I think I’ll just let this one speak for itself.
One of the most beautiful gifts of the internet is the ability to learn at a glance the wisdom of America’s founding fathers. In fact, one can often find these pearls of wisdom beautifully packaged in nice visuals. They are perfect for a tweet or a quick illustration, and so very informative. Most of all, they are ever so conveniently one quick google away.
Take for instance the warning these men left for us regarding the evils of big government! Thomas Jefferson is particularly valuable in this regard. Why you could almost imagine him to be commenting directly on current affairs couldn’t you? Isn’t Tom just swell?
(You may as usual click to embiggen any of these quotations)
Thomas Jefferson was particularly keen on the importance of political dissent.
Thinking along similar lines, our founding fathers spoke directly to the issue of gun control. Check it out!
More than that! Our great founders were no friends of the nanny state. They were quite clear that people shouldn’t expect too much from government. It’s there to give everyone a chance, but folks really shouldn’t expect any more than that.
James Madison wouldn’t have any truck with this notion of a living constitution. He’d school the modern liberals right quick about that nonsense.
On religion, let me tell you, the founders of our great nation were clear about the importance of the christian faith!
Oddly, the founders were also pretty damned clear about the evils of Christianity. It’s just a little strange.
I know this is getting to be a tiresome theme in this post, but the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson is not to be outdone. At times, he could almost seem to be a motivational speaker. Watch out Tony Robbins!
Not to be outdone, George Washington even carved his legacy into this little gem about taking responsibility for one’s personal mistakes.
Honestly, the wisdom of the founding fathers would seem to be amazing at times. Sometimes their prescience is uncanny. It’s an amazing thing to see just how well-suited their statements can be to present-day matters. Luckily, that wisdom was not limited to the original founders. It was around in the civil war era too. Could anyone possibly be more on the mark than Abraham Lincoln?
Listen to Abe folks.
The ongoing feud between Reza Aslan and the so-called “New Atheists” continues to shed more heat than light. The latest round of this race to the bottom of the intellectual barrel comes to us in the form of a Salon piece written by Aslan. It presently carries the provocative title, “Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and “New Atheists” aren’t new, aren’t even atheists.” This is certainly a provocative enough title. I expect I wasn’t the only person to open the page wondering just how he was going to make the case that Dawkins and company aren’t atheists.
Score one for the god of misleading headlines. This article gets its provocative angle compliments of a rather weak bit of semantics:
In fact, not only is the New Atheism not representative of atheism. It isn’t even mere atheism (and it certainly is not “new”). What Harris, Dawkins and their ilk are preaching is a polemic that has been around since the 18th century – one properly termed, anti-theism.
Apparently, the New Atheists aren’t really Atheists because they aren’t merely Atheists. So, if you aren’t ‘merely’ a thing you aren’t that thing at all, at least in the mind of whoever wrote the title of that Salon piece. And if you’re also a thing+ or possess an extra helping of thingatude, then well, no, you’re not even a thing at all.
Out of generosity, I’ll assume it wasn’t Aslan that chose that title.
The larger point of Aslan’s piece is actually to differentiate the ‘New Atheism’ from its predecessors, and apparently to embed that differentiation in a narrative that does as much as possible to discredit new atheism. The resulting sleight of hand is definitely Aslan’s doing. It is admittedly more clever than the title fiasco.
Aslan’s essay includes a rather sweeping narrative about the history of non-belief, touching on a number of things well worth thinking about. Aslan comes to the main point with a fairly specific passage in which he ties the New Atheism with the atrocities of state communism. To get to that point, he first introduces the notion that anti-theism is an intellectual tradition in its own right, one of many twists an turns in the history of unbelief. As strident opposition to religion is what folks like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens do, Aslan assures us they are themselves clearly part of the intellectual movement of anti-theism rather than simply part of the traditions of atheism.
I’m not entirely sold on the historicism here, but as far as this goes, it’s probably fair enough to describe these folks as anti-theists. The problem here is what Aslan does with this point. While he works hard to distinguish anti-theism from mere unbelief, Aslan works equally hard to ensure that we do not distinguish intellectual opposition to religion from the slaughter of innocents.
It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils” – as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” – if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?
For an historian of religion this is an inexcusable bit of misdirection. Aslan moves seamlessly from a narrative about the work of Marx and the rise of state communism to a series of direct references to his present intellectual opponents in the New Atheism movement. In fact, he uses the views of today’s New Atheists as a direct argument regarding the motivations of Stalin and Mao.
…actually, I should say he uses some of their more outrageous quotes. This isn’t really a consideration of their views so much as a bit of quote-mining masquerading as an intellectual criticism, but still the main point is, the man is explaining the actions of communist dictators with random comments from people who weren’t yet a gleam in their fathers’ eyes when Stalin was starving his peasants and Mao was waging his war on sparrows.
In effect, Aslan turns Harris and company into the present-day spokesmen for some of history’s most horrific genocides. This is anachronism at its worst, and Aslan uses it to advance the notion that anti-theism is responsible for the tragic abuses of state communism.
So, there it is. According to Aslan, the Stalinist purges and those of Mao can be understood as a direct reflection of an anti-theistic world view. We needn’t consider the politics of either nation, it’s economic complexities, or any alternative explanations behind these histories. We need only look at what New Atheists have to say today in order to know that this is what the New Atheists is capable of.
…and perhaps to shudder at the prospect.
