Native Americans-Myths, Memories and Questions.

9 Oct

I got a big surprise when I arrived at Denver International Airport on a recent trip to the USA. The corridor and entrance area were decorated with large photographic portraits of Native Americans ( formerly known as Red Indians), and in the background played Native American traditional music. It reminded me of the “Sacred Spirit ” albums I used to listen to in the 90’s. It was all very confusing. Wasn’t this the same country that less than 150 years before had practised a policy of near genocide against the Native American tribes, taken over their lands and attempted to wipe out their way of life? Wasn’t this the same country that had forced the surviving Native Americans to live on reservations as if they were animals in a zoo? It was all very mysterious. Had modern Americans experienced a massive change of heart and developed a new found respect for the first inhabitants of their continent? Did they regret the atrocities and injustices of the recent past and now want to make amends?
A visit of just over 2 weeks and a bit of background reading cannot provide pat answers to these difficult questions. All I can do is throw a few observations and opinions into the mix. All I can do is raise a few points to consider.
I’ve always been interested in American history and the stories of the so-called “Wild West”. Many of them are myths of course and it is difficult trying to untangle fact from fiction. As I kid I was given a “Billy the Kid” album every Christmas. It didn’t occur to me for a long while that this publication was actually glamorising the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer. Being just a child I eagerly lapped up the exciting adventures from a time and place so different to my own. As well as cowboys, I also learnt about famous “Indian” chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Geronimo. I didn’t at first think about the morality of it all. I never stopped to think why the “white men” and “red men” were fighting or about who was “right” and who was “wrong”. I just loved the adventure and the exoticism of these larger than life characters. All this was reinforced by television and the cinema. The first programme I ever saw was “The Lone Ranger”, the adventures of a masked cowboy tackling the bad guys with the help of his faithful “Indian” friend, Tonto. There followed other TV westerns such as :”The Range Rider”, “Rawhide”, “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” to name but a few. Westerns were a very popular genre. Movie films such as “Stage Coach”, “High Noon” and “How the West Was Won” greatly reinforced this Hollywood idea of the “Wild West” and 19th century American history. The bad guys were often : bank robbers, cattle rustlers or murderers but when “Indians” appeared they were often portrayed as “baddies” too. Whooping “Indians” in fearsome war-paint would swarm down off a ridge to attack a wagon train or a stage coach, threatening the lives of innocent white men, women and children. Native Americans were depicted as wild, murderous fiends who posed a serious threat to peace and civilisation. The U.S. Cavalry was shown as a force for the good, trying to bring the “savages” to heal and restore law and order to the west.
This view of the American west persisted for a long time, until in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, revisionist historians, authors and film makers started to challenge the accepted notions. They began to look at the story from the Native American point of view. Films such a “Little Big Man ” ( based on the Thomas Berger novel), “Soldier Blue” and Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” started to present a very different picture of events and the actions of cowboys, “Indians” and cavalry soldiers. Native Americans were now depicted as victims rather than perpetrators of aggression. They all told heart-wrenching stories of atrocities and massacres directed against the native people. The Sioux (or Lakotas), Cheyenne, Apaches and the rest, were now presented as dignified people with sophisticated cultures rather than as sub-human savages. It was an important sea-change in attitude. A new perspective had emerged at last. The story of the American West, it seemed. was much more complicated than previously thought. It presented many subtle shades of grey rather than simplistic black and white. It was an emotional journey for me, leaving behind my childish notions and realising the terrible truth. I remember crying at the end of “Little Big Man” and I am not often prone to tears.
The clincher for me was reading Dee Brown’s history of the American West from the “Indian” point of view: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a very difficult but very important read in my opinion. People have asked me why I choose to read about deeply upsetting things that have happened in the past which I can do nothing about. I know I cannot change history, but perhaps by learning about the mistakes and tragedies of the past I can make a small contribution to trying to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Also, I feel it is a sign of respect for all the people who have struggled and suffered, to learn about and acknowledge their lives. I think it’s important to remember people even though I have never met them. That’s why I feel compelled to read about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Middle East crisis, The Cold War and so on. Lots of people seem to agree with me. Why else are the First World War battlefields and cemeteries places of “pilgrimage” for many? Why is there invariably a queue outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or crowds of people wanting to see the 9/11 monument in New York? Dee Brown details in eloquent, heart-rending prose the full tragic fate of the Native American tribes — the theft of their lands, the murders and massacres, the constantly broken treaties, the death marches, the poverty and starvation, the slaughter of the buffalo ( depended upon by the plains “Indians”) the destruction of their culture and their whole way of life. It finishes with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down by the 7th cavalry while taking part in a religious ceremony known as a ghost dance. It’s a very sobering read.
