Interlude: What Counts as “German”?

Hi folks!

After reading my last post about Norse mythology, my husband said “Norse? That’s like Scandinavian, right? But I thought you were German!” So I wanted to post a brief explanation about that question and talk about how I’ve chosen to approach the issue of what to include in my “German” reading project.

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Bad News: No “German” Myths

The reason I chose to read about Norse mythology for this project is that, well, there really isn’t much specifically “German” mythology left — that’s the bad news.

The main reason is that Christianity took root in some places (including most of what is now Germany) before the local stories and beliefs could be written down. H. R. Ellis Davidson fills us in:

By the time the great nations emerged, and men thought of Anglo-Saxon England or Merovingian France as established powers, most of the Germanic peoples had given up their heathen beliefs and adopted Christianity.

… In Scandinavia the new Church was much longer gaining a foothold. Not until the tenth and eleventh centuries were the people of Norway converted….

Thus we see why we can learn comparatively little about the heathen myths from England and Germany, where Christianity was established early. We have to turn for information to Scandinavia, where a vigorous heathen population flourished for centuries after Augustine sailed for Kent…. (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p.11-12)

So by about 1000 AD, most of Europe was converted to Christianity, other than a few scattered pockets. (I’ll read more about that process later.) Around 200 years after that, Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar who wanted to preserve the great poetic tradition of the scaldic (Norse) storytellers before it was wiped out, wrote The Prose Edda, which is the most complete compendium of these stories that we have today. So European indigenous beliefs’ most complete surviving iteration is Norse, because they were in Iceland when they were finally written down.

The Good News: It’s All Norse to Me

The good news in terms of my reading project is that Germanic mythology, based on what we know of it, was similar to and interwoven with Norse mythology. As I mentioned in my last post, Odin was called Wodan in the Germanic tradition. So when we read Norse myths, we’re really reading versions of German/Germanic myths.

Picture this as a comparison: imagine Greek and Roman mythology as we know it today — except that Greek folks never wrote their stories down, but Romans did. What would we still know today? Probably we would refer to all the gods by their Roman names, and while a few Greek names would be known, the most complete version of the pantheon would be Roman. BUT, a lot of the elements would still be the same. That’s basically the state of German mythology — gone before being recorded, but preserved in a “cousin” Norse form by an Icelandic historian.

So, What Does This Mean?

I hope this helps to cast a little more light on the challenge of “rediscovering” ancient German/Germanic culture and story. But honestly, though it may seem a little contrived to put all these seemingly disparate pieces together, I think it’s more authentic this way. Because ancient “Germans” didn’t live in a vacuum of only German folks — they interacted and intermarried with people around them. Norse mythology isn’t tied up in a neat little package — it’s messy. Different gods and goddesses evolve and mesh into each other. Stories change or contradict each other. Elements get borrowed from neighbors (such as a Norse myth featuring a huge cauldron, which is a common symbol in the mythology of the Celts across the sea in what is now Britain).

The point is, I’ve done my best to assemble things that help me imagine and connect with what we know about the stories of ancient Europeans. If I can’t find something about people who lived in my ancestors’ specific birthplaces, that’s okay — because the idea is to begin to understand the mindset, the spirit, and the connection to the land, not get every exact detail right. Even hearing creation stories from my Anishinaabe and Dakota relatives helps me begin to learn these things — and that’s not even the same continent! — so I can certainly learn important lessons from some Swedes and Celts. 🙂

Anyway, I hope this helps to lay out some more of my thought process as I look back in time and space. I’ll be reading some more Scandinavian books, as well as at least one book based in Celtic story, so we will have plenty of opportunities to practice putting the pieces together to better understand the stories of ancient Germanic peoples.

 

History of Me, Part 1: A Journey through the Nine Worlds of Norse Myth

In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Opening the Word-Hoard*

Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:

  • First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
  • Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
  • I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
  • I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.

Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!

I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.

I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.

Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).

The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).

Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.

Norse Cultural Values 101

For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family  (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.

