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)
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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.