Ironically, Aslan’s critique of New Atheism smacks of the very inattention to social complexities that many (including Aslan) see in the approach Dawkins and Harris have taken to Islam. It’s an approach that treats doctrines as if they themselves were the driving engines of history, and it in doing so it reduces historical knowledge to the needs of present-day polemics. This view of history sees little in the complexities of human conflict that one can’t fit into a well-written tweet (or perhaps a pithy and misleading title). Aslan has often advocated a nuanced view of the relationship between religion and violence, but with this piece, that nuance might as well be a nine-pound hammer.
Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the battle between Aslan and Harris, et. al. The dialog is increasingly more personal points, and that just isn’t the best role that a public intellectual could play. This a duel between two simplistic views of history, each of them equally myopic. If the rest of us are supposed to chose a side, then count me out.
Have a look at the pitch line on this movie. “In the chaos of war, peace can only come from within.” What’s odd about that, you may ask? It is after all a story about a soldier and the psychiatrist who has been assigned to help him recover from Shell Shock. So, the line makes a lot of sense right? Well, yes it does.
Unless of course, you’ve seen the movie.
Because if you’ve seen the movie, then you will likely realize that the premise of the film is actually that the soldier, Sigfried Sassoon is NOT actually suffering from Shell Shock. (Sassoon was in fact a real historical figure, by the way, one well worth knowing about.) He had in fact published an open letter in opposition to the war. As the man was already a highly celebrated war hero and a recipient of the military cross, this posed a bit of an unusual problem for the British high command. You can’t just put a hero in front of a firing squad, can you? So, the British military wasn’t quite sure what to do about this. The solution was to declare him ill and assign a psychiatrist to treat him. By ‘treat’ in this case we mean of course that the psychiatrist in the film was expected to talk Sassoon into going back out to join the fighting. Far from a movie about finding inner peace, this is a film about the misuse of medical science in the politics of war. It is in fact a very bitter tale of a medical practice that wasn’t about finding peace of any kind.
But, hey ad guys! Don’t let that stop you from putting a perfectly vapid cliché on the cover of this wonderful film. Better yet, why don’t you pick a theme that carries forward the very hypocrisy addressed in the movie itself.
Okay, now I know what you are thinking; “Dan is posting porn again! Will someone please keep him away from that damned erotic heritage place!?!” But no. I tell you I didn’t find this in a red light district, smut shop, or even a kinky museum. This naughty little lady was found at a church. Her name is Sheela, or at least that’s what folks call her and a vast array of figures like her. She and her sisters go by the full name of ‘Sheela-na-Gigs’, and you can find them on churches throughout the United Kingdom. Yes, that’s right, it appears that one can find images of grotesque women spreading their labia can be found at old churches throughout the United Kingdom.
Why, you may ask. Well it’s a fair question, but the answer appears to be difficult to nail down. There are a couple theories as to the origins of the term, Sheela-Na-gig, just as there are a few theories as to the reason such images could be found in old churches. Is she a relic of past paganism, an omen about the temptations of sin, or possibly just an erotic gargoyle of sorts. It really depends on who you ask. As I recall, an archaeologist once suggested that she was a symbol of Jesus himself, but I can’t find a written source on that. Presumably, that theory didn’t get very far. Anyway, the whole thing is a little too far outside my own areas for me to weigh in on the controversies with confidence, but I think we can safely draw one conclusion from it; the history of Christianity is far more complex and interesting than you would gather from your local neighborhood church (unless perhaps you are in England).
Of course most history is more complex than folks would gather from the world as it is now, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people of the full range of human possibility from time to time.
That’s what Sheela is here for.
The image above is on Kilpeck Church. I have included a few others below, most of which I drew from a website called The SheelaNaGig Project. Also included are images from Chloran, Moulton, Fiddington, Binstead, Oxford, and Llandrindod. You may click to embiggen (if you dare), but a visit to the almighty wiki or the SheelanaGig Project is well worth the time it takes to read about these figures.
When people introduce a given piece of information as “something you don’t learn in the history books” or “something they don’t teach in history class” I often find myself wondering if the individual in question really has read any history books lately?
…or if they remember their history classes all that clearly.
Rarely, do I get the impression that much thought has gone into this kind of reference, even when I like what follows after. I think these are phrases that just roll off the tongue while someone thinks about what they are going to say next. When I hear what they do say next, as often as not I find myself thinking; “well I teach that,” or even “Hell, that’s right in my textbook!” Sometimes I even find myself thinking; “Every teacher I’ve ever had and every textbook I’ve ever used teach that very thing you numbskull!”
Just kidding; I don’t actually use the word ‘numbskull’ in my internal monologues.
The kind of history-bashing that I am talking about almost always involves old yarns long since unraveled by the majority of historians out there. Just to provide one example, most of the myths about Columbus fall under this heading. I don’t think I’ve ever had a teacher present the classic myth of Columbus discovering America or proving the world is round, at least not without including some form of ironic commentary. I can think of numerous instances where the critique didn’t go far enough, but even my second grade teacher in a conservative lily-white community way back in the 70s made a real effort to debunk some of the standard Columbian themes. My American history textbooks don’t present the classic Columbus myths and my world history textbook even has a small section about the invention of those very myths. Yet, I still hear people preface the most basic critique of Columbus with the notation that we are about to enjoy the thrill of cutting against the pedagogical grain.
I get a little tired of it.
This isn’t to say that I don’t have my own complaints about the state of the art in teaching history, and especially about textbooks. It’s a rare day that an encounter with any given survey text doesn’t leave me in tears, or at least put me to sleep, and I regard it as poetic justice that I will forever be teaching introductory classes where these instruments of torture seem to be a staple crop. Every now and then I get to dive into something a little more interesting though, and it’s usually just enough to wet my appetite for more.
..and hate the survey texts just that much more.
