The lower 48 can seem like a foreign country, not always, but often enough. It’s strange to think so. I mean, I lived down there for over 40 years, so why would it seem so strange to me now? Anyway, it often does.
This feeling came through particularly strong last semester when I agreed to accompany a minor to a chemistry conference in San Diego. I often find myself working on the margins of my own fields, but I have to admit this one was a little bit of a stretch. So, it was with particular joy that I suddenly found myself looking at a bit of Alaskan history.
Right there in San Diego.
I had just descended below deck aboard The Star of India, one of several ships at the Maritime Museum, and there it was, a whole display on the Alaskan fish packing industry, or at least the role The Star of Indian played in shipping the products of fishing out to other parts. I was already enjoying the museum, and I long since warmed to my stay in San Diego when I saw this, and then my face lit right up.
There is something a little perverse about the trajectory that brings me here from the edge of civilization near to its centers only to find the ghosts of so many fish who’ve made that same trip themselves. Whether it’s a perverse irony or a perverse synchrony, I’m not sure, but either way these artifacts of an extractive industry shouldn’t really have surprised me. I enjoy living on the edge of nowhere, though I do so with the full benefits of the modern world to keep me warm and well connected to the rest of y’all, and of course, there is no real escape from the global economy. If places like Alaska are good for fishing, it goes without saying that when they are good enough, a fair portion of stories told about those fish will be told in other places.
Places like San Diego.
Anyway, you never know when a trip out will lead you to a little glimpse of home.
Originally named the Euterpe, this vessel was built in 1863. She hauled salmon out of Alaska from 1902 to 1923, being renamed The Star of India in 1906. As steamships came to dominate the industry, she was finally retired in 1926. Today, she is docked at the Maritime Museum, though she is still seaworthy. You can find a few videos of her out on the water.
It has become a common gambit to tell people the United States of America is not a democracy; it is a republic. This argument seems to be coming from right wing circles, for the most part anyway. It gets a lot of its force from the fact that so many on left and even in the middle ground of our nation’s politics commonly refer to the United States as a ‘democracy.’ It gets a lot more force from the fact that at least some of the nation’s founding fathers expressed reservations about democracy. So, anyone casually referring to the nation as a ‘democracy’ becomes low hanging fruit for a quick correction easily supported by a few quick references to some of America’s founding documents. And of course the Republican party gets a little pay-off out of nudging out vocabulary in the direction of their own party moniker.
Fake quotes from America’s founders help to exaggerate the contrast even to the point of caricature (e.g. Not-Jefferson on Democracy, Two Wolves and a Franklin). It is also common to find those making the correction suggesting that anyone who refers to America as a ‘democracy’ must be advocating the very horribles imagined in such spurious quotations.
People do this all the time.
But are they really doing something?
(When they do, this I mean.)
Are people really doing something when they do this?
Yes! They are indeed doing something.
What they are doing is semantics.
That’s right! At bottom, this is a word game, nothing more. What’s more, it’s not a particularly helpful word game, owing to a deceptive shift in meaning over the course of the argument. Folks who make this argument aren’t helping u to understand anything; they are confounding real issues about how to design a government with minor shifts in vocabulary.
I’m not normally a fan of argumentum ad dictionary, but this topic is all about definitions, so let’s take a moment to cover a few options.
1a(1): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president
(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government
b(1): a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law
(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government
c: a usually specified republican government of a political unit the French Fourth Republic
2: a body of persons freely engaged in a specified activity the republic of letters
3: a constituent political and territorial unit of the former nations of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, or Yugoslavia
Of course, there are plenty of other dictionaries out there, but the better ones are going to have MORE rather than less options for the meaning of the terms in question, and those up above are pretty representative of the options you’ll find in other dictionaries (though the specific examples mentioned are likely to vary). So, I am going with this.
What I want to note right off the bat here is the fact that government outlined in the U.S. Constitution, with its system of elected representatives, would match definition 1b for ‘Democracy’ above, and also definition 1b for ‘Republic’ above. I used to use a government textbook that spoke of the U.S. as a ‘representative democracy’ or an ‘indirect democracy’ as well, both phrases quite synonymous with common uses of the term ‘republic’ or ‘republican government.” In my experience, these are common ways of talking about the subject. In fact, I’ll wager that that is what people generally have in mind when they refer to the United States as a ‘democracy.’ They would be quite surprised to find that they are referring to a direct democracy with no constitutional restrictions on government authority (as those using the not-a-democracy gambit typically suggest).
