So I just finished watching ‘The West’, the documentary by Ken Burns. I have watched probably an inordinate amount of KB documentaries in the past year because I had the time on my hands. I started watching this one because somewhere in the gun control chatter I said., “How the West was Won.” and that truly has something to do with it, but it is even larger. KB does not gloss over much, or play French horn triumph music in the background. In fact the theme music for this one was an Indian chant, the sound a little foreign to my Western Civilization ears. I have three words for how the West was won: treachery, greed , and arrogance. And guns of course. I was going to say treachery, treachery and treachery, and it all seems the same. Not much else. There are appalling government sanctioned and sponsored acts of violence against certain kinds of peoples, or peoples in a given area. So those who had a hatred for a certain kind of people or what they stood for could legally go in and wipe them out. Or if they were just feeling blood-thirsty or self-righteous. I have read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee some time ago, so I knew something. I had even read a little about the conflicts of Kansas and Missouri, at least to know they existed, they were bloody, and they involved the issue of slavery. But there was an extent to which I had no idea. There were slaves who gained their freedom and settled in Kansas and they were attacked with the intent of driving them out, with the law on the side of the attackers. It was like its own Civil War before the Civil War. There were peace -keeping Native-Americans who were driven from one place to another, till they were driven to Canada or shot. There was history of the NA as well, which is ill-served by a generation watching cowboy and Indian television shows. The Transatlantic Railroad was SLAMMED through the mountains. Some of it is over dead people’s bodies because they were in a race. Only the Chinese were willing to work that hard and the white American man worked him. There were whites who gave their lives for the railroad, or lived in slums, because that is all working for the railroad afforded him, but the Chinese bore the worst of it. There were Mexicans in California for several generations before it became a state. Then they were treated as unwanted newcomers. I suppose the Californios are a mix of people who came to California at one time or another. I was ready to not watch anymore when the story was told that in their villages the oldest man would walk through the village singing in the morning to wake everyone up. I bet he didn’t let them sleep in! But can you imagine?? The railroad upended their whole way of life. Then Los Angeles was built where a city could not be sustained. So when they ran out of water, they got permission from the federal government to drain the Owens River Valley which was being used by farmers who had previously gotten the feds promise that it would not be drained. So a tunnel was carved across the desert for over 200 miles just so LA could grow bigger and have water. And, yes, the farms were irretrievably ruined. I am sure I am re-stating this in pretty simple terms, after all, it was nine episodes. Oh yes, then there was the de-culturization of the NA by the missionaries. The children were taken away, they did not learn their own language, they were dressed ‘properly’ and lived in proper houses, because we all know we can’t abide that squatting community outside of town. You get your square of land and you stay on it. It’s genocide.
There there is the Lakota Indian who tells toward the end of the documentary how he would go into the mountains and pray. One night while he was up there, he had a vision of all the promises and treaties that were broken one by one. When he awoke, he just wanted to go down the mountain and start shooting. But then the sun began to rise and he watched it. As he watched it, he wanted to live. But he understood the only way he could stand it was to forgive. Every day he has to forgive. He said it what they all have to learn to do or they will end up drunk or dead on the road.
The point was made at the end that is has always been about the land. As much as it is scarred, it still has incredible beauty that has a measure of healing in it.
I think there is something seriously flawed in the American DNA, because freedom-seeking people wrote ‘All men are created equal’ and continued to allow slavery to exist. While this may be the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’, I have begun to think the free and the brave are not the people we usually think of. We white people live here largely (but not exclusively) because someone else was treacherous to someone else. A social worker once told me that those who are abused tend to pass the abuse to the next generation. I’ve heard stories how ex-slaves of one kind of people treat those who serve them , of another kind of people, as slaves. There is something like a drug in our brains that finds controlling other people satisfactory, and it is not particular to any one kind of people, not even exploitative white Americans. It gives a false sense of importance and meaning to our lives. When I read how Jesus responds to people in the Bible, he most often says things they did not expect or understand, but what was needful. They wanted him to be the one who would get on his horse and charge at the Roman army and forever end their oppression.(Why? So they could be on top and look down at their oppressors?) It didn’t happen. I think Jesus will continue the unexpected and the incredible, even in our time, because it is still what is needful. Maybe he will use the Lakota to teach us how to forgive. Or how to use the land for healing. Maybe these awful ugly scars can be made tender, but stay as reminders. Maybe I need to think outside the box of my house, the square of my city, the customs I am used to as ‘normal’.
By the way, I have also watched ‘The Roosevelts’, ‘Prohibition”, and ‘The Dust Bowl’. Probably all blog worthy,but this is the one that is getting it.