Threads of history accompanied me on a recent drive home from a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to visit my mother in Ohio. Symbols of our country’s continuing struggle to relate to its origins and first citizens seemed to keep hitting me in the face more than early winter snow flurries.
World Series fever has cooled in Ohio and, with it, attention to the Indians in favor of the NBA champ Cavaliers and Ohio State football fortunes. But left over images of grinning Chief Wahoo show up in various commercial establishments and public places with little recognition of their negative connotations Native Americans.
Most Buckeyes seem oblivious to the racial stereotype and harm it causes despite occasional flare-ups in public consciousness. Few could ever tell you anything about Louis Sockalexis, who is often cited as the father of the Indians’ team name despite the fact that he played baseball in Cleveland less than two full seasons at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a convenient “honor” that in reality just disguises cynical marketing decisions.
Trump signs remained proudly on display on farm silos as I drove across the Midwest listening to radio broadcasts describing clashes at Standing Rock. The contrast and seeming disconnect is reflected in public opinion surveys showing great sympathy for the protesters trying to stop an oil pipe line in North Dakota. That state has finally done away with its offensive Fighting Sioux name, so perhaps there is hope.
But driving by the University of Illinois campus I was reminded of the ongoing battle over the “Fighting Illini” name along with popular calls for return of a fictional “Chief.” He is usually played by a white student and for decades ago has paraded around as a mascot at athletic events. It is difficult to unlearn false histories in a culture that too often doesn’t seem interested in learning from hard lessons of the past.
History certainly lives on in Hannibal, Missouri in obvious ways for obvious reasons. Mark Twain’s hometown understandably seeks to reap the rewards of thousands of tourists annually – most seeking the nostalgia and humor associated with the famed author. The community retains in delightful ways much of the small-town feel portrayed in accounts of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
At one end of the town, the Mark Twain Cave remains a popular tourist attraction – offering visitors a sample of the dark threatening place made famous by Tom Sawyer & Becky Thatcher’s encounter with Injun Joe. The fictional heroes would both escape but the ugly, malevolent, murdering Indian would meet justice and a horrible death at the conclusion of Twain’s novel.
At the other end of town, in a much-less visited graveyard is the marker for the very real “Injun” Joe Douglass, who died in 1923 at the age of 102. That he outlived Sam Clemens and was well-regarded enough in town to have his own neighborhood named after him is a forgotten historical fact. Douglass’ tombstone focuses on his self-description of being an “honest man, never harming a person and living an honorable life.” However it is Twain’s Injun Joe that lives on in the American psyche.
Clemens was clearly a product of his time and particularly of longstanding stories regularly conveyed by his mother, Jane, about a family massacre by Indians on the Kentucky frontier mere decades earlier. Almost primal fears were renewed in the Mississippi River Valley by the 1832 Black Hawk War, shortly before Clemens’ birth. That Native Americans were already largely driven out of Missouri and facing genocide wasn’t generally part of white consciousness. The few half-breed Indians left in the area that was once their home were now regarded as dangerous, untrustworthy vagrants – a la Injun Joe.
Twain’s later move west into more conflict-strewn Indian Country didn’t improve his opinion of Native Americans. Indeed, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, the same year as Custer’s bloody ending at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Despite occasional nods to “noble savage” myths, the author seemed as clueless as most white Americans as to the root causes of the terrorism of their era. One could imagine them asking “Why do they hate us?” of those whose entire way of life they were destroying.
Curiously, while Clemens’ racial stereotypes of Native Americans never seemed to change, he clearly underwent a consciousness-raising regarding Black Americans. Again the influence of his mother was apparently key in teaching him early lessons about the essential humanity of a young black slave in their household. The memory grew in Twain’s brain until it ultimately found birth in Huck Finn’s courageous decision to aid Jim’s flight downriver to freedom.
Perhaps there is hope for all of us to learn and grow. But there is still obviously quite a ways to go in our collective transformation about issues of race relations and shared humanity.
I was reminded of that arriving home in Minnesota just as another controversy hit around possible removal of Civil War paintings from a newly-remodeled State Capitol Building. At issue are classic nineteenth century paintings of dramatic battle scenes and others of Native Americans subserviently accepting treaties and other accommodations to white “progress” as they ride off into the sunset of history.
Traditionalists argue that historical preservation requires the paintings remain in place where Capitol designers intended. Moreover the Civil War scenes, if bloody, describe a victory over human bondage. Critics argue that the images, particularly of Native Americans, convey a limited and often false narrative of history. Having them continue to dominate such central places of our communal life only glorifies pain and makes it that much more difficult to move on to a more positive equitable world.
I tend to agree with the latter approach, even while believing all history needs to be preserved if only to help us remember hard lessons. But it is now time for Injun Joe and Chief Wahoo to ride off into the sunset. Hopefully Standing Rock will be a history lesson we can truly give thanks for.