pa and Almanzo to reason their way around the law and still embrace the US Government, but the law doesn’t apply at all when it would legally benefit Indians? In other words, how is it that the Utes and other Indians follow the law and get stomped while white settlers blatantly disregard both laws and government but can still rely on protection by the US Army? Why would the US government rather stomp Indians than enforce its laws on its own disobedient white settler citizens… who say the government is soft and dumb?

The answer is racism, and the power that comes with it. To the primarily rich white male US Government, the bonds of whiteness (“civilization”) are stronger than the bonds of rightness. Racism and privilege and power and greed trump law-abiding honor, because honor doesn’t get you as much power and wealth.

So when white anti-government settlers break the law in a way that harms Indians, instead of privileging Right or even Sovereignty or Legality and siding with their fellow Nation the Utes to enforce the law, the US undermines its own laws, sides with the white law-breaking settlers, and forces the Utes to relocate “or else”. Let me say that again, just to be clear: the US Government helped white settlers to break its own laws! It completely sacrificed all integrity to serve the greed of pioneers and politicians who looked at the Rockies and saw only minerals and 12 million acres of “profitable” land.

I’m gonna be honest — I just don’t get it. I mean, cosmically I do — sin and evil and all that — but it’s just so illogical, so irrational, so inconsistent, so hypocritical, so massively wrong. Especially from a bunch of people who frequently mention the “enlightenment” of their “advanced and christianized nation” (p.372). Pretty sure Christ never endorsed this.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 17, My Heart Is On the Ground, and As Long as the Rivers Flow.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 10, Bucking Broncos & Beat-downs

In the tenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, black rodeo heroes ride broncos and Indians get repeatedly beaten down. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Black Frontiers

I was excited this week to finally get to read Black Frontiers, a kids’ book (with lots of pictures!) about black Americans on the “frontier” in the late 1800s to early 1900s. There were some cool stories of some pretty tough individuals. My favorite features of this book were:

  1. Jesse_Stahl black cowboy
    Jesse Stahl, widely considered the best bronco-rider of his time.

    All the awesome old photographs! I always love being able to actually look at photos of what life was like for these folks.

  2. The focus on the substantial black community of cowboys and rodeo-ers. I was somewhat exposed to this when I read the Diary of Joshua Loper, but I really enjoyed seeing photographs of real African-American cowboys and rodeo champs, such as Bill Pickett and Jesse Stahl. I didn’t realize that there’s a significant history of black rodeo-ers even today.
  3. The acknowledgement of the mingling between the African-American and Indian communities. There is an entire section devoted to examples of interaction and mixing between Natives and blacks — both free and enslaved (mostly slaves who ran away to enjoy freedom in a Native tribe).

I loved the specific examples in this book. There was even a shout-out to Kansas City Negro League baseball, which is cool because I’ve been to the Negro League museum in KC! Awesome and educational to learn about real people and how they survived (and sometimes thrived!) despite some of the difficulties of this time period.

One thing I didn’t love was that the tone of the book was decidedly pro-settler. I felt uncomfortable at the repeated use of “red men” to describe Indians generally, there was a really long quote from a book that used “r–skin” repeatedly (with no context or disclaimer given), and the book mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers capturing “the dangerous Apache chief Geronimo” (p.57). While I appreciated that the black community was fleshed out, I felt like we got an expanded settler perspective at the expense of perpetuating stereotypes about Indian savagery and Otherness. It could have done better and been more compassionate, I think.

BUT, as I said, I appreciated an expansion of my mental picture of “settler”. Lots of good stories of real life black folks, making it work and thriving on the prairie despite being segregated from most white folks.

Wounded Knee — Three Chapters!

I’ll give a few notes on each of the three chapters I read this week, and then I’ll comment on them as a whole.

Ch. 12 – “The War for the Black Hills”

As the title suggests, this chapter follows the struggle for the Black Hills, focusing around 1874-5.  A previous treaty in 1868 granted the Oglala right of refusal over any whites who would seek to settle in the Black Hills. But when gold was discovered there in 1872,black hills map hundreds of white settlers forced their way in. Their presence was used as justification for why the Indians “needed” to sign a treaty granting the US ownership (or at least mining rights) of the Black Hills, because “we can’t stop the settlers from settling, so you’d better leave so that you can be safe.” 