Simply put; there is, in every day usage, considerable range of overlap between the meaning of ‘democracy’ and the meaning of ‘republic.’ The two words are commonly used to refer to the same thing.
Okay, so where do people get the idea that they are different? They do so because America’s founding fathers were openly skeptical of democracy. Sometimes the founders expressed this in terms of a need check extreme forms of democracy and sometimes they voiced opposition to democracy altogether. And yet, their comments on the subject were not uniformly negative. It says something that the Jefferson and Madison faction of post-Constitution politics was (and is) known as the Democratic-Republicans. If democracy and republicanism could be juxtaposed in opposition to one another, they could also be seen as complementary. Those snarking about how the United states is a ‘republic’ and not a ‘democracy’ take notice of the one theme while seeking to hide the other.
Perhaps the most strident diatribe against a democracy in the founding era comes from Federalist 10, written by James Madison. The relevant passages begin…
From this view of the subject, it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.
It’s worth noting the hedge in Madison’s comments at this point in the article; he is speaking of “pure democracy,” which seems to leave open the possibility of other not-so-pure democracies. Also, it’s worth noting that he attributes two separate features to this pure democracy; small size and direct participation. The former is a direct function of the purpose of the Federalist papers; they are an effort to sell the Constitution to the public, and along with the Constitution, a much larger and stronger central government. Madison is making a case for a larger government by telling us that smaller governments are more prone to corruption by factional interests. That is part of what he means when he contrasts ‘democracy’ with ‘republic.’ Significantly, this theme runs quite counter to the politics of the Republican Party with its current penchant for bashing big-gov. So, it should be no surprise that those insisting America is a republic would not take up this aspect of Madison’s thinking. The second theme, that direct democracy is a problem (i.e. that letting the people as a whole make decisions about government themselves) makes more of an appearance in their rhetoric. At least some of those telling us the USA is not a democracy will call attention to the representative nature of our legislative process. A lot of educational materials will put that closer to the center of a discussion on the topic. So, did Madison.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure, and the efficacy which it must derive from the union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic, are first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
Note that Madison describes the U.S. model of government in terms of elected representatives which would put it squarely in the domain found in definitions 1b above for both ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ found in the dictionary above. That Madison refers to this as a republican model of government in contrast to a ‘pure democracy’ does not change the fact that today, people use the word ‘democracy in a manner that is precisely consistent with his own use of ‘republic.’ The point he is making is about the virtues of elected representatives, and there is absolutely no reason to believe this point – or would be – lost on those who refer to the present government of the United States as a ‘democracy.’ There is no reason to suppose that modern usage of the word ‘democracy’ (particularly in reference to the U.S. Government) is meant to apply strictly to direct democracies as Madison does in Federalist 10.
By the end of Federalist 10, Madison has dropped his hedge, and the contrast is simply between a democracy and a republic. The fact remains, however, that Madison’s use of the term is significantly more narrow than that of modern usage in which the word ‘democracy’ is commonly taken to include representative government or indirect democracy. If Madison (or any other founder restricting the term to a comparably narrow range of meaning) rejects democracy, then what stands between them and those Americans who think they live in a democracy is a question of semantics, NOT factual or practical matters. Those producing this sophomoric correction never account for the shift in meaning. They would prefer to pretend that they are weighing in on a matter of great substance.
Note: Another way of distinguishing a ‘republic’ from a ‘democracy’ is to talk about the role of a constitution as a document defining the terms of government authority and restricting that authority to specific contexts of application. This is particularly, important, some would suggest, insofar as a constitutional republic (theoretically) prevents the majority from voting away the rights of a minority. This too is deceptive. Those referring to the USA as a ‘democracy’ are not ignorant of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, nor are they talking about government in a way that negates the significance of either. In college, the distinction is often made between a “strict majoritarian democracy” and a government limited by the terms of a Constitution. It could be added that such provisions are still part of a democratic process, because even constitutions can be modified (albeit usually by the higher standard of a supermajority vote) and in the U.S. at least, our legislative representatives are still elected to office. People who call the U.S. a ‘democracy’ know this, and they certainly aren’t suggesting in such references that the Bill of rights or the proscriptions on government authority in Article 8 section 9 should be set aside.
