New Podcast Episode: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017

Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone National Park and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.

The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them

Lakota giveaway ceremony, photo origin unknown

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and which I believe is more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.

Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment itself is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2

General store on the main road at Kenel, a community in Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota, as seen through the windshield.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North and South Dakota, morning and early afternoon of July 25th, 2017

I wake up at Prairie Knights Casino and Resort at the north end of Fort Yates in Standing Rock Reservation, on the North Dakota side. It’s by far the nicest place I’ve stayed at this trip and one of the cheapest. Thanks, gamblers, for subsidizing my roomy bed, my nice bathtub with its complimentary tasty-smelling chokecherry bath products, and my ultra-clean room!

Historical sign and wood structures near the site of old Fort Manuel, Kenel. The original site of the town

I head south on Highway 1806, otherwise known as the Native American Scenic Byway, towards the tiny unincorporated community of Kenel, in search of the site of old Fort Manuel. Counting the road just across from Kenel’s general store, I turn left on the third road, a dirt road, guided by a little brown road sign. Then I head straight, past the turnoff that curves off to the left back towards Kenel. After a little while, this road curves to the left as well and arrives at a simple, tall, broad gateway made of three large poles with a pair of antlers in the center of the crossbeam, indicating the entrance to someone’s private property, likely a farm or ranch. The place for which the gate marks the entry is encircled by a thick grove of trees. I pull off to the right of the road in before I reach the gateway. Then I look around and see what look like historical marker signs in the field around and beyond the left side of the wooded boundary. There are some wood structures rising from the grass beyond that. I take the little footpath heading in that direction.

Portrait medallion on Sakakawea’s memorial obelisk on the west bank of the Missouri River, Standing Rock Reservation. In his record of her death, clerk John Luttig wrote: ‘She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl.’

I’m here following my trail of discovery to the site where Sakakawea lived her last year, and where she died. She was a Shoshone girl captured and enslaved by the Hidatsa people, and became one of three purchased Native American wives of an inept, and by at least one account brutish, French Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Sakakawea died at only twenty-five years of age after a long illness, probably secondary to the rigors of the Lewis and Clark expedition. During that trek, which was otherwise only undertaken by strong, travel-hardened men, she gave birth to her first child, a son, which she carried and nursed the rest of the way. Despite what would seem to us as a rather grim life story, she was loved and admired for her ability to navigate most difficulties with aplomb and for her cheerful and willing disposition. Sakakawea went on to become one of the most famous and beloved women in American history.

According to most histories, Sakakawea, sometimes spelled Sacagawea or Sakajawea (the first two are preferable because they most closely indicate the correct pronunciation in the name’s Shoshone language), died here at Fort Manuel on December 20th, 1812. There are some sources which place her death much later and far away, at the Wind River Shoshone Reservation in Wyoming on April 9th, 1884. However, that evidence is much more circumstantial and based on hearsay, and later attempts to corroborate those sources are irreconcilable with better-recorded contemporary evidence.

Reconstruction of old Fort Manuel Lisa, Kenel, South Dakota, Standing Rock Reservation

Sakakawea had moved to Fort Manuel the year before her death with her husband and a troupe of fur traders in August of 1811. Her death in December of the following year was recorded by John Luttig, clerk of the Missouri Fur Company for which the fort was founded as an outpost. This company, in turn, was founded in St. Louis in 1809 by Manuel Lisa, the Spanish entrepreneur for whom the fort was named, and William Clark was elected its president. This was the Clark of Lewis and Clark; he and Meriwether Lewis led the great exploratory expedition ordered by President Thomas Jefferson to discover a more direct trading route across the continent. From 1804 – 1806, the expedition wound northwest up the Missouri River then straight west across land to the Pacific Ocean. It was Charbonneau who was recruited by Lewis and Clark, but it was Sakakawea who lent her invaluable assistance to this mission as interpreter, trail guide, identifier of wild foods to gather, and on one occasion, rescuer of the all-important contents of a tipped boat. Clark later adopted her son, Baptiste, whom he called ‘Pomp’; he had become very fond of this tiniest member of the expedition. He later made sure Baptiste received a quality education. Charbonneau, evidently, was also rather a deadbeat.

Theodore Roosevelt Monument Manhood stone

By the way, I remember being annoyed a couple of years ago while visiting Theodore Roosevelt’s monument in Washington, D.C. Among the monuments was a row of large stones engraved with quotes. On one of these, Roosevelt equates manhood with daring and courage. I commented in a piece I wrote at the time that virtues such as these are human ones, and are not distributed in human nature according to sex. Sakakawea is just one of the countless women who demonstrate this, though she performed her brave acts within a cultural milieu that inculcated these virtues primarily in men while encouraging shrinking, even shuddering, modesty in women. To be sure, she showed fear at times and wept at others. But she not only did what it was her duty to do regardless, she took on men’s duties when they weren’t fulfilling them, and then went beyond that! And she did so in a way that made others love, admire, and remember her for her ability and excellent personal qualities long after others were forgotten.

