Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Pilgrim's Progress, Cont.

The Dagwood Sandwich

When I was a kid I used to read “Blondie” in the rolled-up paper that'd get tossed on our porch every morning. Those were the days before virtual gizmos, when the comics were the only 'memes' we kids had other than the sports page which, like the comics, was meant to entertain. And we were.


In those good old comics, Blondie’s husband, Dagwood, would rise from his napping couch about once a week, sleepwalk to the refrigerator and pull out a dozen rich ingredients that every good old suburbanite was supposed to have in their refrigerator, too. He'd slather two slices of white bread with mustard and mayonnaise, layer cold-cuts, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and olives until the sandwich was a foot-thick and absolutely inedible. Then he'd crack a joke. 

Dagwood was a nice, white guy. He wore a tie to work, and he wanted us kids to know that this was what America looked like. Everyone should have a foot-thick Dagwood Sandwich that you couldn't possibly eat but that you should have nonetheless. Everything was as it should be, this cartoon-husband wanted us to know, and we believed him.

That Dagwood Sandwich should have hit us white folks like a ton of bricks when the Black Lives Matter protests took off a few month ago. It did me when the Mayor of Minnesota was quoted saying that his city was between "two crises that are sandwiched on top of one other.” The George Floyd uprisings occurring within the COVID pandemic. Two different coldcuts in a white man’s sandwich, in other words, squished in with lettuce, sliced tomatoes and tasty pickles. Edible, or at least something you can wrap your mouth around enough to take a bite out of, and maybe to have an effect on.

Well, I've had some time to think about it, and I think Mayor Frey's two-ingredient metaphor is the classic kind of understatement that comes from politicians who don't take cartoons seriously enough. I understand the rock and the hard place he's in between. George Floyd was lynched in Minneapolis, and Mayor Frey is a Democrat. Being a Democrat in Minnesota means he is actually a member of the Minnesota Democrat-Farm-Labor Party, which means he is the beneficiary of a legacy bequeathed him by 150 years of socialist uprising and organizing from the co-op infested plains of the 19th Century Dakota lands that, thanks to Hubert Humphrey in the 1940s, morphed into the Minnesota Democrat-Farm-Labor Party. It follows, then, that if you belong to a formally-socialist party that allowed a guy like Hubert Humphrey to crash it, then you have a serious case of political cognitive dissonance. Mayor Frey was wrong about the size of the sandwich.

There are, in fact, multiple crises “sandwiched” together into a huge, impossible sandwich. There's institutionalized bigotry and the COVID crises, of course. But the rise of fascism also comes to my mind, coupled by murderous COVID outcomes in countries run by them (Brazil, the U.S., Russia, Britain). Economic depression caused by the same scoundrels for the same reasons also shows up, worldwide environmental collapse and, (spoiler alert for us humans) a D.O.A. healthcare system. That’s not just two ingredients in a crisis sandwich that can be dealt with by taking it one bite at a time. That’s a Dagwood Sandwich, multi-layered, all the ingredients part of the whole while being nothing without all the ingredients, and completely inedible unless you're a white cartoon husband about to crack a joke. 


The problem with us white people is that we think we’re white, which isn't the case. The COVID bombshell should have taught us that, but I guess learning comes hard which, by definition, means slow. COVID should have been an existential lesson in equality for all of us. Yes, we honkies opine from our comfortable Northern Rockies’ zones, it is hitting poor communities worse than ours, but it’s hitting ours, too. And, given how much time and energy we’ve put into isolating ourselves from the outside-world uglies, it’s hitting us very hard indeed. Furthermore, we honkies in the Northern Rockies may feel smug about getting “far from the madding crowd” and there’s a certain amount of self-satisfaction in accomplishing that. But then we insist on thinking there’s nothing we can really do. And that blows our cover.   


I recall a conversation I had with a “fun-hog” friend of mine at a brewery after returning from Standing Rock in early-2017 (full disclosure: I'm a part-time fun-hog myself). He had been out skiing while I had chosen to face off against a militarized police force in a blizzard. During the debacle that took place on those same co-op infested plains from which the Minnesota Democrat-Farm-Labor Party sprang I thought about all my hedonistic Montana friends playing expensive, consumptive outdoor games in the face of an environmental/social collapse that would take down those very ecosystems we claim to cherish so. I think it was in the middle of helping to butcher a cow in sub-freezing weather at the Veteran's Camp that worked up something in my head to say to them when I got home, which, unfortunately for this truly-good-hearted friend of mine who was the first one to ask me anything close to what I thought about the whole mess of the world, I did. 

I told him, listen, man. This kind of activism is right down your alley. You’re going down these wild rivers and skiing these insanely chilly mountaintops for the sake of excitement and the love of the outdoors when you could be having the exact same kind of excitement and outdoor experience in a North Dakota blizzard with armed soldiers to bump up your adrenaline rush even more. You want brave? Do it with a purpose. You got the chops, and you don’t have to sacrifice your outdoor time. Not anymore. Maybe not ever again. 

Those of us in the Northern Rockies who care talk about "minority" communities and how “they” need more justice so the sandwich shrinks and becomes edible for us. Those of us who don’t care just talk about “those people”. But the end result is the same. We don’t acknowledge the giant-ness of the Big Problem, nor how much we, no matter how good our intentions, are part of it. This goes for people of all shades, by the way, because the sandwich is epic. But us pilgrims have had such a long run these last three or four hundred years, I think it's only fair to say, "hey, man." 

