The people before us

December 1, 2017 | By More

When I look around our home—watch the sunrise come up between Mount Nebo and Jones Mountain, watch the changing trees on Springs Mountain—I often wonder about indigenous tribes that once owned this land. I know about my grandfather’s history here. I know at one point there was a healing springs community based on the sulphur water that still flows from the ground. But beyond that, my knowledge is lacking. There are no federally recognized tribes in Arkansas today. What does that say about the places we call home? What does this say about my own life here?

I recently learned about an online map from a friend. Native-Land.ca allows you to type in the name of your community or city and informs you what indigenous populations once (or still do) own this land. It’s a work in progress, crowd-sourced by people who interact with the map and make suggestions. I tried out my own address, and discovered it does not mention the Quapaw or Caddo, the two main tribes that once owed this land. It does however mention the Osage and Chickasaw, tribes north and east of here, and it has a button for submitting suggestions or corrections. The creators acknowledge this project is complicated and ongoing.

The map’s main creator explains his project like this: “I’m Victor. I am a settler, born in traditional Katzie territory and raised in the Okanagan. I am concerned about many of the issues raised by using maps and colonial ways of thinking when it comes to maps. For instance, who has the right to define where a particular territory ends, and another begins? Who should I speak to about such matters?” It’s easy to balk at Victor’s words and want to quickly push them aside or fight back at the word “settler.” But that wouldn’t be accurate history. And who doesn’t want to really understand history?

The region where I live still bears the mark of the Cherokee, who were driven into Arkansas long after Europeans arrived. Huge percentages of people in the region claim some Cherokee ancestry. Chickalah, the community up the road from us was likely named after a regional Cherokee leader. It’s not like we don’t know there is this history here. What concerns me is how many gaps there are in our collective community understanding.

For example, sometimes we learn this history in school, along with bits and pieces about mound dwellers and ancient ways and a few passing comments on the Quapaw or Osage. But in Arkansas history books it’s often presented as the preliminary history, taking up a few pages at best before the book moves on to the so-called more relevant bits. When regional Native American history is studied in school, we tend to skip the whole hundred plus years of Indian removal, jumping from information about pottery or ceremonies to a paragraph or two on how the Osage are now experiencing a cultural revitalization. How does this happen? How do we so easily skip the parts of history where this land went from being ancestral homes to becoming townships and counties?

A long time ago, when I was first researching and writing history, I published an oral history piece about a once thriving community in the Ozarks called Lurton. It propelled my work into the things I do today: oral history, community story telling, folklore, and the like. I worked hard on that project, but what I’m not proud of is the way my documentation mentioned racist tropes about Native Americans, specifically an oft-told story about a fictitious, ancient “petrified Indian baby” that was part of a carnival circuit. I knew the mention of it felt weird in my stomach. I had qualms about the story, as probably did many people who shared it. But I couldn’t quite name why. I should have listened to that feeling in my stomach, but I didn’t. I should have shared my concerns, but I didn’t. I shared the story, unexamined. Would I have shared that story unexamined if it had been a fake centuries-old, white pioneer baby?

Decades later I am gaining the ability to understand and name how the dehumanization of native American history is engrained in our stories. It’s this dehumanization that makes it easier for us to not look around our communities and towns and wonder how it came to be that entire populations were pushed off the dirt we stand on today. I recognize that statement will feel accusatory or aggressive to many people. You may think I am suggesting we are all bad people for even being here. That is not my intent. I live here, too. I am raising my children here.

Rather, my intent is to be honest with myself, so we can change our ways. My intent is to recognize that if I want to understand this place I call home, I have to go back deeper and I cannot be afraid to examine what I find and then behave differently according to that information. We know about the Trail of Tears, but what of the tribes that were here before the Cherokee? Do we know what completely legal forces made it possible for the Trail of Tears to happen?

History only keeps us from repeating past mistakes when we aren’t afraid to admit them—when we aren’t afraid to name how they are perpetuated. So I’m committing myself to learning everything I can about the complex and multi-layered Native American history of this place I love so much. Not in a sweeping generic way, but in details so that we can resist dehumanization and our tendency to sweep decades under the rug.

I’d like to ask others to join me. Maybe you already have begun to dig into this history. Will you share what you’re learning? I’ll gladly take pointers, suggestions, and ideas. Send me a message to meredithmartin_moats@yahoo.com. Let’s see what we can discover together.

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