Old settlers who'd come to the neighborhood of my own hometown, Oostburg, WI, left their farms in a panic in the summer of 1862, scared to death by scintillating rumors of an imminent Indian massacre. Lots of men were gone, of course, off to war, the Civil War, increasing the panic; but foul and dastardly reports of redskins on the warpath made them grab their guns and go off to town to circle up and fight off the marauders.
Those old Hollanders weren't wrong. There had been an uprising, all right, and a big one, leaving hundreds of white settlers dead. But the warpath was out in southwest Minnesota, just about 500 miles straight west. So much fear grew from what some call Little Crow's War, or the Sioux Uprising of 1862, that a mighty wave of sheer panic marched through the entire state of Wisconsin and sent farmers into settlement towns, where they armed themselves with pitchforks, and readied themselves for attacks that never came.
Once in awhile as of late, I've been reading about that war, Little Crow's War, because it happened so close to where I live today. People often think of that six-month horror as the beginning of the Great Sioux Wars of the later 19th century, a saga that ends--or is thought to--at Wounded Knee, in 1890. Like all the other battles of that war--or "fights," as they're sometimes called--Little Crow's War was caused unmistakably by the coming of the white man. For years white folks tried to explain those wars on some other factors, but it's impossible not to see that the cause was simple and tragic, for Native Americans--they lived on land we wanted.
Last week, on a quick day-trip to the Twin Cities, I drove through the Minnesota River valley area between Mankato and Minneapolis. It's a gorgeous valley, really, green as an emerald kingdom right now, hilly and wooded with hardwoods that look as trustworthy as anything one sees when coming off the prairies south and west.
The Minnesota River ranks as one of the Mississippi's most rich polluters, I'm told, but if I hadn't been told that fact, I don't think I would have suspected. The Minnesota is a prairie river that looks healthy; rambunctious as it is rebellious, it's flow is flat and fast, subject to flooding, and therefore home to a junkyard of the bleached, bark-less cottonwoods it regularly strips from its own banks come spring.
The valley of the Missouri River is as beautiful as any river valley anywhere, but the Missouri itself is harnessed into domesticity by a series of dams that make it a milk cow next to the buffalo it once was. The Minnesota is much smaller, of course, but it looks as if it's not been drawn and quartered--and I like that, even though I'd likely get nervous in May, if I lived anywhere close by.
So anyway, on a highway that skirts the Minnesota River for miles, I took in sufficient views of to bring me back to the stories of Little Crow's War, which was fought there, and stories that are not at all pretty. But it was wonderful to follow its banks for awhile and catch glimpses of a terrain that seemed--what do I know?--not all that much different from what the valley itself might have looked like 150 years ago. Now and then my imagination readily painted in a hunting party of Dakota warriors.
One rather common theme in the literature of the Holocaust is the almost insane anger some victims felt at nature itself. When they could, they'd look out windows or over fields and see birds, for instance, who were nesting or singing just as they always do, as if this horror wasn't going on right in their front yards. Right now, as I type, the robins outside my basement window are joyously establishing their territories with music that's so raucous--and beautiful--that no one needs a rooster. Imagine hearing the gorgeous, searing song of a cardinal while watching your friends starve to death in a work camp.
What makes suffering people angry is what they frequently sense as nature's abject disregard, which is sometimes translated as any deity's disregard. What we want for our suffering is a chorus of lament. How can birds sing when innocent people are dying?
I was thinking of all of that as I drove along the banks of the Minnesota River. Significant problems have arisen in my own life lately, difficulties that dominate interior landscapes, the valleys of my soul, you might say, making it hard to think about other things. I'm light years away from claiming anything having to do with the word holocaust, but if suffering is a component part of the human condition, I'd just like to know if there are others.
Because the Minnesota River somehow looked to me, right or wrong, so much like it might have during Little Crow's War in 1862, 150 years ago, I found some comfort there, not because people--red and white--suffered so badly amid those hardwoods, but because of what I felt in what seemed the ancient flow of an ancient river--that, despite the immanent darkness within me, life goes on.
The river just keeps on flowing, just as it always has for 150 years or more, despite what joys or sorrows go on right there on its own banks. Maybe I don't have to grab a pitchfork or circle up the wagons.
It just felt good to see that river flow, if that makes any sense.