The Wild, Wild MidEast

George Bernard Shaw said it: “We learn from history that we never learn from history.”

In my novel Sweet Betsy from Pike there’s a scene where the wagon train, going upstream along the Platte River, comes to a Pawnee village.  Grass for the train’s animals has been getting scarce, and there in front of them is the Indians’ vegetable garden.  It’s a temptation some of the men can’t resist.

“Look at that corn!” Major North said enthusiastically. “Our animals need that. Let’s turn em loose on it!”

“No!” Aubry boomed. “You’ll git us kilt.”

“Capn Aubry,” the Major said, drawing himself up, “if our animals ain’t properly fed, we’ll never make it to Californy. Are you sayen thet you count these Injuns more important than us?”

“No,” Aubry snapped, “I’m sayen that if you harm them crops, the Injuns’ll swarm over us like bees out a the hive, and our chances of getten to Californy won’t be worth a tinker’s dam.”

“Capn Aubry,” the Major said, “I’m accusen you a cowardice, an if we get through this I’ll plaster your name over ever newspaper in the States.”

“Plaster away,” Aubry said. “The lives a the people in this train air my responsibility, and I say we leave thet corn alone!”

The Major turned to face the other men. “I mean to take my oxen down to that corn and give em a good meal. I’ve got guns, and I kin defend myself agin any Injuns that ever lived. Any a the rest a ya that wants to feed yer animals, grab yer guns and come along!”

Aubry drew a long-barreled Colt revolver. “You better not try it, Major.”

“Aubry, I’m callen your bluff.” The Major strode to his wagon and unhitched his team. From the wagon he produced a service revolver, which he tucked into his waistband, and a rifle. He led the team toward the Pawnee garden.

Aubry positioned himself so that he stood in the way. The Major halted.

Mr. Hopkins called out, “I’m goen with ya, Major.”

Mrs. Hopkins said, “Alfred, don’t you go.”

For a moment Mr. Hopkins wavered. Then he said, “Woman, this is man’s business.” Ignoring her continued commands, he unhitched his team, armed himself, and joined the Major.

The Major said, “Anybody else?”

Ike and Hiram looked at each other. Neither saw in the other’s countenance a desire to risk death, either from Aubry or the Indians.

John Belgrave, one of the unmarried men in the train, unhitched his mule and stood beside North and Hopkins.

“Are you gone a kill all three of us?” North demanded.

Aubry spat tobacco on the ground at North’s feet. “No,” he said, lowering his revolver, “I’m a gone a let the Pawnee do that. If you damn fools wan a die, I’m not gone a stop ya.”

As soon as North and his associates began to lead their animals down the hill, Aubry began to bark orders. “Circle up the wagons. Remember what I told ya, the tongue of each wagon under the wagon in front of it. And we can use them three’s wagons, too, if they’re not too heavy to push in place. Animals inside the circle.”

Hiram, Ike, and Betsy worked with the other emigrants to circle the wagons, casting occasional glances toward their comrades who were descending the hill toward the Pawnee garden.

As Aubry had predicted, the emergence of the Indians from their lodges resembled the swarming of bees from their hive. At first they merely yelled at the intruders, but then North fired his rifle at one of them, wounding him in the shoulder.

Immediately the Indians notched arrows to their bows and began peppering the invaders. Mr. Hopkins was the first to fall. Mrs. Hopkins screamed.

“Hurry up!” Aubry roared. “We ain’t got much time!”

The skirmish did not last long. In only a few minutes North, Hopkins, and Belgrave all lay dead, and the oxen belonging to North and Hopkins, together with Belgrave’s mule and the three men’s weapons, were in the hands of the Pawnee.

Mrs. Hopkins was sitting on the ground, weeping, moaning, rocking herself in her own arms. Betsy knelt beside her and put an arm around her, trying to comfort her.

In only a few minutes, the Indians had rounded up their ponies and were riding up the hill toward the circled wagons, yipping and yelling as they came.

Fortunately Captain Aubry was able to parley with the Indians and save the lives of the other Whites.  But the incident is a good illustration of the relationship between Whites and Indians in America in the nineteenth century.

*

When I was in school, American history books included the story of the Custer massacre at the Little Big Horn in 1876.  In the history books Custer and his men were brave heroes; the Cheyenne and Sioux who wiped them out were treated as villains.

