Tuesday, July 23, 2013
If this place was center stage in some metro area, people might find it or even know about it. Maybe. But chances are if it were, we'd run it through with strip malls, maybe nail up a sign along a downtown sidewalk or name the parkway after it or Black Kettle, the peace chief of the Cheyenne who, with his wife, was killed here.
Maybe it's a good thing the Washita River is far from any beaten path these days, as it likely was forever. Maybe it will survive, even if in obscurity in western Oklahoma, because no one really wants the land.
See the trees? There's a river down there, or was--the Washita River. The Washita is what might be called "seasonal" because it's not there now--water that is. There's a place where water flows--a channel; but there's not much of a river down there right now, mid-summer, in the shadowing trees. The river is controlled--it's dammed, sort of like the place itself.
There was water in the river bed almost 145 years ago, when, one winter morning late in November, General George Armstrong Custer, looking for professional advancement after his illustrious stint in the Civil War, decided to follow orders and simply kill all the Cheyenne he and the Seventh Cavalry could find. There was water in the Washita because some of the Cheyenne went into the river and cut themselves on the icy banks as they tried to hide from the soldiers. A few did. Many didn't. Women and children too, mostly women and children.
Otherwise, I suppose, little has changed since 1868. Today, to get there you leave behind any vestige of interstate highway and take a map full of lonely roads through Oklahoma towns where most everyone who wants to stay makes their living in oil--and a few in cattle. The site of the Washita Massacre is in out-of-the-way, fly-over country, and it is where it is only because Native American history is all about rivers--the Arkansas, the Red, the Cimarron, the Canadian, the Washita.
And it's not hard to understand why. The world out there on the southern plains can get parched, as it is today, and ponies need water, as do the people who ride 'em or own 'em. Somewhere between where I'm standing when I snapped this picture and the red hills off in the distance, there was plenty of water--and plenty of grass. If Custer's Seventh Cavalry wanted to find what they called "hostiles," they had to watch the rivers, like the Washita.
Hundreds died in the slaughter. The story isn't that rare really because the larger story is told all through this land, and it goes like this: Once upon a time there were aboriginal people here, but white and various kinds of European-Americans wanted the land the Native people lived on, so whites, in overwhelming numbers, simply took it. (Yes, I know there are comma splices in that sentence, but I don't think it can be written with proper punctuation.)
Anyway, that's the story. If I were red, I too would think all this consternation about illegal immigration is not only ironic but blind to our own story.
I'm guessing none of us would have to visit the Washita often. Just one trip should do, just one hour-long walk through the grasses. Read a book maybe, go on-line, know the story. Then go, then take the hike through the river bottom.
In truth, the valley of the Washita is not a long ways from anywhere; it's here too. It's written in most every corner of the American landscape. The characters may be different and the plot lines might vary, but the theme is always the same.
Tell you what. Go down to some river and listen for yourself. See if you hear the voices of people who once lived there, loved there, died there. It's not a nice story, but it's very much ours.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:22 AM