Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Oklahoma -- Part 3 -- Corn, Custer, Cheyenne

For most of my life, when people asked me where I was from, I said without a doubt that I was a Minnesotan. I'd lived in the state from ages 10 to 24, and came into my own in the woods, lakes, and depths of lush nature in that place. I've always believed that without Minnesota, I'd have lived a much more insular life--one devoid of the awareness of cultural, spiritual, and physical diversity in this world (not that I'm exactly still that aware). I am a Minnesotan.

I worked hard to deny the first 10 years of my life in Oklahoma. Whenever my grandma in Oklahoma called on the phone--often just as our favorite family tv shows were beginning or in the middle of dinner--I groaned. When we had to visit the state Mom would, it seemed, hold her breath the entire time. My Dad grew up there, and I've always wondered how he felt about the denial of my real roots. I didn't learn about the state bird or state anything of Minnesota; I grew up coloring in pictures of scissortail flycatchers and singing "Oklahoma" from the musical of the same name in elementary music class.

I never wanted to hear the stories of my German Mennonite progenitors. When my Grandma or any other old person kissed me on the cheek and proclaimed, sometimes in unintelligible Low German, some special story--even if about that fantastic zwiebach bread--I shirked in boredom. This is all partly being a kid, I know, but it has defined the depression, darkness, and emptiness I associate with Oklahoma. As I've turned to face my childhood, I crave the stories that are gone. And as I've heard only a few from the last of my grandma's siblings, three sisters, something has begun to shift. I will never live in Oklahoma again, but as an adult I crave the stories like.... well, the only thing I can equate it to is the time I had acid reflux, no one knew that's what it was, and I was on a diet of mashed potatos and lime gatorade. I hated that gatorade, it was nasty and fowl. Now? There are days nothing else will do and I drink an entire liter in one gulp. Such is Oklahoma now for me. Such may be the next book.

Gyp Creek, where my great grandfather fished
just south of the homestead.

After visiting the Wichita Mountains, my wife and I headed north to Corn--where my great great grandparents homesteaded in 1894--and a bit further to Weatherford, where I grew up. I still, even writing this now, find it hard to realize that much of who I am and how I perceive the world is defined by that early Oklahoma perspective: conservative, guarded, obstinate, determined, seasoned by the soil and sun. Yet there's something I can't put my finger on now, not yet. Something in the history of this state defines me like an afterimage, a ghost, a memory I never lived but is encoded in my genes. Sometimes my wife still catches traces of my once-heavy southern drawl, a "rut beer" instead of "root beer," or a "y'all" with too much twang.

Oklahoma was lawless in the 1800s. Squatters (sooners) staked claim wherever they wanted, including in Indian reservations, then complained to the government that they received no protection from the Indians, or had any political say with the Indians. Bands of cowboys, for a decade, clashed with Indians and farmers as they drove cattle north to Kansas to be shipped east and west. Gangs ravaged settlements, law was enforced from a distance in Missouri or Arkansas. More and more Indian nations were being crammed into the territory as reservations divided and shrank. The Civil War destroyed any wealth Indians had accumulated in their new lands prior to the 1860s.

I had no idea that, just over an hour west of Weatherford, was the site of a battle in which Custer slaughtered a Cheyenne village along the Washita River, just 20 minutes east of the Texas border. In 1868, a time when the military made political policy in the Plains (even if the federal government had made other policies), there seemed to be zero tolerance toward "Indian agression."

This agression was one of tradition, in part--young Cheyenne men trying to prove themselves as warriors as they've always done, raiding others as a sign of prowess, raiding wagon trains and cabins on the frontier. Dog Soldiers, a warrior arm of the Cheyenne, faught back the white invasion like a gorilla force. Near Cheyenne, along the Washita, peace chief Black Kettle, as an advocate of treaties, had so lost the respect of these men and other Cheyenne that he was forced to camp his band further west, away from the main winter encampments. Under pressure to subdue the Indians at any cost, Sheridan, in Kansas, ordered Custer to march south into Oklahoma Territory and strike the Cheyenne when they were their weakest. In winter.

On November 27, 1868, Custer attacked from four directions at dawn. In order to creap up to the village undetected, the soldiers dropped most of their clanging gear, any shiney objects that might reflect in the moonlight, and Custer killed his barking dog. Dozens of Cheyenne were murdered at sunrise. Women grabbed children, ran to the Washita River, and tried to dig foxholes in the sloped banks as they were fired upon.