The problems that plague survey texts are generally a bit more subtle than Sunday morning historians would have it, however, and those problems are often difficult to resolve without leaving the students a bit shell-shocked. You can cut against the content of the text in classroom discussion, but in doing so a certain number of students always seem to be left behind the critical curve. The inaccuracies of history texts aren’t always due to fundamental misunderstanding; they often seem to be the result of narrative choices, choices often dictated by the nature of survey-text sedatives.
Case in point?
I use a reader for my Native American History class, Major Problems in American Indian History. It contains both primary documents (those produced by actual participants and witnesses in various stages of history) and interpretive essays. One of those essays in this text, “The Dakota Sioux Uprising, 1862″ by Gary Clayton Anderson, presents a wonderful glimpse into the internal conflicts associated with this event. In this article Anderson takes on a terrible event in the history of Indian-white relations, one in which a number of atrocities were committed against non-native civilians, including women and children. If one were of a mind to tell such stories, this event could easily be the classic ‘Indian massacre’ that haunts the background of virtually the entire western genre in both film and literature. The uprising certainly contains enough frightful particulars to transform any narrative into a genuine nightmare. In fact Stan Hoig makes a point to suggest fears of a similar outbreak helped to explain the actions of officials in Colorado during the events prior to Sand Creek.
Note: I said prior to Sand Creek; Chivington and his men are a special kind of evil, but that’s a rant for another day.
In Anderson’s view, the uprising is a complex story in which various factions within the Dakota (otherwise known as Santee Sioux) square off against various factions of outsiders. As hunting became impossible, and rations promised by the U.S. government failed to appear, the prospect of starvation became inextricably mixed with questions about ways of living (farming versus hunting) and relations with outsiders. Some Santee had taken up farming; others wanted to resume (or take up) hunting as a primary means of subsistence. Significantly, many of those who had taken up farming had established connections (even marital relations) with local whites. So, the Santee population included a substantial ‘mixed blood’ population, and the local whites included many who had established ties to the tribe, some of which rose to the level of fictive (adoptive) kin ties.
Without going too much further down this rabbit hole (interesting as it is), Anderson does an excellent job of putting the violence of the outbreak in the context of all these factions. He argues that those perpetuating the violence were trying to pull their own community towards hunting as a way of life while punishing those whites they regarded as responsible for their own situation. Mixed bloods and whites with clear ties to Santee were generally spared (with some Santee going to great lengths to protect such people), and significant factions of the Santee pressed to end the fighting. Rivalries between those pressing the fight (which included a conflict over the question of whether to attack civilians or focus on military targets) and those seeking to end the fighting rose to the scale of potential intra-tribal warfare. Indeed, the actions of Santee opposed to the fighting helped to bring an end to the fighting.
One read through this article, and the simple narratives for this uprising go right out the window.
So, what do the survey texts in American History classes have to say about all this? Well let’s look at a couple of them…
I used to use a textbook called Out of Many: A History of the American People by John Mack Faragher, et. al. The third edition of this book has the following to say about these events:
Elsewhere in the West, other groups of Indians found themselves caught up in a wider war. An uprising by the Santee Sioux in Minnesota occurred in August of 1862, just as McClellan conceded defeat in the Penninsular campaign in Virginia. Alarmed whites, certain that the uprising was a Confederate plot, ignored legitimate Sioux grievances and responded in kind to Sioux ferocity. In little more than a month 500-800 white settlers and an even greater number of Sioux were killed. Thirty-eight Indians were hanged in a mass execution in Mankado on December 26, 1862, and subsequently all Sioux were expelled from Minnesota. In 1863, U.S. Army Colonel Kit Carson invaded Navajo country in Arizona…
Let’s look at another text called Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (Concise Fifth Edition) by John M. Murrin, et.al. This book has the following to say on the subject:
The civil war set in motion a generation of Indian warfare that was more violent and widespread than anything since the 17th century. Herded onto reservations along the Minnesota River by the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, the Santee Sioux were angry in the summer of 1862 that annuity payments did not arrive, threatening them with starvation. Young warriors began to speak openly of reclaiming ancestral hunting grounds. Then on August 17, a robbery in which five white settlers were murdered opened the floodgates. The warriors persuaded Chief Little Crow to take them on the warpath, and over the next few weeks at least 500 white Minnesotans were massacred.
Hastily mobilized militia and army units finally suppressed the uprising. A military court convicted 319 Indians of murder and atrocities and sentenced 303 of them to death. Appalled, Lincoln personally reviewed the trial transcripts and reduced the number of executions to 38, the largest act of executive clemency in American history. The government evicted the remaining Sioux from Minnesota to Dakota Territory.
My current textbook, The American Promise: A Compact History, Fourth Edition by James L. Roarke, et. al. has the following passage on the uprising:
The Indian wars in the West marked the last resistance of a Native American population devastated by disease and demoralized by the removal policy pursued by the federal government. More accurately called ‘settlers’ wars’ (since they began with ‘peaceful settlers,’ often miners, overrunning Native American land, the wars flared up again only a few years after the signing of the Fort Laramie treaty. The Dakota Sioux in Minnesota went to war in 1862. For years, under the leadership of Chief Little Crow, the Dakota, also known as the Santee, had pursued a policy of accommodation, ceding land in return for the promise of annuities. But with his people on the verge of starvation (the local Indian agent told the hungry Dakota, ‘Go and eat grass’), Little Crow reluctantly led his angry warriors in a desperate campaign against the intruders, killing more than 1,000 settlers. American troops quelled what was called the Great Sioux Uprising (also called the Santee Uprising) and marched 1,700 Sioux to Fort Snelling where 400 Indians were put on trial for murder and 38 died in the largest mass execution in American history.
