Native

Gertrude Kasebier / Smithsonian Institution

It began in the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson blazed “The Trail of Tears” and deported “the Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) far out west to what eager white politicians called “Indian Territory.” The plan was simple: stick the whole bunch together out there on open land (it wasn’t) to prosper in their own native ways (pipe dream).  

Biodiversity Heritage Library / Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t gold the man was after. Made good sense that the Ogallalas were suspicious and angry. Made good sense they wouldn’t tolerate yet another white man hanging around. They weren’t one bit taken with his presence.

What the white man was doing, he told them, was hunting for big bones. Some of the Ogallalas must have snickered.

That explanation didn’t help. Some white man coming into the heart of sacred land to look for bones of big four-leggeds who’d lived and died many winters before? Old bones they were digging, he said, not gold. 

Ron Knight / Wikimedia Commons

Okay, maybe this isn’t about Christmas, but Christmas is the season for sweetness, so I’m hoping you’ll let me tell a story that fits, even if it’s set so many years earlier in a land that seems ever so far away.

There’s a baby in it. It’s short a manger and a posse of shepherds; but I can’t help thinking this little story is related.

There must be a thousand stories like this—more, in fact, stories about shady first impressions suddenly turned to gold. Here goes.

James C. Schaap

There weren't all that many people--three or four dozen. Most, like me, were on the far side of fifty. But a pandemic is raging, and being out at all is something of a risk.

In 1870, Luxembourgers came to this corner of the state, the only region of Iowa not yet homesteaded. For the record, forty of them unloaded their wagons and cut through virgin prairie.

To be sure, there was a good reason for the Poncas to cut the deal they did with the strange emissary who showed up one day from Washington. He’d come to let them know  that “the Great Father” wanted the Poncas to move from their homeland on the Missouri River, to Indian Country, what would become Oklahoma, to a place where, he claimed, they’d be safe from raids by larger and more warlike neighbors.

Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

It’s near to nine, the evening of May 2, 1879. The courtroom is standing room only. It’s the second day of a trial that pits a weary band of indigenous people against a massive law-and-order government. 

Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

“Warm County,” the Poncas called it--Indian Territory, what would become Oklahoma—didn’t sit well for the Poncas, didn’t feel at all like home, and offered no rest for the weary, just another hard-core stretch of hunger and sickness. Weary and hungry when they arrived, they stayed weary and hungry for months.

Forget every cavalry vs. Indian show you ever saw—get it out of your consciousness. The Ponca story is not like them.

There’d never, ever been a hostile problem with the Poncas. They’d signed a treaty sixty years before, so when the mounted cavalry from Ft. Randall came riding into the Ponca villages, no Ponca had ever seen the army before. Can you imagine?

The wailing that whole night was robust. No one wanted to leave. The next morning, in come these fighting men with guns and swords.

Seth K. Humphrey / Wikimedia Commons

To be sure, there was a good reason for the Poncas to cut the deal they did with the strange emissary who showed up one day from Washington. He’d come to let them know  that “the Great Father” wanted the Poncas to move from their homeland on the Missouri River, to Indian Country, what would become Oklahoma, to a place where, he claimed, they’d be safe from raids by larger and more warlike neighbors.

Edward S. Curtis / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

J. P. Morgan was the richest man in turn-of-the-century America. Edward Curtis, the largely uneducated son of a tub-thumping preacher, entered his Morgan’s office timidly, hoping for a contribution because the focus of Curtis's life was floundering, even though he’d already bagged the backing of President Teddy Roosevelt.

James C. Schaap

As late as the 1930s locals still found bones right here, on a flat spot of ground in what was once a wide river bed.  Bones--the skeletons of ponies that had belonged to Black Kettle's Cheyenne people. 

George Cable / Wikimedia Commons

Think Julie Andrews. Think "The Hills are Alive." It's unlikely the Sisters ever cavorted so sweetly amid the hills, but who knows? They loved their native Switzerland's shimmering mountain lakes and perfectly stunning peaks, so who knows what kind of dance they did when alone amid that mountaintop majesty.

Wikimedia Commons

On the night of April 23, 1865, eight days after President Abraham Lincoln met his end in the Ford Theater, a young man named Silas Soule, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran and a constable in a frontier town called Denver, Colorado, ran into two cavalrymen, late, who, presumably drunk, were shooting their handguns irresponsibly.  No one knows what was said, but in a matter of minutes, Charles Squier, a ne'er-do-well with a rap sheet and a venomous hatred for Abraham Lincoln, shot Silas Soule in the head.  Soule died almost instantly.

Joel Emmons Whitney (1822-1886) / Public domain / Minnesota Historical Society

There was a war in 1862, and it wasn't all that far away. As wars go, this one was short, over and done with in little more than a month. But it was very bloody. In no other war in U. S. history were as many civilians killed in such a short time.

James C. Schaap

"What places do I really have to see when I'm here?" I asked her. 

"Oh, you have to see our church," she told me from behind the desk at the Osage visitor's center. She was clearly herself at least part Osage. I liked the way she had pushed the church at me, as if it was simply not to be missed--"our church," she said. I knew she meant the tribe's. 

"Our church," is Immaculate Conception, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a red-brick cruciform built in 1910 and 

  added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Thomas M. Easterly

Had I gone to school in Iowa, perhaps, I’d have known a headman, a chief, named No Heart; after all, his people left their name behind when they travelled west and south. We're Iowans because of him--and them. They left their name behind, but little more we design to remember.

Nonetheless, you should know that No Heart’s descendants are a proud people who live in Oklahoma and have for years, despite their name. They call home just outside the town where my son's family lives, just across the Cimarron. 

