Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Creator's game

First, a belated congratulations to all of the NCAA lacrosse champions crowned over the Memorial Day weekend, especially the Salisbury Sea Gulls (D-III Men) from my own home state.

On to local stickball news...

With two games left in the season, Lincoln’s high-school club team is still looking for a win. Nevertheless, it’s been a successful first season in many ways. The kids, half of whom never picked up a lacrosse stick before this spring, have improved their skills dramatically. Our defense has been strong all season, limiting the opponents’ shots and keeping the games close. But what impresses me the most is the way the kids have bonded as a team. Initially, head coach Greg McManus and I had concerns about interschool rivalries—we have kids from at least four public schools and one Catholic school, and some of the kids have faced each other on the ice-hockey rink. Those concerns have vanished entirely. Last weekend, between games of a triple-header, the parents hosted a cookout, and rather than sitting with their families the kids arranged themselves in a large circle, laughing and joking with each other and leaving the families to do their own thing on the perimeter. Later, they played "bombardment", dividing into two groups and throwing impossibly long passes across an open field—five balls in flight at any one time, and the gods help anyone whose attention wavered. I cringed inwardly at the profligate expenditure of energy (three games in one day entails a lot of running) but simultaneously rejoiced to see these kids goofing off and enjoying each other’s company so un-selfconsciously.

As I said, there are two games left. Then we’ll play some fall ball, and be back next spring even stronger. We’re only losing one senior to graduation; most of the kids are freshmen or sophomores. With age and experience will come confidence, and eventually some W’s.

* * *

Actually, that age and experience thing can only go so far as an advantage. I’ll be playing lacrosse this summer for the Rhinos club team (West squad) out of Omaha. I’ve been to three practices so far, and I’ll admit to being a little frustrated. The last time I played a contact sport was ten years ago, when I was only 31—and I wasn’t exactly the fastest, most physical guy on the field even then. Now I’m dealing with a shaky left knee, a tendency to shin splints, and residual pain in my right foot and ankle from falling off my roof onto the sidewalk about six or seven years ago. (I crushed the metatarsals; when the orthopedist saw the X-rays at the ER, he announced optimistically that there was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t lose the foot that night. Thanks for the pep talk, doc.) All of which makes it hard to stay a step ahead of my defender, to say the least. Additionally, my stick skills are a lot rustier than those of the recent UNL graduates on the team—athletes about half my age. It’s been difficult to accept that I can’t necessarily keep up with these guys, that I am suddenly (or at least it seems sudden to me) "the old dude".

So I’m going to try for a deeper perspective...

Long ago, before Handsome Lake, before Heyenwatha or the Peacemaker or anyone else whose name is still remembered, the Creator gave the stickball game to the people, for the betterment of the people but also for his own amusement. Many Native players are buried with their favorite sticks; the Northern Lights are the spirits of departed lacrosse players, still playing in the heavens, or so the traditionalists believe. On Iroquois reservations in New York and Ontario, ritual games are still played each spring, clan against clan, with bare feet and wooden sticks. These games are rarely even; one clan might have twenty players to the other clan’s ten. Despite the mismatch, all parties play as hard as they can. The outcome is not important; playing the game is what matters.

Playing the game is what matters.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Charley's gift

I wish I had more time to prepare this, but I'll have a go at a Memorial Day story, commemorating an American hero unknown to most Americans, one who earned his heroic status by taking up arms against the U.S. Army and who eventually made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom.

* * *

Gold was discovered at Dahlonega, Georgia in 1828. Word was slow to get out, but resulted the following year in the first gold rush in U.S. history. White settlers and land speculators were already calling for the removal of Indian tribes from the Southeast, and the presence of commercially viable gold deposits gave final impetus to this movement. The Treaty of New Echota was signed by Andrew Jackson's government and a minority faction (the Ridge party) of the Cherokee people at the end of 1835. Principal Chief John Ross and the tribal council pleaded with the Senate not to ratify the treaty, and later asked Congress to void the treaty, but both attempts were unsuccessful. (In fact, the government had been committed to a policy of removal since 1802, when Thomas Jefferson's administration obtained title to Georgia's western lands, now Alabama and Mississippi, in exchange for cash from the U.S. Treasury and a promise to extinguish Cherokee land claims in Georgia.) Forcible removal of the Cherokee people by the U.S. Army under the command of General Winfield Scott began soon thereafter.