A contingent of about 20 U.S. soldiers to the east were the least fortunate, having been cut off and surrounded, then all killed. It was a premonition of the Little Bighorn years later, when Custer would use the same exact military strategy against the nothern Cheyenne, but to a much different outcome.

As my wife and I walked the battlefield, overlooking the vista from nearly the same point where Custer directed and observed the fighting, I felt like I shouldn't be there. I asked a park ranger--the site is run by the National Park Service--how the Cheyenne felt about this all, specifically Cheyenne peace chief Lawrence Hart (also a mennonite pastor), who I knew lived in nearby Clinton and advocated for this site to congress. "They are all for it," the young ranger said. And I believed him. And I didn't.

I made sure not to take too many photos, and certainly none of the many prayer cloths hung in trees. As we followed the mowed trail through a restored prairie on what was the main battlefield and is now the Black Kettle National Grassland, we passed a portion of the creek where Black Kettle and his wife were shot off their horse. A wirey white couple and young boy were picnicing / fishing near the shallow water.

Black Kettle's band had, only four years before, also been massacred in Colorado at Sand Creek. That his village was the one attacked again was coincidence, for Custer happened upon it first. After the battle Custer ordered all 800 Cheyenne horses shot, robbing the Cheyenne of the ability to fend for themselves, and eventually forcing them to nearby forts and more subjugation. Custer also took about 30 women prisoners, and there's strong indication that he and his officers raped the women on the way back to Kansas, even as Custer's wife awaited his return.

It is unfair to to say this is what Oklahoma is, that examples like this color the state. But it is hard to deny the images and echoes of Native America on license plates, billboards, strip malls, and sculptures like the one atop the state capitol. In one sense, these images are an act of the "guilty" trying to make up for atrocities--they are token acts of healing that, to me, seem to only fuel the fire of misunderstanding and cultural appropriation, to Indian-ize the Indian.

What's left of the homestead, and some short winter wheat.

My family homesteaded on virgin prairie, an allotment purchased after the Dawes Act dictated that Indians must choose their own allotments first (160 acres), as the reservations were being eliminated and those lands opened up to white settlers. My family fled the Netherlands in the 1500s amid stake burning and lynching for being heretics, then from Prussia (Poland) in the 1700s, then from Russia to escape military conscription. They were farmers whose Christian beliefs were, in retrospect, only subtly different than other Christians. They were also, in their way, an extension of an avid Mennonite boarding school program that shipped Indian children east.

The barn, half gone in just two years.

"Each windmill makes
its own distinct song."

My family took a train from Russia to Germany, with only a few cedar chests and bags, then a steamship from Germany to New York City, then another train from New York to Kansas in 1874 (likely stopping in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I now live). Twenty years later they got on wagons and headed for cheap, open land again, this time in Oklahoma. And as before, many times, they made something from nothing, fulfilled the duplicitous wishes of a government who had political and economic motivation behind them to populate Oklahoma, just as Russia had after conquering the land of the Russian Steppes. To belittle settlers is wrong. But to wholly wash them clean of a multifaceted history also seems wrong, just as it is for ourselves today on issues of race, gender, politics, religion, healthcare, fossil fuels....

Weatherford wind farm

Drilling near Cheyenne

Perhaps for me Oklahoma is truly what some cultural historians have called it--an excellerated microcosm of western expansion, of all that is good and bad with American existence itself. In only a few decades an "empty" swath of land was not just colonized, but completely and totally reformed into an unecognizable physical landscape, to say nothing of the cultural upheaval that occured across its soil. The speed of this "reformation," almost blind and deaf in its train-like / tornado-like rolling across the prairie, is simply unimaginable.

Funeral home advert rain gage
in barn--notice the pre 1920s
phone number of 140.

So, maybe, Oklahoma is my facing facts, is my looking long into the mirror. I have always felt uneasy there. It is still, in essence, wild, even amidst the pumpjacks, fences, windfarms, and fields of wheat and cotton. As the wind tears through the open windows and doors of grey farm houses, as it lifts soil from between crops, as it sculpts and contorts the few oaks and cottonwoods along shallow creek beds into half rainbows of bark, it is not hard to hear the echoes of those that have come before, of the people: Cheyenne (who called themselves "the people"), Arapaho, Kiowa, Wichita, Caddo, the bison, black bears, elk, and prairie dogs, the bluestem, switchgrass, coneflowers, and leadplant, my grandmother, great grandfather, great great grandparents--and finally myself, a boy with red dirt in the corner of his eye, unable to get it out, stinging until I ignore or accept it and absorb it into myself.