In an attempt to crack down on “hostile” Indians who would neither sign the treaty nor report to an agency in the dead of winter, General Custer (assisted by Shoshone and Crow scouts) attacked a large hunting group/settlement composed of Oglalas (including Crazy Horse), Brules, Sans Arcs, Blackfoot Sioux, Cheyennes, and Hunkpapas (including Sitting Bull). Brilliant tactician Crazy Horse and Gall, Sitting Bull’s lieutenant, led the defense as Custer and his troops attacked up the Bighorn River. When Gall and the Indian warriors realized that Custer and his men were totally surrounded, they closed in and killed them all. This event is known in history books as “Custer’s Last Stand”, or “the Battle at Little Bighorn”.

The sensational news of an “Indian massacre” spread like wildfire back east, and the US Government lost what little restraint it had. They couldn’t punish Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse or other “hostile” Indians, because they still roamed free, so they cracked down on Indians who were under their control; Indian residents of reservations became “prisoners of war” despite the fact that they had no connection to the battle. Additionally, the US drafted a treaty ceding the Black Hills to the government and “dropped strong hints” that they would “cut off all rations” (p.300) unless captive chiefs signed, so they did.

Roaming bands of soldiers killed off-reservation Indians they encountered out of revenge. Survivors fled to join either Crazy Horse and the Oglalas, or Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapas, who decided to flee to Canada. After constant flight that drove the people to starvation, Crazy Horse and his Oglala-and-friends group surrendered. Crazy Horse was bayoneted and died while resisting imprisonment, and the people were shipped south to a reservation far away from the one they were promised in their home country.

Ch. 13 – “The Flight of the Nez Perces”

nez-perce-map
Dark green = Nez Perce reservation today. Light green = land ceded to US. Brown = Columbia Basin, much of which Nez Perce roamed seasonally.

This chapter began with a bit of history about the Nez Perces’ long-standing friendship with white settlers, beginning with Lewis and Clark (who gave them their name, which means “pierced noses” — even though the Nez Perces don’t practice nose-piercing). This friendship extended for 70 years, during which Nez Perces boasted that “no Nez Perce had ever killed a white man” (p.317).

White settlement and a subsequent treaty resulted in the loss of a large chunk of Nez Perce land, and whites attempted (over the objection of Chief Joseph) to establish a white-run school. However, the discovery of gold in the remainder Nez Perce territory pushed the situation to a boiling point. Men with dollar signs in their eyes spread reports in Washington, DC that the Nez Perces were “a threat to the peace,” and Chief Joseph was told that he and his people had a month to clear out of their remaining small valley to make room for white settlers. Chief Joseph urged his people to go peacefully — but several angry young men killed 11 whites in revenge. The people elected to flee to join Sitting Bull in Canada.

On their flight north, the Nez Perces evaded major conflict with multiple soldier groups who were patrolling the region. Finally, a group of soldiers caught and surrounded them within a few days’ walk of the Canadian border. To ensure the safe conduct of his people, Chief Joseph surrendered. Overnight a determined few Nez Perces slipped away and ran until they found Sitting Bull in Canada, but the majority of the people were shipped not to their promised reservation near their homeland but south, where hundreds died of malaria and heartbreak. Despite imprisonment, Chief Joseph remained an impassioned speaker on behalf of his people:

Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. … I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises. … You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. … I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.
          Let me be a free man — free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself — and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty. (p.330)

Despite his Declaration of Independence-like appeals, Chief Joseph lived out his life in exile, deemed too dangerous to be released to join the rest of his people, and died in 1904 of (according to the physician) “a broken heart”. (p.330)

Ch. 14 – “Cheyenne Exodus”

This chapter follows the Northern Cheyenne, and can be summed up pretty well by two statements from two N. Cheyenne chiefs:

