Category: social justice

I’d Rather Forget the Whole Thing

It’s Easier That Way, Right?

We’ve all said it. I’d rather forget the whole thing. And it’s true. Given the choice, we’d rather leave behind the unfortunate twists, the impulsive decisions, and the sad endings. We’d toss the old newspapers, Photoshop the mugshots, and rip those ambiguous, embarrassing relatives from the family album.

We tell ourselves, let it go. Nobody wants to see that side of who we are. That might be Too Much Information. Worse, people will gossip, laugh or judge. It’s tempting to retouch or select our pictures, maybe even our entire history, to show only our best, public selves. All ballet and balance, no banana-peel slips or pratfalls. No driving off the bridge. But nobody can hold that pose or balance for long.

The truth is, everybody falls.

Individuals. Families. Cultures. Nations. Although painful, a fall can be more telling, more significant in forming character, than the bounce that preceded it. As individuals, as neighbors, as citizens and as cultures, we have fallen and will continue to fall. Sometimes we lie to cover what we’ve done, to avoid consequences, or to look better than we are. Sometimes we twist things around, bragging about our shameful actions. We record them and put them on Facebook or Twitter (those places where nothing is forgotten). We lose our capacity to see ourselves honestly, in our broken, hilarious, fragile, destructive humanity.

At our worst, we’ve also lied, blotted records, torn out pages, violated others and cultivated ongoing disasters that might yet be averted. A false self-esteem that insists it’s never fallen, has never done wrong, and then blames the victim is the core of narcissism.

How to Be a Real Hero (not that guy)

When seen through a lens of humility, the history of our falls becomes the essence of our heroic journeys. We fall, but we can get up conscientiously. We can ask what happened. We can show remorse, learn from errors, listen to others, acknowledge harm, resolve to do better, and ultimately, initiate durable reconciliation. Maybe even build a better world.

But It’s So . . . Embarrassing.

Falls and failures are by nature unpleasant things we’d rather forget. We are (knowingly or unknowingly) guilty of ongoing indifference, racism, unjustified violence, even acts of terrorism and racial extermination. These are not mere incidents, but ingrained habits. We’d rather omit the ugliness, but if we find and acknowledge our place in our (his)tory, we claim the power to write a new chapter and a better ending. We earn a shot at being truly great.

Let’s remember together, doing the research to fill in the blanks. Let’s read and write stories that bring overshadowed facts into the light. There are funny parts we can remember, too, and golden, everyday moments we should cherish.

Durable, Everyday Things

Remember our ancestors and how they lived. Let their voices and ongoing presence inspire us. Admire the toughness and sacrifices of those who came before. Celebrate the myths, question their origins and open up history to diverse narratives and voices. Let’s examine our stories with humility and courage, and then resolve to make amends. Let’s earn a truly heroic tale to tell our children.

Sometimes You Need to Go Home Again

Find your place in a story. It’s my mantra, my trademark, my storytelling obsession, to lead readers into history to find something new, something worth keeping, and better yet, something worth changing. Remember How It Rained, River Saga Book Two will take my readers back to the American Great Plains in a time of economic depression and drought, the 1930s. It was a desperate, dirty, thirsty, hungry time that shaped our families and our nation. Bootleggers, sharecroppers, gangsters, wayward women, abandoned children, stingy relatives, child labor, bare-knuckle fights and time served . . . and that’s just my family. In ways your family may not even be ready to admit, the Great Depression probably shaped you, too.

In Remember How It Rained, Maggie, Jack and Kuruk are still reeling from what they suffered as children. They must decide to either keep running or dare to return and remember. Facing the truth of the past and taking action can be terrifying, but remembering is where justice begins.

So, dear readers, Remember How it Rained is coming January 27, 2017. If you’d be so kind as to share this post, I’d greatly appreciate it.

I’ll be celebrating the novel’s release with a book club that’s grown near and dear to my heart, The Book Babes of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. People talking about books . . . what a great way to remember who we are.

What better way to find your place in a story™?

