Sunday, November 8, 2009

* "Kill the Indian: Save the Man" (For Jane and Walter)

Skull and Bones's secret society building, Yale University: Home of Geronimo's Skull

Prescott Bush as member of Skull and Bones

My childhood friend, Jane Ridgway, and her husband, Walter Littlemoon have written a book, They Called Me Uncivilized, about Walter's childhood experience as a native of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and as a Lakota.

It is not so much about the original Wounded Knee Massacre although there is a indelible image made of a similar 1876 event (Northern Cheyenne massacre at the Powder River near the Big Horn Mountains) when Walter tells of his great grandmother's relatives gutting ponies into whose cavities they stuffed their own children and babies so that they could keep them warm in a blizzard as they escaped the military slaughter. Several froze to death anyway.

It is not even about the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, although one chapter effectively and efficiently untangles that complexity with simple truths and a "resident's eye view" of the Second Wounded Knee a century after the First.

And "childhood experience" is a limp euphemism.

This book is about Walter's being "abducted" to an Indian Boarding School (to quote the preface by Harvard psychologist Jayme Schorin) and being "tortured and beaten", to use Walter's words, until his soul was numbed,a phenomenon which, with its subsequent triggers, Schorin calls "Complex Traumatic Strees Syndrome".

No,like Oliver Twist without the pompous 19th century words and interminable subordinate clauses, this book is about cruelty to children and its lifelong impact, a cruelty systematically dispensed by the Indian Boarding Schools, whose military founder, Henry Pratt, had as his motto: Kill the Indian, Save the Man.

It should have read: Kill the Soul, Save the Shell.

What Walter and Jane do in this remarkable little book is document Walter's rebuilding of the soul.

This is a short volume, 92 pages, like its thin brothers before it: Hiroshima by John Hersey, Night, by Elie Wiesel,and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. It packs the same whollop that those brief books do too, and one senses that this moving volume might join their company.

For, me there is an irony in Jane's assistant-authorship, which may not strike others. Jane and I met at ballroom dancing school at the High Lane Club as teenagers in Hamden, Connecticut, four miles up Whitney Avenue from Yale University.

This was long before Jane thought of marrying a member of the Lakota and moving to Wounded Knee. But as we danced our childhoods away at the High Lane Club in the Blue shadow of the Ivy League university up the road, a Secret Society at Yale named Skull and Bones, was conducting some of its sacred rituals around the skull of the Apache Chief, Geronimo, stolen from its grave by Prescott Bush (the father of the first President Bush and grandfather of the second, and, after his own graduation from Yale, U.S. Senator from Connecticut)and other Skull and Bones members.

As residents of Hamden, as Jane and I were, who shopped in New Haven, as Jane and I did, we had to confront the architecture of those secret society buildings from the moment Whitney Avenue, the main drag between Hamden and New Haven, split into two, one-way-streets , divided by a triangulated piece of property: That triangle was dominated by a huge white windowless tomb silently thumbing its nose to all outsiders as traffic entered the city, Yale, and the New Haven Green.

That Secret Society building still stands sentinel in defiance of traffic today----a reminder of the often racial elitism which has gone into building Yale for 300 years.

Walter Littlemoon ends his preface to They Called Me Uncivilized with a sentence of poetic beauty: "Now I stand naked before you all. This is my sweatlodge. This is my vision seeking.This is my Sundance. Remember, restore, reach out."

May The Moccasin Telegraph and the Internet send these words around the world.