All we ask is to be allowed to live, and live in peace. … We bowed to the will of the Great Father [President] and went south. There we found a Cheyenne cannot live. So we came home. Better it was, we thought, to die fighting than to perish of sickness. … You may kill me here; but you cannot make me go back. We will not go. The only way to get us there is to come in here with clubs and knock us on the head, and drag us out and take us down there dead. (Dull Knife, N. Cheyenne – p.332)

We have been south and suffered a great deal down there. Many have died of diseases which we have no name for. Our hearts looked and longed for this country where we were born. There are only a few of us left, and we only wanted a little ground, where we could live. We left our lodges standing, and ran away in the night. The troops followed us. I rode out and told the troops we did not want to fight; we only wanted to go north, and if they would let us alone we would kill no one. They only reply we got was a volley [of gunfire]. After that we had to fight our way, but we killed none who did not fire at us first. My brother, Dull Knife, took one-half of the band and surrendered near Fort Robinson. … They gave up their guns, and then the whites killed them all. (Little Wolf, N. Cheyenne – p.331)

After the surviving Northern Cheyennes were corralled, they were transferred to Fort Keogh, where many enlisted as Army scouts. Noted one Cheyenne scout, “For a long time we did not do much except to drill and work at getting out logs from of the timber. … I learned to drink whiskey at Fort Keogh.” (p.348)

A few thoughts…

In terms of the story arc of this book’s window of Indian history, I can tell that we’re approaching the climax/end. It’s clear that the conflict at Little Bighorn was a major turning point in US-Indian relations, resulting in the loss of any appearance of fairness or need for justification on behalf of the US Government. The Army increasingly flattened all Indian peoples into a savage stereotype crystallized by reports of the massacre at Little Bighorn. Out of necessity many tribes were forced to somewhat flatten and fuse into conglomerate multi-tribes — survivors banding together to grasp at any straw that might mean a peaceful home. But we see that the US is increasingly determined that no Indian will be able to have a free and peaceful existence. As I read through the twists and turns of the Nez Perce flight to Canada, the feeling of claustrophobia was palpable. There is no escape anymore.

And what awaits Indians once they are caught or surrender? Either death, if they resist at all (like Crazy Horse), or a sedentary life of enforced inactivity and boredom. I’m no longer surprised that the Native community on reservations has struggled with alcoholism, suicide, and depression. When you are consistently viewed as inhuman by your oppressors; when you get dogged attention when you’re an obstacle and no attention to the point of starvation when you comply; when your hard-fought submission to the powers that be is then turned back on you as an example of your own nuisance and worthlessness; when you are told that you can’t live peacefully on your land, can’t hunt, can’t farm, can’t have a gun, can’t have a horse, can’t visit anywhere else because you can’t leave the Rez, and most of all you can’t bother the Authorities even if you’re starving — but you CAN sit on the Rez and drink whiskey — well, when you’re that beaten-down and restricted, you’re really vulnerable and that’s not a very healthy place to be stuck in.

It’s just…. broken. And hopeless.

Conclusion

I cannot overstate the feeling of weightiness and long, incessant bludgeoning that I get from reading about all of this trauma and oppression — and I’ve only covered from 1860-1880 so far! I mean, yeah, I’m an empathetic reader, but honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could survive this amount of historical and cultural and PERSONAL trauma and still be able to get up in the morning. I feel inadequate and speechless to describe the chasm that I feel from the mere echo of the stories of these many First Nations and their people’s lives.

The Nez Perces and N. Cheyenne: Where are they now?

I decided to end with this so it would be a little less hopeless. Also, the Oglalas and Hunkpapas play a big role in later chapters, so we’ll save them for later.

After many deaths from malaria in the south, the Nez Perce people were allowed to return to the Lapwai Reservation, closer to their homeland in the northwest. Today the federally-recognized Nez Perce Nation still inhabits that area, which is located in present-day north-central Idaho and is home to 18,000 Nez Perce. Additionally, descendants of the “Chief Joseph group” of Nez Perce (kept in exile from the rest of their kin) today live on the Colville Reservation in present-day north-central Washington with 11 other tribes. You can read more about the Nez Perce here.