I should add that the matter is not entirely trivial. The Constitution incorporates democratic principles into government in a variety of ways, balancing them off against measures concentrating power in elite circles. We can ask legitimate questions about how well these serve the people (or even whether or not they were ever meant to serve the people), but any questions about what we should do are poorly served by this simple either-or distinction. Recent efforts to subvert the democratic elements of U.S. government (such as the independent state legislature theory) pose a real threat to the integrity of American government.
Not to mention, a flagrant attempt to subvert the result of an election!
There are those who would genuinely prefer it if America were less democratic. This gambit gives them a cheap shortcut to an agenda they might find more difficult to articulate in responsible terms.
Semantic discussion should help us clarify meaning, not obscure it in the immediate partisan interests of those seeking to gain the rhetorical upper hand. There is a legitimate point to be made here, that America’s founding fathers had their concerns about democratic government. That point is not well made by opportunistic gotcha games like the notion that our nation is not a democracy because it is actually a constitutional republic. The United States of America is both.
Just a minor footnote to the story of the former guy. If you watch the footage of his July 4th celebration in the Black Hills, you may notice a catchy little tune that accompanies the first few moments of the fireworks (they begin at @around 4:52:45 on this video).
Wondering where you might have heard it before?
It’s not a coincidence.
The tune is called Gary Owen. It was the marching tune for Custer’s 7th cavalry. His band really did play this song as he attacked Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River.
I guess someone in the Trump camp must have thought to include that as a little extra message for the Native American community, and most especially for the protesters who thought Trump never should have brought his celebration there out to the Black Hills.
It’s actually kind of an apt metaphor for the Trump administration An invitation for all of us to wave flags and celebrate our national heritage.
…Even as they stick it to someone in that very same message.
Because, nothing at all is really any fun someone gets hurt
Some folks would put that on April 9th, 1865, when the battle of Appomattox Courthouse (Virginia) concluded with Lee’s surrender. (Presumably, the last shot would have been fired a little before the surrender, but at any rate, you can see why this moment might be a good candidate for the end of hostilities.) On the other hand, Lee’s surrender left a number of other Confederate forces in the field and still quite willing to fight. Some folks thought the last shot was fired a little later on, in Waynesville, North Carolina on May 6th, 1865. Of course the battle of Palmito Ranch (Texas) comes after that (May 12, 1865), which leads some to name that as the last battle of the civil war. Apparently, there was a small battle in Eufaula, Alabama, on May 19th of 1865 which certainly beats all of the above. If we are looking for an official end of the war, we could put it at May 5th when Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, officially disbanded the Confederate government or on May 10th when Davis was captured, putting to rest any hopes that he might somehow carry on after all. One might say that nothing after that counts. Just don’t tell that to Frank and Jesse James who seemed to view themselves as continuing the struggle well into what most would think a completely different story altogether. We could probably find a few other outlaws who might have told similar accounts of their actions. Sticking with official military forces, it’s worth noting that the last Confederate General to surrender was Stand Watie, who surrendered on June 23, 1865. Just how much fighting he and his men were doing in those last few days, I must confess I do not know. And then of course, there is the Confederate canon ball that exploded in Fort Macon, NC in the winter of 1942, putting an American soldier in the hospital for a couple days. Does that count? I’m gonna say ‘no’, but I do wonder what those who fired that shot might think to find out they scored a hit so many years afterwards. Clearly, there are a lot of candidates for the last shot of that war.
Or a story about a war.
Turns out it isn’t easy to wrap up a war!
I’m half-tempted to say the last shot of the civil war (so far) is the one that killed Ashli Babbitt on January 6th of this year, but that’s a whole other write-up.
So, what was the last shot of the civil war?
It really depends on what you choose to count as the last shot.
The key word there is ‘choose’.
Let me tell you about my favorite candidate for the last shot fired in the civil war!
It took place on June 22, 1865, in the Bering Sea. It would have been one of two warning shots fired by C.S.S. Shenandoah in the general direction of the Sophia Thornton, a whaling ship out to harvest bowheads in arctic waters. The shot had its intended effect, bringing the Sophia Thornton to a stop so this Confederate Commerce raider could loot and burn it to the waterline before they moved on to plunder other ships in the Yankee whaling fleet.
