As I mentioned in a blog that I wrote last night, I am reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Before reading the book I thought the book only told the story of Wounded Knee and the events leading up to the massacre there. I did not realize that it told the larger story of destruction brought upon the Indian way of life.
In the beginning of the book it retells the story of Kit Carson helping to subdue the Navahos and the story of Canyon de Chelly. Canyon de Chelly was a Navaho stronghold. This story is told in greater detail in the excellent Hampton Sides book Blood and Thunder. Even those of you that are not greatly interested in history books would enjoy Sides’s book. It is written with the eye for detail and with the pace of a great novel. This is not simply a collection of names and dates, but a story that Sides makes you feel as if you are witnessing.
The Dee Brown book reminded me how at one point, to starve out the Navahos, Carson had 5,000 of their peach trees cut down. In order to make the Navaho come into the reservation Carson destroyed their crops and took or killed their livestock. Canyon de Chelly was almost impregnable because of the geography there. Carson, who and lived amongst the Indians at times, knew how to get results.
Every Indian tribe is greatly different. Comparing the Navahos to the Comanche would be like comparing Italians to the Irish. This is not a perfect comparison, but you get my drift. In Texas, at least after reading S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, it became clear to me that we had no right to take Comanche land, but once we occupied the same space as them, there was probably going to be bloodshed. The Comanche were brutal to other Indian tribes, let alone to white settlers. These were two civilizations that were not compatible. That’s not to say there weren’t atrocities committed by whites in Texas, there certainly were. Often Texans killed Indians without prejudice, whether they were the Comanche or not. Peaceful bands of Indians often got killed because of Comanche atrocities. A President of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, of which there is still a street named after in Austin, had two pastimes that he loved: killing Indians and poetry. He did not care which Indians were killed. The fact that we still have a street named after this man continues to confound me.
However, the history of the Navaho people is different. The Navaho were much more inclined than the Comanche to try to reach an agreement with the whites. We destroyed their way of life all the same. I am writing this to say that I understand the tragedy of what happened to the Navaho.
But I want to get back to those peach trees. I was thinking about how, in a much smaller way, the cutting down of those peach trees was its own small tragedy. We, as a culture, have often found it all too easy to destroy Mother Nature. The Indians as a whole, and it is really an injustice to write about them as a whole as I wrote earlier there is great difference between the tribes, lived in harmony with nature. That’s not to say that there weren’t “good and bad” Indians and that they too weren’t capable of atrocities. However, the Indians as a whole did respect nature and regarded it as something sacred.
We too often have seen this continent as something to exploit. We have too often been willing to cut down the “Garden of Eden” if it led to short term economic gains. This was true at the beginning of our country and it is often too true now. Imagine the mindset of people who would cut down 5,000 beautiful trees just to see other people starve. It is not hard to imagine this mindset living on in those nowadays who are all too willing to see nature destroyed if it leads to short term benefits.
If we are ever to turn the corner on environmental issues, many of which now threaten our civilization in the long run, we must rethink our relationship with the land. It is important to learn about our history, so that we understand how we got to where we are. If we don’t understand the tragedies of our past, we may blindly create new tragedies in our future.