"I Am a Man"
Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice
By Joe Starita
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Joe Starita
All rights reserved.
On the Banks of the Running Water
Somewhere along the flanks of the great river, not far from a valley once flush with buffalo, beaver, bald eagles, and yellow-shafted flickers, where two centuries ago the captain explorers looked out and saw both America's past and future, somewhere near these rugged chalk bluffs, lie the bones of a father and son.
For as long as anyone could remember — before the horses, fur traders, whiskey, fever, and the pus-filled spots; before the steamboat, glass beads, and another god — their people had lived in this ancient river valley straddling the border of what would become Nebraska and South Dakota. Here, amid one of the continent's most intricate blends of plant and animal life, the father and son were born into a complex culture that had sustained their people for generations. It was never easy, but they adapted and so they survived, living in dome-shaped earth lodges and buffalo-hide tipis, harvesting the rich floodplain, hunting wild game, and foraging for wild fruits and vegetables in the hills and valleys. Up and down the river valley, the mothers knew the plants that would help protect them from everyday ailments — blue-flag rootstock for earaches, cedar fruits and leaves for coughs, chokecherry bark for diarrhea, and the raw root of the milkweed for stomach trouble. Boiled oak and red elm bark treated irritable bowels, and wild black currant helped kidney problems. The mothers gathered cattail down to dress burns, and also used it as talcum for their babies and as padding for cradle boards.
Like their ancestors, the father and son had begun life in these cradle boards, carried along and upright wherever their mothers went, able to see and hear and participate in the world around them. In time, they eventually played all the hand games and the rough-field hockey; they came to know the rituals of the religious ceremonies, and the social dances, and the rules of the different warrior societies. They knew what the Buffalo Police would do if someone spooked the herd. They knew, too, that no one became a serious suitor without a good string of horses.
At night in the winter camps, they had heard the story of the giant beast covered in hair that their people had once seen in a cave farther down the valley. And they heard about the eighteen-inch spirits, the dwarfs with large heads and long hair who were said to live in the higher elevations where they often led astray unwitting trespassers. Years before, the people had tried to warn the captain explorers coming up the Missouri, had told them the spirit dwarfs would kill anyone who climbed the large mound to the north. But on a sweltering August day, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hiked to the top anyway and reported no sign of enemy spirits.
Instead, their journals recorded what they saw at the summit: "From the top of this Mound we beheld a most butifull landscape; Numerous herds of buffalow were Seen feeding ... the plain to North N.W & NE extends without interruption as far as can be seen." For men accustomed to the dense forests of the east, it must have been quite a sight, a sight that few whites had ever taken in — the endless sweep of sky and tallgrass prairie, the rich soil, an overwhelming variety of plant and animal life.
It was a sight the father and son knew well. For most of their lives — one long and one short — they had known the song of the meadowlark drifting across their river valley homeland. They knew what it meant to see the piping plovers and indigo buntings, the spotted sandpipers bobbing in the sandbars, and the beaver villages sweeping across the backwater channels. What it meant to touch the wind knifing through summer fields of Junegrass, switchgrass, foxtail, and side oats gamma. To smell the air from atop the rugged chalk bluffs dusted with the fingerprints of a thousand blizzards. To feel the power of Wakanda spilling through the jagged scars of the black winter sky in the Moon When the Ducks Come Back.
Century after century, perhaps beginning as far south and east as the Carolinas, their people had gradually followed a mosaic of waterways north and northwest. Never numbering more than a thousand, they slowly migrated across half a continent until they finally settled in a place that satisfied all of their needs, a place the explorers first saw in the early autumn of 1804. Here, along the banks of the fertile, wooded river, they flourished, building villages and raising children, their culture increasingly rooted in a landscape that came to define who and what they were. Even now, in the faces and voices of the elders, it is the same as it has always been: Their river valley homeland was a place the people could never imagine leaving — in life or in death.
Today, at ninety-six, Parrish Williams is the elder of his people. He has a thick thatch of swept-back white hair, a smooth, unlined face, a soft voice. He lives alone, deep in the woods, in a modest home, its walls covered in photographs of his eleven children, some in wedding gowns, some in football uniforms, some in uniforms of the Marine Corps. Until recently, he had never seen the river valley where the father and son were born and buried, where his own mother and father were born, a valley hundreds of miles north of his home on the flat Southern Plains. Two hundred years to the week after the explorers first saw it, Parrish Williams stood on the same high ground and looked out:
"Those hills — they looked like mountains to me. And all the green, the trees, all the way up to the top. And then the river. It was the most beautiful country I ever saw."
