It’s been t-shirt weather, the past couple days, here in Indiana. Disturbing for late February, but I’ll chalk it up to El Nino and try to avoid thinking about the broader climate trends that make such a thing more likely. I celebrated yesterday by pedaling my bike out to the Tippecanoe Battleground. It’s a long ride and I’ve fallen out of biking shape in the winter, as usual, but it’s a lovely journey up along the Wabash River, to the Battleground, and looping back past an endless flat flood plain until suddenly suburban Lafayette opens up in front of you.
I am not a history buff in the same way some of my friends are. To me, the Battleground just appears as some trees and some headstones; I don’t get the visceral connection others do. But it forces you to think, and I do my best to imagine those woods, on the night when Shawnee warriors attacked William Henry Harrison’s men who had camped out near Prophetstown, one more provocation in a centuries-long campaign of ethnic cleansing of America’s native peoples. There’s a museum there that does a good job of being fair to the victims, though the actual battleground, dedicated in the 1910s, serves as a monument only to the white men “stricken down in the performance of duty.” I find there’s this tension throughout out parks system. A half-decade ago I toured the great national parks with two of my friends, Wounded Knee, Yellowstone, the Badlands, Devil’s Tower, the Black Hills. We would go to see the rangers give historical talks, and they spoke with admirable frankness about the crimes of the white armies. But then again, you were hearing them speak in Custer State Park.
In any event, they defeated the Shawnee and burned Prophetstown to the ground, and drove Tenskwatawa and his brother farther west. There’s a screenplay just waiting to be written, a movie just waiting to be made, should movie execs find the courage to produce a film with two Native American actors as its leads, about Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet. The religious leader and the general, their sometimes-conflicting ideals, Tenskwatawa’s addiction to alcohol, their great effort to unite a confederacy of nations against the encroaching American army…. And all of it leads to Ontario and to death. It would just take a ounce of guts on the part of some studio execs somewhere, I’m telling you, and you’ve got an incredible story on your hands. Maybe PT Anderson could direct.
Going out there always makes me think of Charles Kuralt’s essay “Place of Sorrows,” which I find is not readily found in presentable form on the internet. Probably because of copyright. Well, intellectual property laws should serve the interests of creators, not their estates, and Kuralt has been dead 20 years, so I’m reprinting the essay below, and the lawyers can go ahead and send me a letter if they want to.
Great historical crimes, being present with them, they force you to learn how to live with injustice that you just can’t change. And that helps because, so often, that’s the case with the live controversies, with living with injustice that’s waged in the present tense.
Anyway: I had a lovely day yesterday. I’m writing to tell you today that I’m close, close to putting it all together. Life is good. It’s been good for awhile. I’ve gotten so many of the things I’ve wanted, in the past couple years, met so many of my professional and personal goals. I’m getting treatment, finally, the right kind of treatment, and it’s slowly but surely making things easier. And I’m so close to putting it all together. I just need someone to take a chance on me, get stable employment and real health insurance, and I know things will fall into place. Stability and instability can be self-fulfilling; without a steady job and situation, you can become more erratic, which scares off the people who can give you a steady job and situation. But the momentum I have now feels good, regardless. Things keep getting better.
So, soon enough, teaching, and reading and writing books, and travel, and brushing up on my French, and music, and good beer, and in time marriage, babies, the whole nine yards. And no more getting shouty on the internet, no more constant social media. Just work, family, reading and writing, the stuff I really like, what I really want to do. The details matter and are yet to come. But I’m close. It’s time. I just need to get one offer, and things will fall into place. I feel luckier every day.
Place of Sorrows
By Charles Kuralt
This is about a place where the wind blows and the grass grows and a river flows below a hill. Nothing is here but the wind and the grass and the river. But of all the places in America, this is the saddest place I know.
The Indians called the river Greasy Grass. White men called it the Little Big Horn. From a gap in the mountains to the east, Brevet Major General George A. Custer’s proud Seventh Cavalry came riding, early in the morning of June 25th, 1876, riding toward the Little Big Horn.
Custer sent one battalion, under Major Marcus Reno, across the river to attack what he thought might be a small village of hostile Sioux. His own battalion he galloped behind the ridges to ride down on the village from the rear. When at last Custer brought his two hundred and thirty-one troops to the top of a hill and looked down toward the river, what he saw was an encampment of fifteen thousand Indians stretching for two and a half miles, the largest assembly of Indians the plains hand ever known—and a thousand mounted warriors coming straight for him.
Reno’s men, meantime, had been turned, routed, chased across the river, joined by the rest of the regiment, surrounded, and now were dying, defending a nameless brown hill.
In a low, protected swale in the middle of their narrowing circle, the one surviving doctor improvised a field hospital and did what he could for the wounded. The grass covers the place now and grows in the shallow rifle trenches above, which were dug that day by knives and tin cups and fingernails.
Two friends in H Company, Private Charles Windolph and Private Julian Jones, fought up here, side by side, all that day, and stayed awake all that night, talking, both of them scared. Charles Windolph said: “Then next morning when the firing commenced, I said to Julian, ‘We’d better get our coats off.’ He didn’t move. I looked at him. He was shot through the heart.” Charles Windolph won the Congressional Medal of Honor up here, survived, lived to be ninety-eight. He didn’t die until 1950. And never a day passed in all those years that he didn’t think of Julian Jones.
And Custer’s men, four miles away? There are stones in the grass that tell the story of Custer’s men. The stones all say the same things: “U.S. soldier, Seventh Cavalry, fell here, June 25, 1876.”
The warriors of Sitting Bull, under the great Chief Gall, struck Custer first and divided his troops. Two Moon and the northern Cheyenne struck him next. And when he tried to gain a hilltop with the last remnants of his command, Crazy Horse rode over that hill with hundreds of warriors and right through his battalion.
The Indians who were there later agreed on two things: that Custer and his men fought with exceeding bravery; and that after half an hour, not one of them was alive.
The Army came back that winter—of course, the Army came back—and broke the Sioux and the Cheyenne and forced them back to the starvation of the reservations and, in time, murdered more old warriors and women and children on the Pine Ridge Reservation than Custer lost young men in battle here.
That’s why this is the saddest place. For Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, courage only led to defeat. For Crazy Horse and the Sioux, victory only led to Wounded Knee.
Come here sometime, and you’ll see. There is a melancholy in the wind and sorrow in the grass, and the river weeps.