Monthly Archives: July 2013

More On the Civil War and Plains Indigenes Then and Now

Yesterday evening, while sitting around a campfire in northeastern North Dakota, I looked into A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom (The New Press, 2005) by David Williams, and this morning I am finally getting to Thomas Yellowtail, Native Spirit: The Sun Dance Way (World Wisdom, 2007). I’m primarily interested in different interpretations of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota culture, specifically how this might bear on the historical record (which is why I’ve been blogging on it here, here, here, and broadly on the topic of war here).

In Chapter 7 of A People’s History of the Civil War, Williams says that due to the advanced positioning of the North and South, “Federal forces used the war as an excuse to quicken the pace of killing Native Americans and driving the survivors from their homelands.” (Williams, 2005: 390) This is true, and Williams is upfront about it. An internal American war gripped the eastern 1/3 of the nation (a nation that was both trying to stay together, and expand by overtaking indigenous lands), and certainly the South and North looked at the various territories and newly fabricated states to the west as part and parcel to the overall wartime efforts. Meanwhile, and at the same time, Britain watched America from Canada, and France and Mexico were having it out south of the Rio — think Cinco de Mayo, or the Battle of Puebla, where the Mexican army routed French imperial forces. If Native America could be removed or restricted to reservations, the newly acquired lands could be put into intense farming production. Williams’s work follows the intellectual stream of Howard Zinn, who championed the monograph and who also sparked the intellectual drive. If contrasting the standard Civil War historiography with Native scholarship, though, one starts to understand in much greater detail what else was at stake.

The building of a Crow Sun Dance Lodge from the 1940s. (Yellowtail, 2007: xviii)

The building of a Crow Sun Dance Lodge from the 1940s. (Yellowtail, 2007: xviii)

The introduction of Thomas Yellowtail’s work was written by Joe Medicine Crow, then (in 2007, when the book was published) a 92-year-old Crow tribal historian. Medicine Crow says his grandparents “were pre-reservation Indians who lived before the reservation was set up. They would go camping, hunting, and the men went on the war path.” (Yellowtail, 2007: xi) In reading this, it is important to understand that these activities — camping, hunting, and the war path — mean something much different than they do to us today. They were the very substructure of Plains indigene culture, and to camp and hunt and go on the war path meant one was able to support what we would today call a household (Jonathan Lear goes on in great detail and at length in his excellent work that everyone should read, Radical Hope). Being told by an outsider (or a colonizer) that you need to change the way you do things and that everything you did up to this point is now meaningless are also things that continuously need to be understood. It’d be likened to spending the time and energy to train as a professional welder, and then being told by an outsider that your efforts were for nought. And now here is a new way we’re going to do things. So put away that senseless welding torch and abandon the culture your fore-fathers and -mothers spent generations cultivating. In 1884, this is what the United States ordered, as Medicine Crow says: “The ‘Secretary’s Order’ of 1884… prohibited the Indians from practicing all activities related to their culture, including singing, dancing, and all traditional ceremonials.”

I’m afraid I’m getting a little preachy here, but the idea behind this has universal implications. If one ethnic group is able to do this to another ethnic group, then this means it can happen at any time to any one of us. In looking at that, is that a problem that could continue echoing through time? Yes. Certainly this — 19th-century Manifest Destiny — is something we can understand as happening at a particular time and place, and we can try to distance ourselves from it and say, “Well, we need to understand the historical actors on their own terms.” Yes, this is true (I’m as big of a fan as R.G. Collingwood as the next) But we still need to understand that the terms from yesteryear reverberate throughout the reservation and non-reservation world today (on July 11, 2013, Byron Dorgan had a excellent piece on these implications in the New York Times).