But back then, as the eighteenth century began to wind down, there were a good many things neither the clan chiefs and the Buffalo Police nor the medicine men and the warrior societies could have known, could have foreseen. They could not have seen that, in many ways, the fate of their people — and hundreds of thousands like them — was already being cast in distant lands they'd never heard of, across an ocean they were unaware of.
They did not know that, throughout the last four de cades of the eighteenth century, three great powers from across the water — France, En gland, and Spain — had vigorously sought to strengthen their footholds in the lands of the western New World and its lucrative fur trade. Of the three, the French initially had the most success. Like the other nations, the French regarded the red people as an inferior race, one they needed to win over to tap into the source of the valuable furs, but — unlike the Spaniards — they had no intention of conquering and converting them, then killing them off if they resisted. Many of the French explorers, traders, and trappers were more sympathetic. They were more inclined to see the Indian as a child of nature and they tried harder to understand the strange new people and their different way of life. They often married into the tribe, lived with the tribe, and became the heads of mixed-blood families. Some never left. And neither did their names: Janis, Bordeaux, Montclair, Robideau, Bettelyoun, Belle-court, Bissonnette, Peltier, Picotte, La Flesche, Le Clair — names that would remain in families scattered across the vast fur-trading region for centuries afterwards.
Although France had formally lost the French and Indian War to the British in 1763, it refused to cede its western lands to the victor, secretly transferring them to Spain instead. Spain, meanwhile, was content to rely on contacts from France's flourishing fur trade to help drum up business throughout the region. So for many years, the native people of the Upper Missouri became accustomed to French fur traders and their Spanish landlords, who now controlled all of the Louisiana Territory.
But in the waning years of the eighteenth century, cash-strapped Spain was getting squeezed from all directions. First came the spread of Russian fur traders along the valuable California coast. Then, the British moved south and west out of Canada, setting up fur-trading posts along the Upper Missouri on lands claimed by Spain. Not long after, a bold French general came to view the Louisiana Territory, with its abundant supply of food, timber, and furs, as the key to rejuvenating his empire. So in the first year of the new century, Napoleon secretly traded the kingdom of Tuscany to Spain, and the lands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains once again passed into French hands.
Soon, however, the general's ambitious plan to colonize Louisiana with slaves was thwarted when a slave revolt decimated his French army in Haiti. His Ca rib be an troops were now in tatters, and the hated British an increasing threat. Desperate for war capital, Napoleon devised a different strategy: He would put the Louisiana Territory on the auction block — and get out of the messy New World real-estate business for good. All he needed was a willing buyer.
The third president of the United States had long been fascinated by the idea of finding a direct water route to the Pacific, of finding new commercial streams for American traders, and of diverting Indian interest from the British-Canadian fur trade. So it wasn't long before Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson cut a deal. By the time the treaty ink dried on April 30, 1803, the United States of America, still a few months shy of its twenty-seventh birthday, had scored the greatest real-estate coup in history.
For fifteen million dollars — thirty-three tons of solid silver — the Louisiana Purchase effectively doubled the size of the United States, instantly making the fledgling nation one of the world's largest. The newly acquired 529,920,000 acres, picked up for three cents an acre, sprawled from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It was larger than Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined, and would eventually comprise whole or parts of thirteen states. Within its 828,000 square miles lay endless swaths of prime forest and virgin prairie, vast deposits of valuable minerals, countless species of plants and wildlife.
Inside this expansive territory, there also lived dozens of Indian nations anchored to their lands, many clustered in villages along some of the tens of thousands of miles of creeks and streams and rivers. One of those rivers was well known to the father and son, to the people who had lived there for more than a century.
The Niobrara begins as a small stream in the high plains of Wyoming and flows clear and swift 535 miles east, growing steadily as it meanders across arid Sandhills, rugged canyons, rolling prairie, forests of pine and hardwood, and moist, fertile valleys before emptying into the Missouri near the high chalk bluffs. From source to mouth, it drains an area the size of New Jersey and Connecticut, and cuts through rock formations that include the fossilized remains of ancient beaver, horse, rhinoceros, and mastodon. At the time the father and son lived there, it is said that more timber flourished in the eastern sixty miles of the river valley than in all the rest of Nebraska.
The river is fed by an intricate network of springs, scores of waterfalls, the Ogallala Aquifer, and some 20,000 square miles of Sandhills. These undulating hills, the largest expanse of sandy dunes in North America, act as a giant sponge, absorbing rain and snowmelt, and storing it in underground reservoirs, which discharge the fresh water back into a lattice of tributaries and feeder streams. As a result, the river maintains a smooth, near-constant flow year round. The people called it Ni obhatha ke — Running Water.