A large fireplace inside of one of Fort Manuel’s reconstructed buildings, Standing Rock, South Dakota

But back to my story… The wooden structures I see here today at Fort Manuel were built in 1965. They replaced a 1941 facsimile of the old stockade that had been built according to the details of a 1938 study of the fort’s records and of the grounds. The reconstructed stockade was not built on the exact site: its walls tracked more or less the shape of the original ones but about 6 feet away, to keep the ground open for a planned excavation that was done in 1965-1966. Fortunately, since the fort was built on high ground, it escaped the flooding of Kenel’s original location three miles north of its current site as a result of the construction of the Oahe Dam in 1944. Unfortunately, the original remains of the fort were eroded away shortly after its excavation by unusually high waves. But at least the archaeological information about the fort was retrieved before that happened. The reconstructions standing here today near the old site likely portray the original structures quite accurately, since they’re based on the very meticulous archaeological and historical research work done on the site.

View from a reconstructed building at Fort Manuel

The excavation discovered the remains of seven structures within the original stockade walls. According to an archaeological and cultural report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in  ‘Four of these units were dwellings (Structures A-C, E), one probably a storehouse (Structure 0), one a blacksmith shop (Structure F), and one possibly a stable or barn (Structure G). It is not known whether the post had other buildings, although extensive stripping of the site failed to reveal more. Luttig’s [1920] list of structures at the post does not tally exactly with the seven sites found by excavation and it may be incomplete.’ At first, I wonder why I see only five structures here today, but then I realize three of them are linked together like row houses, making seven in all.

Very, very few artifacts were found in the dig except for remains of the structures themselves. Fort Manuel was abandoned in the spring of 1813 after it was attacked by Native Americans allied with the British in the War of 1812. Any remaining goods were likely taken by the fort’s captors before it was burned down. Luttig, the clerk who admired Sakakawea and recorded both her death and his esteem for her, her little daughter Lizette, and her husband were among the survivors. Lizette likely died as a child, Charbonneau went on to enjoy a long life, and I don’t know what became of Luttig.

View of the Grand River from the bridge looking southwest, Standing Rock, just south of Little Eagle

Late nineteenth-century map showing the site of Sitting Bull’s camp on the north bank of the Grand River in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, from the papers of Francis M. Craft

Little Eagle and Bullhead on the Grand River, as shown on Google Maps, 8-13-12017. Compare the dip of the river on today’s map with the dip of the river above.

I leave Fort Manuel and head south a short ways, turn right towards Kenel Road, stop for gas and an ice cream sandwich in McLaughlin, then turn south onto Highway 63. Just south of Little Eagle, I arrive at the bridge over the Grand River, the same bridge I crossed to come to Standing Rock and Fort Yates. I pull over at the head of the bridge and stop. I have more information this time. I’m here seeking the site of Sitting Bull’s death.

Based on Francis Craft’s late nineteenth-century map, Sitting Bull’s camp was on the north bank of the Missouri River, a good ways west of it, and a little ways east of Bullhead. I compare this map with the lay of the land and water here as shown on Google Maps. If Bullhead and the course of the Grand River are more or less the same as they are today and this map is accurate, the site of Sitting Bull’s camp would be a little ways west of where I’m standing, near the center of the curve where the river dips south. However, when you zoom out further, the lines of the river in the old map and in Google Maps track each other only loosely. Many years and weather systems have passed and the course and flow of the Missouri River, of which the Grand River is a tributary, have been tinkered with a lot since then. The first certainly, and the second likely, would affect its course over time.

Looking north and west from the bridge over the Grand River. It was somewhere along this north bank of the river, not far from here, where Sitting Bull was killed

I think of Sitting Bull’s death… no, martyrdom; he was killed for his beliefs. His real ones, and those that others ascribed to him.

Others believed he believed in the Ghost Dance movement because he tolerated it, and that the Ghost Dance movement was really a secret plot to violently overthrow white authority because it envisioned a blessed future in which the whites couldn’t oppress Native Americans anymore. Never mind that a specific doctrine of this cult was strict non-violence. Others believed he was a threat because he didn’t believe in white people, because he didn’t trust them as he should. Never mind that white soldiers and settlers had treated him and his people so badly for so long.

Sitting Bull Monument on the west bank of the Missouri River near Mobridge, SD

He believed that the world was big enough to hold many people with their different ways of living and that his people and their way of life deserved to exist, too. He believed in self-sacrifice and that convenience and luxury are not worth betraying your values for. He believed it was worth fighting the white people who were destroying his people’s ability to survive so long as it seemed there was a chance to drive them out. Then, he believed in peace when it became clear that was the only way left to survive. He believed in giving individuals, white ones too, the benefit of the doubt but he also believed you shouldn’t trust people who were crazy enough to value money and putting up fences above everything else. He believed in promises but not in written treaties: promises were the way of his people, but written treaties were invariably broken, as soon as they became inconvenient, by the very people who insisted on them.

Those are a few things I believe that he believed. I think I’m right about these, but I’m still learning, and I believe there’s more.

I cross the bridge and continue south towards Pine Ridge Reservation, south and west of here, about a 5-hour drive.

To be continued….

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and information: 

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Courchane, John Chalk. ‘Toussaint Charbonneau: In the Pacific North in 1805‘. Oregonpioneers.com

A Cultural Resource Inventory of Portions of Lake Oahe, Corson County, South Dakota, Volume I
by Paul H. Sanders, Dori M. Penny, Michael L. McFaul, Keith H. Oueholm, Kurt P. Schwetgert, and Thomas K. Larson, for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District

Foley, Thomas W, ed. At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis Francis M. Craft, 1888-1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009

Howard, Helen Addison. ‘The Mystery of Sacagawea’s Death.‘ The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1967), pp. 1-6, University of Washington

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Kenel, South Dakota. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Nelson, C.B. ‘South Dakota State Historical Society Markers.‘ (#391 Fort Manuel.) For the South Dakota State Historical Society

Perry, Douglass. ‘Lewis & Clark Expedition‘. Educator Resources, National Archives website.

