Indians

IMG_0595The state of Kansas tried to instill some pride in me.  I learned our state bird was the meadowlark.  I learned our state motto was, “Per aspera ad astra,” to the stars through difficulties.  I believed myself to be from somewhere embarrassingly provincial, on land stolen from people more pathetic than we were, although that was hard to imagine.

On a wonderful field trip day in third grade, I visited the Shawnee Indian Mission, the city market, and finished the day with a ride on a steamboat.  I bought strawberries for my little sister at the market.  I enjoyed going up and down the stairs on the steamboat.

I don’t remember anything about the Shawnee Indian Mission.

Our school district was named after this place, Shawnee Mission.  To get mail to half the people I know back home, you can write “Shawnee Mission” instead of the name of the suburb.

I grew up never meeting an Indian, never driving across a reservation.  I did love “Dances With Wolves.”  My father cautioned that it was propaganda like the movies of his childhood, just in favor of the Indians, instead of against them.  “They had their problems, too.”  Nobody had to bring them arrogance, mercilessness.  They already knew it, just not on the particular scale they came to know it.

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Yesterday I was at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.  Cases of beadwork, headdresses of every shape and material, and, what I liked best, galleries of relatively contemporary artwork by people who are Indians.  

This building, formerly the Customs House in New York City, now houses both this museum, sister to the larger museum in DC, and, among other things, a bankruptcy court.

I overheard people remark that the artifacts there were so lovingly created, marveled at what it was like when everyone made their own clothes, so carefully and respectfully.

I made my own clothes, for religious/ceremonial purposes, that is: Mardi Gras.  And they weren’t much like my everyday clothes.  I don’t think many Indians were wearing elaborately beaded moccasins for skinning deer, either.  They had grubbies.

Indian studies is where white people can go feel bad about themselves, and marvel at how awesome life could be if we were closer to the earth, or more connected to each other, or something like that.  There are good things about being closer to the earth, and then there is freezing to death or drinking the wrong water and dying of diarrhea.  Everything costs.

Not that we shouldn’t go for walks and admit that we depend on each other, for clean water and wool sweaters and hello, how are you, even, from acquaintances.

The Shawnee lived in Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.  They were wandering people.  They weren’t any more connected to Kansas than my family was.  They were moved to Kansas in the 1830s, many of them fled during the Civil War (rather than be asked/forced to fight).  They weren’t at that mission for long.  It only existed for about 25 years.

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I do love driving across Kansas, as we did so many times, during the summer.  Some people think it is a terribly boring drive, to get to Colorado’s bolder beauties.  Miles and miles of corn and wheat, there is so much green and yellow, all tones of yellow, palest to purest, and it is much bigger than the Empire State Building, vaster.

The Kaw, or Kansa, tribe– another group of certain interest to me– ran their last buffalo hunt in 1873.

What could anyone do?  Buffalo hunts were over.  That was not going to happen anymore.  Many years of being told you weren’t people.

How hard it is to think of yourself in the right way, no matter where you are born, or how other people treat you, whether you were raised like a prince or a slave.  To think of yourself as to the stars, through difficulty.

Shawnee Indian Mission website

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