In 1819, about ten years before the father was born, a U.S. Army explorer trekked through the general region on his way west. He labeled the lands between the Missouri and the Rockies "a region destined by the barrenness of its soil, the inhospitable character of its climate, and by other physical disadvantages to be the abode of perpetual desolation." He called it the "Great American Desert" and warned settlers it was foolish to try to live in such a dire wilderness. In the language of the father and son there was no word for wilderness, so their people would not have understood what Major Stephen Long meant. They had often gone as far as the Rockies and the Black Hills, had traveled the river's entire length, and when they looked up and down the Niobrara Valley, they saw the rich soil and fresh water, and the plant and animal life that had sustained them generation after generation.
In the river valley's central region, a subtle marriage of climate, geology, and topography, of moist air colliding with dry air, produces a kind of biological crossroads. In one thirty-mile stretch, six different ecosystems converge, sorting themselves out by variations in sunlight, soil, and moisture. Within a few miles, the people could pass through three kinds of forest — from eastern deciduous black walnut, cottonwood, and willow, to northern boreal oak, elm, and ash, to Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine. On moist terraces nearby, they could walk through tallgrass prairies of fertile bluestem, cross over to mixed-grass prairies on the north side of the river, and see the short-grass Sandhills prairie on the drier south side.
Then, as now, the unique blend of microclimates sustained some 160 plant and animal species — a distribution in which numerous western species reach their eastern limits along the river while eastern species reach their western limits. The diverse habitat supports Baltimore and Bullock's orioles, indigo and lazuli buntings, and yellow-shafted and red-shafted flickers. It nurtures white-tailed deer, wild turkey, pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse, mallards, blue-winged teal, and Canada geese. Some parts of the year, the river valley hosts whooping cranes, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, green herons, cormorants, and white pelicans. When the people lived there, nests of least terns and piping plovers were scattered on sandbars along the river, neighbors to numerous beaver and mink. At night, it was not unusual for thirty-pound channel catfish to emerge from holes in the deeper water to feed in riffles.
Today, the 100th Meridian splits the middle of the Niobrara River Valley — an imaginary line frequently used to distinguish between the eastern and western United States. Two centuries ago, a granite marker in the nation's capital noted the starting point for measuring the country's rapidly expanding boundaries. Back then, the line denoting the 1st meridian passed directly through the middle of the White House.
In 1804, the occupant of the White House was a restless, thoughtful, sixty-one-year-old lawyer and writer, a philosopher, amateur scientist, and accomplished architect who had long harbored dreams of a westward expansion. When he stood near the two-foot-high granite marker and looked west, past the Appalachians and his beloved Virginia, out toward the uncharted 828,000 square miles that lay beyond the Mississippi, the third president of the United States might well have imagined a place like the people's ancestral river homeland: one of ample water and timber, fertile soil, and abundant plant and wildlife — the type of place where a new kind of democracy could take hold.
At the core of Thomas Jefferson's vision for what the new nation might become was an almost mystical belief — nurtured by the ideals of the Enlightenment — in the powers of ordinary, everyday, salt-of-the-earth citizens. An aristocracy of talented citizens who could harness the young nation's potential, and build a new world order far removed from the detestable European monarchies of old.
Whenever his thoughts drifted west, Jefferson could envision the endless sprawl of sky and prairie, of river, valley, and forest as the working laboratory for his cherished notion of a new citizen-state. Here was the opportunity to build a democracy stripped of ceremonial splendor and centralized government, devoid of urban banking interests and crass industrialists. It would be a frugal republic shorn of bloated national debt and expensive standing armies, one that promised "equal and exact justice to all men, of what ever state or persuasion, religious, or political."
Jeffersonian Democracy would rest solidly upon two pillars: an educated citizenry and an agrarian society. A gentleman farmer and avid horticulturist, Jefferson devoutly believed informed tillers of the soil held the key to his country's future. "Educate the people generally," he had once said, "and tyranny and injustice will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." Of agrarian virtue, he was equally certain. "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens," he had written in 1785. "They are the most vigorous, the most in de pen dent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds." These new citizens would work on a neat grid of family farms sweeping from the Mississippi to the Rockies — the foundation for a stable, prosperous, industrious, moral America.
And now, as the new century began, most of the pieces were falling into place. Shortly after he assumed the presidency in 1801, Jefferson had tapped his friend and former Virginia neighbor to be his private secretary. Not long after, Meriwether Lewis moved into the White House and the two soon began brainstorming an expedition to the Pacific. (Continues...)
Excerpted from "I Am a Man" by Joe Starita. Copyright © 2008 Joe Starita. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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