What makes this the last shot?
Well it is the last shot fired by troops acting under a flag of either belligerent in what they believe to be an action authorized by their own government in pursuit of the war. Why is that the important criteria? Well it just is, dammit! (Jesse and Frank can suck an egg.) I have spoken!
The Shenandoah would go on to plunder additional ships over the next couple days, but she didn’t need to fire any more warning shots. In time she would head south in hopes of launching an attack on San Francisco. One final capture along the way proved sufficient to furnish proof of the war’s end, thus bringing to a close this one last chapter of the Civil War.
.Almost the close anyway.
The Shenandoah made its way to England before surrendering, a trip which was certainly an ordeal in itself. And then of course there were the Alabama Claims, a lawsuit in which the Shenandoah figured rather prominently.
Maybe that’s when the story ends?
Or maybe not.
It’s damned hard to wrap up a war.
Or even a story about one chapter in a war.
What I love about this story is that it helps me connect the Civil War to the history of Alaska. It might seem like a footnote in the story of either Alaska or the Civil War, but it’s one of a few such footnotes that helps me connect the Civil War to students often prone to think of that war as a story for those that live in the lower 48. What I also love about this story is it keeps getting richer every time I come back to it.
Of course the story of the Shenandoah is not really just one story.
It’s a whole bunch of stories.
It’s a story about international relations. It’s a story of asymmetric warfare. It’s a story about whales and whalers. It’s a story about race and racism. It’s a story about law and violence, and the use of law as an instrument of violence. It’s probably a few other stories as well, but these are the themes this story usually takes takes on when I tell it.
First a few basic facts, which I probably should have mentioned way back in the first or second paragraph here, but anyway, you’re getting them now.
The Shenandoah began as a merchant vessel and troop transport, named the Sea King. She set sail from England in August of 1863 and finally surrendered to the British government in November of 1865. She first rendezvoused with another ship called the Lauren just off the coast of Madeira where she was outfitted with guns and other equipment necessary for work as a commerce raider. The Shenandoah was Captained by Lieutenant James Waddell, an officer in the Confederate Navy. Additional Confederate military provided the bulk of the ship’s officers, but the rest of her crew was initially unaware of the true purpose of their voyage. At Maderia, that crew was given the option to stay aboard and help on her actual mission (for a share of the loot), or to return home aboard the Lauren in the event that work in borderline piracy was not to their tastes. In time, the Shenandoah would flesh out her crew by adding sailors from the very ships she plundered. Apparently, it was not unusual for men to volunteer in such cases. Neither was it all that rare for the crew of a commerce raider to push the issue.
And by “push the issue” I might mean torture.
The Shenandoah carried 8 total canons of various sizes, not enough to make her a formidable warship, but enough to make resistance from a merchant vessel a losing proposition. She was equipped with a full set of masts with which to catch the winds as well as an auxiliary steam engine to get her moving when the winds weren’t so kind. She could make headway against the wind, but she could also take full advantage of favorable winds. Commerce raiders needed enough speed to catch their prey and outrun a full warship, and they needed just enough weaponry to defeat their civilian prey, or (more importantly) to convince their prey that surrender was the best course of action. By these standards, the Shenandoah was well suited to her task, at least when she finally got all the necessary materials.
Her first few captures, it seems, were secured through a bit of a bluff as her canons lacked the proper rope and tackle system to reload. Also, she didn’t really have enough crew. Once these problems were resolved, she was good to go!
International relations: The first chapters of any book about the Shenandoah are inevitably chapters of political intrigue. The ship was born in England, but of course that was politically impossible. England was officially neutral in the American Civil War, and so they couldn’t possibly allow the Confederates to purchase a ship meant for war from one of their ports. This is why her first stop was made off the shores of Madeira. She had been purchased by Confederate agents, aided by the complicity of British officials, setting sail without weapons of war and barely escaping British waters ahead of Yankee diplomatic efforts to shut down the voyage.
The official neutrality of Britain in regards to the Shenandoah would plague her voyage as the Shenandoah had to look for neutral ports or hide her true purpose when stopping anywhere at any port under a British flag. (This problem nearly ended her voyage in Melbourne.)
