"We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills and the winding strams with tangled growth, as 'wild. Only to the white man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested' with 'wild' animals and 'savage' people. To us it was tame. Earth was boutiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it 'wild' for us, it was that for us the 'Wild West' began." TOUCH THE EARTH is a selection of statements and writings by North American Indians, chosen to illuminate the course of Indian history and the abiding values of Indian life. Together they recount the pain of the Indian as he watched the white man kill the wild herbs and overrun the sacred lands of his ancestors. Mystified at first by the white man's ways, the Indian tone guves way first to anger, then desperation and, finally hopelessness. More than 50 pages of photographs, taken by the American photographer Edward S. Curtis in the early years of this century, complement the text.… (more)
It didn’t help reconcile Indians to their new status that the people who dispossessed them thought they were ignoble savages. But what else was the white man to think? Here’s why:
In the life of the Indian, there was only one inevitable duty, the duty of prayer…His daily devotions were more necessary to him than daily food. He wakes at daybreak…and steps down to the water’s edge. Here he throws handfuls of clear, cold water into his face, or plunges in bodily. After the bath, he stands erect before the advancing dawn…Each soul must meet the morning sun…alone!
Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime…he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. [Ohiyesa, Santee Dakota]
Well . . . that quote, from Touch the Earth: A Self-portrait of Indian Existence, somehow doesn’t sound like ignoble savagery. Perhaps the problem was obstinacy toward the Christian faith:
We made up our minds to be friendly with [white men]…But we found this difficult, because the white men too often promised to do one thing and then when they acted at all, did another…Their Wise Ones said we might have their religion, but when we tried to understand it we found that there were too many kinds of religion among white men for us to understand, and that scarcely any two white men agreed which was the right one to learn. This bothered us a great deal until we saw the white man did not take his religion any more seriously than he did his laws, and that he kept both of them just behind him, like Helpers, to use when they might do him good in his dealings with strangers. These ways were not our ways. [Plenty Coups, Crow]
Okay . . . I fail to see obstinacy here, except in how sectarian division as well as hypocrisy proliferate.
So, Touch the Earth is not a primer for the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It is a collection of voices whose words, from the continent’s first peoples, express what has been lost to them. Those words (much of the text) record the confusions, costs, and resentments accompanying that loss. They document the effort to cope with the arrival and then permanence of the situation and to explain the disbelieving discovery of what it is to be conquered, in which the concept of survival becomes a perplexity that cannot be settled within. The voices are sometimes despondent, most always eloquent. That eloquence was heard by those who held power. Made hardly a whit of difference.