I was recently at an Elton John concert in Vegas during which he played a song I hadn’t heard before. The song was about Native Americans and it got me choked up, which I hate not only because it’s unseemly but because I hate being emotionally manipulated by topics that are exploited by the political class. I also know there were many atrocities committed by both sides in the battle for this country, and I have even pondered the origin of property rights to assess whether hunter-gatherers have the same rights to the land as those who mix their toil with the soil. However, there is no denying that the Native Americans suffered the greatest tragedy, and I found value in reflecting on what they must have gone through.
I recalled the Surrender Speech of Chief Joseph which my daughter’s class recently included in their performances of America’s Great Speeches. I thought about how it must have felt for these people, these tribes, cultures, nations–however you want to think about these communities of peoples–to see the past and see the future and know that their culture was dying, that their children would not be their children, would not know the values and wisdom of their own parents. I see this happening in my own age, but the profound grief of it is dampened by the fact that it is not as obvious because it is not an invading culture but our own leaders who are undermining us, and it is not happening in one generation but incrementally.
I realize the American Indians did not disappear as a culture in one generation either–the span between Christopher Columbus and the last buffalo was a full 400 years–but I can’t help thinking that many fine and proud men and women had that one moment, like Chief Joseph’s, when they knew their cause was lost. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for us before we have that moment.
Here is Chief Joseph’s speech…
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
In 1877, the military announced that the Chief Joseph and his tribe of Nez Perce had to move onto a reservation in Idaho or face retribution. Desiring to avoid violence, Chief Joseph advocated peace and cooperation. But fellow tribesmen dissented and killed four white men. Knowing a swift backlash was coming, Joseph and his people began to make their way to Canada, hoping to find amnesty there. The tribe traveled 1700 miles, fighting the pursuing US army along the way. In dire conditions, and after a five-day battle, Chief Joseph surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles on October 5, 1877, in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana Territory, a mere 40 miles from the Canadian border. The Chief knew he was the last of a dying breed, and the moment of surrender was heartbreaking.
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are–perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
Here’s my previous Thanksgiving post, in case you’re in the mood for more :) Thankfulness Is in the Eye of the Beholder