Archive for the ‘History’ Category

412. Shadows

Sunday, as I waited for the shadow to creep across the grass, I had plenty of time to think.  How long had it been since someone did this here?  Obviously, someone had, but how long ago?

I was watching a gnomon, a vertical pole used to cast a shadow and a time-honored way to determine the position of the sun.  By marking the sun’s shadow in the morning and drawing an arc on the ground that distance from the gnomon, when the sun reaches your line in the dirt in the afternoon the two points are exactly east and west from each other.  Carefully paint a line between them and you have a handy visual reference.  My son William and I have been mapping Native American earthworks with a drone, and by having a visible line showing east and west, it’s easier to determine the alignment of the mounds.

But it takes a LONG time.  I couldn’t help but think about lots of things while waiting, including a comment by a woman who once remarked that while men and women are “so different, we’re also so much the same.”

The people who built these mounds were very different from us.  For one thing, the roles of men and women were different, but again, probably quite a bit the same.

Women were equal – or even superior – to men in many Native societies.  Descent was figured through the mother.  So important was the mother’s line that a woman’s brothers took on most of the responsibility for raising her sons, just as her husband’s primary child rearing duties were to his sisters’ sons.  The domed earthen lodges these people lived in symbolized a woman’s womb, with the long covered entryway the birth canal.  Every morning these people, in their minds, were literally reborn.

So yes, they were different from us.  Yet the women ended up doing most of the work.  So I’m sure the female half of our population would say that things were also very much the same.

But why build mounds?  It must have taken a lot of work, and the more my family and I study these mounds the more we realize they aren’t just haphazard piles of dirt – they have varied and sometimes complex shapes.  There seems to have been standard units of measure, both on the mounds and in the larger spaces between them.  They were carefully planned, and enough people believed in their value to construct them one basket full of dirt at a time.

As the gnomon’s shadow drew close to the arc on the ground, the trees to the west started casting their own shadows over both the gnomon and the ground around it.  Ooops – I hadn’t thought about that.  Could we catch the gnomon’s shadow before the shadows of the trees caught us?  Fortunately, there were enough gaps in the leaves that we were able to mark our spot.  But the shadows were too long for us to take good drone photos – we’ll have to try that another day.

Trying to decipher the meaning of these mounds is much like chasing shadows, the elusive shades of those who lived here long ago.  These people cast a long shadow, visible still in the silent mounds they left behind.  But I have to wonder if I’ll ever understand why they built them.  They were as human as we are; they laughed and loved and wondered about the world just as we do.  Yet they were so different, and like the gulf between men and women, I wonder if I’ll ever bridge it very well.


399. Gobby’s People

As we stood beneath the imposing statue of a dignified Native American, an ancient and heart-rending cry broke the stillness.  The statue – erected only a week earlier – was of the Ponca Indian chief Standing Bear, a man who overcame incredible adversity to return the body of his dead son to his homeland in northern Knox County.  The cries, arising from a contemporary Ponca mourning the death of a loved one in a nearby cemetery, were probably very much like the ones Standing Bear uttered when mourning his son.  This is, after all, how these people have mourned since time began.

Sculpted by Benjamin Victor and donated by Don Campbell, the statue is identical to one that stands on the Centennial Mall in Lincoln.  This new one resides near the top of a hill on land owned by the descendants of Standing Bear and a handful of other men who accompanied him on his long sojourn back to Nebraska.  Forcibly exiled to the Oklahoma Territory not long before, these men were so connected to this place that they braved all manner of adversity to carry the young man’s body back for burial.

They almost made it, but were apprehended near Omaha just days from their destination, ragged and starving.  There they were imprisoned and preparations were made to send them back to Oklahoma.

But after word of their plight spread the people of Omaha intervened.  Though held by the military, a civilian trial was arranged (many believe with behind-the-scenes help from the army commander, General Crook).  This trial resulted in the landmark legal decision that though not citizens of the United States, Indians were people in the eyes of the law and thereby entitled to full legal rights.

In the end these Ponca succeeded in burying Standing Bear’s son with his ancestors, and the men who brought him were allowed to stay along the Niobrara (splitting the tribe into northern and southern branches).

My family and I had been accompanied to the statue by Gobby (sp?), a young Ponca man who’s about to start his third year at Stanford University.  Upon hearing the mourning cries Gobby explained that there are untold numbers of ancient burials on the surrounding hilltops.

Gobby went on to explain that because so many of his ancestors were buried around us, the plants and trees growing from the soil where they lie are Ponca, too.  Thus his ancestors still live, not only in spirit but in the material world as well.  He then uttered a phrase in his native tongue, explaining that it means ‘we are all related.’  Not just people, but the plants and even the buffalo grazing nearby on those plants.

It really put into perspective why Standing Bear had fought so hard to return.

I’ve always felt a strong connection to this land, a connection that’s done much to keep me here over the years.  But my family has only been here since the 1870s and lie buried in local cemeteries.  As I stood there listening to this ancient cry of mourning erupting from across the bison pasture, I realized how much stronger Gobby’s people’s connection to the land is – even today.

Economic cycles periodically ‘cull the herd’ of white farmers – those of us who have taken the place of people like Gobby’s – dispossessing many who also feel a deep connection with this land.  But I now understand that none of us can match the depth of connection Native Americans have to this place, and it helps explain why losing it still reverberates so strongly among them today.