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Sacagawea‘. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail – People, National Park Service website

Sacagawea‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932

Wood, W. Raymond. ‘Manuel Lisa’s Fort Raymond: First Post in the Far West (November 1807—March 1813)‘. Discovering Lewis & Clark

See also: the South Dakota State Historical Society Markers in place at the Fort Manuel Site:and:

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Bldg. #1 N Standing Rock Ave.
P.O. Box D, Fort Yates, ND 58538
(701) 854-8500  http://standingrock.org/visit-us/

Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 1

Standing Rock Monument, Fort Yates, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, ND. It’s a very odd monument to unfamiliar eyes: unglamorous, unprepossessing. It’s the beginning of a part of my tour where the monuments and significant places are less curated. It’s up to the looker to slow down and really look close.

Journal: Faith, South Dakota, early morning July 24th, 2017

~ Dedicated to Genessa Kealoha

I woke up in the backseat of the rental car this morning feeling just a little stiff. I drove late into the night last night so I could break up the long drive. I stayed alert enough to continue until a little after midnight, but then sleepiness began to give me that oddly swaying feeling; time to pull over. I chose a nice big gravel lot with a semi truck parked close to the road. I pulled into the other end of the lot near a row of colorful but rusted old tractors and other farm machinery, changed into my sleep clothes, and curled up in my backseat nest. I’ve decided to leave it ready for such impromptu car campings.

When I awoke, I stepped out to a soft cool morning. It had rained intermittently last night and there were still a few occasional drops falling. A man stepped out from a little garage in front of what I then observed was a little motel right next to the lot. He kindly invited me into the motel’s little cafe for hot coffee and to freshen up, without rebuking me in word or in tone for spending the night for free right outside of his establishment. I thanked him but decided to push on. I had a little thermos with some coffee left and had felt the urge to keep going. But what a generous man! I rebuked myself afterward for not stopping in just to show that I appreciated the invitation.

Journal: Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, July 24th, 2017, later

A little less than two hours later, I reached McLaughlin, South Dakota, in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. At the little gas station, deli, and apparently popular gathering place, I confirmed directions to Fort Yates, another half hour northeast in the North Dakota part of the reservation.

I followed the signs to Fort Yates and to historical monuments on the main street that runs along the Missouri River. In a parking lot across from the tribal administration building, there’s a stone set upright on a pedestal of yellow-painted brick, well weathered, and some historical placards, also worn. The Standing Rock placard tells the tale of how this stone inspired the reservation’s name:

I went into the administrative building and briefly described the nature of my trip. The woman at the desk directed me to the Sitting Bull Visitor Center at Sitting Bull College, up on the side of the hill above the main campus buildings. I was greeted by Jennifer Martel, and she had much to say. Before long, it was clear to me that she’s had a long experience of feeling that she and her people are often talked at and around, that they are very frequently misrepresented and misunderstood, often because people from academia and from other cultures try to explain and portray Native American cultures in ways that make sense to themselves. That doesn’t necessarily translate into truth. It was also clear to me that this was a time to say very little, just to listen. So I did.

Lakota Winter Count (facsimile), Sitting Bull Visitor Center in Standing Rock Reservation

Jennifer rises to greet some people here for a meeting,  and says she’ll keep in touch. I looked through the exhibits in the lounge area of the visitor center, then headed to the Sitting Bull College Library. I’ve just set up a little writing station where the wireless signal is best. I’ll start with asking the young lady at the desk for help….

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, July 24th, 2017: the rest of the story

I ask the young lady at the front desk to help me find a few things I’m looking for, especially biographical information for the life and death of Sitting Bull, and especially, precisely where he died. So far, I’ve had little luck with that. She’s welcoming and friendly, and we get to talking as she begins to look through her digital and print materials. She introduces herself as Stormy, great-great (how many greats, I don’t remember) granddaughter of One Bull, nephew and adopted son of Sitting Bull. She kindly prints out maps for me to make it easier to find Sitting Bull’s monuments. After we look around for awhile, I sit down to look at what she’s given me so far while she assembles a collection of books for me. She’s friendly but not gushing, and seems like a person that would take most things in stride. I like her a lot.

Late nineteenth-century map showing the site of Sitting Bull’s camp on the north bank of the Grand River in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, from the papers of Francis M. Craft

We continue to search our materials for the exact location of Sitting Bull’s death. Stormy hasn’t come up with anything so far with her online search. Among the books she gave me, I read that Sitting Bull was killed in his cabin on the Grand River ’40 miles from the Agency’, according to his biographer Stanley Vestal. The number of miles is new information for me, and I do find one more particularly helpful thing in these books: a map of Standing Rock from the late nineteenth century from the papers of Francis M. Craft, a priest who used to live here.  Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, and the map shows the location of his camp on the Grand River. One of Sitting Bull’s monuments is near where the Grand River flows into the Missouri. I’ll start there so I have plenty of daytime hours to work my way west along the Grand River to seek the place where he died.