So, for what it's worth, here's the punchline. The damning finger of "white privilege" is now pointing straight at a fixable target, the predatory for-profit healthcare systems currently crumbling against the rocks of the Pandemic Age. How can anyone deny the urgency or the opportunity. You can bet this won't be the last bug to come after us, and after the next couple-three hits, a 'white', privileged class will not exist as a functional fantasy, false identity or false flag for less-thoughtful folks to rally around when times get tough. There's only one race of humans, multi-shaded (duh), and to deny some of those shades adequate access to medical attention as a basic human right, everyone runs the risk of dying horrible deaths while the rich, who do so love to keep us divided, will just get richer. 

Tax the bastards, then, and tax 'em hard, in favor of Medicare For All or it's bye-bye to our cherished Democracy. 

Simple. Why's it taken so long?


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Pilgrim's Progress

Last weekend, in a sleepy tourist town nestled on the western shoulder of the Idaho’s Northern Rockies, lynch mobs (or “2ndAmendment vigilantes” in the current euphemistic vernacular) openly roamed the streets, carrying assault weapons and looking for fictitious “antifa” (read: non-white) troublemakers rumored to be coming down from Spokane, the only sizeable city in our inland region with an inner-city (read: non-white) population. (Lynch mobs in Coeur d'AleneFour days later and 200 miles to the east, I attended the ongoing Black Lives Matter actions at the Missoula County Courthouse where assault weapons were openly displayed nominally in support of the protesters (!) and, for what it’s worth, I came away with a few thoughts.

Here in Montana and Idaho, the pining for the "Wild West" is still visceral. It's an aspirational ideal for many locals as well as those who have moved up since the Rodney King protests in 1992. If you lived here then you remember them, the ones arriving with a pocketful of down-payment from a house they sold in a city they deemed "too colored", plopping their money down with few questions asked on ranchettes to re-invent themselves as "cowboys". They doubled, quadrupled then exponentially drove housing prices far away from what our mere Montana wages could possibly justify. Then they might don pointy boots and cowboy hats, dub themselves “constitutionalists”, saunter down to the nearest Walmart (or wherever) and start loading up on assault weapons singly-designed to spray multiple, flesh-destroying bullets in a matter of seconds. The local Ravalli County Central Committee has gone so far down this "white-homeland" road that they’ve been auctioning off an assault rifle every year for about the past decade, displaying the murderous tool at their booth for grade school children with innocent, cotton-candy-sticky faces to walk by, to touch, to be amazed. 

Firepower. It’s all the rage now, isn’t it? The uninfringeable right to openly-threaten those you disagree with death and destruction (or to aid and abet the mass-murder of schoolchildren) while not wearing a facemask during a pandemic is being exercised everywhere these days, but maybe nowhere more visible than in the Rocky Mountain West. There are so many stores and billboards here now openly declaring this most-curious love-fetish that if I went around trying to “capture the moment” by taking pictures all of them I’d probably crash my camera. There’s no denying, it’s a thing.

So where did this infatuation with firepower come from, really, and how did it end up at a nominal "Black Lives Matter" protest in Missoula, where two white people brandishing weapons of war were tolerated by the organizers in the name of  "protecting" our right to peacefully-protest? 

Let’s acknowledge the obvious right now. First, a group of “2ndAmendment vigilantes (read: a lynch mob) showed up at the Missoula Courthouse before our local "boogaloo bois" did, with assault rifles and handguns on full display. One got pointed directly at the crowd (mostly young adults in shorts and t-shirts, a very threatening spectacle indeed if you’re an Uninfringable) who scattered in understandable fear of the unknown states of mind of these heavily-armed “patriots” (yes, there were flags). What should have been obvious to the Missoula police, but apparently wasn’t, was that pointing a loaded assault weapon at a group of bystanders during a tense situation is the definition of assault. But no, the guy apparently walked because, like the white guy and gal who showed up with similar weapons the following days to “protect” the protesters, he was…duh…white. To be fair to the police, the uninfringable rights of lynch mobs needs to be assiduously-defended if we’re going to have anything left of our Constitution. Right? But still, imagine just for a second if the brandisher of that weapon hadn’t been the approved color? Now imagine for another second if a non-approved-color person had shown up at a Black Lives Matter protest with an assault rifle. Are we on the same page now? Okay, so back to my main issues of concern: Gun Love and WTF. 

As a genetic pilgrim, when confronted with blithe displays of violent minds I can’t otherwise explain, I always fall back on what I can glean from the narratives white folks have written down about the doings on this continent for the last few hundred years. It's sometimes called "history" and it’s a habit of mine. It's actually escapism in a way which, like other naughty, very-human things everybody does, is not easily explained no matter what your political persuasion is. 

I do it, though, because, notwithstanding it’s a bit obsessive-compulsive with a Lutheran tint, I'm looking for pilgrims, the genetic stock of my maternal grandfather, and, of course, my mother. There’s nowhere else to go for this than books, and so I’ve stacked up quite an impressive pile of primary-source narratives written by literate people who experienced those 19th-Century times. 

Certain things stick and others don’t. It’s a pretty sordid tale, all-told, and a pilgrim can only take so much guilt even if he was raised Lutheran. One thing that stuck, though, was the Texas Rangers, who are said to have been the first state-sponsored, standing police force in this country. They were organized almost exclusively to terrorize and kill Mexicans and indigenous people occupying lands the "Texians" desired for their cotton plantations and, later, their cattle and their settlements. It was, if I read it right, the Rangers’ interactions with the Comanche and Kiowa that inspired the first generations of “automatic” weapons on the planet, the revolving-cylinder pistol. Previous to the development of Samuel Colt’s 5-and-6 shooters, warriors had the firepower advantage over the Rangers in close-range combat, as it almost always was then. Their single-shot pistols couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire arrows the average warrior (if there was such a thing) could carry in their fist and cut loose with with alacrity. When Colt’s 5-round pistol became available, the Rangers took it up with their own alacrity and improved their chances in a close fight. But the first ones were unreliable to downright dangerous to the user. Metallurgy being what it was at the time, the chamber exploded more times than was desireable, so Colt soon teamed up with a Texas Ranger named Samuel Walker and they collaborated to create the Walker-Colt six-shooter to more perfectly fit the Rangers’ policing needs. The Rangers soon took to carrying three, four, five heavy, pre-loaded pistols into battle with them and so at last they could massively-trump the natives' firepower, for a minute or two or five, and then retreat. Guerrilla warfare, in other words, the same technique that was used a few years later by Confederate bushwhackers like the James brothers who rode with Quantrill's raiders in Missouri and Kansas. After the Civil War, when enough of these guns were circulating amongst a war-traumatized population that had long-since confused violence with freedom-of-expression, they became commercially-available to the masses, the cowboys, the Wild West and Viola! Gun Love.

 The native folks, of course, were ducks on a fence to this “Code of the West” unless they could purchase or capture enough of this new and improved firepower to make a difference. They could no longer get close enough to overwhelm their foes without it, and, notwithstanding the Battle of the Little Bighorn, having a six-shooter and having enough lead and powder to keep it sufficiently-loaded were two different things, and so things went as we’ve read. Custer’s Last Stand was the exception that proved the rule. For the most part, multiple-round firearms were the domain of the whites and, therefore, the new normal. 

Which brings me to pilgrims, and my grandfather. I knew him pretty well when I was growing up. He was born in 1882, ran a streetcar with his brother in San Francisco until the route was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, sailed up to Nome, Alaska to build steamboats that ferried miners up the Yukon during the Gold Rush there, then sailed back down to the Central Valley in California to buy a ranch and raise a family. His dad, Silas Halsey Cooper, had been in the 9th Kansas Volunteer Calvary (Company B) during the Civil War and participated in firefights with the Ute people in Wyoming over Ben Holliday's intruding on their lands with his Overland Trail. In one fight, in the Medicine Bow Mountains near the current town of Ryan Park, the Utes had a few guns and occupied the high ground, but they ended up mostly firing over the troopers’ heads because they didn’t compensate their aim correctly for downhill shooting. I’m guessing that’s because they were in the habit of calculating for lesser charges due to lack of gunpowder and were aiming high on principle, but one of the bullets did hit Company B’s sergeant, who died, and Silas was promoted. He was 31 at the time, significantly older than the average trooper, and for awhile after I learned all this I thought maybe I could simply trace my lineage to something two-dimensional and without context. Firepower.

Silas and his wife, Anna, who settled in Hanford, California before 1900, had both died long before my time (we're late breeders in case you were wondering how old I am which is none of your business!), but he was near enough that he and Anna still remained a part of the family narrative I grew up with, which included how much my Grampa resembled him in looks and temperament. Grampa Cooper was 80-something and had long been hard of hearing when I knew him. He was taciturn and kind, and his lasting legacy was his honesty and his habitually-giving refuge to people who were down on their luck, including tramps, his wife’s Okie cousins and a Japanese family who were interned and had to leave their property in his care, which he returned to them fully-intact when that craziness was over. This was when “Okie” was a bigoted epithet thrown at vulnerable folks by equally vulnerable folks who were afraid of these newcomers taking away their wallpapered shacks. This was while his step-son, who had joined the Marines during the Depression and had just bought the family a new five-dollar refrigerator with his wages, was serving in the Pacific theatre. This was while tramps…well, tramps have always been tramps, haven’t they? But there was always someone living out on the ranch in one of the “shacks”, and there was drama, of course. How could there not be in such times? But his kindness was what my imagination always wanted to thread through our family’s Puritan line, and so as I stumbled into adulthood and, almost by accident, into Montana, I started wanting to know what the hell a piece of that kindness (and, by extension, me!) was doing up here shooting up the People and why these demonstrably-racist Wild West fantasies were rattling around in my own head?! Jeez, for a “liberal” you’d think I’d get a clue, right?

Well, I did try, but as my mom (his daughter) always said: “People are people are people,” which is still the only excuse I can come up with, along with the following explanation resulting from those deep-dives into the aforementioned historical accounts:

What the hell difference does it all make? The Rangers, the Civil War, the roots of violence? The point is, here we are, and we pilgrims have choices to make. 

Martin Luther King and Ghandi showed us what non-violent action was, and the concept is simple in words. You put your ass on the line nonviolently for something you think is more important than your personal safety, and hope for the best. A little harder to put into action, to be sure, and nobody knows what they’re going to do when the time comes. But those are the essentials, and tolerating guns into a movement that has to remain nonviolent to have any hope of success is antithetical to what most people are willing to show up for. Remember: the American Revolution was supported by only a minority of the colonies’ citizens and was decided in the “Bostons’” favor by support from Marie Antionette’s France. It was essentially a civil war played by foreign powers which, like the later one, was a bloody mess perpetrating lasting traumas. More important to remember might be that the 2ndAmendment was written decades before the six-shooter was invented, and a century and a half before nuclear weapons were. We’re talking about existential firepower now, a different beast. Pointy boots and cowboy hats look downright silly at this dance.

So I’ll offer up this pilgrim’s perspective to all you other pilgrims out there. You know who you are. How about starting with kindness, which is a simple function of empathy, not condescension, or even sympathy. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, like that guy, Jesus used to preach, and it’s guaranteed to require more time than our nano-second patience can endure. Get over it. It takes generations, even if everybody made the effort, which you know they won’t. But we, the privileged ones, have this choice here in this time, and it’s a very simple one. Violence begets violence, and violence indisputably gets passed down generation to generation. But the same thing goes for kindness, and so by simple definition we can choose, to set the seventh generation up for the next round of bigotry and war or for the long chance of healing. 

