Thursday, May 17, 2007

Triumphant Or Tragic, History Is Fascinating

I dare say one of the things we Riders have in common is a love of history. I'm betting most of us got into it early on. It's like any other story; the characters draw you in and your imagination does the rest. You wear the clothes, ride the horses, live in the castle or the tipi, talk the talk and walk the walk--all from the safe vantage of your ever-lovin' mind.

When I was growing up, history and geography were given equal and distinct focus from about the fourth grade on. I was in love with the the Aztecs, Greeks and Romans by the time I reached double-digit age. Movies helped tremendously. Westerns became my passion, but the big 3-hour Hollywood sagas about any period held my attention from beginning. Back then the facts were less important than the pagentry, but you got a feel for the past. We moved around a lot when I was growing up as an Air Force brat, and I know that seeing all those places helped to fan the flames of my fascination. I learned that people are different in some ways, but, remarkably, across time and territory they're essentially the same. Libraries, museums, historical sites were (and still are) not to be missed. "This is where it all happened," Daddy would say. (Mama wasn't big on history unless it starred Clark Gable or Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.)

Nowadays some of the best historical movies are made by HBO. It's great that they come out on DVD, but I subscribe because I can't wait for the good stuff. Loved Elizabeth. Loved Rome. There have been so many, but now I'm really looking forward to May 27 and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It's based on a book that made a deep and lasting impression on me, not only because it's about my husband's people--the Lakota Sioux--but because it reads almost like a novel and it's about a period in American history that mainstream America has only just begun to get honest about. And getting honest about our history is good for our national soul.

Two really important things happened in South Dakota in 1890. Sitting Bull was assinated, and the U. S. Army committed a terrible massacre. I've dealt with this period in at least two of my books: Fire and Rain and Reason To Believe. They're both about the past touching the present, and they're both love stories. They were inspired in part by Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (c 1971).

The HBO movie stars two actors who are very easy on the eyes. Aidan Quinn--oh, those blue eyes--is Senator Henry Dawes, architect of the Dawes Act, which made Indian reservations what they are. He probably meant well, but Manifest Destiny was the order of the day, and, as Tony Soprano might say, Whadda'ya gonna do?

Adam Beach plays Charles Eastman. I've blogged about this actor before. He reminds me of The Young Clyde (my DH). Eastman was Dakota (eastern Sioux) but he worked in Lakota country as a medical doctor. He treated the wounded after Wounded Knee. (I own a signed copy of Eastman's Indian Boyhood. We found it ina used/vintage bookstor in Stillwater on our 25th wedding anniversary. How woo-woo is that?)

Oh, yes, there's a love story in BMHAWK. Eastman married a white teacher. Elaine Goodale Eastman (Anna Paquin) was teaching at Pine Ridge when Eastman went to work there. She wrote about her experiences in Sister To the Sioux. Her very worthy mission was to provide local day schools so that Indian children wouldn't be sent away to boarding school. She was way ahead of her time. Indian kids were sent away to mission or government boarding schools throughout most of the 20th century, but that's another story.

Sitting Bull was a fascinating man who's rarely portayed accurately. (Actor, left, is August Schellenburg.) He was accused of encouraging the Ghost Dance, which did not originate with the Lakota. He didn't practice it himself, but he did nothing to stop his followers from giving it a shot. What did they have to lose? His "crime" was his refusal to sign the agreement that put the Dawes Act into effect and shrank Indian Territory dramatically.

One more look at the two principles. Irresistible, aren't they? I can't wait for the May 27th premiere.

What's your favorite historical period? Most interesting historical figure? What makes them so interesting? How about book? Movie?

Did you get into history when you were in school? Are we doing a decent job of teaching history? How could we do better?


Betina Krahn said...

This looks like a fabulous production. Now I can't wait to see it!

And as to teaching/learning history, I had a wonderful teacher in the eighth grade and was part of an American History Club, which raised money all year for a two week trip through Virginia, DC, Philly, New York and Boston. My teacher, Mrs. Selby, was quite a character and told us all kinds of stories you'd never read about in official, board-approved history books. She made me realize history is indeed a "story" and motivated me to want to know the story behind the dry facts.

I had a major "aha" experience while standing in Freedom Hall in Philadelphia, on that long-ago trip. It just whetted my appetite for seeing all of the places that history happened. . .

Travel and teachers. That's my recommendation. Oh, and great novels and books. :)


Kathleen Eagle said...

Sorry, guys. I must have messed something up when I posted and didn't realize there was no way to comment all morning.

History is a stury. Absolutely, Betina! I taught high school World History that way. It's a ridiculous course. Impossible to do justice to anything called "world" history in the space of a year. Back in the day (read: my high school days--couldn't have been prehistoric because we did study history) it was a year of Ancient and Medieval, another year of Modern European and a year of U.S. But I got stuck teaching World History for a couple of years because I had a minor. I kept saying, "This is a story. The cast of characters for this week is..." And we did projects. One student made millions of tiny plaster of Paris blocks using ice trays (the kind that make little ice cubes) and acually built an incredible castle. It was so big we couldn't move it out the door without breaking it--along with our hearts. But she knows her castles.

Cindy Gerard said...

I love history. One of my favorite authors was and remains James Michener as he made history so vivid for me. CENTENNIAL triggered more than one trip out west.
I suppose my favorite period is the development of the American West however I've always had a fascination with the druids and devoured every piece of data when I once wrote a research paper on Stone Henge.
It was my English teacher, Mrs. Gough, not any history teacher, however, who turned me on to historical literature - her and Katherine Woodwise :o)

Kathleen Eagle said...

LOL. That's STORY. History is a story.

Christie Ridgway said...

Love history here, too! I think I was heavily influenced as a young girl by the Little House books. Then there was MARA, DAUGHTER OF THE NILE, another book I adored. Also remember loving a biography of Aaron Burr's daughter. Obviously I jumped all over the place in time and location.

Last night the dh and I watched a PBS program on the Spanish Inquisition!

Okay, but I have to ask, what is the "Ghost Dance"? (I'm off to Google it.)

Helen Brenna said...

I'm probably the oddball in the bunch. I've always loved fictional history, like mythology and historical romance, but I hated studying actual history. Did not develop an appreciation for any kind of real history until relatively recently, past ten years or so.

It's likely, for me, that whole realization of our own mortality thing.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Ghost Dace. Late 1800's a Paiute named Wovoka--raised by missionaries, Mormons I think--said he'd received a dance in a vision. Word spread among the Western Indian nations--dance until you drop and you'll share the vision. He envisioned the white people disappearing from Indian Territory and the ancestors returning. If you made and wore a "ghost shirt" you'd be safe from bullets.

The Ghost Dance scared the dickens out of white settlers. Indians were ordered to cease and desist or be arrested. (Did you know that it was illegal to practice American Indian religion until the American Indian Religious Freedom of Act was passed in 1978? Only religion ever banned in this country.) Many of the corpses buried at Wounded Knee were wearing "ghost shirts."

Contrary to popular belief, Sitting Bull wasn't a Ghost Dancer, but that was the reason given for arresting him. He was a traditional Holy Man. He wasn't involved in the actual battle at Little Bighorn, but he saw it in a vision. During the battle he was praying nearby.

More than you asked, Christie, but I can't help playing teacher.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Helen, you're the one who brought history and artifacts into the present so beautifully in TREASURE. I love old stuff, and it was the idea of that Spanish treasure and the mysterious connection to the indigenous people of the New World that sucked me right in from p. 1.

My house is full of artifacts: pottery shards, arrowheads, stone tools, old books, old dolls, old cooking utensils, me.

Debra Dixon said...

Kathleen-- I noticed a book "One Thousand White Women" by Jim Fergus which is about Ulysses Grant's "brides for Indians" program and the Cheyenne. It's a St. Martin's Press book. Apparently it's a diary-ish type structure, historical fac-tion.

I love history and wish I had more time to read it just...because. For instance the brides book caught my eye yesterday when I was looking up something else and I was definitely intrigued. And finally had to have a chat with myself about it. "DD, have things on your plate and none of them have to do with this bride program so move the heck along."

Candace said...

I've loved history practically since the day I learned to read. Didn't much like history in school, though, except for a few classes taught by teachers who, yes, turned it into a story rich with feelings and details and the "why" of it all rather than just the "when." The "when" is boring. Try to make me memorize a list of dates and my eyes glaze over...

Also, because I was such an avid reader, I knew alot of what I was being taught in school as fact, wasn't quite the whole truth. In some cases, it wasn't even close to the truth.

What's that old saying? History is written by the victors or some such thing. Which means to really learn from our past, we have to search it out on our own.

Michele Hauf said...

I never enjoyed history in school, but maybe for the very reason that a teacher had to breeze through it so quickly to cover the entire world in one short school year. And they never spent more than a day or two on the stuff that really interested me: France and the medieval though eighteenth centuries.

Fortunately now I've stocked my book shelves with books on the subject, and take great pleasure in studying my favorites. I'd love to some day take some college courses on French history.

And now when the kids mention history class I discuss it with them, and try to make it fun, and to show them how much I enjoy it, and hope it'll wear off on them.


Keri Ford said...

I'm with Helen on this one. I LOVE me some mythology. Greek Mythology. Ancient Greek Lit are some of my favorites. The Iliad and The Odyssey sits on my bookshelf next to my modern day stuff. And so do the Anthologies from College Lit 1 and 2.

Real history? So long as it's part of a book with a hunky hero, sassy heroine, and a romantic journey into Lovin' Land. I didn't really enjoy history all that much school for the simple fact I'm not big on memorization.

lois greiman said...

I too have always loved times of yore. All fiction is good, but fiction set in the past is so much more fascinating. I find that the major events don't interest me as much as people's personal stories...seeing the similarities between my life and the life of someone in an entirely different time and place.

Christie Ridgway said...

There's lots of info on Ghost Dance on the web, but you helped a lot, Kathleen. Also some very cool things on You tube. I =did= get my pages done for the day, but that's because I forced myself to stop clicking away on the links.

Fascinating stuff!

Kaitlin said...

I've always been fascinated by history. Living in Oregon, the Oregon Trail has always been a part of my life, because I wouldn't be here if that had never happened.

I've also always been fascinated by different tribes, especially the Comanche. That love started when I read Rides the Wind. It's about Cynthia Ann Parker and is based on a true story. She was kidnapped by a band of Comanche & was adopted into the tribe. Though she was white, she fell in love with one of the men, etc. etc. Excellent book, by the way. :)

I'm also fascinated by WWII, WWI, etc.

I would have to say though that my absolute favorite part of history is the Scottish Highlands circa 1745. The battle of Culloden, etc. I don't know if it's because it was such an important part of their history or what, but it just gives me a thrill. Reading Diana Gabaldon's books didn't hurt either. he-he.

Love the topic. Could keep going, but I'd end up boring y'all. :D

Kaitlin said...

Oops! I've got just a bit more. For schooling, at least when I was in school, I noticed that it was pretty boring. It was all about the books & not a lot of actual stories. I did have a US history teacher who made being in the trenches in WWI interesting. We were split into two sides, flipped our desks sideways and pretended we were killing each other by throwing rubber rats at each other. LOL! don't ask, because I'm not 100% sure of the significance of that. :)

I had a wonderful Freshman English teacher who was totally obsessed with Greek mythology. We spent the first two months of that year reading Romeo & Juliet. We spent the rest of the year learning basically anything & everything there is to know about Greek mythology. Even the really obscure ones that nobody's ever heard of. She was what made learning fun. If someone has a passion, it's much easier to pass that passion along. If you're just reading from a book, everybody will just be put to sleep. :)

Kathleen Eagle said...

Hey, ancient history lovers, have you seen HBO's ROME? Talk about your hunky heroes!

Kathleen Eagle said...

I don't think ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN is based on anything that really happened. I have the book, started it, don't think I ever finished. Somebody read it and recommended it, thinking it was true. If I remember correctly (and I could be confusing this detail with another story), it's based on a suggestion somebody made sort of in jest way back when.

Cynthia Parker is an interesting story. I had a couple of students in class who were Quannah Parker descendants. Seriously good looking boys. Poor Cynthia Ann was treated horribly by the U.S. gov't--literally died of a broken heart when she was taken back from the Commanche. Historically, many white women "went native" and resisted being returned to "the civilized world." I have lots of ideas about why that was.

But I don't think too many warriors sat on the hill waiting for the chance to capture a white woman. For one thing, they were offended by our body odor. They liked our clothes, but when they got stuff we'd used, they went to great lengths to get the smell out.

Clyde says deoderant was one of our best inventions. (He doesn't have to use it.)

Kathleen Eagle said...

About the Dawes Act, I said that it made reservations what they are, which was a kind of shorthand. It made them what they are, basically, in terms of size. Indians lost over 2/3 of their treaty land as a result of this "allotment" act, whereby individuals were allotted parcels--160 acres to the head of a household, less to others. The "excess" treaty land was then open for white settlement. And that was only the beginning.

Anonymous said...

William Least Heat-Moon Trogdon, an author I'm sure you're familiar with, named his truck Ghost Dancing before he left on the cross-country trip that was to become the book Blue Highways. He called the name 'a heavy-handed symbol alluding to ceremonies of the 1890s in which the Plains Indians, wearing cloth shirts they believed rendered them indestructible, danced for the return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new. Ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of a people who last defense was delusion -- about all that remained to them in their futility.' What a writer. And what an historical shame.

-- Sid Leavitt