I can guarantee that we will soon forget the absurd characterization of “KKKolumbus” in the South Bend History Museum. But every time I bring my son to walk through those museum rooms, I will be haunted by the characterization of our white ancestors as ravens who pluck out the eyes of children.
My son and I have a ritual. Almost every week, we go down to the South Bend History Museum to while away the afternoon. Bypassing the displays of Notre Dame football legends, Studebaker car manufacturing, and local art history, we always make a beeline for what I like to think of as “The Diorama.” This series of rooms is filled with life-size objects or representations of each period in the natural and cultural history of the St. Joseph river valley, starting before human habitation. My toddler enjoys it for the strikingly realistic animal sounds and statues, while I return again and again to participate in this simple but poignant presentation. The viewer is like a god witnessing entire tectonic shifts, the emergence of wetlands, and, most powerfully, the development and disappearance of indigenous peoples.
One of the first rooms contains the story of how the land of the Potawatomi tribe was parceled out in absentia by the ordinance which transformed their homeland into the Northwest Territories; how close to thirty indigenous settlements vanished almost overnight in the middle of the nineteenth century; how those people were forced to march at bayonet point for hundreds of miles to relocate where they would no longer be in the way. The federal government contented itself with paying people to make sure the Native Americans were not an obstacle to settlement but paid little attention to how it was done. One of our only remaining accounts of this death-march comes from a priest who refused to leave his parishioners even though it meant going into exile with them. The letter he sent to his bishop leaves no doubt that it was a horrific enterprise.
The next room moves seamlessly from the almost total evacuation of indigenous peoples to the total transformation of the land itself. My son enjoys walking back and forth across the planks set on the replica swamp. He marvels at the great machine which is depicted as terraforming the swamp from its useless variety and fertility to the productive and arable fields necessary for the new possessors. Again, the diorama is quite good. A goose and a tortoise stand forever frozen in the presence of this new kind of predator that is draining their source of food and shelter. It is an appropriately complementary image to the one of drowning that Simon Pokagon, man of letters and chief of the Potawatomi tribe, described for his people at the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage.
There amidst the technological exhibition of dynamos and doo-dads, the newer and colder birth of innumerable inventions and machines, Pokagon delivered an address illuminated with prophetic fire. To all gathered there for the festivities, he announced in no uncertain terms that the “discovery” of the “New World” could be nothing but a remembrance of bleached bones for him and his people.
But alas! The pale-faces came by chance to our shores, very many times hungry and needy. We nursed and fed them—fed the ravens that would soon pluck out our eyes, and the eyes of our children.
And the same grasping desires that led to the destruction of his people led inexorably to the destruction of nature herself.
The cyclone of civilization rolled westward; the forests of untold centuries were swept away; streams dried up; lakes fell back from their ancient bounds; and all our fathers once loved to gaze upon was destroyed, defaced, or marred, except the sun, moon, and starry skies above, which the Great Spirit in his wisdom hung beyond their reach.
He speaks also of a portent that a man in his father’s day experienced before the coming of the Europeans.
He beheld a vast spider web spread out over the land from the Atlantic Ocean toward the setting sun. Its network was made of rods of iron, along its lines in all directions rushed monstrous spiders, greater in strength, and larger by far than any beast of the earth, clad in brass and iron, dragging after them long rows of wigwams with families therein, outstripping in their course the flight of birds that fled before them.
Pokagon’s rhetoric is not decorative; it brings to light the relation between the injustices of colonization, ecological degradation, and industrial capitalism. He critiques the egomaniacal reduction of all things human and natural to useful elements or dumb obstructions for profit and technology. The figure of the railroad as a web teeming with spiders is an arresting encapsulation of the way in which the Northwest Territories were established as a grid of units to be sold, developed, and turned to productive use. It was this poisonously technological rationality that allowed white settlers to claim superiority over Native Americans’ supposedly underdeveloped or even sub-human status.
Surprisingly absent from Pokagon’s reflection is a critique based on race as a cause of injustice. Pokagon singles out a figure like William Penn for his singular wisdom and virtue in co-existing with the Native Americans. For the seventy years that the Quakers held Pennsylvania, not a single drop of blood was spilled nor a single of nineteen treaties broken. And in the most surprising and pertinent moment of Pokagon’s rebuke, he cites favorably Christopher Columbus himself. On page 8 he displays a passage from Columbus as a “beautiful tribute” to his forefathers’ generosity and love for peace. Now, Pokagon was no fool. He knew that Columbus marked the beginning of the end for all indigenous peoples in the Americas. However, for all the things that he could have laid at Columbus’ feet (his slave-trafficking, establishment of the encomienda system, and the decimation of the Taino people through a combination of over-work, disease, and tyrannical governance), Pokagon does not find the personal actions of Columbus relevant to the catalogue and analysis of injustices perpetrated on his tribe. He does not demand the shutting down of the Columbian World’s Fair or the removal of any hagiographical caricatures. Instead, he systematically lays out the underlying causes that motivated European colonial subjugation of the “New World” in a way that makes clear to the audience that they are continuing the demonic logic of technological and capitalist subjugation.
Compare Simon Pokagon’s thoughtful and pained rebuke to the banner that was unfurled in secret at the Notre Dame library this December. Instead of the haunting accusations of a Simon Pokagon, rich in historical specificity and brimming with rhetorical verve, we received this: “This is Potawatomi Land! F*ck the KKKolumbus Murals!” (one wonders why make a protest banner and then censor the expletive?). Rising Tide Michiana, the group responsible for the banner, claims to be dealing in radical actions that strike at the root of capitalism and ecocide by dismantling white supremacy. It is hard to detect what is radical in the method (the occult placement of banners), or even what is radical about the object (getting murals removed). The general analysis of Rising Tide Michiana, insofar as they link colonialism, capitalism, and ecocide, more or less align with Pokagon and could be considered a part of his legacy (as of course, should the support of his living descendant). But this banner has nothing in it that could cause a thoughtful human response.
Eliding the scientific racism of the Confederate South with the injustices committed through colonial greed in the Caribbean does nothing but allow the authors of said banner to stretch their poetic abilities to their apparent limits. The paradigmatic causes for Confederate enslavement and murder of African-Americans is exemplified in Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. Through a perverse combination of pseudo-science and faux theology, Stephens justifies white supremacy with a singular and exclusively racial logic. By comparison, the devaluation of Native cultures and bodies by European colonizers of the Americas came from an evaluation of their relations to nature and property. The indigenous peoples became an inferior race in the eyes of the colonizers because they lack the sine qua non of early modern European rationality: technology and an economic system based on exchange for profit. Ignoring the significant differences between these logics of oppression obscures the nature of our very real contemporary problems with ecology, capitalism, and racism.
The analytical and literary sense of Pokagon has been replaced with a truncated gesture. If the point is to elicit a response, it must be done in a way that avoids truncating the complex of problems into a bite-sized slogan. Why does Rising Tide Michiana not make it their business continually to reach out to undergraduates and take them to our very own local history museum? Presumably, that is the reason these repositories of institutional memory exist. Or, if that seems insufficiently radical and dramatic, stage a public reading of Simon Pokagon’s address at the Columbian World’s Fair. Why not display the talents of the area’s greatest Native American wordsmith and political thinker? Radical action does not mean truncated and instinctual action. Comprehensive critique and radical change can only occur where thought and emotion converge in a rationality that is neither technological nor emotivist, but humane.
I can guarantee that we will soon forget “KKKolumbus” in the ocean of White Supremacist conflations. But every time I bring my son to walk through those museum rooms, I will be haunted by the characterization of our white ancestors as ravens who pluck out the eyes of children.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.