Sakakawea Memorial on the bank of the Missouri River near Sitting Bull’s memorial at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

I make my way to Highway 1806, here called the Native American Scenic Byway, and head south towards Mobridge, short for Missouri Bridge, a little town near the monument. I cross a bridge over the Missouri River and a little island. Instead of turning left on the 12 to Mobridge, I turn right towards the casino, then left, following a roadside sign which directs me towards the Sitting Bull Memorial down a little gravel road. I park and walk down the path towards the monument site near the bank of the river. Or, rather, monuments. I didn’t know that I’d find two monuments here. The first I see is an obelisk with a medallion set into it portraying a woman and an infant. My mind immediately goes to the legend of Standing Rock, of the Arikara woman and her baby who turned to stone long ago.

But across the little path that encircles the obelisk, I find a bronze plaque which tells the story of Sakakawea, who famously accompanied the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery and was instrumental in its success. Cartoonist Bob Thaves once joked that sure, Fred Astaire was great, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels. Sakakawea guided Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and all their big, strong men on their grueling trail first as a pregnant teenager, then as a first-time mom caring for the newborn infant strapped to her. Not only that, she jumped in a river to rescue Lewis and Clark’s journals and other important things when their boat capsized or was about to (they named that river in her honor), found wild foods for the men to eat when their rations ran low, and in countless other ways was instrumental to the expedition’s success. A truly impressive person.

As I read the plaque’s brief summary of her life and death, I remember that I saw signs earlier for Kenel and Fort Manuel. I mentally add that to my itinerary for later today or early tomorrow.

Sakakawea Memorial historical plaque

After I spend a little time here, I walk further down the path towards Sitting Bull’s monument overlooking the river. This may be the site of his remains, or of some of them. He was originally buried at Fort Yates, on the other bank of the Missouri River north of here. I’ll visit that monument later today or tomorrow. There’s a story that says his remains were secreted away and buried here, closer to the place he died, away from the Agency whose overzealous Indian police killed him in a botched arrest for allegedly helping to foment Native American discontent reinvigorated by the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dance was the central ritual of the quasi-Christian cult of Wovoka, a Paiute holy man. Wovoka preached that Jesus Christ would soon return to earth if the Native Americans would live lives of scrupulous virtue and perform this sacred circle dance. In this happy time of his return, the sad world of death, destruction, deprivation, and loss of liberty brought by the whites would be swept away. Health and plenty would return and the people would be joyfully united with their ancestors and dead loved ones (the ‘ghosts’).

Sitting Bull Monument near Mobridge, SD, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

The evidence was scant indeed that this religious movement was linked to any plans for violent rebellion; indeed, one of the virtues that Wovoka called on the people to practice was total nonviolence. The evidence was also scant that Sitting Bull had anything more than a tangential link to the movement. He was curious about the movement and looked into it, but didn’t become a believer. However, there seemed no harm in it, and its message of nonviolence accorded well with the peaceful practices of his own life subsequent to his life as a young warrior. True, Sitting Bull never trusted the U.S. government, as was fitting given the history of their encounters with his people, but he no longer advocated armed resistance. He had seen the futility of this course over his lifetime and since his people now numbered so few, his primary purpose was to see that the remainder live as best they could in this alien new world imposed upon them.

Sitting Bull Memorial plaque

The distrust between Sitting Bull and the U.S. government went both ways, however, though the military power was all on one side. Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin sent out a cadre of Native American tribal police to arrest Standing Bull for questioning. Initially, Sitting Bull was willing to go and asked leave to get dressed first, since it was his practice to sleep without clothes. But the police were impatient and tried to force him into his clothes while restraining his hands. Some friends and family, as well as adherents of the Ghost Dance movement, observed the disturbance and came to investigate. Sitting Bull began to resist his rude treatment and in the scuffle that ensued, shots rang out. Sitting Bull was deliberately killed by shots from two separate policemen, and all told, fifteen men died, some from each side of the fight.

He was killed very near the site where he was born.

Ranchland along the north bank of the Grand River

I go back a little ways north on 1806 and turn left, or east, on the first gravel road past the dirt road that runs along the Grand River, to see what I can see. I turn left again on another road, a rougher little dirt road called 121st St, which points directly toward the river. I pass through ranchland with grazing black cattle, the river usually in sight to my left. The road dead ends at Strong Heart Ranch. I have not gone nearly far enough to reach this site I seek, but this road places me closest to the river bank that I can reach from this side, and I want to get a feel of what the riverside scenery is like. I turn back, then turn left on the gravel road towards Wakpala. I take this road through that little town and beautiful ranch land, all the way to Highway 12. I take the 12 to Highway 63, which I take back north to Fort Yates. Little Eagle, a town near the Highway 63 bridge that crosses the Grand River further south than the 12 junction, is nearer the likely site: it’s almost 40 miles from Fort Yates, the distance specified by the old map between Fort Yates and Sitting Bull’s camp. I decide to wait until tomorrow to visit that place since I’ll be passing that town and that bridge on my way south tomorrow to my next destination.

Tipis and farmland along the Wakpala road

I return to Fort Yates and seek his original burial site, which is still perhaps the current site of his remains. Stories of his reinterment elsewhere are still in dispute. I find the monument on the east bank of the Missouri River, just off Sitting Bull Ave on a wide gravel path that runs north along the river through a tiny park. I read the plaque, look around, then sit and think. Two Native women walk by, talking and picking up litter from the grounds. One of the women comes to me and greets me. We each tell what brings us here and where we’re from. She’s lived here for most of her life, as has her shy friend. She smiles at me and moves off to continue her task, taking no part in the conversation. She tells me what she knows of the story of Sitting Bull and of his possible reburial, and about local landmarks. She points out an area where the sage grows thickly. It’s used for sweat lodges by the men and just to crush and breathe in the scent by women because, she says, the men can handle breathing in the smoke but the women can’t ‘well, you know, because we’re women’. I smile inwardly. She has a very sturdy appearance, like she’s spent her life outdoors and working hard, and seems able to hand more physically than most women and men I know.