So I got to learn about and understand a much fuller picture of the history of the American West than I had gleaned from childhood comics, annuals and TV shows. It has been one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to visit modern USA although I know its present citizens cannot be held responsible for what happened in their country’s past. I remember being made to feel very uncomfortable at a concert in Manchester by Buffy St Marie around the year 1970. It was at a time when I was really getting into American popular music and was looking forward to experiencing a performance by an artist with such a thrilling voice and such powerful songs.( e.g. “The Universal Soldier.) However, many of the audience, including my girlfriend and I, ended up squirming in our seats when we were subjected to a sustained lecture on racism, prejudice, discrimination and injustice aimed at the Native Americans. I think Buffy St Marie is a Cree.
I know this story of the persecution of a minority by a more powerful majority has been repeated throughout the world and across the centuries. It is not just an American thing. The treatment of the Aborigines in Australia has been abominable and racist attitudes still persist today, I believe. Going back in time, the English have not exactly been peaceful towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Atrocities and injustices litter the history of the British Isles. I have just finished watching a TV history of the reign of King Edward 1 — the “Hammer of the Scots” ( and the Welsh). It didn’t make for easy viewing even though it was about events way back in medieval times. Then there are all the abominations of the British Empire, the French Empire, the earlier Spanish Empire and all the other Empires one can think of. Empire building gets across the message that “Might is Right”. It’s the politics of the school- yard bully and is sadly a common occurrence all over the world today. Tragically, when wave after wave of European settlers followed in the wake of Columbus and came to colonise the “New World”, the writing was on the wall for all the native inhabitants who had been living relatively peacefully there for many centuries.
So why the possible change of attitude? It’s easier to be magnanimous to one’s enemy after he or she has been crushed. Maybe many American are genuinely sorry for what their ancestors did. Now the Native Americans are no longer a threat to the acquisition of land and resources, their customs, art, religion and culture can be properly appreciated and respected. Was this what was happening at Denver airport? Well to a certain extent the answer is “yes”, I think. Apparently, the site of the airport was originally a native American burial ground. Therefore the Mayor of Denver met with tribal elders to gain permission for the building to go ahead. I don’t know how much choice they really had, but at least they were being respected and their opinions sought. The spirits of the dead were appeased by removing them to another specially consecrated site. The airport was built on a tepee tent design to further placate the spirits. A native American exhibition called “The Spirit of the People” has been installed at the airport. It tells the story of native Americans in the Colorado area. Tribal images and stories are displayed along with 31 large-scale photographs of contemporary American “Indians”. This is what I saw and what surprised me so much as I wended my way to the passport queue.
All through my trip through north-west and south west United States I kept asking the questions -“Are todays Native Americans or First Nation Americans treated fairly and equally?” and “Has history been re-written to tell both sides of the story of the American West and the so called Indian wars?” They are impossible questions to answer fully. But I did notice some encouraging signs that the balance is being redressed. For instance, in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Monument to the four white Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln, is now being balanced by an even bigger mountain monument to chief Crazy Horse, just 17 miles away in another part of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse monument, begun in 1948, is far from finished. When it is completed it will probably be the largest sculpture in the world. It has been created by Korczali Ziolkowski and his family. Korczali himself died in 1982 but the work has been continued by his wife ( now also deceased) and children. When finished it will show the Sioux leader astride his horse, pointing to the horizon, stating:” My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, who declared:” My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to now the red man has got heroes too.” The Crazy Horse centre also includes an extensive and impressive native America cultural centre and gift shop.
In fact, everywhere we travelled we came across Native American jewellery, arts and crafts for sale. Much of it is of a high quality. My wife Chris bought a coral necklace and some beautiful earrings. I bought a lovely little badger fetish from a native American crafts shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The native America arts and crafts were very popular with our group. But this raises another awkward question. ” Have the native American people been rehabilitated to a certain extent because they are good for tourism?” If the horrors of the past can be brushed under the carpet then the native American tribes can present an exotic and fascinating alternative to mainstream USA. Again, the question is impossible to answer but is worth a thought or two. When we visited Monument Valley in southern Utah we went on a spectacular 4×4 ride to see the huge sandstone buttes and mesas at close quarter. Our driver and guide was Mike Chee, a local Navajo “Indian.” This is because the main part of the valley is on Navajo reservation land. Tourism obviously plays a big, important part in the Navajo economy. The place was heaving with visitors, all spending dollars at the Navajo shop and restaurant as well as on the bumpy, dusty guided tours around the iconic monuments. However it was slightly sad, in my opinion, that Mike felt he had to sing us a couple of Navajo chant-like songs. It was interesting and entertaining but I think maybe his main aim was to enhance his tips. The songs had been largely stripped of their cultural context or significance and were now merely novelty entertainment for visitors. It reminded me slightly of Sitting Bull, the great Lakota Sioux leader who, in his later years was reduced to entertaining the crowds in Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Show. It was a long way from his warriors’ great victory over George Custer’s 7th cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