Anyway, that’s three texts. I have a couple more that don’t even mention this event, which is a little disturbing.
So, what do we get out of all this?
Well, first, you gotta love the way one book describes the event as the largest use of executive clemency in history and another describes it as the largest mass execution in American history. There is probably an interesting lesson in fact selection there, but the most interesting thing about that little point may well be that both facts seem to be part of the same story.
Ah well, moving on…
The first thing that I would say here is that none of these texts paints the natives in an overtly negative light. These were not written with the intention of slandering the Santee and pleading the cause of manifest destiny after the fact, so to speak. Such narratives do exist, but I didn’t find them in my stack of survey sedatives. If anything, each of these narratives seems almost painfully to be pleading the Sioux’s case and working hard to ensure the reader understand they had their reasons, so to speak.
The distortions here are a little more subtle; most of them being a function of basic story telling technique. Simply put, the question here is one of peopling the story-line. Where Anderson talks about multiple factions in and around the Santee community, each of these authors is telling a story about whites and natives. When they choose to break that down a little, we get references to ‘warriors’ and to Chief Little crow. Gone is the conflict within the tribe between pro-war and pro-peace factions, the entire existence of mixed bloods, arguments about who should and who should not be killed, and especially the active opposition of some villages to participation in the fighting. The decision to spare some whites while killing others is nowhere on the horizon here. And of course the notion that Little Crow simply led his people ‘on the warpath’ (reluctantly or otherwise) simplifies the nature of his leadership as well as the politics of the uprising itself. None of these sub-themes can be worked into the narrative (or even envisioned within it), because the characters are not even in the cast. There is simply no place for them.
So, what do I expect? Pretty much this, actually. These are survey texts, and the authors are struggling here to get a complex story into a paragraph or two. This means simplification, even oversimplification. It seems to me that in each of these cases, the author has made choices based at least partly on the larger narratives in which this story fits. Where Anderson is telling the story of a specific event, each of the survey text authors is treating this as a moment in a larger narrative about Indian-white relations in the west. They identify the participants in the Santee Sioux uprising based on the characters already filling that larger narrative. Thus, we get ‘Indians’ and ‘whites’ and not any of the factions noted above. It’s how survey texts in History are written.
Of course one of the central ironies here is that having put an insufficient number of players on the stage, so to speak, each of the survey authors is then at pains to make understandable the actions of the fictional Santee tribe which has become responsible for these events. Unable to assign specific actions to specific agents in the story, these authors must then work to keep us from walking away with a great big anti-Santee bottom line here. But that bottom line is precisely a function of the narrative decisions they have already made. If we knew more about who was doing what and why, that impression would have no place to creep into the story, but we don’t. We don’t because there is no place for those details in the story. And the survey text ends up being less interesting and less accurate than the more focused story.
Now, just imagine that same kind of trade-off in every paragraph of virtually every page (side-bars excepted) of every history text out there.
Enjoy your reading kids!
It’s been a number of years since I first watched Geronimo, An American Legend. But it just arrived in my latest shipment from Amazon, along with some chili paste. So, a good meal and a good movie go together like kids and crayons, …and a clean white wall.
Yes, I do enjoy this movie. The cast is first rate, and all of them turn in fine performances. Wes Studi is at his bad-ass best playing Geronimo. I have enjoyed watching this movie in the past, and I’m sure I will do so again (like when it hist 30 below this winter and stays there). I do like this movie, but…
Like most films about real historical events, this one does take some liberties with its subject matter. The central focus of this movie would seem to be efforts by key military personnel to secure Geronimo’s surrender. We see as much diplomacy in this film as we do fighting, albeit under duress and always with the possibility of violence mere moments away. If I understand the history correctly, the sequence of events in the movie is a bit off, the significance of a key leader Naiche is minimized, and General Crook’s reaction to Geronimo’s escape is played up a bit much. I may be missing something, but I can live with most of these deviations from the facts. But right now one of those little simplifications is crawling up my pant leg and biting my ass just like the proverbial rainbow in that first season of Southpark. I mean this one little twist is really bugging me. The problem is this.
Where are the women?
I’m not normally one to criticize people for the movie they didn’t make, or the book they didn’t write, but well, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do here.
I know, I know. A number of Apache women do appear on screen during the course of this movie. They are pictured running away from the U.S. soldiers, living on the reservation or in camp, and they even appear on the train taking Geronimo to Florida. We also have some discussion of the atrocities committed against women on various sides in the conflicts at hand. The film stops short of showing us the full extent of those atrocities, not the least of reasons being (I suspect) that it would make it a lot harder to identify with the men committing them. Geronimo in particular must be intimidating, but not so much so that we cannot care about his fate. The movie makers didn’t quite have the courage to actually show us how bloody this war got, so they let the characters tell us about it instead.
Okay, so that’s all well and good, but here is the thing; some really interesting women were involved in the events portrayed in this film. At least a couple of them even played important (if poorly understood) roles in those events. You wouldn’t know it unless you dug a little into the history at hand (I’m still getting started myself on this one), and you certainly wouldn’t expect a prominent role for women in the imaginary world of most fiction of the American West. Okay, we always have room for the prostitute with a heart of gold, or the damsel in distress, but strong women’s roles aren’t exactly common fare in the genre. So, it’s easy enough to give the film-makers a free pass on this one. The generally public will neither know about these women, nor miss their portrayal in a storyline they expect to be all about men in the first place.
But here they are!