The other Sitting Bull memorial on the other bank of the Missouri River, Fort Yates

Sitting Bull Memorial plaque, Fort Yates

I double check with her about a good place to spend the night. She agrees with the person I spoke to earlier that day, that the lodge and casino I’ll find just a few miles north of here is the best local place to go. I head there to get a good night’s sleep and do some research for my journey tomorrow.

To be continued…

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and information: 

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Faith, South Dakota‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Foley, Thomas W, ed. At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis M. Craft, 1888-1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009

Ginger Rogers, Article 2: Backwards and in High Heels’. ReelClassics website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

The Legend of Standing Rock‘. Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center and St. Joseph’s Indian School website

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Sacagawea‘. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail – People, National Park Service website

Sacagawea‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932

and

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Bldg. #1 N Standing Rock Ave.
P.O. Box D, Fort Yates, ND 58538
(701) 854-8500  http://standingrock.org/visit-us/

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2

Cheyenne Warrior Marker historical placard, Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, NPS. I’m glad to see that there’s now public acknowledgement that other human beings died here that day besides U.S. soldiers. Soon, I hope, that more of the Oglala, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and other tribe members, their slain warriors and slain women and children as well, will be specifically remembered too, as far as we can identify them. There’s a general remembrance in the Indian Memorial, but it would be a very good thing, I think, to see more of the victims named if possible. The attack began, after all, with U.S. soldiers firing into the lodges of families, regardless of the collateral damage (that pragmatic military term to ease the conscience of war-makers), the lives of noncombatants that would necessarily be lost.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As I continue to explore the Little Bighorn Battlefield the next morning and afternoon, I gain a much clearer idea of how the drama played out. I had read many accounts of the battle, but seeing the lay of the land helps me visualize it more clearly. For example, it all happened over a much larger area, and over a longer period of time, than I had conceived.

Here are just a few more images of the many, many more things I see and learn here this second day at the Little Bighorn battlefield:

Headstones marking where U.S. cavalry soldiers fell at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876. The 7th cavalry was hopelessly outnumbered; later, Native American expressed their amazement that George Armstrong Custer’s 7th attacked the encampment given that it was so large, about 7,000 in all, including about 2,000 warriors. Though it was later revealed that Custer ordered the attack because he didn’t want the encampment to escape, still, it was suicidal to lead his men to attack such a large force before the other approaching U.S. troops arrived.  So it the question remains unanswered, at least satisfactorily: was it just hubris on his part, or dismissiveness of Native American prowess in war, or ignorance, or some of each? The debate continues….

John Stands in Timber, Lame White Man’s grandson, was one of those who helped the National Park Service to identify and honor the sites of fallen warriors

Here, about 7,000 people banded together near the banks of the Little Bighorn River in 1876 in a bid for freedom

Above: Deep Ravine, through which Crazy Horse led a charge towards Land Stand and Calhoun Hills from the Little Bighorn River.

Site of Major Marcus Reno’s retreat, about five miles from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield. He attacked the encampment from one direction, Custer from another, and his detachment of soldiers was the first to start firing

Looking towards the Crow’s Nest vantage point from which Custer directed his attack

Black Elk quote on the wall of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum. Black Elk, a Northern Cheyenne, was a young teenager when he fought in the battle here, and he went on to become an important witness to what occurred here. This quote is from Black Elk Speaks, poet and author John G. Neihardt’s account of Black Elk’s conversations about, among many things, this battle and of his life as a visionary and holy man. It was published in 1932, when Black Elk was in his late 60’s. Black Elk’s life was a fascinating one, and I’ll continue to follow him in this series. To be continued…

Many times throughout my life, especially as a child and teen, I had heard of the battle at the Little Bighorn, and shrugged my shoulders each time. I was not then inspired to learn more about it: it seemed to me like just one more of the countless times human beings have slaughtered each other for what were probably completely insufficient reasons. Why learn the tedious details?

I’ve only recently begun to make a serious study of the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and their encounters with the encroaching peoples of the United States and Europe. What I’ve learned is disturbing, amazing, complex, and heart-wrenching. Learning about this battle, it turns out, is not the least bit tedious. It’s dramatic, tragic, fascinating, and invaluable for understanding this very important and formative period in American history, and continues to be very relevant today. Human beings are still wasting lives on battlefields all over the world, and Americans are still dismissive of and doing wrong to the original inhabitants of the Plains, as the recent Dakota Access Pipeline debacle illustrates.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

‘The Battle of the Little Bighorn‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

‘Indian Memorial’, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Janiskee. Bob.  ‘An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument‘, National Parks Traveler, Dec 7th, 2008

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1

The view very near where I turned off to sleep at Beartooth Pass, Montana. It was quite a sight to wake up to.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017

Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone National Park and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.

View of Custer-Gallatin National Forest from Rock Creek Vista Point off Beartooth / Highway 212 heading east

The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well.

