Friday, May 25, 2018

The Victors and the Vanquished: Thunder in the Mountains

(from left) Chief Joseph (Heinmot Tooyalakekt) and Oliver Otis Howard. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Few things are more depressing than the close examination of the history of North America. Not the ancient true history of the continent and its inhabitants over the last 20,000 years, but rather the imaginary history of the Europeans who came and invented a conceptual country superimposed over the multiple ones that already existed here since the Ice Age receded. That imaginary history of the immigrants who became both Americans and Canadians is fascinating because it was written by the victors in the blood of the vanquished. The poet Robert Duncan once remarked that blood is the ink in which human history is written, and never is that fact more clear than in a recent book by Daniel Sharfstein from WW Norton (Penguin/Random House) called Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War.

"T-under," as he translated his own name to one early visitor to his ancestral homeland, was only called Joseph because his father had been christened in November 1839 by a missionary who had recently come from New York to preach the gospel to the Nez Perce peoples. So his father was called Old Joseph and he was called Young Joseph, and eventually, just Joseph. Nez Perce, of course, was yet another misunderstood and misapplied assumption originally made by the French explorers who saw some natives making a sign for the tribe that resembled a pierced nose, so they presumptuously renamed the group The Pierced Noses. In reality, something neither the French nor any other soon-to-become “Americans” took much notice of when they saw the splendour of the continent spread before them, was that this culture was really and paradoxically called Nimi’ipuu, or the real people. Which people were real and which were not, what kind of human being qualified for equal treatment had of course been at the core of one of the central events in American history: the Civil War.

The colossal paradox of American history has never been projected in starker terms than in the almost weird disparity between a massive military effort to maintain the unified nation in opposition to the barbarous practice of human slavery in the southern states, and America’s own treatment of the original inhabitants of its territory. Sharfstein’s author’s note places this perfectly into a clear, if simultaneously confusing, context: “In 1865, the United States was a beacon of liberty and equality to the world. It had fought a war to abolish human bondage, and Congress was committed to a reconstruction of the South that would enable millions of people who had been held as slaves to claim the rights and privileges of citizenship. Just thirty-five years later, in 1900, the possibilities of the prior generation had given way to an entirely different consensus. Much of the country was consumed with separating the races. Citizenship itself was divided and tiered.” Nowhere was this fact more obvious than in the government’s oppressive regime designed to control and even eliminate the First Nations population of North America, whether physically, culturally, or through stringent sequestering and assimilation programs. Just as obvious was the role that the northern portion of North America, the segment we visiting Europeans eventually came call to call Canada, played: a parallel and similarly arcane and brutal suppressing of the original cultural occupants of a newly invented “country.” The “reservation” model and the residential school programs recently examined so stringently under the "truth and reconciliation" movement was just one of the almost medieval methods for asserting racial dominance and ethnic exclusion. The rest is all merely fabula: a romantic myth governing the imaginary status of both countries.

In the American model, the country’s borders, which had expanded exponentially beyond all original imagining, were less places of entry and more zones of exclusion, not to mention the newly created zone of internal exclusion: territorial camps used to second and control the former occupants of the vast lands being usurped before their eyes. Meanwhile, as Sharfstein’s book outlines so painfully, the nation’s integrity, which was then more and more explicitly defined by its white purity, was being “guarded, secured and maintained.” Sharfstein, a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and also the author of an overlapping study, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, does a masterful job of making all of this mind-numbing cruelty both accessible and almost bearable through the sheer lucidity of his prose. He clearly delineates how, after the Civil War ended, a brand-new and in some ways even more distressing struggle raged in the Northern Rockies.

A later photograph of Howard and Joseph, aged by years of bitter animosity. (Photo: George Mitchell)

In the summer of 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard, a revered champion of African-American liberation, equality and rights, ruthlessly pursued hundreds of Nez Perce families who had bravely and boldly resisted moving onto designated reservation. “Why should we,” inquired their totally charismatic leader T-under, “since we never agreed to either sell or give away our lands? Why would we?” Standing in Howard’s way was this clearly noble young leader who never stopped advocating for Native American sovereignty and equal rights: he was quintessentially "Idle No More," long before the phrase existed. In many ways, Sharfstein’s book is the spellbinding story of the collision course between these two implacable foes and fierce adversaries, an “epic clash of ideas about the meaning of freedom and the role of government in American life.” Most importantly, the author is a great storyteller with a melancholy, poignant, and ultimately tragic story to tell, one that grips us from beginning to end, especially the great majority of us from whom this true history has been hidden, concealed, distorted, or denied. It’s the story of how America transformed itself from initially anti-colonial freedom fighters, then into liberators of the enslaved, and finally into a vast imperial power willing to dispossess, disinherit, and enslave a whole culture whose history of place was at the very minimum twenty times as long as that of the so-called pioneers.