You can see a few women who rode with Geronimo and Naiche in this picture as they awaiting deportation to Florida. Two of them are of particular importance, the 5th and 6th figures from the right on the top row. There are several reasons to be interested in these women, but a couple of them in particular should have been of interest to the folks behind the movie, Geronimo; both were actively involved in the fighting as well as the negotiations for Geronimo’s surrender. These women were not simply traveling with him; each played a significant role in the actual story on which the movie is based.
The Sixth figure on the right of the top row is Lozen, sister of Victorio. She cuts an interesting figure in this image, barely facing the camera. One might not take her for a woman at first sight, which is actually rather appropriate. She seems to have dressed as a man for balance of her adult life, and she certainly seems to have taken on the role of a man when it came to warfare. This kind of gender-bending isn’t entirely unusual in Native American communities, but I don’t want to be too quick to draw conclusions about her own role in Apache society.
Lozen is credited with taking special precautions to protect women and children during her brother’s campaigns. Various sources have her escorting women and children across a river to safety before rejoining the men before a fight. In another instance she is said to have escorted a woman to the safety of a reservation, stealing horses for the both of them in the process. Seriously, her actions during that Victorio’s campaigns alone are the stuff of legend. During Geronimo’s campaigns, she seems to have added the powers of a shaman to her reputation.
Why no-one has made a movie about Lozen is beyond me (though I understand someone wrote her into a sort of Romance novel. I haven’t read it, so I should with-hold judgement, but I must say that the idea fills me with dread. A segment in Apache Chronicle seems much more promising.
Following Geronimo’s surrender, Lozen was shipped East to Florida along with the others. She died of tuberculosis while in captivity.
Sitting next to Lozen is Dahteste, and yes, it is significant that they are together. It’s difficult to know the exact nature of their relationship, but the two were certainly close associates throughout the campaign.
Dahteste figures a little less prominently than Lozen in the folklore of the time, but she is also credited with significant fighting skills ad there is little reason to believe she could have acquired that reputation without using those very skills in action. Dahteste’s fluency in English made her a valuable intermediary between ‘hostile’ Apache and the U.S. Army.
She too was taken into custody following Geronimo’s surrender, and shipped back East. She lived long enough to finish her life on the San Carlos Apache reservation.
What of it?
Both of these women certainly could have been portrayed in the film, Geronimo. They were active in the fighting, and at the very least their inclusion would have added color to the story. More than that, their role in negotiations for surrender would have put these two women right in the central plot-line of the movie. So, it’s not simply a question of a missed opportunity. They had to be written out of the story, and in writing them out the story, the film-makers delivered a story that was much more masculine much more hetero-normative than the one they could have told, or would have told, had they had the balls to do so.
If there are specific historical reasons for dropping Lozen and Dahteste from this legend, I do not know what they would be, but I suspect the actual reason for this would be a failure of the imagination. Warfare in the old west is, as far as the typical America can envision it, a distinctively masculine enterprise. Women may from time to time fall victim to it, and the occasional female character can show her spirit by picking up a gun when necessary, but these two women were actively involved in the fighting, and apparently they did so by their own choice. They were not merely caught up in the action, and they did a Hell of a lot more than show a little spirit when it was absolutely necessary. These weren’t damsels in distress; they were distress in their own right. I sincerely doubt that the folks making this film knew what to do with them.
…which is a damned shame.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really see the inclusion of these two in Geronimo’s story as a question of justice (no more than I worry about the omission of Naiche). Neither historians nor film-makers, nor anyone else for that matter, can grant justice to those long dead and gone. This is a question of story-telling. It’s hard to get this across to people who don’t study history. The real thing is consistently more interesting, more convoluted, and more difficult to imagine than the stories Hollywood typically gives us. The liberties they take with historical subject matter rarely add much to the story; they consistently leave that story impoverished.
This American Legend (cool as it is) would have been that much more interesting had they found a place for these two Apache legends.
Not pictured above would be a woman named Gouyen, a bad-ass in her own right. She too was captured at the end of Geronimo’s campaign and transported to Florida, but not before accomplishing a few impressive feats of her own.
I haven’t learned what role (if any) she may have played in events leading up to Geronimo’s surrender, but her martial feats are impressive enough in their own right. When her first husband was killed in a Comanche raid, she is said to have tracked down the man who did it and returned home with his scalp.
She did this alone.
During Geronimo’s earlier campaigns, so the story goes, Gouyen actually saved her second husband’s life.
Gouyen died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1903.
Don’t the folks at MSN know that I’m busy? Don’t they realize I have better things to do than rant about the slippage between their storylines and their headlines? Or is it some kinda clever plot to drive me bonkle-wozzies before the end of summer?
I mean, seriously, take a look at the teaser line for that story on MSN. Isn’t that amazing? No, not Zimmerman, silly, or the guy whose face I deliberately cut in half with the cropping tool (I’m in a bad mood); I mean the lady in the funny hat. Check out the line underneath it.
Somebody has reason to think they actually found a piece of the cross to which our dear and fluffy bamble-hussy was nailed in the way back when. And if that is true, then maybe a few other claims about that old carpenter’s cat might be true too, and damn! If that’s true, I guess I better re-evaluate a few things, not the least of them being the way I talk about our Lord and Savior.
Seriously, …uh oh!
Okay, I know it’s not really alleging proof of a miracle, but what the lie does suggest is that they have serious reason to believe a piece of wood actually dates back to the historical event of Christ’s crucifiction, and THAT would be a Hell of a piece of research to produce. It really would.
