28 November 2014

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Covered Ass


T
he Modoc War is a relatively obscure event in United States history. Boiled down to its essence—In 1864 the Indian department chose to assign the Modocs to live on Klamath Reservation, ignoring such complicating factors as the long and strained relationship between the two groups and Modoc economic ties to adjacent communities. In 1867 a place was prepared for them at Yainax station (on Klamath Reservation), probably because it was a common meeting-place for an annual gathering of various tribes to exchange slaves and other goods), and some of them went. Many Modocs refused. Some of the leaders, like Captain Jack, had signed the treaty agreeing to go to the reservation; others had not. All were considered to be bound by the treaty. Years went by while bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, but at last it was decided to use troops to force the refusenik Modocs onto Klamath Reservation. The attempt failed; the Modocs took refuge in nearby lava country, and after a long stand-off were dislodged, rounded up, and sent to Indian Territory (later called Oklahoma).
At the tipping point, right before the war started, it was felt necessary to make one more attempt to get the separatist Modocs to go onto Klamath Reservation voluntarily. The man in charge of this operation was Thomas Benton Odeneal, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon. A long-time newspaper man (he had been editor of the Corvallis Gazette and would go on to edit the Portland Bulletin), he had ended up with the appointment through some unfathomable twist of politics. With a domestic crisis at home (his small daughter would soon die from an unknown disease), and armed with an unshakable belief in the childlike qualities of Native Americans, he nonetheless set out to make an attempt to keep the peace in southern Oregon.
On 20 November 1872 he left Salem, Oregon, arriving at the rambunctious frontier town of Jacksonville on the 24th.  The next day brought him to Klamath Reservation, where he wasted no time in sending out two messengers to contact the Modocs—James “One-Armed” Brown and Ivan Decatur Applegate. Let’s let pioneer historian Frances Victor, as channeled through über-editor H. H. Bancroft, take it from here:
… he sent James Brown, of Salem, and Ivan Apple­gate to Lost river to request the Modocs to meet him at Link­ville on the 27th. At the same time the mes­sengers were instructed to say that the superinten­dent had only the kindest feel­ings for them; that he had made ample provi­sion for their comfort­able support at Yai-nax, where, if they would go within a reason­able time, they should be fairly dealt with and fully pro­tected; and if they would go there at once with Apple­gate, he would meet them there, but if they refused he required them to meet him at Linkville in order that a final un­derstanding with them might be had.
On the 27th the superintendent, in company with Dyar from the Klamath agency, went to Linkville to meet the Modocs, as he had appointed, but there found only his messengers, who informed him of Jack’s refusal either to go upon the reservation or to meet him at Linkville. “Say to the superinten­dent,” said Jack, who with a part of his men was in camp at Lost river, “that we do not wish to see him, or to talk with him. We do not want any white men to tell us what to do. Our friends and coun­sellors are men in Yreka. They tell us to stay where we are, and we intend to do so, and will not go upon the reserva­tion.  I am tired of being talked to, and am done talk­ing.”
It being now apparent that nothing short of an armed force could influence these Indians to submit to the government, the superintendent sent a report of the late conference of his messengers with Captain Jack, and of the reply of Jack to his proposals, together with the order of the commissioner, to Green, with a request that he should furnish suffi­cient force to compel the Modocs to go upon their reser­vation; and in case it be­came necessary to use compul­sory mea­sures, to arrest first of all Jack, Black Jim, and Scarfaced Char­ley, holding them sub­ject to his orders.  In reply to this demand, Green sent word that Jackson would at once leave the post with about thirty men.
And so the Modoc War was on. To recap: Odeneal sent word to Captain Jack and his people either to go with Ivan Applegate to Klamath Reservation directly or to meet with him at Linkville to talk things over on the 27th of November. (Note the date. This is a small matter, but sometimes the meaning of events hangs on small matters.) Why he thought Captain Jack would do either of these things is unknown—the facts are that the disaffected Modocs had already repeatedly declined to go to Klamath Reservation, and they were hardly likely to go to Linkville either, where the local settlers were prepared (as subsequent developments show) to lynch them on sight. Still the point is that Odeneal gave them a chance to talk things over at Linkville on the 27th, he showed up there along with Agent Dyar, the Modocs didn’t, and only when the dissident Modocs had refused this last opportunity to talk things over did Odeneal call for force to be used.
Now all this, as it happens, is absolute hogwash, though it has made it into the standard histories of the Modoc War. Let’s take a look at these same events again, this time as recorded in the November report of Agent Dyar:
On the 25th of No­vember superintendent Odeneal sent Mr. I. D. Applegate, a man intimately acquainted with Indian character, and Mr. James Brown, department messenger, from Linkville to the camp of the Modocs, at the mouth of Lost river, with instructions to see captain Jack, and the leading men, and tell them that the superintendent wished them to meet him at Link river, about twen­ty miles from their camp, on the 28th [!!], or, if they would not meet him there, to come upon the reservation, and he would see them here; that ample provision had been made for their subsistance and comfort. Mr. Odeneal then came on to the agency, arriving here on the evening of the 25th, and on the 27th I went with him to Link river, to meet the Indians on the 28th, should they consent to come. On the way to Link river we met Mr. Applegate returning from the Modoc camp, and he reported that captain Jack refused to meet Mr. Odeneal at Link river; that he did not wish to see the superin­tendent; that he had done talking; that he was advised by his friends, white men in Yreka, to stay where he was, and that he would not go on the reservation.
