Saturday, May 28, 2005

America and human rights

May 25, 2005 Amnesty International statement by Dr. William Schultz:
A wall of secrecy is protecting those who masterminded and developed the US torture policy. Unless those who drew the blueprint for torture, approved it and ordered it implemented are held accountable, the United States’ once proud reputation as an exemplar of human rights will remain in tatters.

The full statement can be found at Meanwhile back at the ranch.

I have to differ with a premise of this admirable statement. While we are in fact an exemplar of high minded _talk_ about human rights, we are not, and never have been, a real-life, on the ground exemplar of the actual rights of real human beings. Far from it.

Our tolerance for ugly realities right under our noses has always been maintained by a wall, but less a wall of secrecy than of denial. The more insistent the reality, the more insistent, and at times frantic, the denial.

I mean, we _should_ do something about Darfur. I hope we join with civilized humanity in undertaking to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing and genocide there. It is good that we finally intervened, again in the company of others, in the Balkans. But it seems to be a flaw of our national character that we could write, and believe in, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, while human slavery was still legal and widely practiced, and as we were preparing to seize an entire continent from its then inhabitants--after having successfully killed, or ethnically cleansed, or stolen the lands of, the Indians of the eastern seaboard.

We are delusionally self congratulatory about our human rights record, and we base our self-congratulation entirely on our rhetoric. I say delusional because so many Americans believe the rhetoric and ignore the reality. It's hard to know even where to begin. The Indian Wars. The Mexican War. The Philippines. Vietnam. Central American murderers trained at Fort Benning. I'll pick something very small, just because it hit home for me, without my expecting it.

A few years ago, Kay and Eve and I were driving back to Austin from a vacation in Colorado. I decided to visit the places where my grandparents grew up in Oklahoma, so we followed the valley of the Arkansas from Colorado out into the widening horizon, and then at about the 100th meridian turned south toward Oklahoma. The high plains are one of the few places in the world I actually enjoy driving a car. I don't know why. The roads are empty, and the sky is, as they say, big. Giant anvil-headed thunderclouds in the distance would sometimes rise in the sunlight like blindingly white volcanic eruptions into the stratosphere. It was summer and the rolling plains were alternately green and tan, depending on whether any recent thunderstorms had come through. In western Oklahoma somewhere some sign or historical marker led us to turn off the road into the Washita National Historical Monument. It commemorates the Battle of the Washita. It should be more properly called the Massacre on the Washita.

It was a beautiful place. There was a little overlook where you could look down a slight slope into the valley of the Washita, the river visible as a line of low trees half a mile away. The river, more like a creek at that point, looped in lazy oxbows through the grass. My grandmother learned to swim in the Washita, fifty miles downstream from here about 1910.

These lands were the hunting grounds of the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Kiowa. It's easy enough to see why they developed a fondness for the high plains, especially in the summer, though the winters were hard. But all the plains Indians were being pushed aside, and, when they resisted, killed, during the 1860s and 1870s. My Texan ancestors had already driven them out of their previous hunting grounds south of the Red River.

The great Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, a man who thought it was possible to compromise with fanatics, and mollify them, helped negotiate a cessation of hostilities with the US Government and the State of Colorado, and was given an American flag and assurances of safety if he would take his people to an area set aside for them in Eastern Colorado, and the banks of Big Sandy Creek. The US Park Service web site states succinctly what happened next.

On November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington led approximately 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers to a village of about 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. Although the Cheyenne and Arapaho people believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army, Chivington's troops attacked and killed about 150 people, mainly women, children, and the elderly. Ultimately, the massacre was condemmed following three federal investigations.

The Park Service's estimate of the Indian dead is too low. According to Chivington's own testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War April 26, 1865:
From the best information I could obtain, I judge there were five hundred or six hundred Indians killed; I cannot state positively the number killed, nor can I state positively the number of women and children killed.

Chivington's men made trophy tobacco pouches of the scrotums of some of the dead Indian men, and according to testimony at the inquiry, sexually mutilated some of the female dead. One man, Silas Soule, refused to fire on the Indians, and testified against Chivington in the later inquiries. Soule was afterwards murdered. Chivington was suspected to have instigated the murder, though it was never proved.

Anyway, Black Kettle escaped the Sand Creek Massacre, and during the next 4 years signed 3 agreements with the United States government, all broken by the United States government.

In mid-November, 1868, Black Kettle had just returned from Ft. Cobb and had received assurances from General Hazen that the Cheyenne could continue to spend the winter where they were camped on the Washita River. Even as these negotiations were going on, General Sheridan was secretly deploying forces under Lt. Col. George A. Custer with the intention of putting an end to the Cheyenne problem. 800 troopers of Custer's 7th Cavalry made a forced march through a foot of snow to arrive, undetected, at Black Kettle's camp on Nov. 26. According to the Park Service:
Peace Chief Black Kettle...was attacked by the 7th U.S. Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. Custer just before dawn on November 27, 1868. The controversial strike was hailed at the time by the military and many civilians as a significant victory aimed at reducing Indian raids on frontier settlements. Washita remains controversial because many Indians and whites labeled Custer's attack a massacre. Black Kettle is still honored as a prominent leader who never ceased striving for peace even though it cost him his life.

According to Custer himself, the 7th Cavalry killed about 100 of Black Kettle's band. Black Kettle was himself killed, at the side of his wife who was also killed. Custer lost 21 men in the unexpected resistance, and many historians consider that it was Custer's cowardice that caused this loss. A 7th calvalry detachment was cut off by a reinforcing group of Indians from a nearby encampment, and rather than go to their aid, Custer retreated--but not before killing taking 53 hostages, mostly women and children, and killing 800 Indian horses.

This was a minor event in the Indian Wars. But I was deeply moved by it, standing in the bright summer sunlight with clouds building above the northern horizon. Black Kettle's people, those few of them who survived, ended up on reservations, big outdoor concentration camps. Sometimes they are so big that we continue to nick away at their boundaries, making them smaller. The entire state of Oklahoma, a place that seemed worthless, was set aside as "Indian territory." Later, it came to seem not so worthless, so we took it back.

Few visitors come to that place. But it's hard to avoid a certain amount of realization about our history and how we came to be here and our nature as a people, reading the few words the park service put up about Black Kettle and his life.

I would not be surprised if these sorts of historical monuments eventually get closed down by Republicans. It must take money to keep them open, right?

Col. Custer in 1868.
 Custer  gif

The 53 Cheyenne prisoners, men, women, and children held hostage for a year
 Cheyenne hostages

The only known photo of Black Kettle, at the time of peace negotiations in Colorado.
Black Kettle

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