Monday, October 12, 2015

Vivid History, and Reasons to Honor "Indigenous Peoples Day"

Nonfiction mystery this time!

Sometimes the mysteries of the U.S. mail baffle me. A page-proof copy of GLOOMY TERRORS AND HIDDEN FIRES by Ronald M. Anglin and Larry E. Morris arrived here a month or so ago, and when I saw "October 10" as the release date, I assumed it meant 2015. Actually the book was published a year ago. But I'm very glad it arrived here anyway, with its compelling U.S. history and narrative of the life of an early explorer.

John Colter, who traveled with Merriweather Lewis and William (Bill) Clark in their famous early-1800s expedition sponsored by Thomas Jefferson, could almost have had his own book on the strength of his work with the noted explorers "West of the Mississippi." But he became far more recognized for the generously mythologized episode in his life that happened in 1808, when he supposedly accepted a challenge from a group of Blackfeet (Native Americans). He ran -- naked and shoeless -- for his life, outracing the indigenous people he had already deeply offended by trespass, theft, and the deadly shooting done by his partner. Not only did he make his way through the "wilderness" alone for eleven days, half starving en route -- but he became known as the man who'd bring Yellowstone itself to national notice, and he survived a few more years, to become legendary.  "Colter's Run" is still observed as a race today.

What Anglin and Morris do with their book is trace and retrace Colter's sparsely documented life. Working from records kept by others -- Colter left none -- they build a forceful tower of speculation that eventually stands on its own, to describe the frontiersman himself.

But far beyond hanging flesh onto the bones of legend, these authors outline bluntly the repeated, deliberate, and deceitful treatment by the explorers, of the tribal peoples who welcomed, guided, supported, and often rescued them. By the time I'd finished the first three chapters, I was mightily sickened by the actions of the "white men" who'd probed the Western lands, and even more horrifid by the actions that followed, whether by settlers or by politicians. In the words of the authors:
Four short years into the nineteenth century, Lewis and Clark had failed to understand the Lakota for want of an interpreter -- and also for want of a desire to treat the Indians as equals. Sadly, this misunderstanding prefigured an entire century of false impressions, misreadings, distrust, and tragedy. On that pleasant day of September in 1804, when Colter looked up to see his horse gone, he could not have imagined what that missing horse would someday symbolize.
So I'm recommending GLOOMY TERRORS AND HIDDEN FIRES as a book to open on "Columbus Day" (today) or any time this coming winter. Ignore the flawed introductory material -- the chapters themselves are full of detail and well written. The passion of the two historians rings clearly, and they document their narrative and assertions -- and in particular their view of the interactions of the early invading entrepreneurs and the Lakota Sioux nation -- in abundant detail. It's a page-turner, and may also be a mind changer. It was for me -- I think it's long past time to make the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. It's the least we can do to acknowledge the presence of the nations of tribal peoples who were so terribly dealt with for so long, and who still struggle for the treaty rights that once seemed legally binding.

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