Friday, July 08, 2016
Morning Thanks--a story we need to tell
It's not that there aren't fascinating stories all around; it's just that where this Mormon monument stands is in the middle of what America judges as nowhere, just down the road from Niobrara, Nebraska, population about 379, fly-over country.
Wasn't always that way; like much of the Great Plains, there was, once upon a time, a heyday, probably the middle years of the 19th century, when the Poncas were here, the Santees were here, and other Sioux bands never far away. That meant cavalry too, and agents, and suppliers, and draymen, not to mention swells of population when someone somewhere out west claimed there was gold in them there hills.
And the silence here wasn't that way in the winter of 1846, when Mormons, on their way to the Salt Lake, stopped here to winter. They'd determined to be farther than they could travel that year; they intended to be all the way to the Rockies, but such plans were not to be. Instead, once the cold set in, they found themselves shivering at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, and they weren't alone.
They were unprepared, however, and when a grassfire Native people started roared through their makeshift of village of shacks and dugouts, they were dangerously ill-prepared for the kind of brutality that winter on the Plains quite regularly stage for those who can live through them.
Some died that winter, and this memorial, off the beaten path, memorializes those who did--a man named Newel Knight, a man who actually knew Joseph Smith, a man who was a leader of the ward that wintered at the Ponca camp, died here of pneumonia, dead of winter.
The Mormons were refugees, people of a selective faith that wasn't the approved revelation or style of those in the majority. So they left Illinois on a trek that would lead them all the way to Utah. Newel Knight never made it past the mouth of the Niobrara River.
Nor did the pilgrim refugees listed on the other side of the monument. What's left of the memory is here memorialized in a plain and simple granite monument just off the highway to Ponca State Park, accessible to all, although not that many pass.
The Mormons long winter of 46-47, especially that ward of the people who lived here at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara rivers, is not simply a story of death and deprivation. It's also a story of cooperation and community, a story of open doors and open hearts, for those Ponca who lived in the area shared their lives and good fortunes with the strange, religious white men and women passing through the region.
It took many years, but not so long ago the LDS church and its people thanked the Ponca tribe richly for what they did for the ancestors who wintered here, fearful and hungry and deeply anxious that all of this westward movement could be someone's pipe dream, which it was and wasn't.
This short version of the story is worth telling this morning, just 12 hours after some incensed madman murdered five Dallas policemen and wounded seven others in retaliation, he told police, for the never-ending deaths of African-American men at the hands of law-enforcement officials throughout the United States.
Last night, when the news broke, I felt something akin to a despair I haven't felt for fifty years, when America watched inner cities burn, the country of my birth and my devotion simply breaking apart like some long, tall ship in a storm. Not since then, at least to me, does it seem the population of this country and the culture it has created has this nation appeared so deeply and violently fractured.
And then, today we look at two candidates for the highest office in the land who are despised more deeply than any candidates for President ever have been. There is no center, no core, no heart. There is no moderate middle; there is only resentment against "the other."
Once upon a time, Mormon refugees by the thousands swarmed across the face of the largely uncharted Great Plains on their way to place I don't doubt most of them couldn't pronounce. Along the way, they sought shelter from the winter where two great rivers come together, a place few people visit these days. There, they were sustained--they were accepted and provided for--by a tribe of Native people who were themselves greatly besieged by aggressive neighbors all around. Why don't we know these stories?
Not all that far from here, two peoples helped each other. It happened. Out here where no one lives, it actually happened.
It's a story we need to hear--and tell.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:13 AM