What the history books never told was the story of how Custer and his cavalry had a few years previously wiped out a Cheyenne village on the Washita River, slaughtering men, women, and children.  The Cheyenne chief, Black Kettle, had made a good faith effort to be friendly toward the Whites.  “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” — pioneer proverb.

Another instance of White perfidy is referred to in another of my novels, Huckleberry Finn Grows Up.  Huck describes the event and then discusses it with his wife:

Some friendly Injuns was camped on Sand Crick, Colorado Territory, near Fort Lyon.  They was on their own reservation, and they’d been ordered to go there so they’d be safe.  Then on November 29 a blame fool Colonel named J.M. Chivington, with a company of Colorado militia, attacked them and killed nigh onto ever one of them, men, women, and childern.

I told Sarah bout it, and she said, “What a horrible thing!”

I said, “Yep, an’ it’s a good ‘zample o’ what I been sayin’.  Them Injuns ain’t a-goin’ to take that massacree a-lyin’ down.  They’s a-goin’ to be hoppin’ mad, an’ they ain’t a-goin’ to be too partickler who they kills.  They ain’t a-goin’ to stop people an’ say, ‘Is yore name Chivin’ton?’  If you’s white, they’s a-goin’ to kill you an’ scalp you.”

“I’m afraid you’re probably right.  But does that mean that the Indians ought to forgive the white people for doing that terrible thing?”

I thought about that for a while, and then I said, “That ain’t in human nature.  But what ought to happen is the Govnor o’ Colorado Territory sh’d ought a take Chivin’ton out to wher as many Injuns as possible could see it, an’ hang him.  An’ then he sh’d ought a say to the Injuns, ‘This is the man that done that turrible thing to the Injuns at Sand Crick, an’ you see what we done to ‘im.  We punished ‘im for ‘is crime.  An’ ever’ soljer that follered ‘is orders’ll be punished, too, by bein’ put in prison.  An’ we beg yer pardon, an’ we ask yer forgiveness for the turrible thing we done to you.’  Thet’s whut’d ought to happen.”

“Would that make the Indians feel better after so many of them had been killed?”

“Well, no, but it’d at least show the Injuns that white folks ain’t all bad.”

“Do you think anything like that will actually happen?”

“‘Course not.  Most white folks think, ‘Well, they’s only Injuns,’ an’ don’ b’lieve they has any feelin’s.  Or they think that all Injuns is bad an’ desarves killin’ anyhoo.  I jedge they’ll most likely give Colonel Chivin’ton a medal.  An’ the result is goin’ to be that the Injuns’ll take revenge an’ vengeance an’ ‘tack more an’ more white folks, an’ the white folks’ ‘ll call for revenge an’ vengeance an’ kill more an’ more Injuns, an’ it’ll keep gettin’ wuss an’ wuss.”

And I was right.

Much of the Indian violence against Whites was in fact a reaction against White violence against the Indians.  Indeed, the reason Custer was at the Little Big Horn in 1876 was that the Cheyenne and Sioux had been crowded into a reservation in the inhospitable setting of the Black Hills — and then gold was discovered on the reservation and Whites were crowding in, pushing the Indians around.  The role of the army units of which Custer’s unit was a part was to protect the intruders.

The truth is that since the first permanent settlement by Whites was made in what has become the United States of America in 1620, we Whites have deliberately and systematically stolen the land the Indians lived on.  We have made a few pitiful gestures toward repayment, but most of what we have given the Indians in return is syphilis and drunkenness.

Our justification has always been that we were civilized, and the Indians were, as Mr. Hopkins had said on a previous occasion, savages.  In fact, we were successful only because there were more of us and we had superior weapons.

*

While the Bible describes the territory inland from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as a land flowing with milk and honey, much of it is inhospitable desert. In the earliest time that we have records of, it was inhabited by the Philistines.  Since the languages in that area are based on triliteral roots, that is probably the origin of the name “Palestine” (labial consonant + vowel + l + vowel + st + grammatical termination).

The Philistines held it until the arrival of the Hebrews under Joshua, who led his troops to capture Jericho.  But they refused to stay defeated, as the story of Samson attests, until finally David established Hebrew control.  This lasted until the Romans came; when the Roman Empire fell apart, the Muslim Arabs swept through on their way to conquer North Africa.