Britain’s official neutrality and unofficial complicity of course played a role in the decision to surrender in London. Other options were considered, of course, but surrendering to the United States was pretty much out of the question. The legality of commerce raiding is questionable enough under any circumstances. It gets a lot more questionable when your side loses, and continuing the raids a couple months past the end of hostilities might be a good way to earn your way right into a hang-man’s noose. Under the circumstances, a neutral nation seemed like the best place to bring the voyage to a close.
Britain’s complicity in this story would be revisited in the Alabama Claims, an international dispute resolved in 1872. In this case, the American government sought damages from Britain for allowing construction and purchase of 5 Confederate warships in their own waters. The Alabama was the most important of these vessels, but the Shenandoah certainly played a role. The Alabama claims ended when Britain paid the U.S. 15.5 million to cover the damages caused by ships such as the Shenandoah, thus setting the stage for international arbitration and eventually to things such as the Hague, the League of Nations, and the World Court.
…all of which states’ rights activists in the modern world might well consider examples of that Goddamned globalism!
(and thus the struggle continues…)
Asymmetric Warfare: How do you defeat an enemy that has more troops, more weapons, more industry, and more of pretty much everything necessary to fight a war? Well, to make a long story short, you might want to fight dirty. At least, that seems to a common response. That’s at least part of the story here. The Union established clear dominance over the Confederacy early in the Civil War and used a blockade to cut off much needed supplies coming in from other nations. The Confederacy thus relied on blockade runners to get supplies for the war, and on commerce raiders which served two purposes; they could weaken the Union financially, and they could draw warships away from the blockade as they were diverted to pursuit of the raiders. The Shenandoah falls into this category as it was tasked with wrecking havoc on the Yankee whaling fleet, then concentrated in arctic waters. It was part of a strategy born of desperation, but it’s also part of a strategy that works. …to a degree at any rate. It certainly works better than direct engagement with superior naval forces.
Ironically, the United States had a chance to prevent this sort of thing shortly before the Civil War as different European nations had put together an international agreement discouraging such practices. Realizing that it’s own navy was little match for its European counterparts, the United States declined to join the agreement, thus preserving the option to use such tactics in the event of a war with Nation’s like Britain or France (see Chaffin, pages 15-16). The civil war thus brought an unexpected twist of fate insofar as the Union found itself then facing down a weaker enemy with every reason to take advantage of this very option.
Suffice to say this would not be the last time, the United States would play Goliath to someone else’s David on the international stage.
Whales and Whaling: Upon encountering the first of Shenandoah’s prey in northern waters, The Abigail, Captain Waddell is said to have told its captain that the Confederacy had entered into a treaty with the whales (Chaffin, 231). It’s a clever line, one of several exchanged between the two men, but it doesn’t seem so frivolous in retrospect. At least some sources (Barr, Dunham), credit the Shenandoah with helping to reduce the Yankee whaling fleet which had only been working northern waters in search of the Bowhead population for a couple decades. She caused enough damage to change the way that insurance companies weighed the risks of covering a whaling expedition (Dunham). This wasn’t the only development shifting the economics of whaling at the time, but a plausible case can be made that the Shenandoah played a role in slowing down the whaling fleet. Waddell might well have thought himself to be telling little more than an amusing joke, but the Shenandoah may well have contributed to the welfare of the Bowhead population.
For Waddell’s allies at least, the impact of the Shenandoah were to last for some time after the close of its voyage and the war in which its crew served.
Race and Racism: One of the more interesting details of this story, at least to me, is the fact that the Shenandoah carried at least four African-American crew members (Chaffin, 360). One might wonder why an African-American would serve aboard a Confederate ship (a commerce raider or otherwise), and some of the sources which mention them do little to help explain this. Chaffin, however makes it clear that some of these men were put under heavy pressure, shackled, triced and threatened by Waddell who made it a point to tell one of them at least that blacks were the cause of the war. Mistreatment of these men continued well after their enlistment onto the crew. That one of them, John Williams, would escape during the ship’s stay in Melbourne would of course come as no surprise.
