Friday, September 21, 2007

Chief Joseph and Shaka Zulu: The Great Plains September 19, 20, 07

No wonder they call Easterners "effete." Once you cross the Red River (of the North) at Grand Forks you enter the Great Plains and the real West--the Old West of legend and the New West of oil, coal, farming, poverty for some, enormous riches for others--especially corporations. But above all it is a big landscape; bigger than an Easterner can appreciate in "one sitting." As Minnesota's endless trees slowly recede into my rear view mirror I'm confronted by rolling hills and flatland, by the Dakota's proverbial "Big Sky," by a growing sense of loneliness and smallness, the puniness of human effort. But that doesn't stop us. Our dreams and grasp grow to accommodate the landscape. Tractors that I thought large and impressive have grown now to 12 gigantic drive wheels (or often equipped with caterpillar threads), outsized chisel plows, enormous cultivators. Ironically, since most old equipment doesn't get destroyed it remains lying about the farms: many farmers have taken to put the old tiny, steel wheeled gas tractor and equally tiny cultivator on a nearby hillside for all the world to see as we pass in our endless ribbon of cars and trucks on old Rt 2 or the ubiquitous interstates.

Rolls of hay stretch as far as the eye can see; an eastern farmer's best fields and first cutting would only bring a smile to the agriculturist's of the western prairies. Grass is king. Sure they grow sugar beets (the smell is stifling, suffusing the air of East Grand Forks) and corn, wheat, sunflowers (smiling everywhere but at you) soybeans, who knows what else, but they cut and bunch grass--hay--for sale and for the consumption of their cattle. They graze their animals on it and like the grasses of Africa, like the grass dominating the high veldt of central South Africa, grass creates a culture. The African tribes that pushed south onto the rich prairies of today's South Africa, the Zulu, the Xhosa and others all built their cultures around the grazing of cattle. Brides are paid for with cattle or husbands are bought with cattle; a cow is slaughtered to feed the mourners on the death of even the poorest member of the tribal community--and all are invited to come, feast and mourn. The white Afrikaner eats meat: beef and lamb. Like his black (or coloured) native counterpart he or she eats vegetables to provide a momentary respite from more meat. The "Brai," similar to an American barbecue (which Afrikaans laugh at for cooking hot dogs and hamburgers over an open flame), roasts piles of meat: chops, wursts, steaks, legs; slow roasted and skewered over coals lovingly heaped together after a celebratory wait of at least three hours. My friend Harry says that the brai is over once the meat is put on the coals. It is in the waiting that the Afrikaner celebrates his and her victory over the tribes of southern Africa, victory over a landscape every bit as treacherous, dangerous and immense as north America's Great Plains. Like Afrikaners, white Americans also celebrate their victory over the natives that "roamed," that is, grazed their own "cattle" the buffalo from which they also created a culture and way of life rooted (no pun intended) in the enormous landscape dominated by grasses.

It is no inappropriate comparison. The temperate southern part of southern Africa looks like the American West, a rising veltd giving way to the high buttes and arid low mountains of the desert American southwest with the extraordinary Drakenburg Mountains, like the Rockies, looming over both the veldt and (in this case) eastern coast of southern Africa. Both landscapes have eroded out fossils; dinosaur bones continue to come to the surface in the Dakotas and Montana as I found to my delight in Glendive, Montana. In both instances, Afrikaan and American (U.S. Canadian and Mexican), natives "had" to be exterminated or pushed aside; reserves established; cultures twisted into conformity (later I'll devote more time to Shaka Zulu and the native peoples of southern Africa). I ended my day (Wed. 9/19/07) in the rugged badlands of eastern Montana in a wonderful state park, Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Montana--one of 13 stops on Montana's Trail of Dinosaurs. After a nice hike of about a mile I saw my first
fossilized dinosaur remains still encased in the red sandstone that engulfed them 65 million years before. Simply amazing.

After a long ride the next day (Thurs. 9/20/07) across these same prairies of central and western Montana, I was compelled to stop to visit the Museum housing many of the remnants of the Battle of the Bear's Paw (mountains). The battle marks the end of the "roaming' of the Nez Perce people and their eventual confinement to the "res." Chief Joseph's haunting words of surrender speak for natives' worldwide:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead.

Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Here me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." (Found many places but see Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields)

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