Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cowboys and Indians

Heading to the Black Hills via the Sandhills of Nebraska always seems to connect me to the pioneers who trekked west to bust the sod and build the towns.  The last quarter of the 19th century is one of my favorite time periods.  So much of who I am seems to be tied to the hardworking, adventurous-but-not-always-sure, make-your-own-way people who are a part of my family's history.  Thinking about those settlers somehow seems to anchor my heart in ways I don't quite understand.

I also can't help but travel those roads without thinking about the original inhabitants of those lands.  It's hard to forget them, especially if you happen to pass through a reservation, as thoughts connected to their loss of land and culture turn over and over, as you are very aware of the poverty, alcoholism, drug use, hopelessness, and unemployment that grips many who live there.

In the last few years, I've read some great books on the Plains Indians so I thought I'd share three of those reads.  They are thought provoking and insightful.  They paint Native Americans as multi faceted, real people.  They don't point to easy solutions or even point fingers in blame.  Here's my top three:

For a collection of thoughts and stories on modern issues connected to the South Dakota/Nebraska border, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder connects the events of the past to those in recent history.  The author uses the 1972 murder of a man from the Pine Ridge Reservation as a jumping off point for exploring how the Lakota Sioux came to be on the Pine Ridge and the interplay between the Sioux and their non Native neighbors.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a modern classic, a book that represented a paradigm shift, where people began to understand that perspective colors history, where people began to see that the traditional, white viewpoint of history may be incomplete.  I read this either right after my senior year of high school or sometime during my college years and it was definitely had that impact on me.  The book provides much insight into the historical relationship between Native Americans and the American government.  It covers the last half of the nineteenth century and is a narrative of that time period, told by the chiefs, warriors, and women of the tribes, their viewpoints uninterrupted by the more traditional historical perspectives.

I am a Man:  Chief Standing Bear's Search for Justice is a book that I think should be required reading for every Nebraska high school student.  I was unaware of Standing Bear until I was in my 30's which is sad given the legal and social ramifications of Standing Bear's story.  Standing Bear was a Nebraska Ponca chief who sued the United States government when the government attempted to confine him to a reservation in Oklahoma.  His case was tried in Omaha and resulted in a landmark decision much like the Dread Scott case.  In this instance, the decision marked the first time where Native Americans were legally marked as people who had the same unalienable rights as Caucasians.

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