America during this period was conquering territories from San Juan to Manila, driven forward by an implacable and intensely racialized sense of what they euphemistically called “manifest destiny”: their self-professed right to take what was in front of them from sea to sea and transform it into an imperial and obviously anti-democratic superpower-to-be. It was to become one that openly declared its romantic myth that everyone is created equal while simultaneously debasing its own mythology by crushing all resisters against its power-mad forward march into a history of its own making. At the risk of appearing slightly facile, I can’t help noticing that T-under was probably the first great example of a visionary activist drawing attention to a vital social cause: what in today's terms might be called "native lives matter" – not to mention his attempt to make the new visitors to his lands, the bounty of which he was originally more than willing to share, aware of their off-kilter view of real estate, while he was more conscious of the metaphysics and spirit of the land as a living entity, not just as an economical resource. He tried to explain why “land matters” to the visitors, but as this chronicle demonstrates so woefully well, they weren’t in the mood to listen to folks who were, in keeping with their ancestral traditions and the flow of seasons, always moving around from one territory to another with equal ease.

It’s hard to explain cultural differences to freshly arrived and never-ending interlopers whose definition of civilization was merely to put down roots, build things, and fence them off. And as the book also displays so vividly, one side of this conflict, the Native American side, was definitely more civilized in its codes of conduct, its trustworthiness, and its moral compass. This, of course ,would come as quite a shock, and it will, to white readers who were told only the John Wayne version of the western saga in school. One film stands out as not only a visual masterpiece but also a pathologically racist evocation of a disastrous myth at the heart of the western romance. The 1956 John Ford film based on the novel by Alan LeMay, The Searchers, would go on to become a beloved depiction of Wayne’s supposed heroism, and yet it’s also one of the most unsettling portrayals of obsessive hatred and bigoted paranoia in American cinema. It depicts the 1836 Texas kidnapping of a nine-year-old settler family girl during a Comanche raid. After living to adulthood, marrying and bearing children in her new culture, she was forcibly “rescued” by the compulsively searching, hating, and killing Wayne character.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. (Photo: Kobal Collection)

Ironically, in addition to being a large-scale and long-term biography of two major historical North American figures, Chief Joseph (whose real name was Heinmot Tooyalakekt: "Thunder Rolling in the Mountains") and Oliver Otis Howard (whose name might have meant "This Place Doesn’t Belong to You Anymore"), the story which unfolds in its true and heartbreaking pages is also the multi-faceted biography of two nations. One was ancient and had a heritage that couldn’t even be calculated by conventional standards or calendars; the other one was barely one hundred years old because it was invented quite literally out of thin air and expansive lands. I only mention the film and its well-known tale of competitive cultures with an eventual mutual disdain here because while I was reading Sharfstein’s dual biography of both T-under and Howard, I became more and more preoccupied by the similarities between the former Civil War hero and Wayne’s maniacally hunting Edwards character. It occurred to me, in an inescapable way, that character portrayed so vividly and disturbingly by Wayne was a suitable collective metaphor for the entire administrative function of the American government in its treatment of an entire culture of territorial combatants.

This became even more clear when I encountered a description of Sharfstein’s excellent historical biography of both two individuals (Joseph and Howard) and two cultures (indigenous and American) when it came to the outcome of their interaction. Stuart osebrook, in his examination of this book for True West Magazine, called it an adventure in the Sierras, a history of Texas cavalry, a wild western epic, a vendetta story, and the depiction of “a trail of vengeance.” Exactly so. It’s that vengeance subplot that makes Ford’s protagonist a haunting cipher and symbol, since precisely what Edwards does to punish the culprits of an individual act was what the American government did to an entire people for a simple crime: they were here first and they stood in the way of “progress.” As Sharfstein explains so powerfully in his book on the “war” between these two gruesomely, unevenly-matched foes: “The nation’s pivot from emancipation to empire set the terms for more than a century of conflict over the contours and substance of citizen and the proper size, scope and purpose of governments. One path from emancipation to empire went through the West. While the Union Army was crushing the Confederacy, soldiers in blue uniforms were massacring Native Americans from Colorado to California and developing elaborate justifications for the bloodshed. In the decades that followed, the West became a proving ground for conquest, the site of a massive exercise of state power to benefit one group at the expense of others.

A diverting and distressing tale well told by a fine historian, Thunder in the Mountains unfolds the saga from the earliest encounters with the newcomers via Lewis and Clark’s exploratory expedition of 1805 through the tragic conflict between apparently irreconcilable definitions of reality, and T-under’s fabulous fight for freedom for his people and his immortal surrender speech. It is a tale which Sharfstein hopes “attempts to tell Joseph and Howard’s story – the story of their world – through the eyes of the people living in it.” At this it succeeds marvelously. Sharftein’s book is an expert synthesis of multiple voices and interpretations of historic events, proving in fact there there is more than one history. It explores national causes from different angles, and as Rosebrook observes, in 2018 it “will resonate loudly and remind its readers that basic human rights in a democracy should never be taken for granted.” If, as Julia Klein of The Chicago Tribune noted, “Chief Joseph emerges as the ultimate man of principle," Howard is fundamentally a careerist.

This book is indeed a luminescent account of a simple single fact: the aggressive expropriation of native land and suppression of native culture stemmed from deliberate decisions by the federal government about whose rights mattered more. It also serves as a careful examination of how cultural legends and myths are created and sustained. “Once the smoke clears and the bodies are limed and buried,” Sharstein writes, “what remains is myth and memory, tribute and desecration . . . and art.”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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