Be that as it may, Palestine was regarded by Jews worldwide as their homeland, from which they had been forced by various accidents of history.  Through the centuries many dreamed that the chosen people would one day return to their chosen land.

Palestine was held by the Ottoman Turks until they made the mistake of backing the losing side in World War I.  With the Turks gone, the British claimed it as a protectorate, and it remained fairly peaceful until World War II, before and during which six million European Jews were annihilated by Hitler’s Nazis in the name of Aryan racial purity.

The war’s carnage left hundreds of millions of Europeans homeless.  Among these was a sizable number of Jews, who considered that now was an opportune time for them to reclaim their ancestral home.  For several years the British tried valiantly to keep them out; but the British were bedeviled by such terrorist organizations as the Stern gang, Irgun, and Haganah.  At length international pressure, especially from American Jews, forced the British to throw up their hands, and the nation of Israel was born.

History repeated itself.  As David had established Jewish hegemony over the Philistines, David Ben-Gurion established Jewish hegemony over the Palestinians.  The Israelis forced many Palestinians to become refugees, fleeing to neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria.  The remaining Palestinians were largely herded into two reservations, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The Israelis justified their treatment by saying that they, bearing European culture, were civilized.  They stopped short of calling the Palestinians savages, but I have heard Israeli politicians say that the Palestinians didn’t deserve the land because they weren’t doing anything useful with it.

Sound familiar?

*

Of course, there are differences.  We Whites outnumbered the Indians; the Palestinians outnumbered the Israelis.  The Israelis at the outset didn’t have as much superiority in weaponry over the Palestinians as we did over the redskins.  The Indians didn’t go to Mexico as refugees, and only a few went to Canada.  The Indians had no co-religionist nations in the area to support their cause.  But the situations are eerily similar.

Consider that we Whites have been trying to subdue the Indians since 1620.  The last important military confrontation was the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, 270 years later.  In the more than 120 years since Wounded Knee, we have not been able to solve the problem of what to do with the Indians.  The Plains tribes, at least, cannot go back to their old way of life; for one thing,  most of the buffaloes on which Plains culture depended were killed, in order to feed buffalo meat to the crews building the railroads, by such hunters as William F. Cody.

Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill,

He always shoots, and he aims to kill,

He never misses and never will,

And the railroad pays his buffalo bill.

A few Indians have successfully been assimilated into American life.  A great many have become dependent on government attempts to support them now that their way of life has been taken from them, like the “drunken Ira Hayes” of Johnny Cash’s song.  The vast majority are living between these two extremes. They are an unsolved problem, and the easiest thing to do with an unsolved problem is to forget it — which, by and large, the United States has done.

In contrast to the nearly 400 years in which the United States has been dealing with its Indians, the State of Israel is only some 60-odd years old.  Why do we expect Israel to be able to solve its Palestinian problem?

We couldn’t “give the land back to the Indians,” as was jocularly proposed some years ago; we had built great cities and had plowed extensive farms on that land.  Similarly the Israelis have built great cities and have “made the desert blossom like the rose” by sinking wells into the underground aquifer.  So the Palestinian desire to reclaim their lost land and drive the Jews away is totally unrealistic.  Israel exists, it’s not going to go away, and it has the right to defend itself.

But the Palestinian thirst for revenge and vengeance is only natural, as was the thirst of the Indians for revenge and vengeance after the massacres along Sand Creek and the Washita River.  The fact that the Palestinians are lobbing rockets into Israel is a problem the Israelis have created for themselves.  The desire of the Israelis for the Palestinians to stop doing it is both completely understandable and completely illogical.  It is in defiance of human nature.

The situation is a standoff.  It is a tragic standoff, but it is a standoff nonetheless.  Any hope that a “peace process” will succeed is an illusion.  We should not lament our failure to achieve a solution, for a solution is impossible.  Israel and the Palestinians will likely continue to flounder on in mutual hostility for several centuries, as did Catholics and Protestants in Europe after the Reformation.  The conflict will not be resolved until enough people on both sides simply get tired of it, as the Catholics and Protestants did everywhere except in Northern Ireland.

All this, however, is not to say that the diplomats should stop trying.  Devising peace processes keeps them out of mischief, and it is better to do something futile than to do something destructive.

Pats on the back or slaps in the face to samsackett@netscape.net.

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