The Northern Cheyenne were eventually granted a piece of land on the Tongue River in present-day southeastern Montana for their reservation. Today that land is the modern Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, home to about half of the 10,000 enrolled tribal members. I also noted that the N. Cheyenne reservation encompasses part of Custer National Forest and is only 20 miles from the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn (aka “Battle of Greasy Grass”, to the Lakota). You can read more about the Northern Cheyenne here.

Tune in next week for By the Shores of Silver Lake (LH #5) and The Birchbark House (Birchbark #1). (And watch for a note about this new addition to my list…)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 8, Cattle Drives and White Papers

In the eighth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, a black cowboy travels the Chisholm trail and Indians struggle against white storytelling. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy

chisholm-trail-mapThe book I read this week was The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy: The Chisholm Trail, 1871. (p.s. Joshua Loper is a real person, and this book is based on his journal.) It’s written by Walter Dean Myers, who is pretty much the best. I was impressed throughout the book with how well he was able to weave LOADS of historical information into a story that also was a good story in its own right. Mad skills! But enough about Walter — let’s get to the story.

We meet sixteen-year-old Joshua Loper as he joins a cattle run up the Chisholm Trail in 1871. Joshua is one of three Black men on the expedition, along with two Mexican men and seven assorted white men. Here are my overarching thematic takeaways:

  • I learned a lot about cattle! Myers did his research, and it showed. We learned about the methodology of driving a herd of wild cattle across the prairie, the various “positions” of the riders around the herd, and the behavior of cattle.Plus Myers even worked in phrases like  “my rear end felt like I had spent six months trying to hatch a porcupine” (p.43). Hilarious. These kinds of details really bring the story to life.
  • The Civil War and Slavery still loom large. Although the war ended in 1865, its effects are still strongly visible in the book. Captain (the leader of the expedition) is so called because he was a captain for the Confederacy, and at one point when the group encounters some (mostly Black) Buffalo Soldiers in blue Captain puts on his gray army coat and has a weird standoff with them. At another point in the journey, Joshua notices some Black folks laboring in the cotton fields under a white overseer. He comments to his friend that they look like slaves, don’t they know they’re free? His friend retorts, “They ain’t got no money and no land and no learning. What’s free about that?” (p.38) One other note — this book doesn’t spend much time on the KKK, but it does mention that it was founded in 1866, immediately after the Civil War ended. (Did not know that!) Which leads us to…
  • Racism. It’s everywhere. Probably the most pervasive element of the book (other than cows and horses) was the racism faced by Joshua and the other Black people in the book. From the get-go, Captain “did not want to take three Coloreds on the drive” (p.4). Then later on the drive, some visitors come to the group because “We heard you had a reading Negro over here” (p.87). Joshua can, in fact, read and write (hence the journal), and he does read from a newspaper aloud for everyone, and feels proud of his learning. That being said, I got a bad taste in my mouth over the fixation about “a reading Negro” — it felt like they were talking about a zoo animal or something. He’s not a dancing bear — he’s a PERSON!
  • Same Osage as Laura… only different. On their travels to Abilene, KS, Joshua’s group actually passes right through Oklahoma (which was then all Indian Territory) and the Osage land where the Ingalls squatted back in Little House on the Prairie. (In fact, in LHotP Pa works for passing cowboys in exchange for a cow and some beef.) Here, the Osage make a brief appearance to charge essentially a toll to pass through their land. So same Indians, and similar length of “screen time” in the book. But the talk ABOUT Indians is a little different. The men on Joshua’s trip argue a couple times about Indians — whether they’re good or bad or “like us” — and I really appreciated how Myers was able to be real to the times (racism) while also humanizing the Osage. On the one hand, in a tall tale about Powder River a cowboy mentions the popular belief that an encounter with Indians would result in “hav[ing] my hair parted from the underside” (p.31). Later, however, another cowboy allows the Indians some humanity: “Taking stuff you need is part of life these days. Most of the land around here belonged to the Indians ‘fore we took it. And most of the cattle and all the horses we’re pushing know how to speak Spanish” (p.40). This simple statement acknowledges that Natives are people from whom property could be taken. It acknowledges that injustices were done to Natives (both on the “American” and “Mexican/Spanish” sides) WITHOUT trying to justify them with “Manifest Destiny”. But it still feels real the times and the characters. Brilliant writing.
  • The Cowboy Era was short. In the book, Joshua gets one look at the “boom and bust” cowboy life when all his mates blow their paycheck in the “big city” of Abilene (haha) and decides that he won’t do this forever. In the historical notes at the end, we learn that by 1890 the cattle industry had become sufficiently industrial as to no longer require humans to round up large drives of wild cattle to rail stations. So the Cowboy Era was a short bridge between pre-beef and beef-industrial-complex.