But wait a minute, the actual headline on NBC News doesn’t have quite the same force as the front page teaser on MSN. The teaser is just the sort of phrasing you would use to put a claim on the table; the actual headline could as easily be used to suggest you were getting ready to throw the claim in the trash. This whole thing just got less interesting with a single click of the mouse. Still, I wonder what the Hell this is all about.
Guess I’ll have to read the article…
Oh well, it’s right here in the first paragraph.
Turkish archaeologists say they have found a stone chest in a 1,350-year-old church that appears to contain a relic venerated as a piece of Jesus’ cross.
It turns out that what MSNBC meant was little more than that they unearthed a artifact that WAS venerated as a piece of the old bad bark by a particular people in a particular time and place. The rest of the article discusses some of the comments thrown back and forth about such artifacts in centuries past, all of which is actually quite interesting, but what this piece does NOT contain is any reason to believe that it really is a piece of the most famous chunk of wood in human and (Divine) history.
Speaking of Icons, there is definitely an iconic relationship between the marketing of this article and its informative content, one that probably shouldn’t be there. Seriously MSN-NBCNews guys, it’s one thing to tell us about holy relic hyping; it’s quite another to hype a relic yourselves. …or at least those SHOULD be two-different things. The problem is at least partly a matter of slippage between the various stages of publication and promotion, but somewhere in there a potentially interesting story has been transformed into the rhetoric of carnival barking.
So, I guess this isn’t really the journalism-as-apologetics piece that the original teaser seemed to suggest it would be. Don’t get me wrong; this is actually kind of neat – in a perfectly-sober-professional-archaeologist-doing-what-those-guys-do sorta way, maybe even in a cool-find-and-high-fives-all-around-kinda-way, but definitely not in holy-carble-monkeys-you-has-found-the-holy-of-holies kinda way.
…one of these days I’ll go back to using real words in my posts.
But not today.
Today I am just blowing raspberries at the whole damned thing.
Speaking of absolutely bunk, let’s try an online poll. This oughtta be about as meaningful as all the other junk polls you get with news stories. I only regret that it will probably fail to find it’s way into anybodies talking points.
CORRECTION: I took a second look at this and changed a few things (including the title) on accounta I still think it’s June of 2012. Thanks to John for catching my mistake.
A career in Native American studies makes you the grammatical equivalent of a time machine. No sooner do people learn where you work, what you study, or what specific things you happen to be working on than they suddenly switch to past tense. Depending on the sympathies of the speaker, this may be accompanied by sad tones and slightly downcast eyes. Seriously, I’ve lost track of the number of times a few comments from me have led people to great moments of reflection about “what we have done to them” or some such theme.
These moments of introspective time-travel usually leave me with a bit of motion sickness. See, the thing is that people go back to the past like this when I am talking about perfectly contemporary issues. When I worked on the Navajo Nation, simply telling folks what I do for a living was often enough to send their souls searching through history for resolution of collective sins, real or imagined. In most cases, I don’t think folks had any real sense of the specifics in question, no real idea of just what Anglos had done to Navajos (or visa versa), for example. In most cases, I suspect the sudden trip to the past tense was filled with thoughts of generic cowboys and even more generic Indians, …who probably looked more like Lakota than Navajos anyway, at least in their imagination. In any event, the problem is simple enough; for far too many people Native Americans simply belong in the past tense, their issues are forever set in the past.
…and yes, I do wonder just how often Native Americans get this? It would be easy to imagine it must happen far more often to them, but perhaps it’s a white thing after all. I don’t remember getting this effect in the presence of natives, just when it’s me talking to my own, so to speak. It may well be that the change in tense is at least partly a function of a third person perspective, so to speak.
Anyway, I figure it makes it a Hell of a lot easier to be sorry about something if it happened a few generations back. Try to talk to people about issues such as uranium poisoning, forced relocation, or any number of contemporary issues, and they are less certain that what ‘we’ are doing to ‘them’ isn’t somehow justified, or at least necessary, or at least, …hey let’s just change the subject! But folks are happy to talk about Custer; wasn’t he a bastard!?!
Rarely do I get the sense that this sot of time warp is meant to provide historical perspective; often it strikes me as just one more way of changing the subject.
But of course somber regrets for crimes long forgotten are only the nice-guy half of this coin. Flip the quarter over and you get a range of narratives effectively using time to disclaim responsibility for these same crimes, perhaps even a comment to the effect that it’s best for Native Americans to put the past behind them. Occasionally people will actually tell me that reservations or casinos, etc. are attempts to pay for what ‘our ancestors’ did, and of course the point is always to suggest that such concessions are unfair to the rest of us.
And no, this time-to-forget theme is not limited to Native Americans. One has only to suffer his way through “The Accidental Racist” to hear Brad Paisley play precisely this shell game with history. I don’t have the stomach to parse the details of this terrible tune, but let’s just say that Brad is apparently paying for the mistakes of a southern past, and L.L. Cool Jay is happy to let bygones be bygones.
…Seriously, both of them should have known better.
It’s funny those who support the rebel flag are always prepared to discuss its significance in the civil war. Rarely do they want to comment on its use in opposition to the civil rights movement. History textbooks probably don’t make this much easier, telling us that slavery ended with the close of the civil war. Sure they note the existence of debt peonage and Jim Crow Laws, etc., but that is a more complex story. The morality tale for most people ends at Appomattox. I suspect it is the story of slavery that many will imagine when they ask why African-Americans have trouble putting the past behind them. The notion that some folks can still remember when there was real danger in looking a white person in the eye just seems to escape a lot of people.
But what’s past isn’t equally past for all people. I learned this very clearly out in Navajo country. The nadir or their historical narratives begins with the story of the Long Walk. In 1864 Kit Carson burned their crops and homes and waited for winter to bring them to him.