It would be easy enough to miss this. Just a few more sailors. These ones happen to be black, nothing to see here! Of course one can find denials of (and justifications for) their mistreatment in the comments of the ship’s officers. In the end, however, the story of the Shenandoah contains at least enough information to remind us that, at its heart, the Civil War is about a regime of forced labor defined in racial terms. To be sure, other sailors were pressed into service aboard the Shenandoah, but the treatment given to black sailors pressed into service does appear to have been significantly more abusive than that of their white counterparts.
Which really should not be surprising in the least!
Ahem, …Tricing consisted of hanging a prisoner for a period of time by their hands (or even their thumbs), often stretching them sufficiently to prevent their feet from supporting their full weight. This was done in conjunction with chackling prisoners and simply keeping in them in the same pen that was used to house animals carried for food.
Law and Violence: One of the more fascinating things about this story is the relative lack of overt violence in the capture of ships. For an act of war, this was generally carried out without any direct attacks on anyone. The ships captured by the Shenandoah were simply convinced to stop with a warning shot or two, after which the Shenandoah would send over a boarding crew to bring back the Captain of the vessel they had captured along with the ship’s records. These would then be inspected to ensure that the ship did indeed belong to Yankees, or at least that its cargo was owned by Yankees, after which the captured vessel would be looted, it’s officers, passengers and crew stowed aboard the Shenandoah itself, and then it would be burned. Some of these prisoners were treated as guests; others as prisoners. And (as mentioned) some signed onto service aboard the Shenandoah.
Prisoners were released in port.
What fascinates me about this is the legalism of the process. The officers aboard the Shenandoah were quite concerned to ensure that their prizes were legal, so to speak, even if the legitimacy of the legality was hardly something they could take for granted. They did not wish to plunder a ship from a neutral party, though; that at least would be more trouble than it was worth. So, the process was uniform, almost bureaucratic. They even enjoyed the option to require a ship to turn itself in at the nearest neutral port, effectively holding it for ransom, but doing so on little more than a written promise made under great duress.
The real violence in this story occurred primarily in the relationships between officers and crew or prisoners. Their actual naval engagements may have been a tad emotional, but they were largely legalistic affairs.
So much for the life of pirates!
Of course the men of the Shenandoah were not pirates. They were commerce raiders operating under orders from the Confederate government. This would distinguish them from buccaneers (private ships granted letters of marque from a government) or pirates who operated on their own without license from any government. The legitimacy of commerce raiding and letters of marque was always dubious, and it was coming more and more into dispute by the outset of the Civil War. In the end, their penchant for dotting legal Is and crossing legal Ts left them without much of a case to make when they finally realized the war was over. Things might have been different had the Confederacy won the war, but then again, they might also have been different if the Union had captured the Shenandoah. As it stands, they spent the final leg of their voyage trying to evade Yankee warships and get back to England where they might at least fall under the control and ostensibly neutral party.
Well, that’s it. Are you still here? Bet you thought this would be over long ago, didn’t you?
Like I said; it’s tough to end a war.
Or a story about the end of a war.
I really did warn you.
John Baldwin, Last Flag Down. (A monograph on the voyage of the Shenandoah)
Brad Barr talk in 2017. (It’s an interesting talk in which Barr argues that the greatest significance of the Shenandoah’s voyage was its impact on the practice of whaling.)
Now this is a right wing message after my left wing heart!
Only it misses.
It’s a reference to Wounded Knee Massacre. which did in fact occur on December 29th, 1890. The rest of the account comes close to the truth.
Yet, the details of the story have been altered to suit the purposes of the gun rights lobby.
1: Referring to this as “the largest mass shooting in U.S. history” puts an odd spin on it. It is of course a mass shooting, in much the same sense that any other military operation (Whether it be a legitimate battle or an outright massacre) could be described as a “mass shooting.” Still, we don’t normally describe battles or even massacres carried out by the military as “mass shootings.” We use that phrase to describe the actions of people (usually civilians) acting on their own accord. Use of this phrasing is designed to bring this story in alignment with questions about civilian gun ownership rather than questions about military actions or the history of Indian-white relations. In effect, the author is inviting us to set aside the larger context of violence made possible, not only by government policy, but also a political economy hell-bent on predatory expansion and a U.S. population fully expecting to get everything Native Americans have in the end. Wounded Knee may be one of the worst of such stories, but none of these stories can be accurately compared to a seemingly random “mass shooting” carried out by civilians acting on their own.