When I arrive at the Battlefield, it’s early evening. There’s still a good couple hours of daylight left, and the angled sunlight makes the grassy undulating land glow gold. It’s windy up here, and the air is soft.

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

I stop in at the Little Bighorn National Monument Visitor Center. At the entryway to the museum, I find life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant. Grant was disturbed by what he heard about the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers (that’s one thing to call them), but his idea of humane reform was to put Native Americans on reservations and convince them to adopt white language, religion, and culture, and to remove their children to white schools to train Indian ways out of them. Sitting Bull did not see things this way at all. He believed that the Great Spirit had placed his people where they were intending that they live in accordance with the opportunities and limitations of the land as he had created it for them. I think he also realized, as history has taught us time and time again, that culture and a sense of history are essential for health and happiness and a sense of purpose. Like natural immunity, culture takes time and a particular set of circumstances to develop. It works very well but is also very fragile. Rip people out of the environment in which they develop and try to force them to suddenly survive in another, and the results can be just as devastating and long-lasting to physical, mental, or spiritual health.

You likely know at least this about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its significance: it was the worst defeat inflicted on the United States military in the Great Sioux War of 1876. George Armstrong Custer’s 209-man division of the 7th cavalry was annihilated when they attacked a large encampment of allied Native Americans, shooting without warning into the lodges of families as they slept, for defying U.S. government orders to confine themselves to reservations.

Great Sioux War map at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum, NPS

These reservations were largely composed of lands undesirable to white encroachers: they were relatively poor in soil and natural resources and had often already been stripped of their timber, their buffalo herds and other game all but exterminated by the first wave of white arrivals; they were also often damp and mosquito-infested. Many of these Native Americans had already lived for a time on these reservations and found that life there was miserable: the agencies which managed the reservations were often run by both military appointees and private entrepreneurs who supplemented their meager salaries by plundering the rations sent by the government to the tribes. So food was scarce, the lands inhospitable for the reasons described above, and disease was rampant. Malnutrition, depression caused by forced inactivity and homesickness, malarial conditions, and diseases carried by whites for which the Native Americans had no evolved immunity, caused them to sicken and die at alarming rates. So, of course, many of them left. The risk of violent death at the hands of the military seemed preferable to a slow, depressing death by malnutrition and disease.

But the enforced life of hopelessness on the reservation was not the worst of the U.S. government’s depredations. The Black Hills (Lakota Pahá Sápa) of South Dakota and Wyoming were a sacred place to the Native Americans of the Great Plains and were guaranteed inviolate to white invasion by the Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Native American tribes. However, in response to rumors of gold found there, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to confirm these reports. He also wanted to find a good location for a fort to defend prospectors and a possible route to the southwest through the Hills. Again, all of this was illegal, in violation of the Treaty. But in this case as in countless others, the lust for money was allowed to conquer all. So not only did the U.S. decide to take their homes, they decided to take their sanctuary, their holy of holies, as well. After Custer’s expedition, prospectors poured in, and after their first feeble attempts to keep them out, the U.S. government caved to monetary interests and took steps to buy, and then to steal, the Black Hills for annexation as U.S. territory.

Sitting Bull portrait etched into black granite at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. I like how the golden grassy hills are reflected on the stone as I am looking at it

The Lakota Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, were the victors of the Little Bighorn battle. They were led by the famed warrior Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other great Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Sitting Bull did not fight but stayed with the women, children, and the aged to protect them. He believed it fitting to leave the fighting and its opportunities for glory to the younger generation. After fasting and sacrificing 100 tiny pieces of his own flesh from his arms at a Sun Dance ritual two years before, the warrior and holy man Sitting Bull had a vision in which he beheld U.S. soldiers falling in great numbers headfirst into a Lakota camp. He believed this presaged a great victory. The minor victory the week before at the Battle of the Rosebud did not seem to fulfill the prophecy he perceived in his vision; the Battle of the Little Bighorn very much did. But this victory sparked a much more vigorous crackdown, and the Native Americans, as we all know, were ultimately defeated in this war.

From the time I arrive at the battlefield, to when I return the next morning, to the time I leave, I experience the place visually and emotionally, with very little inner dialogue. My eyes take over, and I let them. So accordingly, I’ve decided to tell the rest of this story, the story of my visit to the Little Bighorn, in annotated photos, in which I share my thoughts as I review them. They portray just some of the many, many things I see and learn here.

Last Stand Hill, where George Custer was defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, with just a few of the multitude of headstones marking the site of U.S. casualties. At the time I saw this hill, throughout the rest of the evening here and my visit here the next day, I kept thinking ‘Hubris! Such hubris!’ (excessive pride)

Wooden Leg Hill. His account of the Little Bighorn battle was the first first-person account I read and is an integral part of the historical records of what happened here on June 25th and 26th, 1876.

Two Cheyenne warrior gravestones at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument. It took far, far too long, but finally, the sites of fallen Native American warriors began to be marked as well starting in the 1990’s, with elegant red granite headstones

Spirit Warriors Sculpture by Colleen Cutschall / Sister Wolf at the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About some of the warriors who fought here in 1876, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

About Custer’s pledge not to kill any more Cheyennes, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. Like so many other white promises to the Native Americans, this promise was unkept

Portraits and a list of warriors who fought here in 1876, Little Bighorn Indian Memorial

View of gravestones and visitor center from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial

A chokecherry bush with prayer ties. A jubilant songbird is perched on it as I look. You can see it if you look closely at the center top. Just off the path near Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial.