 

(Thanks to http://publicdomainarchive.com/public-domain-images-1920′s-vintage-mugshots-nswpd-special-photographs/ for images in this post.)

 

 

Nebraska, 1900: Where Are the Pawnee?

Sculpture near Naponee Nebraska

Driven From Home

In my upcoming novel, Seven Kinds of Rain, one of my main characters is Kuruk, a Kitkehahki Pawnee character born in Oklahoma around 1904. As a child, he runs away from different Indian schools to finally establish a tenuous existence in the heart of his ancestral homeland. Yet, in the early 1900s there were few, if any, Pawnee tribal members living in that part of Nebraska. For my writing, I set out, into libraries and on a trip through the Republican River Valley of Kansas and Nebraska to more deeply understand this change.

Looking back to Nebraska in 1900, where are the Pawnee?

For the following information, I draw heavily and cite page numbers from David Wishart’s powerful book, An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. I encourage you to consult it for more information on the course of Indian tribal histories in Nebraska. It was one of my most useful resources for understanding the devastations of regional history, and gave me insight to the injustices visited on Plains Indian tribes in the 1800s and 1900s.

The Pawnee’s Chaui, Skiri and Kitkehahki bands traditionally inhabited much of the region the U.S. divided into Nebraska and Kansas.

Pawnee territory map

They made their homes, circular, domed riverbank earth lodges, and raised some crops, living off native plants and hunting native animals.

model of Pawnee earth lodge

model of Pawnee earth lodge at Pawnee Historical Museum

They seasonally migrated west for buffalo hunts, utilizing portable hide-covered dwellings.

Pawnee Family Summer Home

I learned about Kitkehahki Pawnee band plains life, as it flourished in the 1700s and early 1800s, at the Pawnee Indian Museum near Republic, Kansas, where I saw this and other Pawnee portraits by George Catlin.

George Catlin painting of Man Chief, a Kitkehahki (Republican) Pawnee

George Catlin painting of Man Chief, a Kitkehahki (Republican) Pawnee

A series of government-engineered cessions of Pawnee lands during the 1800s (most of which occurred against a backdrop of tribal starvation and decimation by disease) drove the Pawnee into smaller and smaller spaces. By 1844, the meager Pawnee annuities expired, and in 1848, they lost rights to all lands south of the Platte River. (Wishart, 66) By 1858, all four Nebraska Indian societies had sold the last of their tribal lands, apart from small reservations. (69) Neglect by reservation agencies, conflicts with White settlers, and repeated intertribal conflicts further weakened the Pawnee, making Nebraska reservation life near the Loup River at best unstable, and at worst, untenable. (132)

An 1857 treaty required all Pawnee children between the ages of seven and eighteen to attend school. (179) The continuity of Pawnee culture was even more completely disrupted, as was that off all Indian tribes, by the American government’s Indian School policies of the 19th and 20th Centuries. One such Indian Industrial School was located at Genoa, Nebraska, and while some Genoa and other Indian school students reported being pleased with their American education and acculturation, for many others, their separation from family and the attempts at assimilation they suffered were devastating, sending trauma down through generations of Native families.

Genoa Indian Industrial School

Genoa Indian Industrial School photo from usgennet.org

After the Kansas-Nebraska act, and by the 1870s, the Pawnee in Nebraska suffered from White settlement and theft of Pawnee land and resources, including timber, along the Loup and Platte rivers. By 1873-1875, the Pawnee were squeezed out and relocated to Oklahoma Indian Territory. (188)

Nebraska, 1900: Where are the Pawnee?

On their allotted reservation lands in Oklahoma, the Pawnee and other Plains Indian tribes came together to embrace change, wrestling with the government for decades and adapting to survive legislated deprivations and broken promises. Some of the young people became outwardly modern, educated in White ways, even as their elders preserved traditions, as in this photo.

Pawnee father and son, 1912

Pawnee father and son, 1912

Long removed from their ancestral lands, the Pawnee have re-established a presence on their sacred land near the Loup River, an interesting development I’ll address in a later post. Both on and off the reservation, the Pawnee flourish and their population is on the rise. But in the early 1900s, a Pawnee character in Nebraska would seem to have been unlikely. Yet, from my authorial standpoint, one seemed necessary, to expose and explore the injustices of history.