Note this: the proposed meeting was not on the 27th, but on the 28th. And Odeneal didn’t wait for that meeting—he sent his letter requesting that troops be sent out on the 27th. Now in all fairness there’s no special reason why he should have waited, given his presuppositions. He clearly never had confidence in negotiations with the Lost River Modocs. And really, what was there to negotiate? The authorities had decided that the Modocs were to be confined to Klamath Reservation; Captain Jack’s Modocs were dead set against it—there was no middle ground. No room for compromise. But the point here is that history has somehow simplified the process. Odeneal supposedly demanded a meeting on the 27th; the Modocs didn’t show up; the war was on. But in fact Odeneal demanded a meeting on the 28th, and when he received word on the 27th that the Modocs refused to come, immediately called for the troops. He did not wait for the date of the proposed meeting.
So where did Victor, Bancroft, and subsequent historians get the notion that it was only after the Modocs failed to show up for a meeting on the 27th that Odeneal sent for the troops? They probably got it from Odeneal. Here is the letter he wrote the commander of the District of the Lakes on 25 November 1872 as it appears in Odeneal’s official report:
Sir: I am here for the purpose of putting the Modoc Indians upon this reservation, in pur­suance of an order from the honor­able commission­er of Indian affairs, a copy of which is as fol­lows: “You are directed to remove the Modoc Indi­ans to Klamath Reserva­tion, peaceably if you can, but forcibly if you must.”
I have requested the head men of the tribe to meet me at Link river on the 27th instant, at which time I shall en­deavor to persuade them to return to the reserva­tion. If they shall refuse to come volun­tari­ly, then I shall call upon you for a force suf­ficient to compel them to do so. They have some eighty well armed warriors, and I would sug­gest that as large a force be brought to bear against them at once as you can conveniently furnish, in the event it shall be determined that they cannot be removed peaceably.
Immediately after the conference referred to I will inform you of the result thereof, and in the meantime I have to request that all neces­sary preliminary arrange­ments be made for concen­trating the forces at your command, and having them ready for active operations.
The catch is, the letter actually received at the fort was different. In it Odeneal had written that he had called for a meeting with the Modoc leaders on the 28th, not the 27th, “at which time I shall endeavor to persuade them to return to Yainax at once. In the event they shall refuse to meet me, or shall refuse to come upon the reservation voluntarily, then I shall call upon you for a force suf­ficient to compel them to do so.” And after the sentence about the size of the force he had written, “This will, I think, overawe them, and probably render the shedding of blood unnecessary.” (The portions in bold have been excised from the doctored letter.) After the doctored letter Odeneal’s report continued blandly:
On the day appointed, in company with agent L. S. Dyer, I went to the place designated for the meet­ing, and there met the messengers, who reported that they had been to the camp of captain Jack’s band of Modocs, and had in­formed the head men of everything contained in my instructions, and besides had used every argument in their power to persuade them to meet me, or go upon the reser­vation.  That they pe­rempto­rily declined to do either.
Of course this never happened. By the 28th (the day actually appointed) Odeneal was on his way back to Salem, not waiting for Modoc emissaries. But Odeneal clearly thought he could get away with it—and he did get away with it for over a century.
The military authorities apparently expected a bit more from Thomas Odeneal. Specifically, they expected him to go out to Captain Jack’s village himself to talk with the Modocs directly, in the event that they failed to come to Link River to talk with him there. Major Jackson, who led the troops in the failed attempt to arrest the Modoc leaders, wrote that Odeneal had done so: “The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Mr. Odeneal, visited their village and tried to induce them to comply with the orders he had received…” Of course that never happened, as we know. Another officer involved in that same attempt wrote: “…Mr. Odeneal … sent word to Captain Jack of the Indians that he was at Linkville and to meet him there. Jack not responding, he was informed that Odeneal would be at Lost River two days later to talk to him. Instead of making preparations for his suggested meeting he despatched Mr. I. D. Applegate to Fort Klamath asking that troops be sent to move the Indians.”
The Modoc leaders likewise expected Odeneal at their camp in a few days. As they told reporters later on, Ivan Applegate had told them to expect somebody (presumably Odeneal) to show up and talk further with them. The previous Superintendent, Alfred Meacham, had in fact done just that a few years before in a partly successful attempt of the same sort. (The disaffected Modocs had in fact gone to Klamath reservation, but after a few months of constant conflict with the Klamaths the Modocs left en masse, including those who had already settled there.) The expected course of events by all concerned seems to have been that if the Modocs failed to show up at Linkville, Odeneal would go to their village on Lost River, and only if negotiations failed at that point would the troops be called in.  Instead, however, Odeneal threw in the towel at the first report from Agent Dyar and Ivan Applegate that the Modocs declined to meet with him, and immediately wrote out a request to send in the troops.
Obviously something happened to change his mind. Conceivably Odeneal coolly and rationally concluded that further negotiations were pointless, and that keeping his word to the Modoc leaders would be counter-productive, and in a moment of clarity dashed off the note that started the war. But I don’t think so. What I think happened is that Odeneal, on receiving the Modocs’ refusal to talk with him, just flat out lost his temper. I think he saw red, and from then on the course of action was determined. Like South Park’s Cartman he basically said Screw you guys, I’m going home. And that’s what he did.
Only afterwards, when the attempt to bring the Modocs to the reservation ended up in bloodshed and a protracted siege did Odeneal review his actions. I suspect that’s why he left out the part about calling for the troops if they refused to meet with him; in retrospect that may have seemed a bit petty. And I suspect that his belief that a show of force would overawe the disaffected Modocs was omitted because his prophecy proved so disastrously false, though he also insisted afterwards that he had expected a much larger force to be sent out. And in any case how the military elected to carry out their job was not his department, so to speak.
But this part at least is speculation. His reasons for changing the date of the projected meeting from the 28th to the 27th—the detail that has confused historians—though unrecorded, are obvious. The guy was covering his ass, like other bureaucrats appointed through political patronage to a job they were manifestly unsuited for. Michael D. Brown, when confronted by the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, would have understood.