I wander here as long as I’s allowed, then the ranger lets me know it was time to go since it was five minutes before the 8 pm closing time. So I leave to find a place to spend the night, and I’ll return tomorrow.

To be continued…..

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

The Battle of the Little Bighorn‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Indian Memorial‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Janiskee. Bob.  ‘An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument‘, National Parks Traveler, Dec 7th, 2008

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them

Lakota giveaway ceremony, photo origin unknown

In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and which I believe is more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.

Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment itself is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty.

Today’s United States, like those nations most similar to her in culture and economy, is very much not characterized by that less-is-more spirit. This is nothing new. The United States and Canadian governments’ historical prohibitions on giveaway ceremonies in vanquished tribes indicate that Sitting Bull’s characterization of white culture describes something that’s been around for quite a while. These governments viewed giveaway ceremonies as a challenge to the enthusiasm for a market-driven type of productive cooperation they wished to instill in the nations they conquered. These and other Western societies (derived from Europe) had been centered around the production, acquisition, accumulation, and display of goods particularly since the industrial age. This is reflected in our values, our mores, our politics, our language, our cultural attitudes, the ways we celebrate holidays and major life events, and even, increasingly, our religious and spiritual practices.

The free market system, a new style of trade characterized by Adam Smith as that best for improving lives of all human beings most efficiently, has indeed instilled many good practices and attitudes. For example, we’re less likely to see other nations and cultures as enemies when we cultivate relationships as trading partners; we see the effects of this change in international relations and in the relative peacefulness of the modern world to those which practiced the old feudal and mercantilist systems. We also see that more people throughout the world now live longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, as the market incentivizes and drives innovation to respond more efficiently to demand. But there have always been downsides to free markets too. Think of the slave trade; trade wars; colonialism; invasion and confiscation of indigenous lands; the immiseration of working people in squalid industrial towns and dismal factories; price- and wage-fixing by trusts and monopolies; and vast inequalities in wealth and in chances of success are but a few examples. Such practices and inefficiencies are not merely excesses or abuses perpetrated by a few bad actors: they are regular and expected outcomes of a system whose purpose is to maximize profit and come out ahead of everyone else.

And now, we see that market values have pervaded all levels of our consciousness, our self-conception of who we are and how we should best inhabit our world. As philosopher Michael Sandel describes it, we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. The way we live, think, and feel is pervaded by consumerism. We’ve become buyers and sellers to the extent that we have become products ourselves, marketed and commodified, valued in work and in life insofar as we present ourselves the right way, are seen in the right places, wear the right brands and styles, drive the right cars, and use the right products.

And this has led us to a new problem, one unimaginable to John Locke, Adam Smith, and others who developed the theories about property rights and the benefits of open markets that we take for granted today. Human societies were relatively small then, and the uninhabited regions and untapped resources of the world seemed vast, even endless by comparison. It’s very different today. The population of the world has grown so large, our technological ability to produce goods from raw materials so varied, efficient, and prolific, and our ingrained habits of making, amassing, and consuming voraciously is leading us to a crisis of mass waste, pollution, and climate change.

The pollution problem can be seen as the modern corollary of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory that human reproduction would inevitably outstrip food production, leading to mass impoverishment. Though Malthus’ ideas had long gone out of fashion with advancements in agricultural technology and the widespread use of birth control, he’s enjoying a bit of a comeback. However long technology can stave off many of the ill effects of exponential population growth, the earth’s habitable surface and ability to produce what we need to survive (let alone to live well) is finite nonetheless. This is also true of our atmosphere’s ability to absorb the off-gassing of our industries without changing our biosphere’s ability to sustain the life it gave rise to. Over the centuries and decades, concerns about human impact on the natural world and its life-sustaining resources swing from optimism that we can and will create new technology and social practices that will solve everything, to worry that we won’t be sufficiently motivated or innovative in time to stave off the destruction of our own habitat.

In my years past working at a recycling and salvage operation, I observed a part of the massive flow of waste we generate, much of it perfectly good stuff we just throw away. The sheer volume of it all haunts me still. Photo of Amy Cools by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Beginning with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Springenvironmental consciousness is becoming ever more pervasive across the political spectrum. But it seems that ecological responsibility is still an ideal that has not yet changed our behavior except in a few token ways. Even progressive, self-consciously ‘green’ micro-cultures, such as that of the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, generally consume and discard on a very large scale. There’s a strong market here for innovations in green products such as compostable and reusable utensils and packaging, recycled fiber and bamboo clothing, energy-efficient technology, and more. Some of this technology replaces other arrays of products such as CDs, books, ledgers, pens and pencils, camera film, landline telephones, and so on, and could in time reduce the amount of stuff made. Yet new generations and styles of products replace the old ones almost as often and quickly as they are introduced, and the things which the new products replace in turn become trash. And in the case of technology, particularly toxic trash. There are recycling programs, to be sure, but they don’t keep up with the volume of discards, and the recycling process itself can be toxic. And the compostable packaging which cocoons every fashionable new product and every new gadget adds to the deluge. Take-out meal services and ready-to-make meals in a box are ever-increasing in popularity, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner wrapped in a soon-to-be-wad-of-trash. Newly ubiquitous reusable shopping bags and thinly-walled plastic bottles do little in the face of this accelerating volume of throwaway goods and conveniently, disposably-packaged everything.