Dakota War Bibliography

As we lean closer to the first week of September, 2013, individuals invested in history and indigenous genealogy on the northern Great Plains are considering numerous ways to look at the Dakota Wars of 1862-1864. There are a couple books out there that I found worthwhile to put on my shelf, so I thought I’d share them. The first is John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012). The prologue of this work is succinct and to the point. It opens by placing the reader next to the imagined historical place (perhaps sitting just to the right and behind him) of Francis Lieber, one of Lincoln’s closest military advisers. Witt says to imagine yourself in the modest room of a boardinghouse in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Day, 1862 (the day before the largest mass execution in United States history took place in Mankato, Minnesota, when 38 Dakota were hanged). In Witt’s words,

At a small desk lit by an oil lamp, an aging professor works late into the night. From a distance, the man seems to be a serene oasis of calm amid the mud and the tumult of wartime Washington in winter. But if we look more closely, the illusion of peacefulness gives way to something unsettling. Below a shock of pewter hair, the man’s eyes are dark hollows. His face is drawn into a perpetual scowl. A high white collar and black silk cravat cannot quite hide the old battle scars on his neck. The man’s bearing betrays newer, less tangible wounds as well. In the past week, he has learned the gruesome details of the death of one son fighting for the Confederate Army in Virginia and sent another to fight of the Union in occupied New Orleans. A third son lost his right arm earlier in the year.

Lieber would eventually go on to draft the rules of war for Lincoln, a code that, in theory, was to protect prisoners and forbid executions and assassinations. It also announced distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The four forbidden acts, according to the rules of war, were “torture, assassination, the use of poison, and perfidy in violation of truce flags or agreements between the warring parties.” (Witt, 2012: 2-4). Witt also reminds us that armies could virtually do anything for “securing the ends of the war.”

Now jump to Whitestone Hill just over 9 months later, and a segment in Paul Beck’s latest work, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 (U of Oklahoma Press, 2013; and since it is in my car rather in front of me, I’ll paraphrase). As General Alfred Sully directed his U.S. Army riflemen toward a Bison hunting encampment of Dakota, Lakota and Nakota, a Native emerged with a flag of truce. This Native draped himself in the flag and started slowly walking toward the advancing soldiers. But a Dutchman opened fire and cut him down. Witt’s legal work and Beck’s battle narrative help us consider the disparities between the legal theory laid down in Washington, D.C., and how events actually play out on those fields of battle. It all looks so neat and tidy from the board rooms. Today those individual decisions made 150 years ago are still contended with throughout the United States. It is a fallacy to think they will ever be resolved, or that some kind of closure will come. It will be remembered indefinitely, and in an infinite number of ways.

War, no doubt, is horrific and terrible. It is why in 1866 John Stuart Mill, while chair of a committee that looked into how Governor Eyre repressed the Jamaican mutiny, said “a great display of… brutal recklessness generally prevails when fire and sword are let loose.” To put it mildly, Mill was highly unimpressed with Governor Eyre. And he understood what happened when political philosophy failed (that is typically realized just after the bullets start flying).

Philosophically, if we are going to put ourselves in the shoes of Lieber (and we should), we also have to put ourselves in the shoes of the indigenous mothers and fathers of the non-combatants who fell before the U.S. Army rifle and sword during the punitive campaigns throughout Dakota Territory (and in southeastern Idaho, Sand Creek, Colorado and beyond). Perhaps the most effective treatment of the Plains indigene ways, at least in the second half of the 19th century, comes by way of Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2008). Some thoughts and a Lear excerpt linked to here. I’ve yet to crack open David Williams, A People’s History of The Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom (W.W. Norton, 2005), but that will come.


Grandpa’s Handwriting

This is what my late grandfather's handwriting looks like.

This is what my late grandfather’s handwriting looks like.

Yesterday I rummaged through a small toolbox that belonged to my late grandfather, David L. Barth (a link to his brother here). David enjoyed wood-working, both as a carpenter and then a hobby once he was hired on full time by Hedahl’s automotive in Bismarck. Throughout my youth, Grandpa Barth and I did a bit of woodworking together at his shop on the corner of 16th Street and Braman, Bismarck, North Dakota. I can still hear his voice bellowing “C’mon IN!” just after knocking on the exterior door. He and his wife, Vivian (my late grandmother), were always excited to have company.