Finally, being a pilgrim and a Lutheran to boot means I probably have a hopeless case of OCD. So, in the spirit of not denying who I am I’ll state the obvious one more time. The kind of activism, the long kind that actually works, doesn’t come from the end of a gun.


Report From Hamilton

Note: I posted this on Facebook yesterday, and figured I'd put it somewhere I could find it again. I filmed this whole thing, too, on my iPhone, but for the life of me I can't get it out of there. Kevin captured the moment, though

Kevin Maki, reporter for KECI, captured this disturbance at the Hamilton Black Lives Matter action yesterday. A tall, angry man started wading through the crowd, slurring his words and being verbally abusive. I was standing within a few feet from him for all of it and I'm pretty sure he was drunk. Anyways, watch the video (here). A female Hamilton Police officer steps in to lead him away from us, he was abusive and defiant to her. She told him he was detained (you know what that means if you're not a privileged white guy) and when she tried to lead him away he struck her hands and arms several times, until she quit and called for backup, which ended up being a white male officer who came up and shook his hand and talked about all they had in common. The guy ended up walking. 

Admittedly, the officers were trying to calm the situation this guy was creating, which is of course what the police are supposed to do. But imagine what would have happened to you or me if we had struck an officer after she told us we were detained. 

There were also some local angry young men with pickup trucks rigged to spew out black diesel smoke (a sign of support for the fossil fuels industry I guess) and at least one of them passed by repeatedly blasting peaceful demonstrators on the sidewalk within feet of the traffic lane with intentionally-toxic fumes. There were many teenagers and some kids in the crowd. Countless cars with angry drivers revved and zoomed past us in direct violation of Hamilton Police Dept's (usually) rigorously-enforced 25 mph speed limit. In fact I had been given a $100 ticket for driving 29 mph in this very zone only a couple months ago.The dept. has made a very emphatic point to the community that enforcing safe driving through town is one of their main reasons for existence, and yet when I pointed to another officer who came in that the guy had struck the female officer after he'd been told he was detained, and that the rules that we play by say that if we did that we'd be down and arrested, he said something to the effect that, well, we're just trying to keep the peace etc. And great, I say, trying to keep it as light as I could, but what about these guys speeding by here within feet of kids and what about my $100 speeding ticket and (WTF under my breath), he basically just shrugged it off. 

Overall it was a positive action, with the majority of drivers-by enthusiastically-supporting us, including folks I knew who I wouldn't think would. A 16-year-old high school student organized it.

That's the report from Hamilton.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Buffalo Hunters Revisited

“Restarting the Economy” in the Midst of a Pandemic
Note: I wrote this piece three years ago after returning from the action against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock, North Dakota. President trump had just been installed by millions of Americans who believed in a mean, stupid God who only existed within arm’s reach of a collection plate. Imagine that. Climate Change, evolution and the roundness of the Earth had been decisively demoted (in their minds, at least) to the Foxnewslandia killing grounds of “controversy”. Nothing to look at here, folks, just partisan bickering. Let’s get on with the business of America, which, as Calvin Coolidge famously put it, is business. 

Now we have another disaster eating us alive—Covid 19—and rich folks want the rest of us to risk death in exchange for pennies on the dollar of their bottom lines…again, an old, old story. Add to that those perennial idiots who would threaten a virus(!?!) with flags and guns and you have an event that makes the “tea party” spectacle after the election of the first non-white president pale on that old-time scale of “Making the Rich Man Richer”. Surrounding a camp of starving people including women and children and opening up on them with machine guns (the Wounded Knee Massacre) is another such event.

Whenever such times as these descend upon us (like all wars, for instance) I wonder why so many people keep falling for the Rich Man’s bullshit, but I really know the answer. My Okie cousin, the celebrated California poet Wilma E. McDaniel, gave it to someone who had the temerity to ask why her family hit Route 66 to face a hostile reception in California for sure and an uncertain future at best.

“Starvation!” Wilma said, wide-eyed but with her low and measured poet’s voice that put all the power and terror of the thing into that one-word poem, where all the power and terror of such things belong.

We forget our roots, over and over again, and…Alas! We’re getting played again. The corporatists (a euphemism for “unconscionable rich bastards”) wanted—and got--trillions of dollars in bailout money from a federal government they claimed had no money at all for essential human rights like access to medical services, and now they want us to risk our lives  (without adequate access to medical services, of course) in going back to work for them so they can “cash in” on their newly-enhanced, socialized stock options. In the spirit of such cruel doings, our impeached-but-still-president unleashed the Keystone XL pipeline project on Montana a couple weeks ago, allowing it to illegally-spill over the Canadian border during this time of pandemic that he and his sycophants are in large part responsible for the severity of. Cruel people, of course, are capable of anything, including shoving virus-incubating man camps into the midst of reservations short on medical services like those in Montana near where the pipeline crews must live, and so it has come to pass. The work of building a transportation system for the dirtiest fuel on Earth from the tar sands of Canada to storage facilities in Illinois, for the baseline purpose of lining the deep pockets of his rich benefactors (like Charles Koch, Betsy DeVos and Sheldon Adelson just for instance) has been declared an “essential activity” in this time of death and now the Rich Man is daring us with prison time, coronavirus or both if we so much as try and protest against him doing it. Nice.

Once more I wonder why anyone would swallow that designer fly at the end of the Rich Man’s custom-made graphite rod and, once more, I remember Wilma. This latest, all-too-familiar combination of catastrophe and feckless leadership is nothing if not another in a long line of pure and perfect examples that put the exclamation point on Wilma’s one-word poem. Why don’t we tell the bastards padding their pockets at our peril to go to hell on no uncertain terms? Why does the Impeached One still get million-dollar-an-hour air time to blather on? Well, why did Sitting Bull return to the U.S. after escaping to Canada? Because the buffalo upon which his people’s existence depended had been wiped out, in large part by a U.S. Government who gave away the farm to corporate tyrants like Jay Gould to build railroad lines that would slice the great herds to pieces and then annihilate them piece by piece, creating a land that became much sadder than Sitting Bull’s people could bear anymore. Ecological disaster for the benefit of the Rich Man at the expense of everyone else. Starvation, in a word. Simple, as Wilma pointed out.

In America, this disdain for democracy by the rich has never been more blatant in most of our lifetimes. Democracy for them has always been an inconvenient word, never meant to be taken seriously by those who would have us eat bootstraps (whatever those are) instead of commodity-cheese. Wilma’s Depression years are as far back as anyone’s living memory can reach today, but there are other bones in the Earth that we should examine for perspective. Dig a little deeper and it's the same ol' same ol', over and over again. That other time, for instance, when things fell apart for working people after the Civil War and Robber Barons like Gould felt free to lift the grinning mask away from their death-skull stare, when great damage was done to our environment and political worldview that plagues us still. Perspective was seen as a luxury then, too, when the biggest thing on most peoples’ minds was Wilma’s poem. 

So the Rich Man wants us to die for him again, just like at Standing Rock, just like all the other times, and maybe we’ll accommodate him again. Maybe not, but who knows. It’s been a long three years since I posted the below for Standing Rock, and the crisis of people at the end of their rope that I saw and wrote about then has only lingered and strengthened, and, as if we needed one more scintilla of proof, it’s now abundantly-clear to everyone who’s not still drinking that warm, rancid Foxnewslandia Kool-Aid (a euphemism for “vomit”) that the bastards really do want to dance on most of our graves, provided, of course, that enough of us survive for them to be the boss of. Nice.

Hope’s been getting a bad rap these days. I guess people need a fall-back position when words fail them, but I still believe in it, at least a certain kind, maybe the best kind that gives the bit of pause that lets you find the thread of sense this time around. Yes, our dip-shot government and feckless functionaries have failed us once again. But what now? Here’s my little effort at that, another try at teasing out that frazzled thread I keep seeing hints of, with a few updated edits.

                                              Buffalo skulls being sold for fertilizer, ca 1870

Jay Gould’s daughter said before she died
Daddy fix the “blinds” so the bums can’t ride
If ride the must make ‘em ride the “rod”
Make ‘em put their trust in the hands of God
In the hands of God
In the hands of God
Make ‘em put their trust in the hands of God.

"These men," General Phil Sheridan said of the unemployed easterners flooding the western plains to hunt buffalo during the Panic of 1873, some of whom were forced by the cruel humans of their day to risk death or mangling by clutching to the roaring axels underneath Jay Gould’s locked and booming baggage cars, "have done more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years." 

“Fightin’ Phil” was defending the buffalo hunters against a proposed law (in Texas of all places!) that would have protected the last of the once-vast southern herd from its final stages of annihilation. Even then, there was still a bit of common sense (in Texas of all places!). But the law didn’t pass, and “these men” were free to gamble their own hides on riding out starvation times by scattering rotting carcasses from Dodge City to Griffin. The gamble was that they might manage to live long enough to get enough dried buffalo hides, known as "flint" hides, to the nearest railhead, which a lot of them didn't. The Panic, also known as “The Long Depression”, was the gift of the over speculating robber barons, Jay Gould in particular, who rose from the industrial-strength gore of the Civil War like ghouls to drive desperate greenhorns out to try their luck with the Blue northers and pissed-off tribesmen of the plains, dangers these newcomers lacked the experience to take the full measure of or even understand, and, as with every other economic depression where working folks were left to root, hog or die on their own for the sake of a rich man’s bottom line, it was mostly just luck that got enough of them through to finish the job. The Long Depression lasted for twenty years, long enough to ossify a few fortunes at the expense of…well, you decide.

“They (the buffalo hunters) are destroying the Indians' commissary,” Sheridan declared, and rightly so. “Send them powder and lead if you will, but for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization."

Time. It's a funny thing, isn’t it? Especially during the starvation times we’re surely heading into now with Covid-19. Sheridan’s words are almost 150 years old, but they were only 80-something years old when I was born (you do the math, please). So, since Sheridan's words aren't a whole lot older than I am and since don't feel old at all (!), they still seem relevant, to me at least. At any rate, I couldn't help recalling Fightin' Phil's words when I drove through Baker, Montana last week on my way back to Standing Rock and was met on the outskirts of town with this sight…


It’s a big pile of scrap metal and it looked to all the world--or at least to all of my world--like that iconic old picture of buffalo skulls stacked up on the windy plains awaiting shipment to somewhere else. I did a quick mental calculation, standing a cowboy up on top of the scrap pile in my mind's eye, and I figured they were exactly the same height, give or take a few centimeters. Adding to the serendipity of their size, appearance and location, the pile of buffalo bones and the pile of scrap metal were both the result of painstaking gatherings by settlers who were trying to squeeze a few bucks out of the economic failure immediately preceding their scrap-collecting (buffalo hunting in the first case, fracking in the second) on these very plains. Talk about photogenic metaphors. 