What does all this mean on a planet now so dominated by humans, materialistic, energetic, intelligent, creative, productive, and exponentially-reproductive?

It does seem that our love of possession is a disease with us, not just in the moral and spiritual sense that Sitting Bull refers to. It’s become something palpable, something we see before our eyes, that we breathe in, that we swim among. It shares characteristics of cancer, growing, proliferating, invading at an accelerating rate, which we still likewise seem powerless to stop. And the gases from the production and decay of all this stuff is changing the climate from the one that gave rise to the evolution of, and now sustains and nurtures, the plants and animals that give us life.

So what do we do? How do we divert or change this deeply ingrained cultural habit, this seemingly unstoppable force that we’ve unleashed?

I think about that other thing Sitting Bull said, about his people respecting him not because he owned many things in the way valued by white people, but because he kept little for himself. How, then, if we shift our values? How if we began to regard the need to compulsively and conspicuously consume stuff as crass, as burdensome, as uncool, as unenlightened, even as pitiable?

This isn’t necessarily as unlikely or even as unimaginable as it might seem. We often take for granted that our love and pursuit of stuff is an immutable trait of the human psyche. Yet, that’s not the case, as evidenced by cultural and spiritual mores that differ widely; we can look to the surprise and disgust of Sitting Bull and his people when encountering the white invaders’ greed for gold, land, and buffalo hides. There is an idea from Japanese culture, mottainai, which has deep roots and is growing again in popularity. This complex and hard-to-translate idea includes a reverence for objects and the value of frugality, both of which preclude the wasteful, polluting consumerist practices of modern market societies. And there are many more cultural and spiritual traditions of long standing in which the possession of more goods than needed is considered a negative.

Asceticism is an extreme variety of this less-is more value, an ancient tradition in which one seeks to reach the highest levels of spiritual perfection by divesting themselves of all or most material goods and comforts. There is also the culture of the traveler and world citizen, those who own little since having too many things to haul around gets in the way of opportunities for adventure. There is also a modern fad, admittedly a rather niche conceit of those with higher incomes, of living in tiny, design-heavy, super-efficient homes, reducing one’s personal possessions to the most utilitarian minimum.

However, these ways of life, admired and admirable as they can be, are not workable for most people. Except for asceticism, they are also unaffordable for most people, and none of these work for those who have families to care for, or those who are elderly or disabled, and so on. What of the least wealthy among us, those who must opt for the cheaper products regardless of whether they’ll wear out and become trash sooner? And what about the joy of shopping for stuff, new and novel things that relieve the monotony and stress of an ordinary working life? Even in this realm of life, however, we do have an awareness that the short-term fun of buying stuff can lead to long-term unhappiness. For example, the extremes of material consumption, hoarding and compulsive shopping, are widely considered destructive and unhealthy, if not forms of mental illness. Expanding this sense of the unhealthiness of having too much stuff can be gradually extended to include things that we might sorta like at first but realize we won’t use much or care about for long. Over time, we can acculturate ourselves to less but higher quality things, and better yet, to value publicly owned goods more highly: parks, museums, public beaches, public buildings, and hopefully in the future, more community- and government- owned public amusement centers such as skating rinks, gyms, arcades, and so on.

Sitting Bull and his family, 1881

And while it might seem too difficult to inculcate the value of less-is-more, we can remember that many deeply-ingrained cultural values and habits have been purposely and quickly shifted. The right of gay people to marry and enjoy other equal benefits of society are now generally taken for granted when only two decades ago legal gay marriage was unimaginable to most. Smoking is widely considered unhealthy and a public nuisance, through just a few decades of education, public awareness campaigns, and taxation. Bullying, racist and sexist slurs, discriminatory practices, and many, many other bad habits, once so culturally pervasive, are no longer respectable.

While shopping and owning a lot of stuff might not seem to be habits as bad as any of the above, I believe that we’ll soon recognize that it might be. Now that there are so many of us in the world, we can no longer consider ourselves as morally responsible beings only as individuals when it comes to the health of our environment. With well over seven billion people on the earth increasing exponentially, we are now responsible to each other in the ways our actions contribute to the aggregate effects. Let’s make the effects of our presence on the earth not resemble those of a disease. Let’s instead make it more aligned with mottainai by treating the earth as the most precious object there is; more akin to the role of earth-steward as the God of Genesis called on his human creation to be; more akin to Sitting Bull and his generous less-is-more spirit. Our physical and spiritual health and our very lives depend upon it.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration

Auxier, Randall. ‘Indian Givers‘, Nov 15th, 2013. Radically Empirical blog

Blaisdell. Robert (ed.) Great Speeches by Native Americans. NY: Dover, 2000.

Bruchac, Joseph. ‘Sacred Giving, Sacred Receiving‘, June 20, 2016, Parabola

Her Many Horses, Emil. ‘A Song for the Horse Nation: Remembering Lakota Ways‘. From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Mottainai: a Philosophy of Waste‘. August, 2015. Interview and discussion with Kevin Taylor by Joe Gelonesi for The Philosopher’s Zone, a podcast of Radio National, Australia.

Pettipas, Katherine. Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies. Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

Rachel Carson, American Experience by PBS, April 18th, 2010

Roth, Christopher E. ‘Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch‘, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 123-150

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Sitting Bull‘. Encyclopædia Britannica, April 21, 2017

Thomas Malthus‘. Encyclopædia Britannica.