Monday, October 12, 2020

A day in Webster County, a few centuries in America

A shallow stream and deep history

I've been driving in darkness for two hours when the eastern horizon begins to lighten behind me. I'm cruising fast on US-136, Nebraska's Heritage Highway, and in the slowly strengthening dawn it becomes apparent why this has been designated a scenic route. The land consists of dissected plains, the rolling hills cut here and there into small canyons by old waterways. Some of the hills are planted in the region's staple crops of corn and soybeans, but others are still clothed in grass, and in the low spots here and there gleam stock ponds; as colours begin to emerge from the gloom, the autumnal red of little bluestem stands out against the general tan of the grasslands. On my left, to the south, a band of green punctuated with a few bright yellow spots marks the Republican River—it's the first week of October, and the cottonwoods are beginning to turn.

[Republican River valley.]


The river takes its name from a band of Pawnee Indians, the Kitkehahkis. Early French explorers and trappers, sometime around 1785, mistook their form of government for a republic, and named the waterway on which they were living Fourche des Republiques. It would not be the last misunderstanding.

As I cross the Webster County line, a large whitetail buck reminds me to dial back the speed. A few miles later, I turn off the highway and drive through the sleeping town of Guide Rock looking for its namesake: Pahūr, "the rock that points the way", one of five particularly sacred sites for the Pawnee. (These five sites were considered lodges of the nahurac, spirit animals who served as intermediaries between the Pawnee and the supreme being Tirawa.) I think I know where Pahūr is supposed to be, just across the river and slightly downstream, but I don't find it. It's too early to ask for directions, so I resolve to return later in the day.

* * *

Driving westward once again, I cross a couple of creeks as they meander down toward the Republican. One of them, Elm Creek, has occasioned my journey this morning, but I'm not ready for it yet, and I continue on into Red Cloud: approximately one square mile and home to about a thousand people. I arrive in town just as it's beginning to wake. I explore the brick-paved main street, the grocer smiles and wishes me good morning as he unlocks the door to let himself in, and a flock of English sparrows takes refuge under my station wagon as the first grain truck of the day rolls by.

[Downtown Red Cloud.]







Red Cloud is the seat of Webster County, and has been since its founding in 1871. This was the frontier at the time, but it was developed rapidly, with many of its civic landmarks—the State Bank, the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank, the Opera House—built in the early 1880s. One of its founders, 1870 homesteader Silas Garber, later became the fourth governor of Nebraska, but Red Cloud's most famous resident is the novelist Willa Cather.

Cather moved here with her family in 1883, in the middle of that construction boom. She was nine years old at the time, and would have seen the Opera House going up. It is now home to the Willa Cather Foundation, dedicated to preserving her literary legacy and the natural and cultural sites that inspired her work.

[Willa Cather's childhood home: "a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition on the back, everything a little on the slant—roofs, windows, and doors".]




Having previously lived in Virginia, young Willa found the big skies and open grasslands of the Nebraska frontier invigorating: "a place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made." She wrote for the local newspaper, the Red Cloud Chief (still in publication), and later attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where she continued both her journalistic and creative writing. She graduated from the University in 1894 and moved back East two years later, but the plains influenced her writing for decades to come. The "Prairie Trilogy" novels in particular—O Pioneers!The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia—depict the struggles and triumphs of Swedish, French, German, and Czech immigrants on the American frontier. (These were her neighbours. Despite their recent tenure on the land, the Pawnee and other Native peoples did not appear to be within Cather's social circle, and she has far less to say about them.) Cather's contemporary Sinclair Lewis credited her with "making the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done".

* * *

Back on 136, I stop to take some photos, and a passing vehicle slows, stops, and turns around. The driver hails me and, noticing my camera, looks relieved. "I saw you walking away from your car and I thought you were broke down. Didn't want to just leave you. You're kind of in the middle of nowhere out here." He's a friendly fellow, early to mid-forties, with an easy smile and stubbled chin under his black watch cap. Dark sunglasses, but I imagine eyes of piercing blue. If we hadn't met dead-centre of the continent, I might take him for an aging surfer. We chat for a few minutes before he takes his leave. "Got to get back to harvesting. We just took out 1200 acres of soybeans"—here he pauses to cross himself, a good Catholic boy apparently—"and we've got another 1000 acres of corn to go." A long day of hard work ahead of him, and he takes the time to look out for a stranger.

My actual destination today is the Elm Creek Wildlife Management Area. The "address" for the WMA is not Red Cloud but Cowles, Nebraska, although the post office at Cowles has been closed since 1960. My DeLorme atlas shows the closest community as Amboy, Nebraska, but the Amboy post office shuttered its doors in 1890. I don't even notice a sign for Amboy on 136.

[Somewhere near Amboy, Nebraska.]


[Elm Creek WMA.]


About three miles of Elm Creek is listed as trout water, with two short, non-contiguous segments on the WMA. The upper stretch, the longer of the two, cuts across the northern end of the property, flowing south and then southeast. The lower reach, running back to the southwest, nicks the WMA's southeast corner. This is the extent of the public access; the rest of the creek is on private land.

Elm Creek is strictly a seasonal fishery. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission stocks it with five hundred rainbow trout in the autumn and another one thousand in the spring, but it's very skinny water and I suspect that very few of any of those thousand spring rainbows survive the hot Nebraska summer. (Later I check my theory with self-described "pointy-headed fish biologist" Daryl Bauer from the Commission, and he sets me straight: "The limitation at Elm Creek is the stream has a huge watershed and when there is a significant runoff event there is A LOT of water that flushes through there. When that happens, most of the trout tend to head to Kansas. So, fishing is usually best after it is stocked, and after a period of no runoff events.")

This is my first visit here, and I know going in that it's unlikely to be a spectacular day. The stocking truck delivered exactly 502 trout here two weeks ago, so they've had plenty of time to spread out: 167 trout per mile if they all survive, which is unlikely. I don't know if catch-and-release fishing is prevalent here, but I know the otters and herons aren't giving up their share.

Arriving at the WMA, I decide to fish the longer, upper segment of the creek first and park along the dirt road. I rig up a 7-foot 5-weight fiberglass rod and tie on a muddler minnow, unweighted as befits what is likely to be a slow-moving stream. I can either fish it as a streamer or, if the opportunity presents, dry it off and fish it as a hopper—'tis the season for terrestrials, after all.

I'm already wearing board shorts under my jeans, which get stashed in the back seat of the wagon. My street shoes go on the back floorboard, changed out for wading shoes. My Nikon—my wife's Nikon, in point of fact—also stays in the car; if I need to take pictures, I have the camera on my flip-phone, which makes up for in durability what it may lack in resolution. My wallet goes in a waterproof (I hope) case in the pocket of my shorts, and my car keys get stashed at the base of a fencepost. I grab my sling pack and I'm off.

I walk from the car across a grassy field to the brow of a hill, from which I can look down on the creek. It's broad here, so much so that I almost mistake it for a pond. I see a great blue heron standing in the "pond" and hear the rattle of a belted kingfisher, which is encouraging. I also hear the lowing of nearby cattle, but the sound is superfluous, as the air is redolent with the aroma of the beasts. I make a mental note not to drink the water, and descend the hillside to wade in.

The decisions about my personal effects and health are good ones. When I get back to the dirt road after fishing, I find the car and the keys exactly where I left them. I've taken a fall in the water, so I'm glad the Nikon was in the car and my wallet in the case, which is in fact waterproof. And, of course, I stand by my resolution not to drink downstream from the cattle herd.

But all subsequent decisions related to fishing—choice of rod, choice of fly—are rendered irrelevant by my choice to fish the upper stretch of the creek. It is very slow, languid even, and silt-bottomed. Plenty of minnows, lots of invertebrates, but I don't catch any trout. I don't have any follows or refusals. I don't startle any trout. I don't see or in any way interact with any trout in an hour or more of slow, patient stalking—sometimes from within the creek, sometimes from the bank. And eventually I discover why.

