Clearing the Land
Tomorrow night, a woman named Sarah Snake will visit a class I teach and, I hope, introduce my white students to Native American life. Never met her. She's coming in with a Father Korth from the St. Augustine Mission School, in Winnebago, Nebraska, and the two of them will talk with us about Native life today--especially, I suppose among the Winnebagos.
I may well be the only human being in the world who cares, but, in a way, I have a history with Sarah Snake and her people. The Winnebago history includes lots of warfare, of course, but it also includes dramatic and unprincipled displacement by the hoardes of white folks coming west, mid-century in the 1800s. One can spin the story in a variety of ways, but the inevitable and irreversible fact is that the Winnebago people were kicked around throughout the upper Midwest by white folks from a dozen or more European countries and Easterners looking for adventure and free land (or so they thought) in the upper Great Lakes region, my own Great-great grandparents, an immigrant family from the Netherlands among them.
That anyone from my family ever met anyone from Ms. Snake's family is beside the point. My people, my tribe, most assuredly displaced her people, her tribe, in a sad story that begins in the 1840s, and doesn't end--if it ends at all--until the eventual relocation of the Winnebago people (or a part of them) out here in the rolling hills of northeast Nebraska.
I've never met a Winnebago. This will be a first. I look forward to it. Should I tell her I'm sorry? Should this story come up? What would my white students say if I apologized to her in front of them? What's an apology worth almost 200 years later? What would it really mean from me? What might it mean to her?
For all of these questions, I have no answers. I have only the history.
"The early pioneers, who came to the unbroken wilderness in the early days, felled the trees of the forest and cleared the land ready for the plow, deserve much praise and commendation from the generations who have entered in to reap the fruits of their labor. One of these men, who should receive one of the first places of history of his adopted county and state, is the sturdy pioneer whose name appears at the head of this biography. He is well and favorably known in Sheboygan County, where he has lived since 1846, being one of the oldest settlers living."
So begins the biography of my Great-great grandfather, Evert Hartman.
"With his father and the remainder of the family, our subject came to this [Sheboygan] county in 1846. They were compelled to take their axes and cut roads land, paying $1.25 per acre. This property was in the midst of the forest and had never before been occupied by while settlers. Then the hardships and trials of the early pioneer were experienced, for they had very little to eat, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life. The red men were still numerous in this section, but were not troublesome to the white settlers, except as beggars. The first home of the Hartman family was a rude log cabin, with puncheon floor, and the chimney was a simple stovepipe thrust through the clapboard roof."
Here's the intersection, I suppose: "The red men were still numerous in this section, but were not troublesome to the white settlers, except as beggars."
Were the "red men" Winnebagos, or Pottawatomie, or Fox--I'll never know which tribe; but I do know this: history makes clear that the Winnebagos were dispossessed of most of their Wisconsin lakeshore lands and eventually--after a series of moves--relocated to the treeless hills just west of the Missouri River. This fact seems irrefutable: my great-grandparents, and every generation since, were buried on Winnebago land.
I wish I knew what to do with history. Do we simply dismiss it? 175 years have passed, after all. But it seems to me that we have an ordinary word for those who have no memory--they're senile.
On the other hand, I've met more than my share of people who've been misshapen by the trauma of their own history. Emotional scars are not easy to heal. My own denomination broke away from its own mother church, in part because the mother simply didn't regard the agony of scars my people suffered in persecution in Holland. History divides. History can conquer, should we allow it.
I don't claim to know the value of history in this moment. What I do know is that, almost 200 years ago, my poor, immigrant great-great grandparents, who came to America with hardly anything at all, found--and "cleared"--rich land on the forest edge of Lake Michigan, in a state that would become known as Wisconsin, where he built a home for his family and people, me among them.
That's my story.
Tomorrow night I'll meet Sarah Snake, a Winnebago. It's not hers.
NOTE: The photo at the top celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Sheboygan County Dutch immigrant pioneers at a gathering in 1896 or so. At the very center of the photo, four rows back and beneath the men standing, are two men. The man to the right, with the strap beard, is Evert Hartman, my great-great grandfather.