Resilience / Fatalism

One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:

We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)

So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)

To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.

The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.

No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)

Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.

Humor and cleverness

One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.

For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.

(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)

Sadness / Emotional expression

I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.

My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.

Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.

Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)

Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:

So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.

I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.

I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)

There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths  — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.

A brief note about that fairy tale book…

Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.

Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.

When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)

Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.

Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)

*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂

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.


A Note about Whiteness: I want to be super clear about the context and goals of this reading project, because I recognize (and was recently reminded) that white folks investigating their heritage can sometimes go to a really dark, violent place. So this is me being very clear:

I am looking into German/Germanic/European history and culture as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. I denounce and repent of the ideology of white supremacy and all its works and all its ways.

Moving forward, I will be posting a shortened version of this note/disclaimer on each post in this project. If something I write seems to be teetering on the borderline, PLEASE leave a comment or message me in some way. I want to be accountable to do this in a way that deconstructs whiteness, not reinforces it.

For more context on how I’m hoping to approach this, check out this super excellent article on differentiating between whiteness and individual European cultures.


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)

What to Watch Wednesday: My Favorite Miyazaki Movies

After watching a documentary about iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, I decided I wanted to watch all of Miyazaki’s feature films in order. So I checked them out from the library and thus #Miyazakiathon 2015 began!

The Quick Summary

If you don’t want to scroll through all 10 films, here’s the bottom line: If you want to watch an excellent Miyazaki film, I’d recommend either Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or My Neighbor Totoro. Those were by far my favorites because the characters were so real — I legitimately teared up watching both of them because I was so invested. And if you like a little magic, Howl’s Moving Castle is my next favorite, just because I’ll always have a little special place for it in my heart — not many successful kids’ movies have a hilarious old lady protagonist!

The Play-by-Play

If you want more details, here are my brief thoughts on each film, in the order they were released (which is the order I watched them). Enjoy!

miyazaki nausicaaNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984): WATCH IT!!!! Right now!

[Trailer]

I LOVED this movie! I loved Nausicaa’s confidence and authority, but also how those traits (which usually show up in spades in kickass heroines) grow from her compassion and peace. Plus the world — with all the forest creatures and the different kingdoms — is really cool. SUCH a good film. So many cool plot twists, great characterization of multiple characters, cool flying scenes, beautiful animation of plants and critters — plus Patrick Stewart!! But seriously — I loved this movie so much and was so invested that I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I *may* have cried. And moped around the house after I finished because my insides were all feelz-y. This is an amazing film. Go watch it right now.

miyazaki castle in the skyCastle in the Sky (1986): SKIP IT

[Trailer]

WUT. This one was just a miss for me. There were so many cool ideas here — more cool airships, a race between pirates and the army, a magical flying city in the clouds — but it just didn’t come together. I felt like Miyazaki had a cool plot idea and then wrote a whole movie driven by the plot with characters thrown in to go along for the ride. The people all felt flat and lifeless, and by the end of the movie I still didn’t really know what was going on. Not to mention the pirates somehow went from menacing to bumbling and friendly at the drop of a hat. Not my favorite, but I liked the robots.

miyazaki totoroMy Neighbor Totoro (1988): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

From the first minute of this film, I already loved it. Totoro is a great movie for the reason that Castle in the Sky was not: it’s all about the characters! Mei and Satsuke are SO precious and relatable and ALIVE — they carry the film. And random and adorable forest spirit creatures are just icing on the cake. This movie is a most wonderful combination of human and bizarre. Love, love, love!

miyazaki kikiKiki’s Delivery Service (1989): MAYBE WATCH IT (if you are a kiddo)

[Trailer]

This one was pretty good — a little simpler, but entertaining enough. It follows the adventures of Kiki, a young witch who flies her broom to a new city to begin her year of training. It felt kinda shallow to me, but there are some entertaining bits, including some cool flying scenes and a sassy black cat sidekick. Daniel (who watched it with me) said, “This is a great movie for kids!” I concur.

miyazaki porco rossoPorco Rosso (1992): SKIP IT… and pretend it never happened!