We visited the site of that famous battle. It is now called the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Memorial in southern Montana. For a long time it had been known as the Custer Battlefield National Memorial. This was because the myth of General George Custer’s glorious and heroic Last Stand had been perpetuated by his widow, Libby, the US press, countless paintings and books and many films such as “They Died with their Boots on.” The myth was that Custer and his vastly outnumbered men fought bravely and with total discipline against a savage horde of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho “Indians.” Custer with his long,flowing blond locks was an American hero who fought gallantly to the end against evil redskins who were threatening civilisation. What actually happened however, was that Custer and his 700 men attacked the greatest plains Indian camp in history without bothering to check out the strength of the “enemy” first. The Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies had gathered together in peace for safety and only wanted to be left alone to live their traditional nomadic, hunting lives. Obviously they fought back when the soldiers came charging into their camp intent on killing as many “Indians” as possible. The cavalry had a record of attacking native American camps, killing women, children and old people as well as warriors. when asked why the US soldiers killed little “Indian” children, a common answer was “nits grow into lice.” Custer had gained a reputation as an Indian hunter and was heavily implicated in the massacre of a large village of southern Cheyenne. Now he was attacking another “Indian” camp but had bitten off far more than he could chew. Custer himself and the soldiers under his direct command were wiped out in well under an hour. One native American witness said they were killed in about the time it would take a hungry man to eat his dinner! Other native reports tell of soldiers panicking, taking their own lives or shooting each other in suicide pacts. Another detachment of cavalry under Major Reno was heavily depleted but hung on in a desperate defensive position until rescue eventually came after the great Sioux/Cheyenne camp had moved on.
Thus a more rounded story of Little Big Horn is told these days. Both sides of the story are known. The battlefield site now has a memorial to the native Americans who died as well as the soldiers of the 7th cavalry. Red marker stones now show where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, standing alongside white markers showing where cavalry soldiers perished. The book shop and exhibition also represent both sides of the story.
It is here where the tale of the battle becomes grey rather than convenient black and white. It seems native American warriors fought and died on both sides. Crow and Arikara scouts perished with Custer and his men. Their lands had been taken by the Sioux and they saw cooperating with the white man as the best way of getting it back. In fact, the battlefield site is on the present day Crow Reservation and we were shown around by a female Crow guide. The “Indian” scouts are now honoured in the memorial. So now the full, messy story is told instead of the grossly simplistic myth of “Custer’s Last Stand.” This, more than anything else I saw, persuaded me that native Americans are now being treated with more dignity and respect. It seems they are no longer officially vilified. They are no longer described as “lice”. Similar respect for the native American way of life was shown at “Tatanka” near Deadwood, a visitor’s centre owned by Kevin Costner and dedicated to the days when the plains “Indians” hunted the buffalo in peace. We were given a very interesting talk by Phil Redbird, a Lakota Sioux and we learnt a lot about a way of life which existed before the invasion of the white settlers.
I think attitudes to native America peoples have changed. By how much it is impossible to say. Myths have been busted and a new respect is being shown, at least in official circles. But is this only because the native Indians have mostly given up their old way of life and learnt the ways of the white man? Possibly the surprising display at Denver Airport wasn’t so misleading after-all. Hopefully, modern Native Americans have a better chance of making their way in life although I couldn’t help noticing that the reservation lands we passed through in Utah and Arizona looked arid and of very poor quality. I wonder what the real story is? I cannot help recalling the ironic “joke” that Mike Chee told while showing us around his Navajo land –” Question – How did the Navajo get to live in this place? Answer — They made a reservation!”

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Native Americans-Myths, Memories and Questions.”

  1. greenreadsleeds October 10, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    Hi dad, this is a really interesting blog! Thanks. I agree that there are signs that attitudes are changing but that there are still many problems Native American people face. One of my American colleagues at Huddersfield was of the opinion that ‘they’ (the ‘Indians’) were a problem because ‘they’ had no self-restraint and were all alcoholics. I was shocked that she could still have this attitude – and feel it was ok to express it to me, as if she were informing me of something important. Oh – and I have just looked it up – Buffy Sainte-Marie is Cree (I thought so, because she is Canadian and the Cherokee people were all moved from the American South to Oklahoma). Anyway, I really just wanted to say that I got a lot from reading this important and thoughtful piece.

    • scrapstu1949 October 13, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

      Thanks Catherine. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this. I’ll change the Buffy St Marie reference from Cherokee to Cree. Thanks for that. It’s sad that lazy stereotyping about native Americans still exists. It’s the same with the aborigines in Australia. Anyway, I’m glad the piece was of interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: