A Horse Tale

In our popular culture perceptions, Native Americans of the American West are closely associated with horses. But the story of horses in the Americas is a complicated one. The fossil record suggests that horses originated on the American continent and migrated to Asia over the former Bering land bridge that connected what is now Alaska to the Asian continent. The horse was then domesticated by humans in Asia and Europe, even as horses became extinct in the Americas, thousands of years ago. Horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Europeans, and when those horses began to interact with the indigenous peoples of the American West, they revolutionized the lives of tribal members in countless ways.

But when, exactly, were the indigenous peoples in the American West first introduced to horses? For years, scholars believed that the key point was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when some of the Native Americans in what is now New Mexico staged an uprising against the Spanish. The theory postulated that the revolt caused horses to be released into the countryside, where they quickly spread into the Mountain West and the Great Plains, to be adopted and used by the tribes that lived in those areas.

New research that combines genetic analysis, radiocarbon dating, and the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples challenges that theory, and indicates that horses had been integrated into the lives of the tribes well before the Pueblo Revolt. Researchers found horse remains across the American West and used genetic testing techniques to confirm that the horses were of Iberian ancestry, as well as radiocarbon dating to show that horses were part of the indigenous communities across the region by the early 1600s–decades before the Pueblo Revolt occurred.

The research indicates that while the Spanish reintroduced the horse when they landed in the New World, the horse quickly spread north into the American West and the Great Plains in advance of any contact by Spanish adventurers with the indigenous peoples of those areas. Some of the Spanish horses may have escaped and headed north well before the Pueblo Revolt, but as one of the researchers in the study notes, the results also suggest a dynamic in which Native Americans quickly recognized the value of horses and traded for them with the Spanish, and then traded horses with other tribes. This allowed the horse to quickly spread north and become assimilated into the cultures of indigenous peoples, consistent with their oral traditions.

One of the more interesting aspects of this study is how it demonstrates that oral traditions and modern scientific techniques can work well together–and can help to develop the fascinating story of horses and humans.

The Pioneers

I’ve just finished David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers.  If you’re a native Ohioan, like me, it strikes home.  If you’re not an Ohioan, but you like history, you’ll find it an interesting exploration of the early American pioneer experience.

The Pioneers tells the story of the settlement of the Ohio territory in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a principal focus on the town of Marietta, on the Ohio River.  The book sketches the history of the Northwest Territory and Marietta from the days when the Ohio lands were viewed as a tempting, but dangerous, far western wilderness and advocates of settlement were seeking congressional approval of the Northwest Ordinance and settlements, through early settlement days and the Burr conspiracy on Blennerhassett Island, to Ohio statehood and the development of the state school system and early state colleges, to the role of Ohio as a principal stop on the Underground Railroad.  Along the way we meet many interesting characters, like Manasseh Cutler, a formidable preacher turned lobbyist who skillfully managed the interests of the advocates of settlement in Congress, his son Ephraim, a spelling-challenged champion of free public schools and opposition to slavery, Samuel Hildreth, a curious and inquisitive doctor, painter, scientist, and naturalist, and Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary War veteran and common-sense general who held the Marietta settlement together during the early, difficult days.

If you’re an Ohioan of a certain age, like me, you’ll remember learning about some of this in your Ohio history classes in grade school.  The Pioneers is a reminder of our state’s early history, when Ohio was an untamed wilderness with gigantic trees and forest prowled by panthers, bears, and wolves.  And the story of Ohio is unsettling, as most pioneer stories are — unsettling because of the treatment of the native Americans who were forced from their ancestral lands by the flood of settlers and the massacres and battles that resulted from the inevitable clashes that occurred as the natives desperately tried to preserve their way of life.  The book is also a useful reminder of how close Ohio came to being a state that allowed slavery, as opposed to a bulwark against the spread of slavery and, ultimately, one of the chief supporters of the Union cause in the Civil War.

The Pioneers is a good read.

Physical Evidence

At a recent family gathering, Kish and I had a mild disagreement about the scope and extent of my participation in “Indian Guides” when the kids were little.  Not surprisingly, the name has now been changed, but in those days “Indian Guides” was a way for fathers and sons to do things together in the great outdoors.  We chose native American names (mine, back in those pre-energy drink days of the early ’90s, was “Red Bull”), had monthly meetings with the other fathers and sons in our tribe (the Apache) and went to YMCA-sponsored campouts and other events from time to time.

Kish and I disagreed about the latter.  I remembered going to a number of the campouts; she was scoffingly confident it was only two or perhaps three.  I was pretty sure my recollection was correct, because activities like carving pumpkins and creating a jack o’lantern totem pole during a fall campout at Camp Oty’Okwa, sledding on a brutally cold hill during a winter campout at Camp Willson, trying to sleep in bunk beds in poorly ventilated rooms filled with coughing kids, and drinking “bug juice” at bland multi-purpose rooms in Y campgrounds throughout Ohio were burned into my memory.

Alas, Kish as able to find physical evidence to settle the dispute — my old Indian Guides vest.  Embarrassingly pit-stained, and arguably the most ugly and poorly made leather garment ever created, the vest stands as a shocking testimonial to why the politically correct rightfully scream about culture appropriation.  No self-respecting Apache would want to be associated with such a dismal effort at approximating Native American attire.

But in addition to being a mortifying failure, the vest provided key clues to the dispute, in the form of cheap glue-on patches that were supposed to be affixed after every campout.  It displays a patch for a fall campout, and a patch for a winter campout, and a patch for participating in the Pinewood Derby, as well as to spots where other patches — undoubtedly, campout patches — fell off.  The vest therefore seems to provide compelling physical evidence of attendance at four campouts.

Still, I’m taking the position that I did in fact go to more than four campouts, and the physical evidence provided by the vest is misleadingly incomplete.  I think I simply stopped wearing the stupid vest because it was ugly, hot, and made me sweat uncontrollably and because, after a few years of Indian Guides, I decided it really didn’t make much of a difference whether or not I wore faux Apache garb and faithfully affixed campout patches.

And I want to issue an official apology for the vest to the entire Apache nation.


Lodge Lobbies

IMG_1726One last thing about the Glacier National Park area:  I really liked the entrance halls of the lodges and hotels we visited.  It’s not that I’m a huge fan of taxidermy or hanging animal heads (I’m not), but the lobbies all conveyed a very strong sense of place — woodsy, wild, and recognizing the roles played and the traditions created by the native Americans who treated this part of the world as a sacred place.

A favorite of ours was the Lake McDonald Lodge, which is located on the grounds of Glacier National Park itself.  Like many of the lodges in the area, it has an exterior that looks like a Swiss chalet, which evidently was part of a campaign to convince rich people back east that the Montana Rockies were like the Swiss Alps.  The lobby, though, is a more evocative place, with a vaulted central area open to several floors of the lodge that features stuffed animals and heads everywhere you look and a unique central light fixture with shades that were hand-painted by members of the Blackfeet tribe.

At one end of the lobby there is an enormous, two-tier fireplace decorated with pictograms.  The fireplace creates a kind of initial gathering area, complete with rockers, and with an interior fireplace behind.  It’s not hard to imagine what it would be like to come in from the cold, shake off the snow, and then sit by that fireplace to be warmed.  And it’s got a moose head, too, of course.

I wouldn’t want a moose head in my home, and the lodge decor obviously wouldn’t fit in Columbus, Ohio — but when you are going on vacation and looking to get away from it all, a lobby that physically and tangibly reminds you that you are someplace different really helps.  It sure as heck beats the generic lobbies you find in most hotels.


Drip, Drip, Drip

Any public relations professional worth her salt will tell you: when you are dealing with an unfavorable news story — one that you know is going to have a negative impact — the best approach is to get ahead of the story, get all of the information out, and at least avoid the possibility that the story becomes a running, multi-day issue.  Lance the boil, drain the pus, and move on.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign must not employ a public relations person.  If it does, she isn’t very good at her job — because the story of Warren’s alleged Cherokee ancestry has become a never-ending story in Warren’s campaign for election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.  Every day, seemingly, there is some new revelation that puts Warren on the defensive, interferes with her intended “message,” and distracts from the issues she thinks are important.