David was originally born in Braddock, Emmons County, North Dakota (the Barth surname is Ohio-German). But yes, back to yesterday. Here is a photo of what my grandfather’s hand-writing looked like. He scribbled the socket sizes onto white tape and then fixed these to the tools. It is easier to see the numbers then. In our world of computerized text and formating, it’s nice to see the writing of individual humans. I wanted to share it.


Some Anthropology of Concrete

A photo of the dry ash I dumped in the shallow sand pit on the shores of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. It got me thinking about the potential origins of concrete.

A photo of the dry ash (bottom-center) I dumped in a shallow sand pit on the shores of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. It got me thinking about the potential origins of concrete.

A couple days ago I prepped a fire pit on the sandy shores of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. As I shoveled dry ash made from previous fires out of the pit and into a shallow hole in the sand, I imagined myself in pre-Vitruvius days on a Mediterranean coast doing the same thing, or something similar. “Perhaps this is one of the origins of the recipe for concrete?” I thought. I envisioned someone thousands of years ago dumping ash into the sand in a similar way (with lime as well). Maybe it was volcanic ash, or that from a former campfire.

The Romans used this concrete stuff for infinite reasons — from building underwater docks to linear roads to fortifications and infrastructure in general. The architect Vitruvius was the first to scribble down the recipe for concrete. But certainly this knowledge circulated amongst laborers and masons before hand.

One of the concrete secrets is in the texture and quality of the sand. Here is what Vitruvius said in Book 2, Chapter 4: Sand for Concrete Masonry:

In concrete structures one must first inquire into the sand, so that it will be suitable for mixing the mortar and not have any earth mixed in with it. These are the types of excavated sand: black, white, light red, and dark red. Of these the type that crackles when a few grains are rubbed together in the hand will be the best, for earthy sand will not be rough enough. Likewise, if it is thrown onto a white cloth and then shaken off, if it neither dirties the cloth nor leaves behind a residue of earth, it will be suitable.

Thus, keep the soil out of your sand when mixing concrete, this whether you are mixing for a foundation of a tool shed or trying to impose your imperial will on others around you.


The Ethics of Plains Indigenes

Radical HopeHere on the northern Great Plains, we are increasingly considering what the Dakota Wars from 150 years ago meant then and what it means today. A piece of scholarship I stumbled across while visiting the bookstore of Pompey’s Pillar in eastern Montana (where, famously, an Anglo-American incised his graffiti on some tall rock) is Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006). Lear uses the historical documents from Plenty Coups, a Crow leader who helped his people navigate the turn of the 19th century. What makes Lear’s monograph interesting is how he uses his training in philosophy and ethics to approach a previously unexplored topic of the Crow.

Throughout this book, the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota are mentioned, and how they and the Crow were ferocious enemies in the 19th century. Lear looks at this philosophically, though, and says,

One of the ironies that comes to light is that groups of people can be bitterest of enemies in real life, yet ontologically they are on the same side; and a real-life ally can turn out to be one’s ontological nemesis. The Crow and Sioux were bitterest of enemies… Still, their standoff sustained a world in which battles, planting coup-sticks, and counting coups all made sense. One has only to read Chief Sitting Bull’s pictorial autobiography to see that he was every bit as much concerned with counting coups as Plenty Coups was. And yet, with the United States as an ally — a questionable and unfaithful one to be sure, but still an ally in many ways — the Crow moved into a position in which their world fell apart. (Lear, 2006: 50-51)