These political machinations took place almost entirely within the Cherokee Nation proper, which had its capital at New Echota and represented "acculturated" or "progressive" Cherokee, who had adopted many aspects of the dominant white culture (including the holding of black slaves). Many traditional Cherokee, especially in western North Carolina, were largely unaware of or unconcerned with the political situation in New Echota. Instead of attempting to imitate or assimilate into white culture, they lived by the old ways of hunting, fishing, and farming small landholdings. One of these traditionals was a man named Tsali, known to some of his white neighbors as "Charley".

* * *

Tsali lived with his wife and family close to the confluence of the Nantahala and Little Tennessee (Tanasi) Rivers, near present-day Bryson City, North Carolina. When, in early November of 1838, soldiers arrived at Tsali's cabin and announced that the family must proceed to a stockade further down the Little Tennessee, they packed a few belongings, no doubt in a state of denial or disbelief, and set out for the stockade in the company of another family (headed by Tsali's brother-in-law) and a detachment of four soldiers under the command of Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith. Along the way, one of the soldiers impatiently prodded Tsali's wife with a bayonet—which is when things went from merely ugly to violent.

Speaking calmly in Cherokee, Tsali advised his companions to initiate a struggle when he feigned a fall. Accounts differ as to whether his intent was to engage in combat or merely to escape: some versions have one soldier dropping his rifle, accidentally discharging it into his own head; others say that one of the Cherokee men produced an ax from underneath his clothing and attacked a soldier. Whatever the actual sequence of events, in the ensuing chaos apparently one of the enlisted men was wounded and the others killed. Lieutenant Smith survived (according to his report) only because his horse became frightened and ran away with Smith still mounted. Tsali's party—five men, seven women and children in all—escaped, eventually sheltering somewhere on the Left Fork of Deep Creek, approximately three miles east of Clingman's Dome in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

* * *

General Scott, already in charge of Cherokee removal, tasked his troops with finding Tsali and the other "murderers", no easy task in the rough, densely wooded Smoky Mountains terrain. (Witness the FBI's 1998-2003 search for domestic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph, who eluded capture for over five years in the North Carolina mountains despite the availability of significantly improved technology.) With General Scott's approval, Colonel William Foster approached William Holland Thomas, a white man who had been befriended and eventually adopted by the Cherokee, and enlisted his help in tracking down Tsali's party. The inducement: exemption from removal, both for those who assisted in the manhunt and for other "fugitive" traditionals who were hiding in the mountains and had not been involved in the fatal incident.

By November 24, Foster reported that all of Tsali's party, with the exception of Tsali himself, had been captured. Three men, including one of Tsali's sons and his brother-in-law, were executed by firing squad on the 23rd.

Tsali was captured and executed on November 25—and here, again, accounts differ as to the circumstances. Some say he was taken by surprise on the Tuckasegee (Dagasiyi) River; others that he had heard of Colonel Foster's exemption offer and willingly sacrificed himself in order to secure an eastern homeland for his surviving people. Ultimately, I'm not sure that the exact circumstances are as important as the results of his death. Tsali's reported last words, "It is sweet to die for one's country," may be apocryphal, but the fact is that his courageous sacrifice (willing or not) did help to ensure that some of his relatives were spared Nunna daul Isunyi—"the Trail Where The People Cried", better known as the Trail of Tears—and allowed to remain in the North Carolina mountains. (For once, the government honored its agreement, which may be the most striking element in the whole story.) Today, there are approximately 12,000 enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; approximately 8000 live on the Qualla Boundary (Eastern Cherokee Reservation) centered on the town of Cherokee, North Carolina.

[Flag of the Eastern Band]

* * *

William Holland Thomas, the man who brokered Tsali's capture and the eastern Cherokee's exemption from removal, was later recognized as a chief, and became a long-serving state senator. When war broke out in 1861, he recruited and led Thomas' Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, two companies of Cherokee and six companies of whites, to fight for North Carolina and the Confederacy. His unit captured the town of Waynesville, North Carolina in May 1865; after learning of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia a month earlier, Colonel Thomas surrendered the legion. This was the last military action of the war's eastern theater. Late in life, he suffered from some form of mental illness, but remained dedicated to the Cherokee people, and served as an informant to Smithsonian ethnologist James Mooney.