On Wednesday, for example, Warren acknowledged for the first time that two law schools that identified her as Native American did so because she identified herself as such, based on her understanding of “family lore.”  Her admission is just the latest in a series of statements about the issue — some of which arguably are inconsistent — that have just encouraged the press to dig ever deeper into the history of Warren’s employment, whether she identified herself as Native American, and whether there is any proof of actual Cherokee ancestry in her family tree.

I don’t think a candidate’s race, or self-reported minority status, has anything to do with fitness to serve as a U.S. Senator.  On the other hand, I think a candidate’s truthfulness, credibility, and ability to deal with a crisis are relevant — and Warren seems to be falling short in all of those categories.  The Native American story has  dominated the headlines for a month now, and for that Warren has only herself to blame.  Her statements and partial disclosures have a whiff of embarrassed shiftiness about them that have made a minor issue into a major one and, at the same time, made her look evasive and inept.  Although her race shouldn’t affect a voter’s decision about her, her apparent inability to give a satisfactory explanation of her actions reasonably could.

The Uncomfortable, Untenable Weirdness of Discussing A Candidate’s Self-Identified Minority Status

The race for U.S. Senate has taken a weird turn in Massachusetts.  It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I bet I’m not alone in my reaction.

The Democratic candidate is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor.  At times in the past, she identified herself as a minority in a directory of law school professors, and Harvard identified her as native American when it responded to claims that its faculty was non-diverse.  Those matters have now been raised as a campaign issue — had she used her ancestry claim to gain an unfair advantage over other job applicants? — and Warren has been scrambling to substantiate her “family lore” of a native American ancestor.  Genealogists now have concluded that her great-great-great-grandmother, who is therefore responsible for 1/32nd of her genetic makeup, was listed on an Oklahoma marriage certificate as a Cherokee.

I realize that all’s fair in love and political campaigns.  Moreover, I can understand that if a candidate made a bogus claim about her background — by, say, falsely claiming to have served in the military or received a degree from a prestigious school — it would be fair game.  Warren’s story also might cause you to ask what reported diversity statistics really mean, and it might be a topic of conversation in the native American community, as one of the articles linked above suggests.

Still, this story is unsettling.  Whenever people start talking about someone’s “blood” it raises the specter of Nazi racial purity laws or the racial identity statutes enacted long ago in some southern states.  Those are awful, unforgivable chapters in human history, and it’s painful to think about them.

I’ve never thought about my great-great-great-grandmother — whoever she was — but if Warren’s pride in a distant ancestor’s native American heritage caused her to self-identify as native American, too, what difference should that make to a voter?  And if she listed herself as a native American for some other, less salutary reason, can’t we just allow her conscience to do its work without making the matter a political issue?  Can’t we just judge her quality as a candidate based on her positions on the issues, her experience, and other relevant qualities?

S.A.D. Dance

This is the time of year when everyone in the Midwest tries to figure out whether they have Seasonal Affective Disorder — S.A.D. for short.

S.A.D. is a condition that is associated with the winter.  The symptoms will sound familiar to anyone who has experienced a Midwest winter:  weight gain, depression, increased sleep, lack of energy, withdrawal from social activities, and feeling sluggish and irritable.  They think that S.A.D. may be caused by a lack of ambient light and changes in body temperature.  Given these symptoms and causes, how in the world do they distinguish people who have S.A.D. from people who just hate the winter and grimly plug ahead through the cold, and the wet, and endless sunless days?  How many people out there love icy blasts and revel in the overwhelming greyness of a Midwestern winter?  Are there people who are actually excited about a day when the overcast sky is battleship grey rather than slate grey or platinum?

I sometimes wonder about the “discovery” of these new emotional conditions.  After all, people were dealing with winter for millennia before somebody decided there was a condition called S.A.D. Centuries ago, when native Americans toughed it out during the harsh Midwestern winters, were braves and squaws afflicted with S.A.D.?  If so, how did the chief react when Brave Eagle overslept and wasn’t able to take down a deer or buffalo because he felt sluggish?  And did the tribes perform some kind of traditional S.A.D. dance to try to convince the Great Spirit that it was high time to bring an end to the dim, frigid days?