This was one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s about an Italian WWI pilot who is cursed by being turned into a pig… and then there are a bunch of seaplane pirates… and a couple random women… and there’s no real clear point or plot or resolution. And a monotonous Michael Keaton voices Porco Rosso, so it’s like the boringest dialogue ever. …Let’s just forget this movie ever happened.

miyazaki mononokePrincess Mononoke (1997): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

Wow. I’ve heard of this one before (and maybe watched it in high school and didn’t really get it, lol), so I began watching with great anticipation. I have to say… this is one of those films that at the end you can only say “…Wow.” Now, I will warn — this movie is very steeped in the culture and spiritual traditions of Japan, and it can be grotesque and violent at times. So if that’s not your deal, don’t watch. But if you can keep that in mind, I think this movie is well worth its 2+ hours. This movie weaves a complex web of deep stuff — feminism, industrialization, violence, deforestation, tradition, revenge, spirituality, nature, anger, healing — you can’t help but feel like you’ve seen and taken in more than you can understand. Powerful and mysterious.

**NOTE: Just for the record, the princess’s name is NOT Mononoke — mononoke means “spirit”, so the title is loosely “Spirit Princess.”

miyazaki spirited awaySpirited Away (2001): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

It’s really hard to explain this film. Basically, a girl and her parents wander into an enchanted bath house where they get trapped, and the girl has to figure out how to survive and try to rescue them all. That’s the plot, but what was the most interesting to me was the depth of interesting spirit-y stuff — what I can only assume is a lot of folkloric references. And the determined, spunky good-heartedness of the protagonist is very heart-warming. The one thing I will say is I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending. But definitely worth a watch if only for its imagination and introduction to Japanese folklore, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

miyazaki howlHowl’s Moving Castle (2004): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

This is the first Miyazaki film I ever saw, and it’s still one of my favorites! Based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, this movie follows Sophie, a plain girl who gets cursed and joins a mysterious sorcerer, Howl, to try to undo her curse. Not only is this film creative and fun, but it also features Billy Crystal as a sassy fire demon. SO GOOD!!! You can’t help but enjoy this one. =)

miyazaki ponyoPonyo (2008): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

This film, which is sort of a Japanese Little Mermaid (only with little kiddos, and wayyyy cuter and less angsty) is pretty good. Not super deep — but despite spending most of the film just thinking “Well, okay, this is pretty cute” I actually felt kind of emotional once we got to the big climax scene. I think there’s just something about how good-hearted Miyazaki’s characters are that is especially on display here. Definitely geared more toward kids, but a fun watch.

miyazaki wind risesThe Wind Rises (2013): SKIP IT (unless you’re a history buff)

[Trailer]

I was really excited to get to this movie, because in the documentary I watched Miyazaki said he partially made this film in memory of his father, and after the first screening he said this was his first movie where he moved himself to tears watching it. But I think the emotion must be beyond my grasp, because I found it interesting but not particularly compelling. Basically this is a movie based on (but very much embellishing) the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the Japanese Zero fighter plane. I found it interesting just to learn a little about Japanese culture at the time, and it also includes the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 — and there’s a love story that they added in — but by the end, I felt like it was a little long and dry.

Well! Miyazakithon 2015 is now officially complete! There were a couple lemons in there (mainly just Porco Rosso…) but overall when I think about it, I’m just really impressed that one person could create so many films that are so creative and powerful and touching and enjoyable. I really enjoyed my favorites — and I hope you’ll give them a try sometime! =)

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 13, Boarding Schools & B.S.

In the thirteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, I read a crappy book, a good book, and a fantastic critical review, and I finally meet Geronimo. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

My Heart Is On the Ground is a crappy book.

my heart is on the ground cover ann rinaldi
Do not pay money for this book!