27 November 2014

Fill in the Blank


I
 had things I planned to write today, but it’s American Thanksgiving, and I’ve just had the most meal-like food I’ve had in some time, so I’ve decided ust to sit here and quietly digest, like a lizard sunning herself under an incandescent bulb. It’s a quiet sort of day anyway, not one for running around and digging stuff up and rummaging through files in search of an elusive fact that has somehow managed to blend into the context.
Everyone who writes about the day seems to think he knows what he’s talking about—Thanksgiving has no connection with the recorded 1621 feast, it’s really about cultural appropriation and genocide, it’s just another over-commercialized religious holiday, and so on and so forth. I mean, yeah—sure—sort of. There are elements of truth in various assertions—even contradictory assertions—because, like any holiday, Thanksgiving is no one thing.
It’s just a time when by common agreement a lot of us simultaneously partake of a feast. We do it for a lot of different reasons—religious, secular, familial, economic—and it means different things to each different celebrant. I know I’m being trite here, but there really is no answer to what Thanksgiving really is. It’s a day off from work. It’s the time of the year when the family gathers back at grandma’s. It’s a reenactment of a long-ago moment when alien cultures met in peace instead of war. It’s a ritual in which we propitiate some supernatural entity by acknowledging its part in the bounty of the harvest. It’s an occasion when we go through the same empty ritual as everyone else and vaguely wonder why anybody bothers.
It’s all of these things. Or it’s something else altogether.
Happy Thanksgiving.