Near the end of the WMA's upper stretch, the water disappears below a mat of duckweed, milfoil, and other vegetation: the boundary fence separating public from private land has formed a dam, below which the water runs quicker and clearer and out of reach. In that pellucid water, I believe, there must surely be trout. But I decide to stay on the right side of the fence, geographically and ethically, and follow the fenceline hoping that I will be able to reach the lower stretch, where the creek re-enters the public land of the WMA. But eventually I find the going too hard, the way blocked by a vast cattail marsh, and make an ignominious retreat through cattails and nettles and beggars' lice back to the dirt road. (Needless to say, my legs are not happy with me.)

I drive to the southern edge of the WMA, where I can access the lower segment of stream from the road. I'm short on time—it's a weekday, and I am postponing responsibilities back home in Lincoln—but happy to back in productive-looking water, flowing shallow but clear over a bed of sand and fine gravel. However, I only see one trout on the lower creek, and that one darts away from under the bank as I first enter the creek.

Feck me.

[Lower section of Elm Creek, looking toward private land; the lighting was better.]

The weather has been dry, and there has been no flooding event. It would appear that I'm simply too late, or maybe just unlucky. I briefly wonder if the trip has been only so much wasted time and mileage, but then dismiss the question. Even when confronted with difficult conditions, it's almost always better to fish.

* * *

On my way back to Lincoln, I stop at Guide Rock once again. I'm hoping to get directions at the post office, but while the lobby is open, the office has closed for the afternoon.

On my way out, though, I happen to meet a Guide Rock resident, there to check his mailbox. He looks faintly disreputable somehow, in the manner of someone who's been down on his luck for far too long, but his troubled eyes take in my fish-print shorts, my wet wading shoes, and possibly some streaks of mud still on my legs, and he asks if I'm fishing in the area. I say yes, and he offers unsolicited directions to the local reservoir. "Big catfish down there. Really big. But you got to go at night. Bring heavy monofilament, maybe some wire." Since he seems inclined to be helpful, I ask him if he knows how to find Guide Rock. "They tore it down! Long time ago. When they built the canal, I think." (This is the general "they", the people in charge; in this case, manifestly not the Pawnee.) He gives me clear directions to precisely where I had been that morning, and subsequent research confirms that Pahūr, like several other of the Pawnee's sacred places, no longer exists as they knew it; what remains is not a vertical spire of rock but a modest, rounded loess hill.

Too late again.

* * *

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of colonial intrigue on the Great Plains of North America. On the Atlantic seaboard, the United States had won their independence, but the great European powers of Britain, France, and Spain still vied for control of the continent's center. The Kingdom of France had ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain in 1762, but then Napoleon's Republic of France regained Louisiana in 1800, trading away certain lands in Italy coveted by Spain. Napoleon intended to build a French empire in the New World, but was forced to consider consolidation when confronted by other challenges, including a rebellion in Haiti and renewed war with the British. He found a way to consolidate: When envoys were sent to Paris by President Thomas Jefferson to negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans, they were instead offered the entire Louisiana Territory. The Louisiana Purchase triggered a constitutional crisis in the United States, ultimately resolved in Jefferson's favour, but the Spanish were not best pleased.

In the late summer of 1806, a Spanish expedition under the command of Lieutenant Facundo Melgares arrived at a Kitkehahkis (Republican Pawnee) village near the present town of Guide Rock. The Melgares expedition had been dispatched, along with three others, from the Spanish provincial capital of Santa Fe, apparently with the goal of intercepting and capturing any Americans in the Louisiana Territory, notably the Lewis and Clark expedition. Melgares presented gifts and a Spanish flag to the Pawnee, extracting a promise that the Pawnee would expel any Americans who might come into their territory. 

The Pawnee, for their part, insisted that Melgares proceed no farther. Like Napoleon a few years earlier, Melgares recognised that he was overextended; he had already suppressed one mutiny, lost many of his horses, and divided his forces—half of his troops were back on the Arkansas River. Faced now with the prospect of Pawnee opposition, Melgares did the only thing he reasonably could do: he departed the village on the banks of the river near Pahūr, collected his men from the Arkansas, and trekked back to Santa Fe.

Shortly after the departure of the Spanish, a much smaller American military force—two dozen men led by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, accompanied by Osage and Pawnee guides—arrived in the same village. Pike treated with the Kitkehahkis, as well as some visiting Kanzas, and at a grand council a few days after his arrival, demanded that the Spanish flag be lowered, to be replaced with the flag of the United States. It was a tense moment, but the ranking chief, Sharitarish—not himself a Kitkehahkis but a Chaui Pawnee who had insinuated himself into the village—eventually complied. Sharitarish also insisted, as he had with Melgares, that Pike turn back; Pike, however, was more resolute than Melgares had been, or possibly his position was less precarious, and he defied Sharitarish to stop him. In early October, the Pike expedition proceeded on toward the Arkansas on fresh horses obtained from the Pawnee.

[Zebulon Pike, engraving after 1808 portrait by Charles Willson Peale.]


A few years later, Sharitarish led the Kitkehahkis in an ill-advised and politically-motivated war with the Kanzas, and the Republican Pawnee were forced to abandon their eponymous river valley. They returned for a few years in the 1820s, but by 1833 they were gone for good, living with other Pawnee bands on the Loup River. In that year, the United States signed a treaty with the Pawnee (all bands now treated as a single tribe), in which the Pawnee ceded all their lands south of the Platte River.

* * *

That tense moment in September 1806, when the Kitkehahkis hauled down the Spanish standard and raised the Stars and Stripes, seems to me emblematic. Its significance: The Pawnee did not at this moment, or ever after, fight against the United States. 

Notwithstanding their father's rash action against the Kanzas, three sons of Sharitarish later became principal chiefs of the combined Pawnee nation. His second son and namesake traveled east to Washington and realised that his father had been prudent not to oppose the Americans: too many, too powerful.

[Sharitarish the younger, as painted by Charles Bird King in 1822.]


I think about that on the way back to Lincoln. The Pawnee never took up arms against the United States. On the contrary, Pawnee warriors in large numbers fought with and for the U.S. Army against traditional enemies including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa.  And as I drive, I reflect, not for the first time, that the Native nations who fought alongside the United States—the Pawnee, the Crow, and others—are not appreciably better off than those which resisted. (And anyone who wishes to deny that systemic racism is endemic within American society had better be prepared to explain that.)

[Flag of the Pawnee Nation, incorporating the Stars and Stripes.]


By 1859, the Pawnee were forcibly confined to a reservation on the Loup, and in the 1870s they were relocated (at their own request, prompted by outgoing hostilities with the Lakota) to the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Since then, the tribal government has been dismantled and later reconstituted; communal lands have been broken up and redistributed to individuals, often ending up in non-tribal hands; Pawnee children were sent off to boarding schools such as the one at Genoa, Nebraska, where they were systematically stripped of their language and culture in the interest of making Native Americans more "American". Red Cloud, Nebraska, a pleasant town of pleasant people on former Pawnee land, bears the name of a Lakota chief. And Pahūr was apparently dynamited decades ago, one of four nahurac lodges (out of five) that have been destroyed or irrevocably altered.

It seems a poor reward for their alliance. The Pawnee seem to have assumed that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", but if so, their faith was sadly misplaced.

* * *

It's easy to question whether the Pawnee or the Lakota had the wiser approach, whether Native Americans should or should not have unified to oppose the United States, whether it was better to be a "friendly" or a "hostile". I have engaged in that sort of speculation myself. But it misses the point. 

The real problem is the United States, the invading culture that made such calculations necessary, the Americans. Not just too many and too powerful, as Sharitarish the younger perceived, but too ruthless in the aggregate.

There is an element in this country—the general "they", the people in charge—which is inherently and entirely self-serving. They want what they want, and have no regard for the indigenous people who were here first. Nor do they have any regard for those who came here after they did, or those whose ancestors came here involuntarily.

"They" may claim to care about legal versus illegal immigration, but their contempt for people whose language and customs are different from their own gives the lie to that claim. "They" seem unable or unwilling to distinguish between peaceful protest and rioting; they may claim to respect the former, but likely as not they frothed at the mouth when Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players took a knee during the national anthem, which gives the lie to that claim as well. "They" have always been in charge; small wonder that Indian allies fared no better than those who resisted. The people who condone (outright or through denial) murder-by-cop are the same sort of people who condoned Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.

And against that, it is always better to fight.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Éirinn go brách

I somehow missed this at the time, but Jessa mentioned it to me this morning, just in time for Indigenous Peoples' Day tomorrow. Lacrosse is to be featured for the first time in International World Games history next year in Alabama, but the organising committee disqualified the Iroquois Nationals team from competition on the grounds that the Iroquois were "not a sovereign nation" (don't get me started) and do not have an Olympic committee. (For the record, the Iroquois Nationals compete at the international level in the World Lacrosse Championship, where both their sovereignty and their foundational role in the Creator's Game are recognised. They finished third in the most recent worlds in 2018.) Following an outcry from the lacrosse community, the IWGA then reversed course and stated that the Iroquois could compete after all—if a place could be found for them in the tournament.

Enter Ireland Lacrosse—or, rather, exit Ireland Lacrosse, as the Irish team sacrificed their spot in the tournament so that the Iroquois team could be represented. "There was so much more to be gained for the sport as a whole than for Ireland to gain from that one tournament," said Michael Kennedy of Ireland Lacrosse. "It was the right decision to pull out to enable the Iroquois to take part."

Read the whole feel-good story in Michael Glennon's piece at RTÉ.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

"I Can See Clearly Now"

One of the favourite songs of my childhood; it came out when I was five. There have been covers—who wouldn't want to have a go at a song this pretty?—but the original is perfect.


Pop/reggae singer Johnny Nash has passed on—he died two days ago at the age of 80—but this song will never die.

Friday, September 18, 2020

"Friday I'm in Love"



Monday, August 17, 2020

St. Tammany skies

Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.

—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Montana claims the moniker Big Sky Country, and Nebraska's sky has long inspired its writers, but Louisiana yields nothing to either. Scenes from one day in St. Tammany Parish: 

By mid-morning, the sky was full of cumulus fractus clouds, what I call a "kite sky". Can you guess why?





The pond at Fontainebleu was like a mirror, if alligators lived in mirrors.



Afternoon skies over Lake Pontchartrain. Jessa's photos look like travel posters for Paradise. (Actually, I think I might have taken one of these...)




More clouds over Pontchartrain, framed by cypress trees hung in Spanish moss.




Sunset (and moonrise) found us in one of the marshes, and we couldn't have wanted a better vantage point. Farewell from Louisiana...








Sunday, August 16, 2020

Alligators

Summertime...and if the catfish are jumping, it's likely because the alligators are more active. Jessa and I saw quite a few in our short time in Louisiana, beginning with several in the hyacinth-choked, tannic waters of Irish Bayou.
















Later in the day, we found several more gators in a pond at Fontainebleu State Park, where they are supposed to be strictly protected. Honestly, could ILLEGAL TO FEED OR HARASS ALLIGATORS be any clearer, even to a drone-flying cretin? And yet...


Otherwise, though, the spot was peaceful, and the alligators plenty photogenic.












The one above may be vaguely puppyish, but they don't stay puppies forever. We saw this big fella patrolling Bayou Lacombe: ten feet if he was an inch, maybe twelve, big enough and dark enough and knobby enough that Jessa and I both mistook him for a mudbank covered with clams until the mudbank started to move. Our last gator of the trip, and magnificent in a hair-raising way.






Photos by Jessa & Mark Farrell-Churchill.