There’s just no other way to say it, folks. Despite the fact that I knew there was some controversy surrounding this book, I tried to come at it with an open mind. I’ve actually read 8-10 other books by Ann Rinaldi, who is a prolific author of children’s historical fiction, and I really liked some of them. So I really, really tried to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

But once I started reading, there was no denying the awfulness.

From the start of the novel, where Rinaldi has the protagonist, Nannie Little Rose, write her “die-eerie” in stereotypical broken “Indian English”, to the afterword, where Rinaldi says of the Carlisle Indian School children whose gravestones inspired her to create this novel, “I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it” (p.196) — this novel is just bad.

And not only is it bad — it’s just plain fake.

The whole time I was reading, my Spidey senses were tingling. Wouldn’t Nannie say “Lakota” and not “Sioux”? Why did she just blame her chiefs for giving away their land? Did she just describe white people as “very powerful” and say that “They know almost everything on the earth’s surface and in the heavens, also!” (p.7) ?? (No, I did not make that up.)

When I got to the end, I immediately read a review of the book co-authored by Debbie Reese (who runs the blog American Indian Children’s Literature) and eight other native and non-native women. And there, I learned that my Spidey senses had been right.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I will simply excerpt some of Ms. Reese & co’s fantastic article below. I strongly recommend reading the review in its entirety, as it is impressively thorough and very educational in and of itself. (All quotes below are from the above-linked article by Reese & co. All emphasis is mine.)

In response to Rinaldi’s depiction of Native children wanting to stay at Carlisle rather than go home with their parents:

In her autobiography, Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi) remembers that parents taught their children to play a game similar to hide-and-seek to avoid being taken away to boarding school. In Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940, Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe) reports:

“The most painful story of resistance to assimilation programs and compulsory school attendance laws involved the Hopis in Arizona, who surrendered a group of men to the military rather than voluntarily relinquish their children. The Hopi men served time in federal prison at Alcatraz” (p. 13).

Many children died at Carlisle, and they died running away from the institution. Child (1995), in her study of boarding schools, found that running away was a universal thread that ran across boarding schools and across generations. Physical and emotional abuse, including sexual abuse, is well documented in the stories of survivors of the boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Children were beaten and worse for not understanding English, for speaking their languages, for minor infractions of military rule, for running away, even for grieving. Many died of illnesses, many died of abuse, and many died of broken hearts.
On Rinaldi’s appropriation and story-invention of the names of the children who died at Carlisle:
Appropriation of our lives and literatures is nothing new. Our bodies and bones continue to be displayed in museums all over the U.S. and Canada. For the last hundred years, many of our traditional stories have been turned into books for children without permission and with little if any respect given to their origins or sacred content. Now, Rinaldi has taken this appropriation of Native lives and stories one step further. That she would take the names of real Native children from gravestones and make up experiences to go with them is the coldest kind of appropriation. These were children who died lonely and alone, without their parents to comfort them. They were buried without proper ceremony in this lonely and sad place. Native people who visit the cemetery today express a profound sense of sadness.
On Rinaldi’s lack of both accuracy and cultural authenticity:
Contrary to Rinaldi’s statement in the historical note that “most of the graduates were able to earn a living away from the reservation,” and “others went on to higher education,” evidence points to the opposite. Earning a living “away from the reservation” meant going into Indian service and working on a reservation or agency— or in one of the dozens of off-reservation boarding schools modeled after Carlisle. And very few children graduated. Of the total population of 10,000, only 758 students—or fewer than 10%—graduated. More students ran away than graduated—1,758 runaways are documented.
The events in My Heart Is On the Ground are not plausible. In 1880, a Lakota child of the protagonist’s age would have been well-educated by her aunties and grandmothers in Lakota tradition and lore, and ways of seeing the world and behaving in right relation to it. She would probably have had younger children to care for, as well as older sisters in her extended family, her tiospaye, to emulate.
A Lakota child in 1880 would not have referred to herself as “Sioux.” (beginning at p. 6) It is a French corruption of an enemy-name used by the Ojibwe. She would have referred to herself by her band (Sicangu) or location (Spotted Tail Agency) or from a much smaller familial group, her tiospaye. And she would certainly not have referred to Indian men as “braves.”
On putting stereotypes in a Native protagonist’s mouth:
Throughout, Rinaldi uses stereotyped language to express Lakota (or “Indian”) speech and thought patterns. These include over-emphasis on compound words (e.g., “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us,” “Time-That-Was-Before,” “night-middle-made”) to “sound Indian,” when there is no basis for such use. For instance, Rinaldi makes up the term “Friend-To-Go-Between-Us” as Nannie’s word for “interpreter.” Yet there is a Lakota word for “interpreter”: iyeska, literally, one who speaks well. The original term meant “translator,” since most translators at the time were the mixed-blood children of Indian women and white traders.
In response to every possible objection:
Individuals in the field of children’s literature may dismiss our concerns and ask, “But is it a good book?” We think not. From a literary perspective, it lacks consistency and logic. As a work of historical fiction, it is rife with glaring factual errors. As a work of “multicultural” literature, it lacks authenticity.
Seriously, folks — I cannot overstate the awfulness and potential damaging-ness of this book. Please, if you ever see someone about to read it, kindly say to them, “I’ve heard there are some major inaccuracies in that book…” and then send them a link to AICL’s review. (Here it is again, just to keep it handy.) There are WAY better books about both young Native people and the history of Indian boarding schools.
Speaking of which…

