December 26, 2009

Indians in The Scripture of Nature

In October I posted an overview of Ken Burns's documentary National Parks: America's Best Idea. The first episode, The Scripture of Nature, included two segments on Indians:

The Meaning of the Name "Yosemite"Early in 1851, during the frenzy of the California Gold Rush, an armed group of white men was scouring the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. They called themselves the Mariposa Battalion, and they were searching for Indians, intent on driving the natives from their homelands and onto reservations.

Late on the afternoon of March 27, the battalion came to a narrow valley surrounded by towering granite cliffs, where a series of waterfalls dropped thousands of feet to reach the Merced River on the valley's floor. One of the men, a young doctor named Lafayette Bunnell, found himself transfixed by the vista. "As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being," he wrote, "and I found my eyes in tears with emotion."

Bunnell's enchantment with the scenery was not shared by the rest of the Mariposa Battalion. Its commander, a hardened Indian fighter named Captain James D. Savage, was angered that the natives he sought had somehow disappeared into the mountains. He ordered his men to set fire to the Indians' homes and their storehouses of acorns, in order to starve them into submission.

But before the battalion moved on, Bunnell convinced the others that, as the first white men ever to enter the valley, they should give it a name. He suggested "Yosemite," based on Savage's information that this was the name of the tribe they had come to dispossess. Long after the tribe was finally located and forced from their beloved valley, scholars would learn that in fact the natives called the valley Ahwahnee, meaning "the place of a gaping mouth," and that they called themselves the Ahwahneechees, in honor of the valley they had considered their home for centuries. "Yosemite," it was learned, meant something entirely different. In the native language, "Yosemite" refers to people who should be feared. It means, "they are killers."
Danger and Lawlessness in the ParkIn August of 1877, a group of nine tourists from Radersburg, Montana, traveling with a carriage, supply wagon, and small string of horses, made their way along the Firehole River, taking in the sights. Among them were Emma Carpenter Cowan, 24 years old, and her husband, George, planning to celebrate their second wedding anniversary in Yellowstone.

But on the morning of August 24, their anniversary day, Emma opened the flap to discover a group of Indians standing by the campfire, demanding food and supplies. They were members of the Nez Percé tribe, part of a much larger band associated with Chief Joseph, currently being pursued by the U.S. Army because they had refused to move onto a reservation.

Only two weeks earlier, nearly 90 Nez Percés had been killed–more than half of them women and children–when their sleeping village had been attacked by a column of troops in the battle of the Big Hole.

The Cowan party's wagon and carriage were ransacked and destroyed, but the tourists were sent on their way unharmed. Then they met a different group of warriors. George Cowan was shot in the head and another tourist was shot in the face. Three members of the party escaped into the nearby woods, but Emma Cowan, her brother, and her 13-year-old sister were taken as captives.

When he was informed about it, Joseph and the other chiefs ordered that the whites not be harmed. They were released the next day, finally reaching safety at the north end of the park.

As the army moved through in pursuit a few days behind the Indians, they picked up George Cowan, somehow still alive. Army surgeons probed his head by candlelight and removed the bullet, flattened by his skull.

By the time Cowan was reunited with his wife, the Nez Percé war was ending hundreds of miles away, with Chief Joseph's surrender in northern Montana. Yellowstone's new superintendent soon arranged for the native Sheepeaters, who had not taken part in the conflict, to be evicted from their homeland so he could assure the public that Yellowstone National Park was now free of all Indians.
Comment:  These stories exemplify the series' approach to Indians. Although The Scripture of Nature discusses the Indian presence in Yosemite and Yellowstone, the tone is matter-of-fact. The stories are told from the Anglo POV, not the Indian POV. Along with ranchers and miners, the Indians were simply another obstacle to the public's enjoyment of the parks.

In other words, these incidents are colorful historical anecdotes to Burns and company, not crimes committed against the grandparents of people living today. The series editorializes about how wonderful the parks are, but not about the injustices done to Indians to create the parks. Like most Americans, Burns notes the genocidal tragedies in passing, then moves on.

For more on Yosemite, see Yosemite to Update Indian Displays? and Yosemite's Paiutes Mislabeled as Miwoks. For more on the series, see Review of Burns's National Parks and Burns on Our National Parks.

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