Although the Cowboy Era was super short (1860-1890), it has come to be this iconic thing in American Lore. What I really appreciate about this book is how it fleshes out the cowboy legend to be (a) more human and nuanced (like with debates about Indians instead of just caricatures) and also (b) more diverse — like it really was! Although the casts of most Westerns are primarily white, the cattle driving industry was actually one of the few post-Civil War job opportunities for many newly freed blacks. The racial and ethnic diversity of the “Wild West” is a big part of the American story that often gets overlooked, I think.

“Cochise and the Apache Guerrillas”

Apache map prior to US settlement
from Wikipedia

Chapter 9 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee focuses on three of the many subgroups of the Apaches: the Chiricahua (led by Cochise), the Tonto (led by Delshay), and the Aravaipa (led by Eskiminzin). After having dealt with incursions by the Spanish for many years previously, the Apaches (then led by war chief Mangas Coloradas [Red Sleeves]) clashed with both Bluecoats and Graycoats during the Civil War, despite an earlier peace treaty signed with the US in 1852.

In 1863, Mangas voluntarily rode into a US Army camp under a flag of truce to discuss peace (even though his people wouldn’t let him ride in until the soldiers also raised a white flag). After the commanding officer reportedly said “I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand, I want him dead (p.198), that night the two guards heated their bayonets in the fire and touched them to Mangas’s feet and legs while he tried to sleep. When this goaded him into sitting up, the soldiers fired on him with their muskets and “emptied their pistols into his body. A soldier took his scalp, another cut off his head and boiled the flesh away so he could sell the skull to a phrenologist in the East. They dumped the headless body in a ditch. The official military report stated that Mangas was killed while attempting escape” (p.199).

Unfortunately, this deliberate goading by white soldiers isn’t new — we’ve seen it before — but what is increasingly twisted to me is the greater and greater dehumanization of Native people by their killers. Maybe it’s only because of how it’s organized in this book, but it seems to me like the progression of murder to mutilation is going even farther over into weird commercialization. We saw the start of this with Colonel Chivington, whose troops took body parts as battle trophies, but now the body part harvesting is going commercial with the sale of skulls as curiosities out East. Not only does the killer want to gloat over his enemy, but now he wants to donate their body parts to “science”. It just feels ever farther twisted.

Anyway. After this, the Apache obviously wanted revenge (and/or to defend themselves…). Here’s what happened to each of the tribes this chapter follows:

