Addressing Imperial History
Simon Ortiz, from Sand Creek
University of Arizona Press, 1981 and 2000. 95pp. $10.95.
Remember the past; Look to the Future.
A Cherokee proverb
Simon Ortiz’s from Sand Creek, a collection of indigenous philosophic wisdom in free verse, is a text rich in social criticisms and cultural insights. Throughout this collection, Mr. Ortiz criticizes the axiomatic habits of thought and practice that facilitated the conquest of North America while he laments the contemporary human costs engendered by such ethnocentric patterns of thought.
Originally published shortly after the United States diplomatic and militaristic failures in Southeast Asia, from Sand Creek participated in the critical re-evaluation of American social and democratic ideals characteristic of that particular historical moment. The isolation and ostracism of returning Viet Nam veterans must have resonated with Mr. Ortiz’s own experience as an indigenous American, with his awareness of the social manifestations and psychological ramifications of unacknowledged, unappreciated human sacrifice. As the United States enters yet another phase of global intervention in defense of its capitalist empire, it is appropriate that Mr. Ortiz’s observations should be republished and reconsidered. Above all else, from Sand Creek exposes the polarizing consequences of blindly adhering to narrowly drawn social criteria and nationalistic policies. From Sand Creek illustrates the inherent shortcomings of such policies by drawing on the experiences of the United States’ most marginalized inhabitants, indigenous individuals whose societies and cultures have consistently made the greatest contributions to American prosperity. As the united States goes to war to protect its vital interests abroad, it is imperative to consider the stated ideals of our Republic and to remember the sacrifices that have already been made, and especially the manner in which those sacrifices have been repaid.
The inspirational catalysts for this collection emerge from Mr. Ortiz’s professional experiences at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, Ft. Lyons, Colorado, the same location where Colonel John Chivington, “the fighting parson,” mustered his voluntary militia prior to the massacre of Arapaho and Cheyenne noncombatants wintered along Sand Creek in eastern Colorado.
Structurally, the text is arranged much like N. Scott Momaday’s tribal history of the Kiowa, Way to Rainy Mountain. Both are journeys: Mr. Momaday’s a personal one through tribal heritage; Mr. Ortiz’s a collective one, native and non-native, through the social and environmental circumstances and consequences of imperial history. Each author seeks to establish a public awareness of and appreciation for indigenous philosophy and native systems of knowledge, goals accomplished in part through strict attention to the text itself. Words are sparsely placed on the page, a practice that not only reflects an indigenous appreciation for the power and agency of language, even in its most circumscribed form, but a practice that also visually recreates the expansive presence of the southern plains and the exposed vistas of Acoma Pueblo. Additionally, facing pages are interrelated both in content and organization, a convention that textually recreates the interdependency of cross-cultural encounters.
Mr. Otiz’s text offers personal experience, historical data, and indigenous philosophical perspectives on the left, or even numbered, pages and corresponding poetic antidotes that evolve out of his experiences at the Ft. Lyons Veteran’s Administration Hospital on the opposite, or odd numbered, pages. The emotional nuances created by Mr. Ortiz’s words, verbal imagery, and the social insights generated by their synthesis lack hostility and bitterness in spite of the connotations evoked by the title of the collection. Although from Sand Creek explores the intellectual roots of colonization and the corresponding amnesia of repression that promotes the continued marginalization of American Indians, especially children and veterans, restitution of harmony, not the assignment of blame, remains the primary focus of the text.
American Indians have participated in every war the United States has fought, including the war for independence against the British Empire. While doing so, they have suffered disproportionate numbers of casualties, more than any other People when measured by percentages. This irony may be difficult to comprehend for some, but for indigenous Americans the reasons remain self-evident: the land itself and the covenants that pledge indigenous military support in exchange for federal protection from the encroachments of the States and their citizens. These themes permeate Mr. Ortiz’s attempts to harmonize the social and political realities of indigenous experience in North American with the mythologized ideals and events of United States colonial History.
Mr. Ortiz demonstrates the priority of the first motive when he writes, “You can’t help but be an American, not a citizen or a shadow, but a patriot and warrior for land and people even when insignificant and lost” (38).
The second motivation is presented only as a visual image in Mr. Ortiz’s brief treatment of the Sand Creek Massacre on the first page of the text. The United States flag, presented to Black Kettle by Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC, was a poor defense against the avarice and racial hostility of white settlers in the Colorado Territory. In the image of an American flag fluttering above an “elders lodge on that gray dawn,” readers see history repeating itself.
What becomes evident from Mr. Ortiz’s text is his belief that all contemporary American Indians, regardless of age, geographical location, nationality, or historical circumstance are veterans, veterans of a colonial history of betrayal and ostracism, veterans whose contributions and sacrifices have been carelessly forgotten.
The warriors so carefully treated in from Sand Creek, to whom Mr. Ortiz dedicates his poetry and wisdom, epitomize this condition of alienation, a condition shared by all indigenous Americans. These children, women, and men also epitomize the things that remain undone: the ideals that remain unrealized and the promises that remain unfulfilled. So, if you think you would like to see Wind Talkers, the latest and perhaps the only, Hollywood portrayal of the Navajo Code Talkers, maybe you first ask: Who is Ira Hayes, anyway?
Kevin Wall is a third year PhD. student in American Indian Studies at the Unversity of Arizona in Tucson. His research interests include the impact of indigenous slavery on the economy of Charles Town, South Carolina and its ramifications on colonial era Indian Policy in southeast North America.