I’m going to give the question as to whether or not this was “the largest” mass shooting a pass.
2: The timeline is over-simplified. The army did not first disarm the Lakota camp and then begin shooting, as this meme describes. The shooting broke out during the process of disarming the warriors. Certainly, a lot of the weapons had already been confiscated, but some Lakota still had weapons, and others may have been able to retrieve confiscated weapons in the early moments of the battle. By some accounts, Wounded Knee actually consists of a close quarter battle at the site of disarmament even as the army opened up with Hotchkiss guns on the women and children in the larger camp. Soldiers then proceeded to hunt down fleeing Lakota (men, and women, and children) long after any semblance of fighting wasover. (It also appears that some of the army’s own casualties were likely due to friendly fire. Seriously, …this was a clusterfuck!) Wounded Knee was certainly an atrocity, but it was not an atrocity that begins clearly AFTER the Lakota have been disarmed.
This is of course the central distortion of the narrative. It makes it possible to treat the massacre as a story of armed shooters and unarmed targets (thus conjuring the image of a “mass shooting” in the sense we see so often today). The resulting account not only ignores the weapons still in possession of Lakota; it also ignores the larger military context which made refusal to give up the weapons implausible. Once again, this was a military operation. The notion that Lakota could have simply refused to turn over their guns (as the author urges Americans to refuse themselves) is highly unrealistic.
Hell, it’s outright stupid!
3: The author tells us that America’s founding fathers saw fit to ensure that American citizens would be armed so as to prevent this sort of thing belies the relevance of this example to private gun ownership. Lakota were not U.S. Citizens at the time, and actual U.S. citizens (gun owners or not) were not exactly interested in helping them. There is nothing about the private gun ownership of American citizens which was ever going to stop this massacre from happening, and given the dynamics of actual war, it is highly unlikely that the private ownership of guns will make a difference in the event that officials in the U.S. government decides to attack a segment of its own citizenry will make any difference. You might get to shoot back. Those you shoot back at will be better armed than you.
This really is just one of many memes distorting history on behalf of the gun rights agenda. What’s particularly irritating about this one is the use of an atrocity carried out against Native Americans by a political lobby not known for supporting Native American rights. It’s cynical. It’s deceitful. And it’s pathetic.
If there is a case to be made for the right to own a gun, this is not it.
Indigenous communities in Alaska are just like those in the lower 48!
…only not at all.
Seriously, there are some significant differences in the way these communities are defined, along with their relationship to the rest of us. I got an interesting glimpse into the differences one day about a decade back when I and a colleague were asked if we could find a local elder willing to meet by teleconference with a college class from a tribal college in the lower 48. We put the meeting together and it went really well.
But one moment from that meeting has always stayed with me.
One of the students from the outside college asked how the elder and others in the Inupiat community here on the North Slope of Alaska deal with oil companies. The elder said something to the effect that you needed strong leadership that could articulate the needs of his own community to those companies. His terms were pretty general, but the student seemed quite satisfied with his answer.
The thing is; I am pretty sure the student was asking out the local community protests with oil companies. I’m also, pretty sure, the elder was thinking about how the local community negotiates a deal with them. To be sure, that negotiation process too could involve active opposition, but for the elder in question, that kind of opposition was by no means a forgone conclusion. He was at least as concerned about a share of the profits as anything else. I do think opposition was for the student; it was the only thing he could imagine an indigenous community would want from an oil company. I don’t think either of them realized they were not really talking about the same things.
I hadn’t been here that long and so I wasn’t sure about this impression, and I really didn’t think these guys needed a white guy appointing himself as a translater anyway.
So I hesitated.
…and the moment quickly passed.
Over time, though, I’ve become even more convinced that my initial impression was correct. Of course, we can find differences between different indigenous communities in other areas, and even between different leaders in those communities. That’s not entirely new, but at least at that moment, I am pretty sure that the prior assumptions of the students in this class and those of the elder were sufficiently obvious to each that they didn’t feel the need to clarify their intentions.
But I really don’t think they were on the same page.