  • Eskiminzin and the Aravaipa Apaches surrendered. They were settled as technical prisoners of war near Camp Grant, and so were under the protection of its commanding officer, Lieutenant Whitman. The Aravaipa began to farm and the neighboring soldiers and ranchers were impressed by their industry and hired them as laborers. Then, after four Tucsonites were killed by other Apaches (55 miles away from Camp Grant), Whitman got word that a posse had gotten together to attack the peaceful Aravaipa under his protection. Whitman immediately sent messengers to warn them and bring them safely inside the camp, but when they got there “they could find no living Indians” (p.204). The death toll eventually came to 144 Aravaipas, mostly women and children. Whitman assured the few survivors that he would ensure the Tusconites were brought to justice by testifying at the trial — but after 19 minutes of deliberation the jury acquitted them all, and Whitman was forced to retire in disgrace. Eskiminzin, heartbroken, said, “They must have a thirst for our blood… These Tucson people write for the papers and tell their own story. The Apaches have no one to tell their story.” (p.206) Eventually the rest of the Aravaipa were forced onto various reservations.
  • Cochise and the Chiricahua Apaches fled to the Chiricahua Mountains. For a while, Cochise stayed hidden. Eventually he agreed to meet and discuss peace. Cochise insisted that any reservation for the Chiricahuas must include their mountains. Initially this was the agreement, but when Cochise got word that an order had been issued to move his people off their land they all quickly fled. When another US emissary finally caught up with them, he stayed with the Chiricahua to negotiate and was so enamored of them that he arranged for them to have the reservation that they wanted, including part of their mountains. (There’s more… but that’s another chapter.)
  • Delshay and the Tonto Apaches offered to discuss peace. When they received no response, Delshay decided that since he had signed no treaty he could move about as he pleased. The US didn’t like this, and so sent Major George Randall (aka the Gray Wolf) to contain the Tonto. After surrounding the Tonto and forcing surrender, the soldiers took them to an existing reservation, where the already-there Coyoteros did not appreciate company and where the Tonto were forced to wear dog tags to ensure no one could leave without permission. Homesick, Delshay and the Tonto fled to another reservation on the Rio Verde closer to home, where they were promised they would be safe. When a soldier was killed in a nearby uprising, Delshay was accused of aiding and abetting the perpetrators. In 1874 the Gray Wolf issued a bounty for Delshay’s head and received not one but two heads.

What really stands out to me in all of these stories is the lack of power that the Apaches had. No matter what they do — whether they want peace or want to resist — the Natives are completely subject to the whims of the US Government. Even the Chiricahuas — who ended up relatively well compared to the others so far — got what they got only because some white guy liked them and pulled a few strings. Eskiminzin (chief of the Aravaipa) sums it up well with his comment about the white Tucsonites controlling the press. The Apaches were talking, but few white folks in power listened. Not to mention the fact that the papers are written — white communication style — rather than oral — Native communication style. So the Apaches were forced to depend on white intermediaries. And even if they could find a willing advocate to tell their story, some were able to protect and help them and some were not.

The Apaches: Where are they now?

The exact breakdown of different Apache groups (and even the name “Apache”) is somewhat muddled, mainly because various outside folks classified the peoples differently at different times, and then of course there’s how the Apache prefer to group themselves. But here, roughly, is what I could find:

  • Yavapai Arizona Reservations Map
    #2 and #19 are Yavapai; #18 is Tonto. Click picture to go to the interactive map.

    The Aravaipa Apaches apparently melded into other Apache groups after the massacre at Camp Grant. I couldn’t find much about them today. But you can read a really cool history of the Aravaipa people here at Apaches Tell Their Stories.

  • The Chiriacahua Apaches appear later in Wounded Knee, so I’m going to wait on their “now” segment…
  • The Tonto Apaches today are spread across several reservations, including the smallest (in land) reservation in Arizona. After the reservation on the Rio Verde was dissolved in 1875 (something I bet I’m going to read about soon…) many Tonto joined up with neighboring Yavapai and are part of the modern Yavapai-Apache Nation. The Yavapai-Apache reservation is located in several small chunks in central Arizona and is home to about 750 people.

You can read more about all the different Apache groups here.

Conclusion

This week I’m especially struck by the power of agency in telling the story. Joshua was proud of his ability to read and write; he could tell his own story and it gave him greater opportunity, while the black cotton pickers he passed were either uninformed or unable to escape their situation. The Apaches were taken advantage of and killed by white folks who told their story so strongly and loudly that they literally get away with murder. If telling your own story doesn’t save you, then you’re forced to rely on other people to tell it for you, and that places you in a precarious position because you never know when they’ll start telling whatever version of your story they want. Again, I can see why to this day there is still so much tension and anger around white people coming in and writing about Native people. White folks have been writing about Indians for centuries, and what I’ve read so far (ironically, also written by a white dude) suggests that it rarely ends well for the Indians.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 10 & 11 and On the Banks of Plum Creek (LH #4).