Baker is a typical windswept Eastern Montana town that is so close to the North Dakota border that it tilts that way. In fact it sits on the very western edge of the Bakkan fracking fields. The dregs of those fields now run through the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that was illegally built through the Lakota Peoples’ homelands, and runs a little north of Baker. Ironically, Baker is also slated to be bull’s-eyed by the equally-illegal Keystone XL Pipeline that will, if completed, run dirty oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the same tank farms and dispersal facilities in Illinois that the Bakkan muck will end up in. 

Most importantly, though, Baker sits along Sandstone Creek, which flows into O'Fallon Creek, which in turn flows into the Yellowstone River just below the mouth of Powder River. This puts Baker smack in the middle of the Lakota peoples' beloved Powder River hunting grounds, the grounds they fought so hard and so often to save. The People had been coming here to hunt the buffalo since the most ancient times, and in fact it was only 100 miles further down the road along Highway 12, which also skewers Baker like a pipeline, on the eastern fringe of the Bakkan (between Hettinger, North Dakota and Lemmon, South Dakota) that I came across the motherlode of western metaphors; Hiddenwood Cliff, the last stand of the North American Bison.

Hiddenwood Cliff, North Dakota

It’s a hotspot, Baker is, of western history, even as the rusty metaphor it is now.

As you might be able to tell, I read a lot of western history, particularly about the collision between the original caretakers of the Land and my people, the Pilgrims, which I certainly am one of, which means that, combined with my being a lifelong "environmentalist" I am the definition of "conflicted". My great-grandfather, for instance, was a sergeant in the 9th Kansas Volunteer Calvary stationed at Fort Halleck, Wyoming, where he participated in some of the first military actions against the People, along the Platte and the Overland Trail. What he was doing in Kansas in 1862 in order to join that volunteer Calvary I do not know yet. But, due to the fact that my family tends to breed late, I grew up knowing his son, my grandpa, who had a wealth of western life experiences of his own. My mother, for her part, was the unofficial family historian, and so she passed down to me an oral history from a time most children of pilgrims have forgotten, and one of them is that my grandpa resembled his father in looks, temperament and occupation (farmer). 

So I read a lot of western history, trying to figure out what the hell a piece of me was doing here in 1862-63 fighting the People off of their intact ecosystems so that gold could be dug out of their mountains and railroads wrapped around their plains, and now these pipelines! It's not a guilty conscience, really, although I probably deserve one. I just want to get it right.

Most of the history I read, as it happens is also from a pilgrims' point of view, so it's spotty on objectivity at best, but it’s also good for filling one’s head with facts worth pondering. Like about the settlers, who came in after the buffalo hunters and collected the bones left behind to sell for fertilizer back east. They’d stack the bones in great proprietary heaps until they could haul them off to the nearest train terminal to complete the very last cash transactions in wild buffalo parts that the world may see again. They'd get from $2 to $10 a ton (yes, that's a ton) not enough to get rich on like a few of the buffalo hunters who managed to survive did (they’d get $2 to $5 a hide), but enough to pay for groceries when your crops failed yet again in this land that was meant to grow buffalo, not cash. These kinds of facts create a rich back story for an environmentalist with a western family history like mine because, if you’re the type of environmentalist to give such facts their own head, they bend you right back to the Land, where the People have always been, and where every good environmentalist always wanted to be in the first place, before these facts of pilgrims were written down and began darting around in other peoples’ heads. Serendipity or Faith, there are good arguments for calling it either. But whatever handle you want to swing this long bend back to the Land on, it's not so much an arc as it is a jagged lighting strike, since the facts you need to wade through are often disturbing and sometimes contradictory. 

After the Civil War, General Grant simultaneously downsized the army and appointed his favorite war hero, Phil Sheridan, to head the vast Department of the Missouri, which included the Great Plains and all the "Indian wars" occurring within its bounds. Since his Department was vast and his resources few, Sheridan settled on a version of guerrilla warfare known as “terrorism” to fulfill his mission. He attacked the Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa and the Sioux in their winter camps, destroying their supplies and killing them indiscriminately when they resisted, and also when they didn't. George Armstrong Custer, another Civil War hero, perpetrated his infamous Battle of the Washita, an unprovoked massacre against the Cheyenne, during Sheridan’s campaign. 

And there were others. The Sappa Creek Massacre in particular, which occurred in Kansas in 1875, mimicked the Sheridan model for getting as much “bang” out of your limited war bucks as you could by terrorizing the helpless and using free labor to boot. It was perpetrated on another peaceful Cheyenne village, largely by a volunteer crew of buffalo hunters under the nominal guidance of Lt. Austin Henly of the Sixth Calvary. Women and small children were shot and burned in their lodges and then thrown onto bonfires that the buffalo hunters had made of the village’s possessions. Imagine that, parents, and now imagine Lonesome Charlie Reynolds, the buffalo hunter who led Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 and then died with him at Little Big Horn in ‘76. Imagine Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, two other buffalo hunters who have been held up to us as folk heroes through the years by truncated high school history books displaying iconic photos, like mountains of buffalo skulls for instance. It is a funny thing, time is.

So, if you ever make it to the road sign on Highway 12 that tells you you're at Hiddenwood Cliffs, try squinting your eyes, like I did. You might be able to conjure up buffalo roaming free again, but of course what you're really seeing is cows. After Sappa Creek, the Cheyenne were rightly terrified of buffalo hunters, not so much because they were killing off the buffalo, but by their witnessing of what they were capable of doing, and then getting away with. It was bound to leave a certain aftertaste.