Part 2 -- Wichita Mountains, Fort Sill, Geronimo
Part 1 -- Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Bartlesville, Oklahoma City, OKC Memorial


Diana Studer said...

Today the settlers are claiming rainforests.

Your post brought Oklahoma to life for me, more than the song from the musical I could sing with you ;¬)

Benjamin Vogt said...

We must've sang that song every day in music class. There isn't one day since then I haven't caught myself humming a few bars, and I'm 34. I hate that song!

Donna said...

wonderful family stories intermingled with the rich history that is OK and the US!!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Donna--That's what I hope my book will do! Thanks for encouraging me and stopping by!

Fairchild Farmgirl said...

Okay Benjamin...I think that was the neatest blog entry I've read in a long time. I'm a history buff too. AND I'm a Minniesootan too ya know. =) (Minnesota speak to all of you wondering why I didn't use spell check).

Really have a new subscriber!
Fairchild Farmgirl

Benjamin Vogt said...

Suzanne--Oofta! Thanks!! Did you read the other two OK posts? It's my next book, but a long way from being even a first draft. And as an aside: Olie walks by his best friend's house, Sven, and sees a sign that reads "Boat For Sale." Olie yells over, "Ey der Sven, ya don't have a boat, all ya have is a snowmobile and lawnmower." Sven hollers back, "Yah, der boat fer sale!"

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

That damn surrey with the fringe on the top.

White-man's guilt. Been there. Anyone living in the west needs to deal it at some point. Sometimes it hits me, that I'm probably living on land claimed by generations of people who had traditions with that land that were much gentler and more honorable than my own. Such thoughts of shame and anger are hard eating with your breakfast burrito.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Susan--Well, if it is guilt, it needs to be more proactive. Or I don't know. It seems shifty and unerhanded and not real genuine. And guilt isn't healthy, anyway.

Gene said...

Great posts Benjamin. My grandfather immigrated from Bohemia to South Dakota where i was raised. I left almost 50 years ago but the prairie I was raised on left indelible marks on my character. While I feel a closeness to the people and land, I've always thought that I was destined to never live there. And when I leave after a visit I think of the lyrics ' happiness is .... in your rear view mirror'.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Gene--Boy, that's a long time ago! I'm sure a lot has changed, and a lot hasn't--the latter of which is, for me, the appeal to living on the plains. I'm glad you enjoyed these three Oklahoma posts--I wish I could cpature and convey a more accurate sense of the landscapes in the images, especially.

Indoor Fountains said...

Living in New York, I have always wanted to visit the contrast of the flatlands in the Central US. Oklahoma might be a good place to start.

Benjamin Vogt said...

IF--I've always wanted to visited New England in the fall, my favorite season. But I'm a Plains boy. It is surprising to learn just how diverse the landscape of OK are, a true bridging of east and west, north and south--and as a result, its history is definitive of America's (oh, must remember this line and put into the book!).

Les said...

Benjamin, this was quite the full post, and I now know a bit more about Oklahoma, and your family background. I knew in the back of my head that the treatment of native Americans by the new Americans was not a pretty picture. However, I also know that the relationships between different tribes was not one of sweetness and light either. Your family's "travels" around Europe remind me of my wife's, though her family being Jewish added more drama to the travels. Your split childhood reminded me somewhat of mine. My ancestors spent almost four centuries in the same place, tending crops and pulling food from salt water. We moved when I was very young to Capital City and would return to the shore frequently. As much as I loved my visits, I grew to appreciate not having to be a teenager there.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Les--it's interseting how we go back to places we despised / despise, and find something better of ourselves there, something new and good. I suppose it's like developing a taste for water and vegetables vs. Fruit Loops and candy. And you're right, native americans were no kind to each other in many instances. The Osage in OK were particularly brutal to other nearby tribes.

Connie said...

Beautifully written. The prairies have a haunting,lonely sort of beauty...all their own. I am always drawn to the windmills, in whatever state of decay they may be in.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Connie--My great aunts told me each farm windmill has its own cadence and rhythm. I thought that was neat, esp since the only thing left in most fields is the windmill.