Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. By Hampton Sides - Books

Published: October 29, 2006

After the journey of Lewis and Clark through the wilderness of the American West, a venture that might seem to us tentative, imperiled and pursued against all odds, there came unstoppable waves of humanity (and inhumanity), driven by dreams of gold and empire, and sustained by a certain sense of the inevitable, a conviction given the name Manifest Destiny. “Blood and Thunder” is the story of the quest for, and conquest of, the American West. It is, as we know, the most romantic of stories, and arguably the most cherished of America’s myths.

Early on, Hampton Sides writes of the mountain men:

“As the forerunners of Western civilization, creeping up the river valleys and across the mountain passes, the trappers brought smallpox and typhoid, they brought guns and whiskey and venereal disease, they brought the puzzlement of money and the gleam of steel. And on their liquored breath they whispered the coming of an unimaginable force, of a gathering shadow on the eastern horizon, gorging itself on the continent as it pressed steadily this way.”

This cryptic passage might serve as a bare-bones synopsis of the book. Sides, the author of the best seller “Ghost Soldiers,” has a talent for encapsulation. His thumbnail sketches of character are comprehensive and concise at the same time. There is, for example, a wonderful portrait of Stephen Watts Kearny, who commanded the Army of the West, in which the whole man appears to be contained and defined in a kind of verbal line drawing: “On innumerable occasions he had smoked the pipe with Indians, learning their manner of speaking, their penchant for metaphor; he once flattered a Sioux chief by complimenting him on the ‘soaring eagle of your fame.’ During a council with Oglala Indians, he heartily partook of the local delicacies — boiled dog and blood-tinged river water from the paunch of a buffalo.”

We see this quality of revelation again and again. There are equally telling sketches of the ambitious John C. Frémont; Maj. John Chivington, the murderous parson; Charles Bent, first the owner of Bent’s Fort and then the governor of New Mexico, and his great adversary, Padre Antonio Martínez, the enigmatic cura of Taos; the Navajo leader Manuelito; the diarist and correspondent Susan Magoffin; and many more. Sides gives us fresh, multifaceted pictures of the Taos revolt and the epic march of the Colorado Civil War volunteers. The cast of characters is large and the landscape vast. We see a panorama and a whole history, intricately laced with wonder and meaning, coalesce into a story of epic proportions, a story full of authority and color, truth and prophecy, a story that is uniquely ours.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Soldier Comes Home to Alaska, Too Early and Yet Too Late

BARROW, Alaska — When the soldiers from the frozen tundra shipped out for the burning sands of Iraq, Staff Sgt. Billy Brown promised the women that he’d bring their men back alive.

But when Sergeant Brown returned just two weeks later, he didn’t bring his men at all. He came with a funeral detail. He came cargo, in a silver coffin with wood handles cloaked in an American flag. He is believed to be the first Eskimo killed because of this war. He was 54.

Sergeant Brown, an Alaska national guardsman, never got to a battlefield. He was killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of his Humvee late in July while he was on training maneuvers at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

His death rattled this town of 4,200, mostly Inupiaq Eskimos, located 500 roadless miles from anywhere and 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Finally, tangibly, the war has reached one of the most isolated corners of the country.

“Until now the war was more like a television show,” said Edward S. Itta, mayor of the North Slope Borough, in which Barrow lies, and a friend of Sergeant Brown’s. “You don’t question the war until it touches you. Only then, when a man like Billy, an important man to us, comes home dead, does the question become clear. We fight. But to what end? What’s in it for my grandchildren?”

During the cold war, the battle line was drawn right here on the North Slope, with the Soviets skulking just across the Bering Strait. Most Alaska Guard members stayed in the state, protecting the home front.

But the world has changed. For this war, 670 Guard members have been called up from rural Alaska, its largest foreign deployment ever. The Alaska Guard estimates that one-third of its members are Eskimo, so most likely a third of those deployed are indigenous men, officials say, though the military does not keep official racial records of this type.

Among the most skilled was Staff Sergeant Brown, a 29-year veteran of the Guard and an Arctic survival specialist.

“He could have retired years ago,” said his niece Audrey Saganna. But he volunteered for the mission so other soldiers who had served multiple tours in Iraq could get a rest, she said.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Chile Indigenous Tribe Fights Extinction

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- A once-nomadic tribe of hunters and fishermen living in the frigid channels near the bottom of the world is nearing extinction.

Down to just 15 full-blooded members, the Kawesqar people could soon go the way of other indigenous tribes in Chile, its language and culture disappearing to all but the history books.

Juan Carlos Tonko, however, is doing all he can to stop the Kawesqar's slow march to oblivion.

Six months ago, the 40-year-old left the comforts of the capital, Santiago, to return to Puerto Eden on Wellington Island in southern Chile and re-embrace the traditions of the people he left 25 years before.

Tonko is the lone Kawesqar of his middle-aged generation to come home, and now considers himself ''the transmitter of history'' for his tribe.

''I feel that I have a great responsibility,'' the soft-spoken father of four said during a visit to Santiago with his children's school, a trip that took two days by boat and a third by bus.

With support from the Chilean government, Tonko and a research team are recording the handful of Kawesqar speakers left in Puerto Eden, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s. ''The immediacy is urgent,'' Tonko said.

The plan is to produce materials to teach the language in schools nationwide as an optional subject to those interested. Then, if they can wrangle more funds, they will complete a cultural and historical survey of the Kawesqars, to correct the errors in the few existing texts written by outsiders.

Over the years, five of Chile's original 14 indigenous tribes -- the Aonikenk, Selk'nam, Pikunches, Changos and Chonos -- have been lost to the onslaught of colonialism, succumbing to disease, displacement and overuse of their traditional sources of food.

The 600,000-strong Mapuche tribe is the largest and most vocal indigenous group in Chile, a country with a population of 16 million.

A Spirit of Belonging, Inside and Out


Alistair Bane went to his first weekend gathering five months ago and was so nervous that he barely participated. By the time of his second, last month, he had sewn his own outfit and was comfortable enough to dance in the powwow and the drag show.

“This has been a big thing for me,” said Mr. Bane, who is a mixed-blood Eastern Shawnee. “If somebody had talked to me when I was 16 and said people like me were once respected, my life might have been different.”

The occasion was the ninth annual Montana Two-Spirit Gathering, a weekend retreat here in northwestern part of the state for a few dozen American Indians who define themselves as embodying both male and female spirits. Many are refugees from the gay or lesbian bar circuit who are now celebrating an identity among themselves that they never knew existed, in a setting without drugs or alcohol. Some identify themselves as gay or lesbian; others as a third or fourth gender, combining male and female aspects.

Since the term “Two Spirit” was coined at a conference for gay and lesbian natives in the early 1990’s, Two-Spirit societies have formed in Montana as well as in Denver; Minnesota; New York State; San Francisco; Seattle; Toronto; Tulsa, Okla.; and elsewhere, organized around what members assert was once an honored status within nearly every tribe on the continent.

“A lot of our tribal leaders have their minds blocked and don’t even know the history of Two-Spirit people,” said Steven Barrios, 54, who lives on a Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana, and who has been open about his sexual orientation since he was a teenager. Mr. Barrios cited a small and sometimes contested body of anthropological evidence that suggests that before the arrival of Christian missionaries, many tribes considered Two-Spirit people to be spiritually gifted and socially valuable.