Tag Archives: United States

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” -Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987


On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.


Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

To Vote From Afar

ForeverA while ago, I mailed forms to my home state of Arizona requesting an absentee ballet for the upcoming primary and Presidential elections. I sent a little letter into a sea of mail, and now I wait earnestly for my approved absentee ballet.

It’s Arizona, though, so there’s a statistical likelihood that my vote won’t make a difference. Each election I’ve voted in, my vote failed to put into office my preferred candidate (a ham sandwich named Marty who wears a hop hat and monocle running as a Neo-Whig Anarchist, obviously). Because the Whigs (and every other party I would realistically vote for) don’t stand much of a chance in Arizona (unless more people voted), I will once again have the honor of not making a difference in 2016.

It’s possible, however unlikely, that voting will make a political difference, but that’s not necessarily why I vote. I vote to be part of a community, to participate in an almost religious experience, to be part of something bigger than I am, a kind of highly-organized mob mentality centering around mostly rich, unconcerned smiling people in suits I couldn’t afford with my life’s savings. It’s enchanting to be part of a communion that has the potential to involve so many. I’m sad how often we collectively waste that potential.

In the 1952 election in India, 105,944,495 people voted. It was the first election after Independence, the first with universal suffrage, and although it constituted only 45% of the electorate, it was a colossal success considering that India’s literacy rate was only 18% in 1951, and is even more impressive given the vast number of languages spoken by India’s electorate: as of 2001, only 22 of India’s 844 languages and dialects were officially used for constitutional purposes. India’s first election involved all levels of society in a nation stratified by centuries of colonialism and damaged by Partition with East and West Pakistan, and nevertheless one hundred million people turned out to vote. Despite the militaristic turmoil around Partition, people turned out to explore an (admittedly western-designed and implemented) experiment in voting.

The upcoming U.S. Presidential election is quite different from India’s 1952 election, but I want to be a part of the masses. In a strange way, becoming a statistic feels transcendental to me, like I’ve moved into a part of history that exists outside all indicators of the self, outside personality, documentation, religion, class, race, and into a cloud of participatory revelry, into a quantifiable oneness. I wish I could vote in person, but from my temporary home in Nebraska, I will still move beyond myself. And maybe, just maybe, Marty the ham sandwich will finally usher in four years of Neo-Whig Anarchism.

-jk

Cited: Wendy Singer. Independent India. Edinburgh: Pearson Education, 2012. Print.

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60 Things to Do Instead of Shopping on Black Friday

Birds

 

  1. Sleep in and eat a breakfast of turkey sandwiches from last night’s Thanksgiving dinner.
  2. Go for a walk around the block.
  3. Ruminate upon the life the turkey you ate for breakfast must have lived and decide the turkey was named Phyllis.
  4. Feel disappointed that the air is not as cool as you remembered in childhood in a quaint New England village and wonder if the consumption of turkey is involved in the warmer temperature; decide that it is not and keep walking.
  5. Read your favorite novel.
  6. Write your favorite novel.
  7. Write your friends’ favorite novel.
  8. Rake the leaves in the yard.
  9. Take a nap.
  10. Try yoga.
  11. For those already practicing yoga, try being a couch potato.
  12. Play a board game with your family.
  13. Donate to a charity.
  14. Write to your governor (about anything, guns, refugees, mashed potatoes)
  15. Volunteer at a refugee center.
  16. Make a really excellent quesadilla.
  17. Make a really horrible quesadilla and vow to do better next time.
  18. Try peyote.
  19. Put off your novel for next November.
  20. Pet your dog.
  21. Pet your neighbor’s dog.
  22. Have a philosophical conversation with your neighbor’s dog after the peyote kicks in.
  23. Adopt a dog.
  24. Adopt a highway.
  25. Clean up trash on somebody else’s adopted highway because Troop 1620 just isn’t pulling their weight.
  26. Plant a tree.
  27. Hug a tree.
  28. Apologize to a tree because the peyote is still doing its thing.
  29. Have a face-to-face conversation with your neighbor.
  30. Learn how to have a face-to-face conversation after spending several minutes staring at your neighbor’s face looking for the “like” button.
  31. Eat another sandwich made from Phyllis’s leftovers.
  32. Clean the kitchen.
  33. If you cooked Thanksgiving dinner last night, tell your in-laws to clean the kitchen but micromanage from the side.
  34. Find a special on the History Channel about Thanksgiving.
  35. Tally up every historical inaccuracy in the History Channel’s Thanksgiving special. Trust me, this is fun.
  36. Research the actual history of Thanksgiving. Trust me, this is depressing.
  37. Go for a hike in the country’s last remaining wilderness, but not after researching the history of Thanksgiving. Knowing whose land you’re traversing is also depressing.
  38. Have a conversation with your family.
  39. If the conversation does not last more than thirty seconds, have a conversation with your family about politics or religion.
  40. Go through your closet and look at where your clothes were made.
  41. Wonder how many children were involved in making your clothes. Cry.
  42. Take a selfie and put it on the Internet with forty-seven hashtags; when nobody likes it, passive aggressively like everything posted by all your online friends. Cry.
  43. Wrap yourself in the fear that digital isolation will engulf you forever. Drink.
  44. Throw your phone against the wall and break it, but don’t look at sales for a new phone.
  45. Delete all your social media accounts in a frenzied attempt to purge your soul of online superficiality, then regret it ten minutes later. Drink or cry; either one works here.
  46. In picking up the carcass of your phone, realize that it too was made by sweatshop labor.
  47. In a panic-induced rage, tally up the countries all your products were made in, pin them on a globe, then despondently spin the globe.
  48. Eat more turkey.
  49. Realize that global capitalism is a machine that chews up human dignity by forcing the participation of all members of society through its universal institutionalization over the past five hundred years into every aspect of culture, religion, and language, and has imprisoned millions in an inescapable superstructure that will devour all that is beautiful from the world in the last few remaining decades of human existence, leading you to the epiphany that the very holiday of Thanksgiving was just the beginning of consumer culture in America, pitting puritanical fundamentalists against innocent indigenous populations in survivalist competition and setting off a continual narrative of colonialism, imperialism, and consumerism.
  50. Burn down your house. Cry and drink.
  51. Wish you still had some peyote left.
  52. Accept the firefighters’ invitation to join them for dinner.
  53. Give your last remaining dollar bills to a veteran in need.
  54. Observe the camaraderie of firefighters convivially eating leftovers.
  55. Find that the only remaining products inside your house are a guitar and the last slice of pumpkin pie.
  56. Pick up the guitar and strum a few chords as the sun sets and your neighbors walk their dogs, who give you strange looks as they pass you on the street.
  57. Realize that reactionary property destruction is an insufficient coping mechanism. Crying and alcohol and peyote are also insufficient, though understandable.
  58. Walk down your street strumming your guitar late into the night beneath the stars. Proceed to be overcome by the beauty of the moment for ten to twelve sweet minutes of peace.
  59.  Recognize that you are still connected by art to the human spirit across time and space (despite the mechanical oppression of corporate power struggles played out upon your very body through the food you eat and clothes you wear).
  60. Be thankful that American history is not just a pattern of consumerist oppression but also of communal unity, from Native American resistance movements to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the unpublicized heroism of the decisions made by thousands of people on a daily basis to count their worth in friendship, creativity, and community, and not in cheap, unneeded products on sale for crazy-low prices. Crying is optional (but recommended) here.

-jk