Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A brief history lesson on the death of a nation: some things need told & told again

Chief Sitting BullFor a thousand generations, the American West belonged only to Indians—millions of them.  The Kalispel and Clatsop and Tonkawa... the Tewa, Paiute, and Pawnee... the Hopi, Mojave, Caddo, and Chinook.... the Umatilla and the Ute.  They lived in houses atop the tallest trees on Earth, and in towering cliff-top cities, and on the ground below in domes of earth or in skin tepees. 

Montezuma Castle


Montezuma Castle, an ancient five story dwelling built by the Sinagua

Hundreds of tribes, many with their own language, politics and customs.  Indians from California painted themselves white and wore robes of clam or seashells, while midwestern tribes wore feathers and buffalo hides. 

They traveled by foot on ancient paths and bartered for food or animals or other goods.  Some Indians farmed the land and ate no meat, because they believed all life was precious—while others considered the earth sacred, and fished or hunted buffalo & other wild game.

And it was the way of things, a millennia before the rising of far-off civilizations like Greece or Rome... until the 15th & 16th centuries A.D., when Conquistadors arrived and declared this ‘New World’ and it’s people the property of the Spanish Empire.  Early Indians believed these white men galloping across the plains could fly, as they’d never seen horses before.  Tens of thousands were slaughtered of course, by sword or disease brought from across the globe.  Then the missionaries came to save the heathens with the word of Christ, a religion the Indians considered fanciful & childish—only to be tortured or killed for refusing to give up their own beliefs.

And it was only the beginning of the end…

Hey Doug, what’s with the history lesson?  I know, I know--I couldn’t help myself.  I recently finished watching Ken Burns 1996 saga “The West”.  A little over 12 hours long, it was exciting, exhausting, horrifying, fascinating... and as much as I thought I knew of this era, was surprised at how much I didn’t.  We’re told how Europe and an anxious, early United States “tamed the West”, and made it their own, and (along with the American Buffalo, reducing their number from 10 million to 1 thousand in a couple of decades) virtually erased an entire race of North American people.

the west

There’s so much more, of course… the Gold Rush, early Mormons settling into what’s now known as Utah, thousands of freed slaves and Americans hungry with the promise of free land, the great railroads that connected the East Coast to the West…

But it was the Indian’s stories that captivated me the most.  Time after time, they wanted to believe in the United States earnest efforts to ‘make things right’ and signed treaty after treaty, only to see each one broken by a fickle government.  One such treaty gave the Sioux the Black Hills, until gold was discovered and the Indians were told to leave.

I admit it, I cheered for Chief Sitting Bull when a grandstanding George Custer rode his troops into Indian territory to kill them all, only to be taken down by the Lakota Sioux & Cheyenne, who’d had enough.  Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn was one of the Indians rare victories; I wish there’d been more of them.

So why root for them?  Would I even be here if the Indians had prevailed and kept what was theirs?  Would any of us?  Of course I feel very fortunate for mine & my family’s existence and all that we have… but dammit it doesn’t make any of this bloody history lesson right.


My parents; while Dad can trace his roots back to include a Native American heritage, my mom’s was European all the way

“Old Hollywood movies painted us as savages, and now history tells we were a proud & noble race...” says one Native American in the modern era.  “We were ordinary human beings.  We grieved and hoped and loved and fought like any other.  But it was the white man’s government and religion that slaughtered us. The white man’s God was to be feared, he was a great wolf, and we were his prey.  My great-great-great grandfather taught his children that... and I will teach it to my children as well.”

The West is won


  1. I have a lot of respect for the Native Americans that inhabited our country, and of course the ones living today. I've always felt they respected the land and its resources more than the "white man" that immigrated here, and had way more common sense when it came to food and using herbs for medicine. And if it weren't for them, the Pilgrims never would have survived their first New England winter. Doug, have you ever been to the National Museum of the American Indian? If I had been in D.C. longer during my last trip, I would have set aside time to check it out.

  2. Pam I was in DC a couple times in the late 1980s (when they announced the plans for the museum) but haven't been back since--that is definitely something to add to my bucket list :)


Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to hear from you and appreciate the time you take to comment.