Mom always said that Dad’s nose would turn inside out whenever he told a lie. She didn’t mean a terrible lie, the kind you’d feel really bad about; she meant the kind of bullshit people sling around at their loved ones in the course of a regular day. Note quite a white lie, but not a serious deception either. That’s the kind of lie Mom was talking about, and yes, she was right. When Dad did that, you’d swear his nose was trying to turn inside out.
That’s one thing I remember about Dad.
Here is another!
It was often hard to get his attention. If he was watching television, for example, you could chatter away and he didn’t hear a word you said. You could ask him a question, tell him something, even something important, or otherwise make an effort to get his attention, all in vain. Short of shouting at the man, he simply didn’t hear you.
Yes, it could be damned frustrating!
Mom and Dad always said this was on account of Dad’s years as a helicopter pilot in the early air-ambulance operations of the military. He had also experienced plenty of other loud noises in the military, including at least one very loud noise (complements of the North Koreans) that would have killed him had he not tripped and fell flat on his face at just the right moment just a moment before it went off. In any event, Dad had heard a lot of loud noises back in the military, and this had left him with hearing loss, so if he wasn’t focused on you, he just didn’t hear what you had to say.
I grew up knowing this.
It was annoying, being ignored like that, but that was the cost of Dad’s service to his country.
Mostly on account of the helicopters.
In time, I came to experience hearing loss of my own. It set in at around 22 or 23 along with a nasty dose of tinnitus. I don’t think I slept for about 6 months. The ringing in my ears just wouldn’t let me sleep.
The hearing loss itself was all kinds of disorienting. I remember that I could no longer orient toward a sound. If someone called me from the left, I would turn to my right and wonder where the Hell they were? In a crowded room, I could no longer tune other people out to focus on the person I was talking to. (I still find that impossible.) Also, I got a quick lesson in how much I relied on my hearing during day to day activities. Once I began to cross the street and got a honk from an oncoming car behind me. That’s when I realized I was using the silence in place of actually looking to see if the street was clear, which was about as far from smart as it could possibly have been. I didn’t even realize I had been doing this until it was no longer an option.
In the years since, I have come to live with all these problems, all without an aid. Mostly, things re okay now. I keep some noise going at almost all times, but the tinnitus doesn’t bother me so much anymore. I just don’t notice it. I can hear most things that I need to. It’s a problem when my students are shy and don’t speak up; otherwise, my hearing loss doesn’t affect my classroom. My fiancé gets tired of repeating herself, but that’s not the worst of her frustrations with me. (She’ll live!) I reckon, some day I will get the aid, but for now, I am fine,
The story of my hearing loss is nowhere near as interesting as that of my Dad. The truth is, I don’t exactly know what did it. It might be a particular guitar note from Toni Iomi on the Black Sabbath “Born Again” tour (which is incidentally the inspiration for the Stonehenge sequence in Spinal Tap). I always wore ear protection to concerts, but not that evening. I’m not sure why, but I decided to rawdog the sounds that night only to find Iomi’s guitar impossibly loud and high pitched. Still, I was enjoying the show when he hit one particular note that filled me with pain all the way to my toes. That might have done it! Still, that had been a few years before my hearing loss set in. More recently, I had been listening to Jimi Hendrix on earphones. That might have done it. Or perhaps it was all the shooting I did as a kid, all without hearing protection, at least until I joined a gun club, only to begin assaulting my ears once again with heavy met in my freshman year of high school. I really just don’t know how much any one of these could have contributed to my hearing loss. Any or all of these are good candidates for an explanation.
I also know that my own story of hearing loss doesn’t hold a candle to my Dad’s. My stories are stories of self-indulgence. His are stories of service to his country.
In any event, it was Dad who took me to get my hearing checked. I had aged out of coverage on his own military insurance the year before, but none of us knew it at the time. We thought that was how we would pay for the inevitable hearing aid. At the time, I really couldn’t imagine going forward without some help, so off to the hearing doctors I went.
The technician at the testing center didn’t tell me much, except that I had lost some hearing in my left ear. I was to take this information back to my doctor who would decide where to go from there.
On a lark, my Dad decided to take the test himself. He came back fine. Had the hearing of a young man or so the technician described it.
It wasn’t until hours later, that it finally dawned on me.
“He Dad, didn’t you used to say that your hearing had been damaged from your years as a helicopter pilot? Back when you used to ignore us while watching television? You always said it was because you couldn’t hear us.”