The extermination of the buffalo was a military tactic, of course, similar to spraying Agent Orange on the jungles of Vietnam to defoliate them so the natives could be more easily killed. After the buffalo were gone, the tribes had no more choices. They were forced, ignominiously, at gunpoint, to live within the bounds of their designated reservations, which were really concentration camps where the People, especially their children and old ones, were at the mercy of corrupt entrepreneurs known as "agents" who literally stole the food and clothing out from under them while they fell prey to the various plagues and viruses they had no immunity for, nor medical facilities to treat them, and they died like flies. 

It was just then, dear reader, that the People became sitting ducks for another novel military tactic. The army would surround the camps of the now-exhausted, helpless People on some trumped-up charge or other, wait a few days, a few weeks, and then the troops would descend upon them and massacre them. Wounded Knee is one example. There were others. 

With that in mind, take a look at the picture below.
Photo courtesy of: Joe Plouff of Camps Arising (send donationshere)

It’s what you see every night at the Standing Rock. Dozens of high-powered spotlights surrounding the camps for miles, aimed in the camps’ direction, waiting. And in the daytime you see this:

Modern Buffalo Hunters

For everyone reading this who's still not sure what fascism looks like, I've posted this photo for the fourth time, because I think it’s worth repeating. The hill on which these DAPL agents are standing is Last Child Camp, where tipis were being erected to avoid the high water that everyone agrees will come. Over sixty peaceful protesters were arrested off of this hill, many (if not most) were hauled away in unheated vehicles to places as far away as Fargo, ND where, after being arraigned on trumped-up charges, they were released, some in the middle of the night, some in their underwear, in sub-freezing weather. 

What stopped this modern, partially-privatized, militarized police force from shooting into the village with live ammunition, like they did at Wounded Knee? In the case of Standing Rock, public scrutiny was the only thing in its way. Back in 1890, such scrutiny only came after a massacre was perpetrated. But they’re still locked and loaded, and there are not a few among them who believe that's reason enough to finish the job, which, remember, is partially-privatized (read: less accountable to public scrutiny). 

Which begs the question: What's to stop these same forces unleashed from shooting you for peacefully disagreeing with some other trumpian policy like the illegal building of the Keystone XL pipeline now underway as per trump’s declaration that it’s a “critical service” in this time of pandemic when to go out and protest like we did at Standing Rock is to risk your health and even life, not just from sickness but from the perverse laws passed by several states that make it a criminal offense to protest pipelines? 

For a clue, remember that Wall Street still operates under the same rules of engagement that guided those at Sappa Creek and Wounded Knee. "Death to the weak, power to the powerful", and even though Wall Street may feign a turning of its dainty head away from its unpleasant causes and effects, the name for this legal piracy hasn't changed. It’s still called a "killing".
Portable Windmill at Sacred Stone Camp

After the buffalo were exterminated, the People whose lives were woven within the  vast, throbbing herds experienced plague and famine on steroids. Much of it was caused by the malevolence of the cruel or ignorant people rushing to fill the ecological void left by the disappearance of the main driver of that ecosystem. But cruel and ignorant people are only symptoms of the breakdown, no more nor less than any other sturdy virus. Ecosystems fail, inhumanity intensifies, and viruses come in for the sucker-punch. Things get re-made, not usually for the better, at least not for us. Why do we keep falling for it? Ask Wilma.

We certainly have the technological know-how by now to avoid such things as gifting trillions of taxpayer dollars to save those who would kill us (or in the case of Covid-19, would watch us die). Who made these people the bosses of the world? 

Don't let anyone tell you to just shut up and accept your lot, especially now that all their crimes have been laid so bare, because time is a funny, fast-moving thing, a fluid thing, like floods or other cleansing, natural phenomena. Just wait a while, and you'll see that, although it’s tough right now and gonna get tougher, there’s much cause for hope, because our facts, our beloved facts, are finally turning us back to where we always should have been, to where we never should have left, back to the Land. 

A Veteran for Peace 

 Sunset at Sacred Stone

Weasel Tracks at Oceti Sakowin next to the Cannonball River
Still intact, holding steady

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

On False Patriotism

My ancestors have only been on this continent for a short time, since the 1600s. The same blood flowing in my veins has been in every major conflict that the colonists (later the Americans) have fought in since that time. I had ancestors who participated in the Revolutionary War battle where the American flag was invented, and if any hairsplitters out there want to argue the point with me then they can kiss my ass. I actually signed up for a war myself, and ended up serving four years in the Navy, but didn't go to Nam, not because I was some kind of smart, but because of the simple luck of the the other side of my family, the Irish. 

In other words, I feel I can say something about this flag thing, and here it is: I don't hate the American flag. In fact, I have every reason to love what it stands for in my own mind. But this child of pilgrims and pioneers hates what it has become in the hands of our seemingly-bottomless pit of psychopathic "leaders", and I offer up a new, colorful equation, a flaggy one (!) which is really an ancient formula reworked for us unfortunates who inhabit a more and more two-dimensional age, where colorful pictures apparently have more impact than actual thinking.



Yes, Hitler certainly was an evil man, wasn't he? But he had lots of help. In high and low places. The equally-evil men in the high places had agendas, wanted power and knew the formula for getting what they wanted.


But the low ones, the enablers? They have no excuses anymore for falling for this bullshit, do they? And they will have much to answer for in the very near future. Won't they? 

How dare they wave American flags at us? How dare they?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

On Poets, Viruses and Compassion

I went to Costco yesterday to stock up on coffee, ramen noodles and such other necessities I thought I might need to get me through the (?) weeks of I was planning spend in relative-isolation--which is kind of oxymoronic since I've been self-isolating in rural Montana for the last 40 years or so--and it's true: they were out of toilet paper. Everyone I interacted with (from 6 feet or more away of course!) was pretty jolly about the whole thing, swapping jokes about the nutritional value of toilet paper, what kinds of food you should stock up on to avoid using so much of it, etc., and what else can you do? Life goes on and laughing's better than worrying, although after reflecting on it I had to admit that ramen noodles and coffee would probably be on the same food chart as toilet paper, nutritionally-speaking.

But ultimately I have to check in on the seriousness of the thing. Here's a bug that doesn't respond to government-by-tweet sweeping the world and, as humans have that wonderful proclivity to do, we move like lemmings to the most precarious edges of reality, hoping for the best, or the worst, depending on your religion. Panic, denial, conspiracy theories. They're all of a piece, and, notwithstanding the fact that we're not actually living in a war zone with bombs dropping out of the sky, you have to take the results of such baseline human behavior as the existential threats that they are, and I didn't want Costco running out of my favorite bargain French Roast before I got my share. That's the "panic" component. The "conspiracy-theory" part hit home with me this morning when I was texting with an old Navy buddy who was pretty sure the coronavirus came from a Wuhan weapons lab with an Israeli secret-service connection. Now that, I thought, was the kind of default human thinking that should make me panic, but I know him as a good guy and I merely said, "Nah, it's from eating snakes," and I'll leave it to the reader to decide which would make the better punchline when things calm down. 

Then, still sitting in my self-isolating writing-chair next to my cozy wood stove, I received an email from the Tulare (California) Historical Museum informing me that they had to postpone a "Literary Landmark" event in honor of my cousin, Wilma E. McDaniel, who passed away in 2007 after almost 90 years of living, most of that as a California Okie who ended up being one of the most significant California poets of the 20th Century. I was planning to attend, figured it'd be cancelled, and was sad. But what struck me most about all of this particular moment of muddled clarity was a short piece Wilma wrote before she died that the organizer of the event, Karen Neurohr, posted along with the cancellation notice. I don't know exactly when Wilma wrote her piece "Viral Bug", but I'm pretty sure it was during the final years of her life when she was living in a senior apartment complex in Tulare that provided her and her brother, Roy, who was pushing 100, with independent-living duplex apartments--and an emergency cord in the bathroom in case someone in the office needed to call an ambulance. 

Please read her little piece below, along with one of the many thousands of poems (just a guess but I'll bet it's no exaggeration) that endeared her to her audience, her People, and think, please, instead of merely reacting as we so often do when changes come at us from out of somewhere other than where we're used to looking. This virus really isn't a joke. Even if you're healthy, you have our incredibly-valuable, vulnerable citizens to think of, those who are living just like Wilma describes below, and many far-worse-off than that. This isn't a "hoax" to get trump (for chrissakes). This isn't a Chinese plot to destabilize the western economy (for chrissakes). This is a dry run on how compassionate a People we really are. Please take good care, not just for your own sake but for those whom you will never know.

Viral Bug 
Wilma McDaniel

Please note that I have spelled the above word with capital letters. That seems only proper in light of my recent experience. A virus is not just a trendy word, a virus can wipe out anyone, even an Okie poet who has no computer. I can’t even blame what happened on weather.

Certainly the month of May was cooler and wetter than usual. Forget that my Father ever raised cotton and was sometimes rained out, too late to plant. I really enjoyed the cool weather. Sometimes May can be scorching in the Valley. Instead of feeling better though, my eyes and nose ran constantly and my throat became as red as first class beef and too sore to barely swallow.
I don’t like sitting in the doctor’s office with dozens of patients even sicker than I. I resorted to warm saltwater gargles, tea and juice. All the home remedies that have brought me to the brink of old age. I felt feverish the last few days and discovered my ancient thermometer had blanked out completely. I really didn’t know what my temperature was.
On May 15th, I staggered out to the kitchen fully dressed and made coffee. I left it on the sink and started to the bathroom. I saw myriad lights before my face and fell unconscious in the hall. I think it was 7am. I don’t know how long I lay there, perhaps ten minutes. Anyway, I gradually came out of a fog and wondered if I had experienced a stroke. I carefully tried my right hand, it moved; then the left, which also worked. My legs moved. The worst handicap was, I couldn’t lift my head. I tried to raise it but it fell back on the tile floor like a pumpkin.
I made a second attempt, but thought my pumpkin might split open. I lay there in the narrow hall calling on God, calling for my neighbor who never heard me. At last God heard me. I took about twenty minutes to scoot to my bathroom, still on my back. I managed to raise my head with one hand long enough to grab the emergency cord, then fell back on the floor. In four or five minutes, I heard the ambulance siren so I knew help was coming to transport me to the hospital. 
I do hate to bore any readers of this column, but I need to say that I came near to being the late poet. Without any doubt in my mind, angels helped me fall neatly in that narrow hall without fracturing my skull or refracturing my neck and lumbar section.
It is precious to still live, priceless beyond words. I invested in a later model thermometer and check my temp almost everyday. I scan papers for virus reports and even wonder which one laid me low with a 104° fever. No wonder I keeled over. Happier days to come, though this isn’t bad.”by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel as published in Walking on an Old Road: A Collection of Writing and Poetry. © 2007 Stone Woman Press, Tulare, California. Edited by J.R.R. Chlebda, first edition paperback printing. Back40 Publishing, Sebastopol, California.  

Picking Grapes 1937
            Magic seventeen
And new in California

            Working in bursting
            Sweet vineyards

            Hot sand on soul
            One strap held by a safetypin
A girl could be whatever
            She desired

            The first breath of
            Eve in Paradise

            The last gasp of Jean Harlow
            In Hollywood
                                                                  Wilma E. McDaniel