The rearrangement of this way of life came to an end due to the advanced encroachment of Euro-Americans who, among other things, obliterated the bison food source of the Plains indigenes. Lear doesn’t just stop with the known history of how the bison were wiped out, though. Instead, he expands and explains how the bison food source was a serious component of the Crow’s cultural and ethical telos. Bison had been incorporated into nearly every element of the Crow way of life, and Lear gives excellent examples by unpacking phrases that Crow used for dinner. For example, Lear notes that there was no such thing as simply cooking a meal. Instead, the cooking of a meal had a greater social-psychology behind it. The phrase cooking and eating dinner was inextricably bound to “the cooking-of-a-meal-so-that-those-who-ate-it-would-be-healthy-to-hunt-and-fight.” (Lear, 2006: 40) See how the telos — the psychological extension of an immediate act providing a base for the future — is connected to the food, and that the food comes largely from the bison? Yes, of course. And so when Euro-Americans — whether Sully at Whitestone Hill, or Euro-American riflemen — obliterated the bison, it struck not only at that food source, but at the very culture of Plains indigenes. In short, read this book.


Visiting the Bear River Massacre Site

A photo from a July 15, 2013 visit to the Bear River Massacre site.

A photo from a July 15, 2013 visit to the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho.

A couple days ago Molly and I made a site visit to the Bear River Massacre in southeastern Idaho. The massacre happened in late-January 1863 when a U.S. Army group of California Volunteers led by Col. P.E. Connor attacked a domestic, non-combatant encampment of Shoshone. It is interesting to contextualize this site with others throughout the United States.

Nine months later, General Alfred Sully described his actions at Whitestone Hill against families of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota as a “murderous slaughter” of a “promiscuous nature.” This action happened on the northern Great Plains (in presentday North Dakota) only 9 months after the Bear River Massacre. Massacre was, sadly and to put it mildly, a part of the Total War battle rubric (check out John Fabian Witt’s latest work on Lincoln’s rules for war). It is called genocide and ethnocide today.

Today, 150 years later, the Bear River Massacre site remains active with memorials of all kinds. If you are driving from Salmon, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, take exit 36 off of I-15 onto Highway 91. You’ll need to follow the exits, because there isn’t any signage that will guide you to this painful chapter in American history. At the site is a stone obelisk, and for the last 150 years different groups have brought different interpretations to the site.

Some items of remembrance at the Bear River Massacre site. Photo from July 15, 2013.

Some items of remembrance at the Bear River Massacre site. Photo from July 15, 2013.

The Bear River Massacre site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Today a beautiful memorial tree has taken on the task of an anchor for remembrance and mourning. A variety of individuals have placed items in the tree. A cursory sample of items observed on the July 15, 2013 day of my visit to the site included numerous dream catchers; tobacco pouches; a pair of glasses; a penny; beads on leather necklaces (one read “HOPE”); a wood flute; synthetic flowers; a tin pale filled with beads and chewing tobacco; pieces of rawhide with art on them; and suspenders. The tree is active and alive, as are the memories.

In addition to this, if you want to read up on contemporary scholarship specific to the Bear River Massacre, check out Kass Fleisher, The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004) and John Barnes, “The Struggle to Control the Past: Commemoration, Memory, and the Bear River Massacre of 1863” in The Public Historian, Vol. 30, No. 1 (February 2008).

Photo from July 15, 2013.

Photo from July 15, 2013.


World War I Memorials: Missoula, Montana and Wahpeton, North Dakota

The other day I took some photos of the World War I memorial situated outside of the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula, Montana. Once I saw the statue, I started snapping photos like crazy because I thought one or two of them would figure into a comparative presentation some day on the public remembrance of World War I in American History. I have also snapped photos of the WWI statue outside the Richland County Courthouse in Wahpeton, North Dakota. This got me re-visiting one of the infinite ideas of history.

If one wanted to, one could organize the historical record in two ways: the events that actually happened, and the long historical and never-ending process of how and why those events are remembered. I haven’t much to say beyond that point, so I’ll just upload some photos of the two related WWI statues from Missoula, Montana and Wahpeton, North Dakota.

The WWI statue outside of the Missoula County Courthouse. Photo from 07/13/2013.

The WWI statue outside of the Missoula County Courthouse. Photo from 07/13/2013.

The WWI monument outside of the Richland County Courthouse in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Photo from November 2012.

The WWI monument outside of the Richland County Courthouse in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Photo from November 2012.