James C. Schaap

On August 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood behind a podium just north of Pierre, South Dakota. The President of the United States was here for the dedication of Oahe Dam, an earthen monster that created the fourth largest man-made reservoir in the world. 

Seven mighty Oahe turbines create enough electricity to power whole regions of the country. Oahe Dam stands 245 feet above the river bottom and required 92 million cubic yards of fill dirt, plus well over a million cubic yards of concrete.

Jan Polack [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

To the Lakota people, they were the "black robes," those insanely-overdressed white men who, in flat, black hats, moved in as if out of nowhere to bring the basics of the white man's religion.

The Benedictines among them were led by Father Martin Marty, who would become the Vicar Apostolic of Dakota Territory and eventually Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Paul. The Benedictines wore black robes long before they came to America; in fact, they identified themselves thereby and wore those monster cloaks, well, religiously.

Mostly.

A Family Plot

Sep 30, 2019
Jim Schaap

There's no fort there anymore. Unlike Laramie or Robinson or Scott or Wingate, where you can still almost hear the history, Ft. Randall has only a busted-up chapel and a long, thin graveyard. If a state highway didn't run right by, no one would ever stop and only a few would remember. 

Fort Randall's claim to fame is having held Sitting Bull and his people when they returned, entirely diminished, from Canada some few years after Little Bighorn. Once upon a time, the legendary Sitting Bull was incarcerated right here. 

George Caleb Bingham / The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

It's morning, mid-summer. A haze lies over everything. The river valley seems veiled, the horizon indiscernible. What shrouds everything isn't fog, but a glowing wet glaze you can feel against your face. Likely as not it's August. George Caleb Bingham's style of painting is called luminist, the landscape ever so tranquil, yellow-y in the generous morning light. 

Albert Colgrave [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

I was tired. Not sure why, but I was; and even though we'd been gone for little more than a day, I was anxious to get home. Besides, it was July-hot, thick and humid. We were alone on a two-lane highway, coming back from a small-town Fourth fest. Hardly anybody else was out on the road, which made driving nice, so nice I didn't want to stop.

I had planned to. I knew the old battlefield lay there right along the highway. I could have been in and out in a quarter hour, if I wanted to; but we just drove right on by. It was hot, too--not in the car, but outside.

Alfred Jacob Miller / Wikimedia Commons

Some call it the West's "golden age." I got to be convinced. Back then there was no Sioux City, no Iowa, no South Dakota, no Nebraska--what was here was the confluence of three rivers, one of them named after a young white adventurer who happened to die in a camp just off these hills. 

One of those river, the Missouri, was a I-29, an interstate that carried just about everybody who was anybody in our world. Those who didn't ride on water, walked or rode horseback. Few who passed here stayed back then. Those who did tried hard to get along. 

Benjamin F. Gue / Wikimedia Commons

Long, long ago a massive chunk of pink quartzite was left behind in the immense wash of a turbulent inland sea. It's impossible to imagine a rock 20-feet high, 40-feet wide, 60-feet long--getting carted anywhere, but that's what happened. An ocean swept that massive thing south and east from its moorings on the outcropping of Gitche Manitou or Pipestone. In its fingers, the glacier picked it up and unceremoniously left it behind.

This old Native story, at its start anyway, is all about beauty, and its attraction, about a woman, an Arikara woman, or so the legend says, a young woman so beautiful she attracted breathless warriors from all around, each of them bargaining with gifts—fine horses and other beautiful presents, whatever they could give--in return for this young woman’s hand.

Sounds like Shakespeare, doesn’t it?—a comely young maiden with too many suitors, all of whom will do absolutely anything to cut a deal she rejects, time after time after time.

SDPB

If Oscar Howe’s Wounded Knee Massacre (1960) is rarely seen these days, it’s because Dwight David Eisenhower’s Presidential Museum is seldom visited. The place is undergoing a major renovation right now, so having a look at Howe’s memorable work is likely impossible. But even if that masterpiece wasn’t presently under wraps, Abilene, Kansas, hasn’t seen much traffic since the Chisholm Trail Days, more than a century ago.

Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, his name was a household word, so great was his fame. He gave us a headless horseman and bearded old man with a rusty shotgun who appeared in town after an absence of umpteen years—tales like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Yesteryear Once More

Old Elizabeth--she picked up a white woman's name--never heard of Susan B. Anthony. Couldn't have. She didn't know English, knew nothing about a right to vote. But that didn't mean she wasn't a feminist. No sir and no ma'am.

Old Elizabeth had little to do with men, but a lot to say. Outspoken? Yes, on all things gender-related. Opinionated?—you bet. She flat out didn't like men.

Hennessey Public Library

Like just about every other town from sea to shining sea, Hennesey, Oklahoma, will celebrate its own pioneer days this summer--parades and burgers, gospel quartets, and a mud bog full of slippery pigs. There’ll be more horses and cattle than your ordinary burg, because Main Street, Hennessey is the Chisolm Trail. In the 1870s, downtown Hennessey was the world's largest cattle yard.

Wikimedia Commons

We don't know much about the boy. Maybe he was everyone else's last choice. Could be. Not much of a warrior, maybe his parents set him up with this girl, or there'd never have been a marriage at all. 

The girl wore some scars from the smallpox that rampaged through her village. Her Huron father and Mohawk mother both died, as did a host of others. The truth? --the girl, Tekakwitha, was forever sickly thereafter. She couldn't have been a doll, but her adoptive father was the village headman. 

Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me.  I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her boy, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Sure, I thought. He and a half million others. Maybe more.

"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect. She was proud of him, and I was cynical.

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