So Kuruk Sky Seeing came to be. I hope I have done him some justice, by showing his dispossession, his fragility, and his tenacity in the place he insisted on calling home, against a world that insists he doesn’t belong off the reservation.

 

*All page numbers (in parentheses) refer to: Wishart, David J. An Unspeakable Sadness: the Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. Lincoln, Neb.: U of Nebraska, 1994.

 

 

Race and Riots on the Great Plains

Omaha Will Brown Lynch Mob 1919

The Red Summer of 1919

Race and riots on the Great Plains were truths stranger than fiction in 1919.

In Seven Kinds of Rain, my upcoming novel, White settlers prosper in boomtown Darkwater Creek, Nebraska. For others—immigrants, African Americans and Native Americans—life in Darkwater Creek proved less than prosperous or peaceful. While explored in fiction, these racial complexities reflect Great Plains reality in the early 20th Century.

In the Red Summer of 1919, race riots led by White citizens inflamed 20 major American industrial cities, including Omaha, Nebraska. In Omaha, federal investigators and the press claimed the riots resulted from the influx of African American strikebreakers in 1917, who worked in the stockyards and meatpacking industries.

What you wouldn’t have seen spelled out in the newspapers in those days, but is mentioned in Seven Kinds of Rain, was the criminal political machine in Omaha led by Tom Dennison, and how, in cooperation with the Omaha Bee, it exploited labor strife and racial tensions for its own gain during that Red Summer. Dennison and his machine eventually elected “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman mayor of Omaha eight times, securing their interests and racially polarizing an entire city.

Tom Dennison

Political Boss Tom Dennison,
photo from NE State Historical Society

In 1910, Omaha had the third largest black population among the new western cities that had become destinations following Reconstruction. By 1920, the black population more than doubled to over 10,000, second only to Los Angeles with nearly 16,000. It was ahead of San Francisco, Oakland, Topeka, and Denver.1

Race and Riots on the Great Plains

 

Will Brown photo from NE State Historical Society

Will Brown
photo from NE State Historical Society

Racial discrimination in Omaha affected most immigrants and minorities, but emotions ran high against African Americans in the early 20th Century. When a young man, Willie Brown, was arrested for the rape of a white woman, Agnes Loebeck, in September, 1919, racial antagonism exploded. Thousands of angry whites, fueled by racism and a Dennison-inspired inflammatory press, first attempted to hang political reformer and Mayor Edward Smith (Tom Dennison’s opponent). Although the Mayor was saved, a courthouse siege and fire followed, with police officers, a newspaper reporter, and prisoners, including Willie Brown, trapped inside. The mob, demanding Willie Brown, fueled the courthouse fire with formaldehyde and gasoline until Willie Brown was surrendered. The mob lynched him and burned his body in the street, but unsatisfied with this, continued its violence until federal troops were called in to restore order. (This blog, US Slave, provides an interesting account of Omaha’s political situation, the riots, and more photos.)

Omaha Will Brown Lynch Mob 1919, Race and Riots on the Great Plains

Out of respect for Will Brown, his image has been cropped from this photo of the gloating lynch mob, who mug for the camera and watch as his body burns.

Eventually, 120 White citizens in Omaha were charged or indicted by a grand jury, with few prosecutions. All were eventually released without serving any imprisonment.

“After the Omaha riot, the Ku Klux Klan became established in 1921. Another racial riot took place in North Platte, Nebraska in 1929. There were also violent strikes in the Omaha meat packing industry in 1917 and 1921 and concerns about immigrants from Eastern Europe.