The result was 4 years of internment at a place called Fort Sumner in Southeastern New Mexico. Many of those who started the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner didn’t make it to the end.
When my friends, students, and coworkers told me their stories about the long walk, what struck me most about their narratives was the way they always began. They almost always began with a clear reference to some family member. These weren’t simply stories about something that happened to their ancestors; they were stories about the death of a Great Aunt or the trials of a Great Great Grandmother. People telling me these stories consistently anchored narratives of the long walk in their own relationship to one of those who had been through it. These were not stories about an event over a hundred years ago; they were intensely personal stories of family tragedy.
I’ve heard similar stories, …from my high school history teacher, for example. A native of Georgia, her account of Sherman’s march included a great grandmother’s efforts to save a family heirloom (she stuck it on a wall in the hopes Union troops wouldn’t notice). When I taught briefly at a Jewish private school in Houston, I heard such stories from survivors of the Holocaust. More importantly, my students heard those stories. They hear them every year, directly from the survivors, and in countless other contexts throughout that same year. I’ve heard such tragic narratives from Inupiat speaking about the horrors of influenza epidemics brought by whalers and the trials of the boarding schools. Exposure to virgin soil epidemics is hardly ancient history on the North slope, and most any native can tell you about some elder who was punished for speaking her own language at the schools. What all these narratives have in common isn’t simply tragedy; it’s personal connection to the suffering.
People don’t just forget these sorts of events. They keep them alive; they keep them personal. The suffering becomes part of the meaning of history, and part of the personal identity of those that have been through it, of their children, and their children’s children.
Whether or not such stories should be kept alive in that way is a whole other question, a rather ironic one at that. The suggestion that people subjected to injustice ought somehow to simply move on has more than a trace of might-makes-right in it. It is an attempt to suggest that certain horrors are simply an accomplished fact, as are the long term consequences; land lost, buildings and nations built for the benefit of someone else, and whole scores of missing family – aunts and uncles not present and cousins never born. I sometimes hear people say that it would be best to just move on; accept all of this and focus on the future. Best for whom?
In any event, it seems those with such tragedy in their past rarely (if ever) take such advice, and here we have at least a trace of poetic justice. It seems to me quite fitting that those hoping the descendants of tragedy would accept the consequences as an accomplished fact should run square up against one other uncomfortable and very stubborn fact, namely that folks just don’t. People do not forget such things.
They just don’t.
Just what is the relationship between the events occurring inside a film and those occuring the world in which we live? I will not say the ‘real world’, because of course part of the problem here is that the ‘worlds’ in which we live are saturated by myriad narratives, preconceptions, and cultural artifacts which shape our understanding of events in ways few of us can fully understand. So, when we see something happening in a movie, it is important to grasp that this too is one more of those narratives, one more thing that shapes the meaning of events in own own lives. Just how it does that, well now that is a tricky question.
It’s a difficult question with a number of plausible answers, but I think we can rule out one answer at least, the one that says; ‘nothing’. Quentin Tarantino would seem to disagree, at least he does when he’s angry and dodging interesting interview questions. In a now infamous rant, Tarantino took the position that there was no relationship between on-screen violence and real world violence, refusing even to elaborate on this position or to explain his reasons for taking it.
(Oh yeah, SPOILERS!)
To be fair, it was the interviewer, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, that fielded the stance in a sort of complex question (at 4:30 in the clip below), but for all his belligerence Tarantino does not disavow the position attributed to him. Guru-Murthy claims that his own research has produced little in the way of an explanation from Tarantino, just a consistent repetition of this stance. It’s a common enough claim in any event, often serving as a defense mechanism, both for those that create guilty pleasures and those of us who enjoy them (and yes, I do count myself among the guilty). So long as there is no relationship between fantasy violence and real-world violence, one is free to explore the one while taking no responsibility for the other.
But of course the world isn’t that simple, and as Guru-Murthy also points out, Tarantino was happy to link his latest film to the serious issues of slavery, even taking taking credit for starting a dialogue about that subject. He also takes credit for the cathartic violence he puts on screen, but has little to say about the ‘real’ violence perpetrated by the villains against their slaves on that very same screen. But are we really to believe Tarantino means us to feel emotional investment for Django’s acts of revenge while sitting guiltless through the torture and slaughter of innocents throughout the film? Does the elaborate detail of ‘Mandingo fighting’, the ‘hot box’, and the vicious execution of a slave torn apart by dogs leave the viewer without any sense of complicity for the “brutality of the violence of the day?”
Tarantino’s own writing belies this approach. His villains are too clever, their speeches too fascinating, their point of view far too prominent in these moments to dismiss their point of view. The victims of this violence remain largely silent. We know that the Mandingo fighters suffer and regret what they are forced to do, we know that Django’s love interest is defiant, and that she suffered greatly for it, and we know that the man torn apart by dogs could not bear to fight again; none of these characters really say much in the movie. They do not introduce interesting plot twists; they do not dazzle us with fascinating speeches. They suffer just as we would expect them to, providing us with no insights at all into the world in which they live.
Those that inform us about the world envisioned in this movie are the killers. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie explains quite clearly what he expects of his slaves before setting the dogs loose. Dr. King Schultz (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) introduces us to the fascinating world of bounty hunter, one who would see a man shot in front of his child but who balks at seeing another torn apart by dogs. And of course we understand Django’s motives; his goals are the driving force of the movie; it is his killings which provide us with the final pay-off, the glorious conclusion of the film.
