Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


In my first year of college teaching, in an effort to learn to write fiction, I scribbled out a short story a month. Here's the way I had it figured. I had no idea how to do it, never having taken a class, so I figured I'd simply find stories in the old books I was reading, books about Dutch immigrant pioneers to the Midwest. I'd find great old anecdotes, then try to write them into short stories. The result was my first book, published right here at the college where I was teaching--Sign of a Promise and Other Stories.

An old friend's father told me how his grandma had told him of a time in the history of Oostburg, Wisconsin, when all Dutch immigrant farmers--many of them having been in America only 10 or 15 years--came flying into town, armed to the teeth with muzzle-loaders, swords, pitchforks, hammers, awls, and what not, to fight off an imminent Indian uprising. I laughed when the man told me the story, as he did himself, because the attack they were afraid of never came. I thought the story was a riot--all those ancient psalm-singing wooden shoes holing up in town ready to die protecting their womenfolk, my own great-great grandfathers among them, when there really was no warpath for hundreds of miles.

I titled the story "Redskins." Even then, the word wasn't politically correct, but I meant it the opposite way--the white people having "red skins" for their insane paranoia. The Indian uprising they were fearing was almost exactly 500 miles west, in Minnesota, two full states away. But back then the news didn't come in 24/7, and the rumors of a blood bath spread out and away from its epi-center, the valley of the Minnesota River, as slowly as the ripples from a rock in a pond--and they didn't stop. Hence, a wild bunch of Hollanders prepped themselves for a bloody war. What a hoot, I thought. That's the way I wrote the story--Three Stooges-like comedy.

The only chapter of Great Sioux Wars about which I know very little is, oddly enough, the most local story--the Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in late months of 1862, much of which happened just a couple hours north of here. I've been reading personal narratives written about what happened back then, and it wasn't at all pretty. Wounded Knee isn't either. At Wounded Knee, events happened that shouldn't have, and the result was a massacre, the U. S. Calvary simply murdering Big Foot's band, more than 200.

But what happened throughout the Minnesota River valley in 1862 wasn't pretty either. Most accounts say it started when a couple of young warriors got themselves into a testosterone match and ended up murdering a pioneer family for no apparent reason, other than none of them wanting to lose a who's-more-of-a-man contest. To say those four kids started it and forget about broken treaties and the continual flow of new settlers (the Indians called them the Dutch, but they were mostly deutsch or German) into what people like me, white people, still call "the new land" is not only silly but sinful. The Sioux had every reason in the world to be mad, resentful, even violent; their culture was being annihilated, and culture gives meaning to life.

The chapters of American history that tell the Native American story are just plain awful, and this one is no better. What actually happened--how people were attacked and killed--is almost beyond words for a variety of reasons, one of which is that often the Native people who killed white settlers weren't strangers. Little Crow, the military leader of "the insurrection," went to church on Sunday; just a few days later, he was leading the troops, albeit reluctantly. Not all the Sioux was cold-blooded murders, but some most definitely were.

Frederick Manfred's Scarlet Plume tells the gruesome story--full bore bloodletting. Some Sioux warriors went berserk; they'd walk into a log house at dinner, speak kindly to the family, then, without warning, cleave the father's skull with a tomahawk and kill everyone else, often in horrible ways, which is to say, not quickly. Rape wasn't infrequent. Just think the worst. In some cases, imaginations don't even go as far as reality did. Over 400 white settlers were literally slaughtered.

Five hundred miles away the fear from that uprising still resonated. That far. That's what drove those lakeshore Hollanders to circle up the wagons along the Sauk Trail, ready for "redskins" who never came.

Somehow, now that I know much, much more about what happened in 1862, that story, once so hilarious to me, is just no longer funny. My great-great grandfather had good reason to be scared to death. He really did.
In a way, I'm sorry I wrote the story the way I did--as farce; but then I didn't really know and therefore didn't understand.


RickNiekLikeBikes said...

There's nothing wrong with a certain paranoia. We all hole up in our new towns and slowly branch out from there, but we all start with the hole and retreat to it whenever we want to feel safe. Trouble is some never leave the hole.

christy said...

I just finished reading "Caddie Woodlawn" to my 7-yr-old daughter. The settlers in her hometown in WI do the same thing: over-react to vague news and hole up at her family's farm ready to defend and fight. In Caddie's story, she secretly rushes to her Indian friends (all innocent) and saves the day.

It's very interesting hearing the other side of that story - of course I knew things like massacre really happened - and remembering there was a reason the settlers reacted the ways they did, when they did.

Thanks for this story.