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The Chattanooga Times & Free Press Opinion
Sunday, November 21, 1999
http://www.timesfreepress.com/1999/NOV/21NOV99/21OSPENCE.html
Karl Spence  [editorial page copy editor for the Chattanooga Times/Free Press]
Refighting the Indian Wars

When U.S. warplanes were bombing Serbia in answer to Slobodan Milosevic's
war on the Albanian Kosovars, a reader here in Chattanooga wrote in to ask,
"What right do we have to chastise the Yugoslavian dictator when we did the
same thing 150 years earlier?"

The reader was referring to our ancestors' having forced the Cherokees off
their lands in Georgia and Tennessee. I wrote the letter's headline:
"Ethnic Cleansing? Try the Trail of Tears."

It's an interesting point -- and one that calls forth strong emotions.
Witness how the discovery of Indian graves this month in Hamilton County
drew concerned attention from as far away as California, and how people
from other remote states and from right here in town see overtones of
genocide in something as innocuous as the Atlanta Braves' tomahawk chop.

Bitterness over the dispossession and near-extermination of our country's
first inhabitants clouds even the annual Thanksgiving Day celebration we're
preparing to observe this week.

So let's look at it. Were Americans the Serbs of the 19th century, waging
racist wars against peaceable neighbors? Worse, was our "Manifest Destiny"
the 19th-century equivalent of Nazi Germany's "lebensraum"? Should our
country's history fill us with guilt and shame rather than patriotic pride?

Such questions may never have occurred to you, but chances are they've been
impressed on your children. "Multicultural" education is notorious for
cultivating pride in every ethnic group in America except for the sons of
those bad old pioneers, who stole the continent away from its rightful
owners.

That viewpoint can be seen in the cinema as well as the classroom. Think of
the 1970 comic anti-Western, "Little Big Man," which portrayed pioneers as
a pack of cowards, lunatics, sluts and fools; or 1990's Oscar-winner
"Dances With Wolves," which was little more than "Little Big Man" without
the laughs.

Wild West revisionism

Most Wild West revisionism is better balanced than either of those two
examples (see The History Channel's splendid series, "The Real West"), but
what tendentiousness does exist is often justified as a "corrective" to a
supposed lack of balance in previous generations' attitudes toward the
Indian Wars.

That's a poor excuse for peddling propaganda, not least because it's untrue.

Actor Wes Studi, a Cherokee, appeared both in "Wolves" and in the much more
nuanced (and much better) 1992 film, "The Last of the Mohicans." In the
latter, he portrays Magua, a malevolent Huron who's out to kill the heroine
and her sister as a means of avenging himself on their father (a British
officer known to him as "gray hair").

"When the gray hair is dead," he says, "Magua will eat his heart. Before he
dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the gray hair will
know his seed is wiped out forever."

Asked why he hates the gray hair so, he explains: 'Magua's village and
lodges were burnt. Magua's children were killed by the English. I was taken
a slave by the Mohawks who fought for the gray hair. Magua's wife believed
he was dead and became the wife of another. The gray hair was the father of
all that."

In an interview, Mr. Studi said this was the first time the movies had ever
let the "bad" Indian express a serious grievance against his enemies. But
as anyone who has watched very many old-time Westerns knows, that's just
not so.

In some films ("Stagecoach," for example), the Indians are simply combat
figures with no dialogue at all. But in dozens of others, from classics
like "Fort Apache" to pot-boilers like "Broken Arrow," the aggrieved Indian
driven to violence by white men's greed and arrogance is such a constant
theme as to be a cliche. Even the baddest of "bad" Indians -- the Comanche
war chief in John Ford's "The Searchers" -- gets to give his reason: The
whites have killed his sons.

 >From fiction to reality

Let's go back even further, while turning also from fiction to reality.
Consider this statement, given to a 1777 Ohio peace conference via courier
by the Mingo chief Tahgahjute, known to the whites as Capt. John Logan:

"I appeal to any white man to say, if he ever entered Logan's cabin hungry,
and he gave him not meat; if he ever came cold and naked, and he clothed
him not. During the course of the last, long and bloody war, Logan remained
idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites,
that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, 'Logan is the friend
of the white man.'

"I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one
man, Col. Cresap, who last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered
all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children.

"There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature.
This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many; I have
fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace.

"But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never
felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to
mourn for Logan? Not one."

Historian Paul O'Neil notes that Logan's speech "electrified the
peacemakers, was printed and reprinted by colonial newspapers, fascinated
Thomas Jefferson and endured as a gem of popular oratory that generations
of American schoolboys were forced to memorize and recite for solemn
gatherings of their elders."

Somehow it's hard to imagine Hitler, had he lived, making generations of
German schoolboys memorize and recite a Psalm of David, or even Shylock's
speech ("If we are wronged, shall we not revenge?"). Nor can one imagine
the citizens of a victorious Third Reich bragging about having Jewish or
Polish or Russian ancestry, the way any American who has even one drop of
Indian blood in him brags about it today.

So Americans at least can be acquitted of such colossal racism as the Nazis
harbored. To the contrary, within decades of the end of the Indian Wars,
the quintessential American was an Oklahoma cowboy -- a Cherokee -- named
Will Rogers.