It is consistently the logic of those enacting violence which Tarantino fleshes out for us in this film, and as always, he does it ever so well. The victims are there to suffer, and to provide a pretext for the ‘cathartic’ violence that is to come. In short, Django consistently draws us into the viewpoint of the killer; the movie does this when the killer is a villain, and it does it again when he is a hero. This myth of redemptive violence presented in a special way that allows us to have our cake and eat it too. We can enjoy Dicaprio’s sadism just as we will enjoy his downfall. If there is a moment of regret in a scene, or a brief period in which we might wish for the suffering to simply stop, well that moment passes in due time, transformed as it were into the rationale for yet another killing. In Django, we understand the killers, the victims are simply silent.
But villains gotta be villainous, don’t they?
Of course they do, but what is lacking in Django is a genuine counter-balance, any real sense of what is at stake in this story for anyone who is not a killer. When our principal reward at the end of the story is the death of the bad guy (DiCaprio or Jackson, …or so many others), we are never far from the mindset of the killer. In the end, Django leaves a wanted man, accepting this fate without so much as the blink of an eye, his wife drawing a rifle as they ride off from the scene. Two lives now wholly engulfed in violence. If this is a victory, it is at least partially a victory for the world of villainy.
…which brings us back to the initial question, just how does this story relate to the realities of violence in everyday life? I honestly enjoyed much of this movie, as I did with Inglorious Bastards. (Yeah, I know about the spelling, take that Quentin!) But I always feel a little uncomfortable with Tarantino films, precisely because I can’t escape the feeling that I am witnessing something a little creepy; it’s a bit like watching a teenager doing something truly inappropriate in public. Whether it is sheer joy with which Tarantino employs the n-word just a little more than his faux-realism rationale would warrant, or the raw celebration of violence which is present in every film he makes, I cannot help but to think the limitations of Tarantino’s stories are the limitations of the world in which he lives, the world of narratives informing his sense of sense of the world off-screen. And I cannot help but think he is inviting us to normalize those limitations and accept a world of cartoonish violence as a moral standard of sorts.
It is not as though the world lacks for people who think this way off-screen.
One can see it in that interview above as well, when Tarantino tells us that Django deals with the ‘Auschwitzian’ characteristics of slavery. (I guess it’s a word now, …why not?) Honestly, I don’t know what he meant by saying that Americans have dealt with the Native American holocaust, but he clearly seems to think this movie is saying something about the realities of slavery, so much so that when people talk about the film, Tarantino takes that in itself to be a meaningful dialogue about slavery. And yet there is little about this film that could shed light on the nature of slavery as an historical institution.
Tarantino’s choice of comparison is telling, because the story of Auschwitz is largely the story of cruelty for the sake of cruelty, and this is Tarantino’s vision of slavery itself. In one of the most interesting (and insightful) speeches of the film, Dr. Shultz tells us quite frankly that he deals in dead bodies while slavers deal in live bodies; bother are economic institutions. So, why then do slaves first make an appearance in this film walking a great distance barefoot in the cold? Sure, one could probably come up with a plausible explanation based on historical possibilities. But the more plausible answer is that Tarantino wanted to show us the raw cruelty of the institution. More to the point, he did not wish so much to tel us something about slavery as to use slavery as a pretext for telling us something about cruelty. Tarantino presents this story of raw cruelty for us again in the sadistic foremen whom Django will kill part way through the movie, and again in the institution of Mandingo fighting. He presents it in virtually everything that DiCaprio’s character and Samuel Jackson’s character say and do. In this film slavery is not an economic enterprise, it is the conspicuous consumption of sadists, an extravagance of cruelty for the sake of cruelty.
One should add that it is a highly sexualized cruelty that one sees in this film. While Tarantino denies that rape appears in the film, its presence in the narrative is prominent. Django is quick to tell us that his wife will be used as a comfort woman, a prospect apparently confirmed by the words of another villain later in the film. Throughout the plantations in this film, black women appear in full southern dress, lounging about, the clear implication being that they are there for the pleasure of the owners. And of course when Django is captured, it is his genitalia which first get the attention of his would-be tormenters. The slaves portrayed in this film exist largely for the purpose of providing the villains with cheap thrills. And while this sort of thing was certainly not absent in the real history, its significance has completely eclipsed those of plantation agriculture in Tarantino’s narrative.
Slavery insofar as it appears in this movie, is little other than a sadistic fantasy. It is a source of pleasure for the villains, and fleeting moments of pain for the victims about whom we learn so very little. And perhaps we could sweep all of this under the rug and just call it entertainment were it not for one thing; Tarantino himself wants to tell us this movie is about slavery.
A part of me wants to say that it simply isn’t.
But of course that too would be inaccurate. The movie is about a vision of slavery bearing little resemblance to the actual institution, but perhaps one with a disturbing resemblance to Tarantino’s own thoughts about race, violence and sexuality. More disturbing still is the very real possibility that this film tells us still more about the general public’s understanding of the relationship between these features of American society.
I suppose all of this brings us full circle to the cathartic violence that Tarantino is talking about. On one level, that would be cathartic violence against the perpetrators of slavery as Tarantino envisions it. On another level, if I am right that Tarantino is getting off on the sadistic possibilities available in a world of slavery, that he is inviting his audience to enjoy the same possibilities, then the catharsis is perhaps a bit more personal. It is the moment in which one erases his or her investment in the sadistic themes presented here through the actions and words of the villains. It is a moment in which one finally rejects the villain despite his cleverness, and perhaps it is a moment in which one rejects one of the ills of history (at least insofar as it is almost dealt with in the form of that villain). The destruction of the villain thus becomes our own ritual purification.
I have my doubts as to where that leaves us in the end.