Saturday, October 01, 2005


Dear Reader,

Like all American boys of a certain age, I grew up watching "Cowboys and Indians" movies on television, and played "Cowboys and Indians" for fun, when we were not playing "Cops and Robbers" or other imaginary combat games. We rooted for the cowboys, who were obviously the good guys in all those movies. Any fool could see that.

Eventually, Dad questioned my certainties. "You think bad Indians attack innocent settlers protected by brave cowboys. Look more closely. Cowboys and settlers were not Americans; they were Europeans; their ancestors came from Europe. Only Indians are Americans; their ancestors lived here for millennia. If invaders from another continent came to take away your land, wouldn't you be angry? Wouldn't you fight back? Who are the real bad guys here?"

As head-to-head conflicts between comfortable illusions and harsh reality often do, this pissed me off. Dad was lying or just wrong, obviously. I already believed something else, and so did all my friends at school. As Moderns are raised to do, I believed I had a right to my opinion, and I believed that meant I had a right not to have it contradicted. If Dad were right, then all these movies, all this television, all these stories I enjoyed were essentially lies, and everyone I knew who believed as I did believed in a lie. Believing lies would make us fools. For me not to be a fool, Dad had to be wrong, so he was.

Fortunately, I was raised to value the truth above almost anything, to follow the lead of the truth wherever it takes me, however uncomfortable, and any map of the world reveals the lies immediately. The Indians were the original inhabitants of America, and we stole it from them. There used to be many of them; now there are few, and many Indian cultures and languages are gone completely. "Decimation" means to kill one in ten, but we killed nine in ten, for which we have no precise word; the nearest words are slaughter, massacre, and genocide.

The truth about Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and so many other "battles" by which "the west was won" seared me as a child. The excitement of childhood death-games, the rage at implicitly being called a fool by my father, the shock and shame of disillusionment, the horror and grief for victims of one of the greatest holocausts humanity has ever experienced——I was ripe for electric emotional alchemy.

My delusion inverted. Europeans were the bad guys. Indians were the good guys. Americans were the bad guys. I was a bad guy. So I believed more or less for the next fifteen years.

Sincerely yours,

No comments: