A Visit With Colonial History

A Visit With Colonial History December 1, 2018

Rosie and I went down to the  Nutcracker Village and Advent Market, which was great fun, and I’ll write a lighthearted post about that fun later.

Toward the end of our trip, though, I found myself sad.

This year, the historic Federal Land Office is open to the public free of charge during the hours that the Advent Market is open in the Nutcracker Village. I’d never seen it before. It’s a tiny log cabin on the grounds of Fort Steuben Park, built in 1802, and it was the home and office of David Hodge, who was sent by President Adams to sell off the land that is now Ohio to white settlers. The city has done a good job setting it up as a small museum– I pointed out to Rose the fireplace with its cooking implements, the antique furniture and clothing, the chamber pot and wash basin. It was fun to see.

It also made me  sad, for the people who used to live here before the white settlers decided the land was theirs to keep, by virtue of their wanting it.

We went in the museum that stands in front of Historic Fort Steuben as well. The fort isn’t open to the public this time of year, but the museum is. While the Advent Market is working, the museum is full to bursting with lavishly decorated Christmas trees, and I like that. It’s great fun. But if you look hard, you can see the museum’s other displays in between the Christmas things. There are antiques from the 50s when Steubenville was a boomtown. There are mannequins displaying settlers and soldiers in their historic costume, and a case of Native American artifacts as well. And, in the gift shop, there’s a similar spread: Christmas ornaments and crafts spread out among toy muskets and toy bows and arrows, coloring books of American history, cookbook with pioneer recipes… and a table full of faux Native American memorabilia. Just as in every gift shop I’d ever seen, in museums of that sort. Nothing wrong with that.

But I was sad again.

There were small stuffed buffalo, an American bison, for sale with the other Native American knickknacks. I like buffalo, as I’ve mentioned before. 

There are no buffalo in Ohio anymore, but there used to be, just as there used to be Native Americans and now there are not.

My bad cousins and I used to play “Cowboys and Indians,” when we met for reunions in West Virginia. I don’t know where we got the idea that all cowboys were male and all Native Americans were female, but that’s how the game was played: the girls on one side, making that irritating bwah-bwah-bwah noise with a hand in front of the mouth, sometimes speaking in broken English like Tonto from The Lone Ranger. The boys on the other side, with lariats and imaginary horses. Invisible arrows against invisible guns, equally matched, in conflict for no discernible reason, in front of a genuine CCC log cabin in a state park in the Appalachian mountains. It always ended with both sides making peace and smoking an imaginary pipe together, and then it was time to go in for supper.

One day I grew up and realized history was nothing at all like that.

The United States of America wasn’t what it billed itself to be. The United States of America was something else altogether.

The opposite and antagonist of “Indians” isn’t “Cowboys.” The opposite and antagonist is us– the United States, my government, the culture I belong to now even though my ancestors were in Ireland and Wales at the time. The conflict wasn’t a nice even match with an understandable quarrel on each side, and it didn’t end with peace and going in for supper. What the United States did to Native Americans isn’t really different from what Leopold II did to the people of the Congo or what Hitler did to the Jews. Eventually, Hitler was defeated, but nobody defeated us, so here we are. We sell arrowheads, dreamcatchers and cheap beaded jewelry in museum gift shops, next to replica muskets and pioneer toys.

I found myself hugging one the stuffed buffalo and praying. Lord, have mercy. Kyrie Eleison. Hospodi Pomilui. 

I prayed for the intercession of Venerable Nicholas Black Elk.

When Christ appeared to Black Elk, calling Himself the One Who Makes Live and the Son of the Great Spirit– if I recall correctly, I think in that vision He appeared with a buffalo’s head. If it wasn’t that vision, I’m sure there was another vision of Black Elk’s where there was a man with a buffalo’s head. I keep thinking about that image lately. Buffalo was the staple food for Plains Indians. When they couldn’t find buffalo, they starved. That was why the United States government ordered the killing of so many buffalo, after all: to try to starve the Plains Indians so settlers could take the land. A buffalo for the Native Americans was something as significant as a lamb for the Jews in Judea two thousand years ago.

Christ is the Lamb of God, the Food without Which we die, the Food by Whose death we live.

There’s no reason an American Bison is not a symbol of Christ, the way the lamb, the grape vine, the gryphon and the pelican are.

Maybe if all American Catholics were really committed to what we say we are– and many have been through the years, but if all of us really acted as though we were One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, universal, with no kingdom in this world– there would be churches decorated with buffalo imagery all over the United States.

Of course, if all the Christians in America had been faithful to the Truth they professed, the history of the United States would surely have been totally different. Of course many did, but far more didn’t. If they had, I don’t know what the history of the United States would have looked like, but it wouldn’t have been like this. Perhaps I wouldn’t have played Cowboys and Indians with my cousins in Appalachia; we’d have completely misunderstood some other part of history. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a Land Office in Steubenville at all– perhaps we’d have an historic log cabin museum for a different sort of building. Perhaps, somehow, there’d still be real Native American communities in Ohio, and real live buffalo as well. Perhaps I’d still have been hugging a stuffed American Bison in front of a display of appropriated Native American kitsch in a museum gift shop, but I might not have been sad about it. I might have been praying a different prayer than Lord, have mercy.

It’s so easy to write it off as something inevitable. Conquest and colonization are what people do. America isn’t really different or less guilty than anywhere else, in that way. Powerful people kill people who aren’t powerful and put their remains in museums; that’s the history of the human race.

But it did’t have to be.

We could have chosen to live like followers of Christ, and we didn’t, and that’s tragedy. That should make us deeply ashamed.

We could choose right at this moment to live like followers of Christ instead of what we’ve been, however, and that gives me hope.

Through the intercession of Black Elk, by the mercy of the One Who Makes Live, we could repent of ours sins and start today.

Advent is a perfect time to begin.

(image via Pixabay) 

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