Have you seen this documentary mini-series from American Experience (on PBS)? If not, you’re really missing it. We didn’t really study Native American history in school – we touched on it, but my indian education is limited to the movies (raise your hand if you loved Last of the Mohicans!). This series is wonderfully filmed and narrated, and the commentary is poignant. I hope it wins an Oscar. It really should.
I’ve come to learn, through watching this series, that the history of the American Indian is really fascinating – rich, tragic, heroic, complex and steadfast. I’ll say it – just like white America did great wrong by keeping and trading black slaves, it did just as horrible, if not worse, things to the native population, too. There was no Emancipation Proclamation for them. We – white America – took and didn’t ask. We committed ethnic cleansing. We showed them a form of tyranny that was never forced upon us. I won’t lie – it makes me a little less patriotic. Reparations wouldn’t even begin to make restitution. There is no easy answer for what was done, and what is still ignored. Just as African sold African into slavery, Cherokee turned upon Cherokee. What is to be said? What is to be done? What is the response, as a 21st century audience? These are the questions I’m asking myself this afternoon. I’m not really coming up with anything.
One thing I found especially moving while watching the “Trail of Tears” episode, was the fact that, as the Cherokee – numbers dwindling by the day due to sickness and starvation – marched thousands of miles west, barefoot over frozen wilderness, and sung Christian hymns (many Cherokee had converted by the 1830s) – hymns sung by the very people who denied them rights to the land the Cherokee had inhabited for generations. The narrator cited the hymn “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”. Imagine this quiet, starving, frozen processional singing these words:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land / I am weak, but thou art mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand. / Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me til I want no more. Feed me til I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain whence the healing stream doth flow / Let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through. / Strong deliverer, strong deliverer, be thou still my strength and shield. Be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside / Death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe of Canaan’s side / Songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to thee; I will ever give to thee.