“After the riot, the city of Omaha, previously a city in which ethnicities and races were mixed in many neighborhoods, became more segregated. Redlining and restrictive covenants began to be used in new neighborhoods, with African Americans restricted to owning property where they already lived in greatest number, in North Omaha. Although segregation has not been legally enforced for generations, a majority of Omaha’s black population still lives in North Omaha.”2

The value of diversity and the foundation of civil rights are ongoing lessons on the Great Plains, as they are in most of the world. But the early 20th Century was a bloody time for African Americans and other minorities in Nebraska, even outside the big cities. While lynching was a common form of vigilante “justice” in the early West, It’s reported that:

“. . . even in the West and Midwest, with far smaller non-white populations, lynching became increasingly racialized by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Latinos bore the brunt of mob vengeance in some western states such as California, while in others, such as Wyoming, Chinese and African Americans were disproportionately represented in the catalog of lynching victims when compared to their numbers in the overall population. Three Native Americans were among Judge Lynch’s ten victims in North Dakota. Kansas lynched eighteen African Americans from 1880 to 1920. Five black men and two Mexicans perished at the hands of Nebraska mobs from 1878 to 1919. The five African Americans represented about eight percent of the probable total of fifty-eight individuals dispatched by Nebraska lynch mobs between 1859 and 1919. During the same period, African Americans never exceeded one percent of the state’s population.”3

While I only scratch the surface of this aspect of Nebraska history, what seems important to remember is that racism had a firm hold on early 20th-Century Great Plains culture. Immigrants from Europe, Asia and Mexico, post-Restoration African Americans seeking work and prosperity, and Native Americans (both on and off reservations), faced resistance to their personhood and civil rights. In Seven Kinds of Rain, discrimination and violence against African Americans and Native Americans is not only mentioned, but pulses through the story.

As one born in Nebraska, and whose roots still tangle there, I write about these ongoing concerns with a heavy, and yet hopeful heart, that history may prove a valuable lesson, and not a recurring nightmare, as we find ourselves, and our way to mutual respect and peace, in this story.

Notes:

1 Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West. ‪W. W. Norton & Company, May 17, 1999. 416 pages. Ref pages 204-205.

2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omaha_race_riot_of_1919

3 James E Potter, “‘Wearing the Hempen Neck-Tie’ : Lynching in Nebraska, 1858-1919,” Nebraska History 93 (2012): 138-153. View at: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH2012Lynching.pdf

Photos of Will Brown and Tom Dennison originate from NE State Historical Society and Omaha.com.

Consider a Holy Day

Consider a holy day,

the present full of grace,

born and broken for you.

Bear witness to

the flickering incarnation in a newborn squint and

the longing for resurrection

that huddles in the chair beside death’s mattress.

 

This is our day to love the forsaken earth,

not pretend to rise above it.

A day to smile at the sun and sleet that burn our eyes.

To numb our hands in glacier-fed rivers,

taste ocean salt, trudge deserts and mountains and

watch cloud-shadows race across the corn.

To bless this damaged place that holds us,

taking up our shovels and buckets of water,

replanting what green flourished

before we trampled here.

 

Our day to put down the flashing,

trilling toys of self-importance and

look into a child’s eyes until she shines and then

cuddle her while she

rhymes her way into being.

 

This is our day to accept the hard truth we can’t bear and then

dare to change our minds enough

to turn back

to refill the well we pumped dry.

To be content, unnoticed and unpraised.

 

This is my day to start the race I can’t win

and may not be strong enough to finish.

Then, falling short, to enfold myself with

all weary runners

in mercy’s blanket wool.

 

My day to offer the first hot serving and the last cookie.

To lose and applaud the winner until my hands sting

and her cheeks flush with joy.

As if I have all the time in the world,

to listen and sing someone else’s favorite song

in his hearing.

 

My day, set apart

to restore the window glass

or culture

or person I broke,

to learn to swing softly,

to trace and honor the curves next time.

 

A day for us to shatter the hinges, springs

and teeth on every trap,

to set the bones, staunch the blood and release.

 

This is our sacred opportunity

to soften our sharp,

hard-bordered countries into one sanctuary,

to fill the bowl, raise the rafters and

clasp the stranger.

To sanctify our here

and make eternal our today.

 

—  K. Lyn Wurth, December 16, 2015