Considering how beloved the "cowboy philosopher" was, how are we to account
for the intense hatred of Indians that undeniably did exist along the
frontier just a generation before?

A different story

To answer that, let's look at a tribe whose bloody history may be at the
opposite end of the scale from the much-wronged Cherokees.

The war between the Anglo-Texans and the Comanches lasted from 1836 to
1876, longer than any other Indian War. And for decades before it even
started, the Comanches had more than held their own against the first white
invaders of Texas, the Spaniards.

After massacring a Spanish mission on the San Saba River near present-day
Menard, Texas, in 1758 and routing a Spanish punitive expedition near the
Red River in 1759, the Comanches raided into Mexico at will, making the
plundering of faraway settlements a key part of their horseback warrior
culture.

They drove the Spanish frontier southward. Spain still claimed title to
Texas, but in 1800 the traveler from San Antonio to Santa Fe went by way of
Durango, 300 miles south of the present Mexican border. The Comanches,
writes historian T.R. Fehrenbach, "had become the full aggressors and
emerged as the complete victors. ... Comanche chiefs boasted that they
permitted the Spanish to live on the edges of Comancheria only so that they
might raise horses for them."

What this meant for the people of northern Mexico was a long reign of
terror. Spanish policy was to ransom captives taken by the hostiles, and it
actually became a profitable business for the Comanches to kidnap people
deep inside Mexico and barter them for horses, tobacco and other goods in
Santa Fe.

'The trading enraged most Spaniards," Fehrenbach writes. "The Comanches,
whom they regarded as savages, carried it out arrogantly and cruelly,
sometimes abusing the captives in the hope of raising the Spani sh price.
Women were always returned raped, sometimes with child; even small children
frequently bore the marks of careless torture."

Late in the horse Indians' heyday, a Mexican frontier official filed this
report: "The Supreme Government simply must understand that the Comanches,
Apaches, Wichitas and other small bands of savages have not only hindered
the settlement ... but for two centuries have laid waste to the villages
and committed thousands of murders and other crimes. ... These depredations
have dressed whole communities in black, and filled their eyes with tears."

The Alamo in ruins

It was to relieve such suffering, by creating a buffer population between
the plains Indians and the Mexican villages, that the Spanish and then the
Mexican authorities opened Texas to Anglo settlement. (Because of the
Comanches, the Texans found the Alamo an empty ruin instead of a thriving
mission.) The Anglos quickly outnumbered Mexicans in Texas, but Mexico had
made a poor bargain in admitting them, for they managed to avoid conflict
with the Indians for the entire period of their Mexican citizenship.

Once the Texan-Comanche War began, however, it was horrible in the extreme.
As Fehrenbach points out, the Texas frontier "was not a frontier of
traders, trappers and soldiers, as in most other states. It was a frontier
of farming families, with women and small children, encroaching and
colliding with a long-ranging, barbaric, war-making race. ... Thousands of
frontier families were to see the results of Comanche raids."

As the Mexicans had long been doing, now it was the Texans "who practiced
mercy killing on men who had been left staked out with eyes, tongues, and
genitals cut or burned away, who found wives and daughters impaled on
sharpened fence stakes, and who buried disemboweled or decapitated infants."

If the settlers mounted a hot pursuit, the war bands would dispose of their
female prisoners on the trail, "leaving the grisly relics behind to enrage
the enemy." The fate awaiting male prisoners was even worse. If unlucky
enough to reach the Comanche camps alive, they would first be broken by the
men and then subjected to prolonged torments by the women, who would apply
fire and knives to their bodies in a process that could last for days.

That all-time classic Western, "The Searchers," dramatizes -- but never
quite depicts -- the nightmare of this kind of war. The reciprocal murder
raids on Texas ranches and Comanche encampments are re-enacted in that film
as in few others, but the butchered remains of massacre victims and the
"grisly relics" of the pursuit are shown only through the stricken
reactions of the characters beholding them.

A fight for survival

The vengeful Texans eventually took the offensive, of course. In the end,
the Comanches, no less than other tribes, were fighting not for profit but
for survival. And like all the rest, they lost.

We shouldn't deny the treachery and cruelty of those who fought the Indian
Wars, any more than we should forget their courage and self-sacrifice. But
history teaches that cruelty and courage were plentiful on both sides. The
hero of "The Searchers" overcomes his hatred at last. Don't let's rekindle
such hatred now in the guise of a slanted "multiculturalism."

About 2 million American Indians are living in the United States today --
as many as there ever were. And they now have more than 265 million
neighbors, darn it all. America may never again be as beautiful and clean,
as open and free as it was when white men first saw it. But each one of us
should give thanks for the privilege of roaming its length and breadth
today -- and all the more so because of the blood that has soaked this
ground.

---

Karl Spence is editorial page copy editor for the Chattanooga Times /
Chattanooga Free Press. The views expressed in his column are his own and
do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of the Times or the Free
Press.



Copyright  1999, Chattanooga Publishing Co. All rights reserved.
reprinted for educational purposes only.





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