I grew up “out West” with rodeos, cattle ranches, and working cowboys, some of whom still wore spurs on their boots and knew how to use them. We were children of the frontier, still, if we played at killing anyone, more often we killed ‘Japs’ instead of Indians. This may have been because many of our fathers fought in WWII, or because this was California where Japanese had been forcibly interred and still remained suspect. However, I remember that we also eschewed playing cowboys killing Indians because we assumed all the Indians were already gone (so what was the point of killing them again). The Japanese, however, still lived tantalizingly among us.
Thanks to field trips and educational pamphlets, we knew of one Indian, Ishi, who famously walked out of the woods one day and learned how to live–more or less–like a white man. As the story goes, one day this guy realized he was the very last of his tribe and, because he didn’t want to live alone, he joined the white man’s world. He was discovered and named by an anthropologist who both studied him and gave him a job. People came to lectures to see him on stage in white man finery and hear him speak real white man words.
We never questioned Ishi’s being the last of his tribe, or what happened to the rest of them. It all seemed perfectly natural and rational. And so, knowing Ishi was long dead–and assuming no white woman married him so he had no children–we turned our childhood genocidal impulses toward the Japanese.
The rare time we did play cowboy and Indian, I would always be a Cherokee. Nevermind they were an East Coast people who never made it to California. In the ubiquitous Westerns of the day, Cherokees were always the noblest warriors, the thievenist thieves, and the bravest of braves. A trim John Wayne in a humongous white hat fought them all the time. If I were a Cherokee, it took a lot to kill me, and then I could rise up from the dead to fight again–Cherokees were that sneaky! (Kind of like Zulus.)
It does me no credit, I know, to admit I was in my thirties before it occurred to me to ask why Ishi was the last of his tribe. I discovered the story is one of horrific and sustained slaughter by hardworking California settlers and gold miners. Since learning this, I have come to understand that a condition of my fundamental humanity as well as my obligation as an American is continuing education—of myself and others—about Native American genocides. In partial fulfillment of this, I just read Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, by Brian Hicks. It is a gripping history of the of the struggle of the Cherokee nation to maintain their land and their lives in the face of the white man’s ever-increasing need to take everything.
Lead by far-sighted chiefs including a handful of ‘half-breeds,’ such as John Ross (1/8th Indian), who understood the white man’s language, government, and practices, the Cherokees adapted their personal, material, and political lives in a concentrated effort to survive in the encroaching white man’s world. They adopted a form of democracy and a representative council, converted to Christianity in droves, sent their children to missionary schools, built homes and towns out of wood, and learned the art of seed and plow. When Georgia sought to expel them en mass anyway, they took their case eloquently and repeatedly to Congress, the President, and ultimately the Supreme Court–where they won. But to no avail.
What happened next reminds me viscerally of the roundup of Jews in Germany. The rule of law was overturned by the government itself. Homes were broken into unannounced by armed men who consciously used terror to neutralize opposition. Families were forced out without possessions or adequate clothes or shoes and driven into corrals like animals where they waited for weeks and months tightly packed in the hot sun without adequate food or water. Land, homes, tools, were confiscated, women were raped, babies reportedly killed as they were born. Of course, the Cherokees died: of heat, thirst, starvation, disease, exhaustion, and exposure. We tend to have this notion that because Indians lived so much outdoors, they are impervious to the elements. They are not. Babies and tots died first, then children and elders. Then came the death march all the way from Georgia to the midwest during the worst winter in anyone’s memory. Ten miles a day they were driven lke so many cattle, some of them barefoot, through blizzard and ice. At night they buried their dead. The conditions were so brutal and the Cherokee so animalized we do not have anything close to an adequate count of those who died.
Today I kayaked on the broad and slow Merrimack River and wondered what it would take for us to deserve to live on this beautiful land. It’s good to read a book, but it can’t stop there.
Btw, the Indians are not all dead, either.