General Winfield Scott, a Virginian, went the other way in 1861, remaining loyal to the Union and serving as the U.S. Army's Chief of Staff.

Of the later careers of Colonel Foster and Lieutenant Smith, I have thus far learned nothing.

* * *

I'd like someday to visit the graves of Tsali and his executed companions, to offer some tobacco and perhaps a Cherokee rose in remembrance, to reflect on the men's courage in the face of American military might, to honor through pilgrimage their sacrifice not just for their families but for the cause of human freedom. Unfortunately, that won't be happening anytime soon. They were buried near the stockade at Bushnell—the same stockade from which they were supposed to be sent west to the Indian Territories of Oklahoma. In the early 1940s, the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Fontana Dam, the Little Tennessee River inundated the valley, and the graves were put far out of reach, deep beneath the waters of Fontana Lake.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Another million-dollar idea that won't make me a penny

U.S. brewers and their marketing folks are behind the curve on this one: beer for dogs. Their counterparts in Australia and The Netherlands—go figure, right?—are producing dog-safe (and beef-flavoured) malt beverages for canine consumption. This probably says something profound about both modern civilisation and the ancient bond between man and dog...but I'm not sure exactly what.

Also, I can't help wondering: Since most dogs will already drink beer if given the chance (definitely not a good idea), why the beef flavouring?

HT Daily Dachshund and Dog News for the lead.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Nebraska peregrine update

I just got word today that the peregrine nest on the Capitol building in downtown Lincoln (see previous post) has failed. The expected hatch date was approximately May 10; when Nebraska Game & Parks personnel checked up on the 12th, they found only one egg. (The nest originally held four.) The adults were still incubating at that time, but apparently gave up a few days ago. Kind of a bummer for me—I would have enjoyed watching fledgling peregrines again—but hardly a calamity for the species. North American populations are at an all-time high, and breed in many areas (eastern Nebraska, for example) where they were historically absent.

One result of high populations is avid competition for scarce nesting sites, with breeding pairs augmented by a large number of unpaired "floaters". At the Woodmen Tower site in Omaha, the resident falcon was apparently challenged by an unpaired female, resulting in the injury of one and disappearance of the other. The resident tiercel subsequently "stopped sitting on the nest"—fairly predictable behavior, as his primary role at this point is hunting for the falcon and their eyasses rather than brooding—and the eyasses have been removed.

Some might get depressed at two failed nests, but again, this is a temporary and strictly local setback—and a fairly common occurrence in healthy peregrine populations. Healthy populations is what those of us who worked on peregrine recovery were after in the first place.

Monday, May 5, 2008

New tenants

This is our third spring in the new house (new to us, but built in 1920), and for the third time we have birds nesting in the southeast corner of the front porch. Robins built the original structure two years ago, and it was used by house finches last year. Both pairs successfully fledged young.

Now it's the mourning doves' turn; they've added a bit of dried grass atop the old robin nest, and lined it with green grass. Hope it turns out as well for them.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mitchell shoots more than pretty pictures

Last weekend, contributing photographer Mitchell Renteria shot his first turkey—a 20-pound tom—near Cambridge, Nebraska.

Note the absense of elaborate camouflage (he was in a blind) and other paraphernalia. All it took was knowing where turkeys were likely to be, the ability to sit still for an hour and a half, and a good eye over the shotgun barrel. (He's on his high-school trap-shooting team, so this was likely an easier shot.) Congratulations, Mitchell!

Friday, May 2, 2008

photoblogging: tree swallows

At last, a day without responsibilities—or at least none that couldn't be shirked. I drove down to Wagon Train Lake near Hickman, where a neighbor told me the black crappie were biting. Last night's cold front evidently put an end to that, but a confiding flock of tree swallows tempted me to stay and shoot some pictures.

My camera isn't really a good choice for bird photography—too slow, not enough zoom—and swallows in flight are a challenge under the best of circumstances. Nevertheless, I thought I had figured out a technique that would allow me to bring home a few crisply-focused close-ups of birds on the wing. Several chilly hours and two sets of batteries later...well, I guess I was wrong.

So let's just pretend that the out-of-focus shots were done that way on purpose, an artistic rendering to convey a sense of the birds' speed and the applicability of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to Tachycineta bicolor.