A great children’s book about Indian boarding schools

As a native-authored counterpoint to Rinaldi’s disasterpiece, I grabbed a copy of Larry Loyie’s As Long as the Rivers Flow. This beautifully illustrated (and autobiographical) children’s book tells the story of Larry’s last summer before being sent away to boarding school.

larry loyie family illustration
Larry & family (dad, siblings, grandparents) as the kids imitate their owl

This might be like any other “I’m gonna miss my family while I’m away at school” book… except that Larry’s parents were forced by the Canadian government to send him to a mission school for First Nations children or be jailed.

While the bulk of the book focuses on Larry’s time spent with his family (including siblings nursing a baby owl back to health and grandma shooting dead a huge grizzly bear), the epilogue includes photos and biographical information about the time that Larry and his siblings spent attending St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Alberta.

You may remember from early on in the Little House series that I have previously struggled with how and when children should be told about difficult events. What most impressed me about this book is how truthfully AND appropriately it teaches children about an important topic in our history.

This book was the perfect truthful antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s fake stuff. Difficult truth > easy lies.

Wounded Knee Ch. 17

In this chapter of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we pick up with the Chiricahua Apaches (whom we saw last in Chapter 9). Their part in this book concludes in what is becoming an all-too-predictable fashion: Indians do things US doesn’t like, US tells Indians to surrender, Indians resist and/or flee for X amount of time, eventually US catches Indians and forces them to go somewhere else than where they want to be. Bada bing, bada boom. It’s like a really predictably awful sitcom, except full of death and sorrow.

Anyway, since that outline is pretty familiar, I’ll just pull out a couple of unique points that struck me while reading the story of the Chiricahua Apaches:

1) It’s cool to see the “character development” of General Crook — he finally treats the Apaches like PEOPLE!

Brown notes this attitude change himself in his narration about Crook, but it’s cool too just to see the change in Crook’s own words. When he is called in by the US to “deal with” the Apaches, his first move is to… search out individual Apaches and sit down to talk with them. I was SHOCKED when I read this! Imagine — asking the people you’re supposed to supervise what THEY think! It’s a sad commentary on the rest of the book that this seems like such a refreshingly novel concept to me at this point. Anyway, here is an excerpt from Crook’s assessment after his chats with some Chiricahua folks:

“I discovered immediately that a general feeling of distrust of our people [whites/Americans] existed among all the bands of the Apaches. It was with much difficulty that I got them to talk, but after breaking down their suspicions they conversed freely with me. They told me … that they had lost confidence in everybody, and did not know whom or what to believe. … [The Apaches] had not only the best reasons for complaining, but had displayed remarkable forbearance in remaining at peace” (p.403-4, emphasis added).

Oh my goodness — THANK YOU FOR ACKNOWLEDGING THIS. I have been SO impressed SO many times with various Indigenous folks’ commitment to honoring their peace agreements throughout this book, and Crook is the FIRST white person in this book to acknowledge the strength of character it takes to get kicked around all the time and STILL keep up your end of the deal. (Again, the fact that he is a rarity speaks volumes about the crappiness of most of the rest of the US representatives in the book.)

2) We finally meet the famous Geronimo and — surprise! — he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty warmonger.

Geronimo was just another regular guy trying to take care of himself and his people in whatever way he could. But the white newspapers made him into a monster. In fact, one of the strong themes in this chapter is how the anti-Apache sensationalism of the newspapers (beginning with those near the US-Mexico border, which then fed other papers around the country) had a strong negative effect on all efforts to have straightforward communication and relations with the Chiricahuas. In the end, when Crook promised Geronimo & co. a peaceful return to their White Mountain Reservation if they surrendered, stories about “dangerous Geronimo” probably strongly influenced the US Government’s refusal to meet those terms, and the rumors flying around contributed to Geronimo getting spooked and fleeing the scene. After Geronimo fled, the papers eviscerated Crook and he was reprimanded and forced to resign.

3) Carlisle Indian School is far-reaching and terrifying.

After Geronimo & co. were later convinced to surrender, both they and the “friendly” Apaches (including the Aravaipas, who we met back in Chapter 9) were shipped to Florida, where many died from consumption and suffered in the humid climate. (Not quite like Arizona!) Additionally, Brown notes that “the government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there” (p.412). This is terrifying and sad, because the government is totally destroying all connection between the generations and all connection to the land each people is tied to, thus totally disintegrating every major thread of the fabric of Apache society (and others…). Not to mention, here they are sending children who are from Arizona, and have been shipped to Florida, to live in Pennsylvania! With no family and maybe no one else who speaks their language! Wow. Talk about total uprooting and disconnection. Seeing it here in the “real life history” section makes Carlisle even more sinister in my brain, and it makes me even madder that Rinaldi portrayed it so falsely and toothlessly.

The Chiricahua Apaches: Where are they now?

Because Florida was such a bad climate for the Chiricahuas, Crook and other white allies worked to get them permission to return to the Southwest. They succeeded — but Arizona refused to allow them inside its borders, so the Mescaleros allowed the Apaches to live on part of their reservation. Today there are two federally-recognized Chiricahua/Apache tribes: one, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, lives in Oklahoma in their tribal jurisdictional area and numbers around 650; the other is the joint Mescalero Apache Tribe, whose reservation is located in south-central New Mexico and numbers just over 3,000 tribal enrollees. You can read more about all the Chiricahua peoples here.

Conclusion

As I near the end of this project, I keep coming back to the importance of telling true stories. When false stories are told, it can do a lot of damage. Rinaldi’s false story has probably taught a lot of children a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about Lakota people and Carlisle. The southern newspapers made the climate incredibly volatile for US-Apache relations in the 1880s. On the other hand, pursuing the true story can also have powerful impact. Larry Loyie’s sharing of his experiences of being torn from his family is a powerful witness that is accessible even to children. When Crook took the time to hear the true story of the Chiricahuas people he was supposed to serve, he gained their trust and did his job better for it (even though his compassion got him fired).

The moral of the story: Take the time to learn the true story. And then, fight the false ones. Because which story we tell matters. 

Tune in next week for Little Town on the Prairie (LH #7) and The Game of Silence (Birchbark House #2 — YAYYYYYY!).

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

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

On the Banks of Plum Creek

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

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

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

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

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

“The Ordeal of Captain Jack”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Modocs: Where are they now?

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

“The War to Save the Buffalo”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. In the end, the Army won.

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

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

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

The Kiowas & Comanches: Where are they now?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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