26 November 2014

Five Authors, a Plagiarist, and a Prophet


N
ow that I am bereft of my library (collected over half a century), my notes (some going back to childhood), and my photocopies (going back at least to high school), I find myself constantly going back to the sometimes dubious resources of Wikipedia. Mind you, it’s improved enormously since I first looked at it years ago, when its articles appeared to be written by junior high school kids doing unwelcome assignments and off-base more often than on.
Looking over the piece on the day (26 November) I was struck by how many people I have some interest in happened to be born today. (That’s probably true of virtually any day, really; today just happened to strike me for whatever reason.) Thus we see that Theophilus Cibber, Colley Cibber’s son, was born on this date in 1703. Among other things he adapted Romeo and Juliet for the tastes of the Restoration theater. His is not the famous adaptation (that would be Otway’s Caius Marius) nor the one that held the stage the longest (that would be Garrick’s version), but it is part of the era’s dramatic history. I remember making a special trip to read it years ago in some library’s rare book room; now you can download it from Google Books.
On this date in 1731 William Cowper was born. This guy was a poet, whose seminal work The Task would influence writers as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jane Austen. There’s a passage in it where he talks about “sober dreamers, grave and wise” who, for example, “write a narrative of wars and feats | of heroes little known, and call the rant, | An history.” (Guilty.) He passes on to biographers who “disentangle from the puzzled skein | In which obscurity has wrapp'd them up, | The threads of politic and shrewd design | That ran through all his purposes…” And my favorite, geologists who “driill and bore | The solid earth, and from the strata there | Extract a register, by which we learn | That he who mamde it and reveal'd its date | To Moses, was mistaken in its age.” (I love his confidence that it is the geologists who are mistaken, rather than those who vainly imagine that an ancient anthology of the folk tales of an obscure people is actually word from on high.) And then there are astronomers who “tell us whence the stars. Why some are fixt | And planetary some. What gave them first | Rotation, from what fountain flow'd their light.” (Their intellectual descendants have recently landed a probe on a comet. I wonder what Cowper would make of that.) It's all “learned dust” to Cowper: “And thus they spend | The little wick of life's poor shallow lamp, | In playing tricks with nature, giving laws | To distant world's, and trifling in their own.” I think we may well disagree about who was actually trifling here.
And speaking of triflers, it was on this date in 1827 that Ellen G. White, prophet and plagiarist, was born. It was during the wreckage of William Miller’s pipe-dreams in 1844 that she first came to notice with prophecies of reassurance for the scattered faithful. Largely copied from obscure pamphlets and forgotten tomes, they eventually grew into books themselves, such as the bizarre phantasmagoria The Great Controversy. (Although her copying of the works of others is well-documented, Wikipedia currently treats the fact as though there was some doubt about it. Power to the people, I guess.) White got a section in my lost book Doubtful History (a book to which I devoted countless hours of research and writing and which my family threw out like so much trash) due to her fantastic historical notions; when writing about the purely imaginary christians who supposedly kept her unhistorical faith she noted “The history of God’s people during the ages of darkness that followed upon Rome’s supremacy, is written in Heaven. But they have little place in human records. Few traces of their existence can be found ….” Faith like that moves mountains I guess—on paper, anyway.
On the other end of the human spectrum we have a true prophet, Norbert Wiener, born on this date in 1894. One of his books—I believe it must have been Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, was an enormous influence on my thinking when I was twelve or so. I never owned a copy of it, and the library refused to let me check it out (it’s too difficult for you, one librarian kindly explained), so I mostly read it there, taking notes and committing ideas to memory. I was originally interested in using feedback to design mechanisms that could mimic living organisms; I got intrigued with the whole notion of similarities among systems whether mechanical, organic, or social.
Also born on this date were Eugène Ionesco (1909), Frederik Pohl (1919), and Charles M. Schulz (1922)—a playwright, a novelist, and a cartoonist. Rhinoceros reflected my sense of detachment from the madness of surrounding society, Gladiator-at-Law (written with Cyril Kornbluth) my feelings abotut its power-structure, and But We Love You, Charlie Brown my impressions of the tragedy of life (“The laughter of little children” my ass). All of them moved me in some way to some degree during my (shall we say?) childhood. (Well, I think I was fourteen when I read Rhinoceros.)
None of these people maybe have anything real in common, only the false connection of sharing a common date of birth. But what the hell—it gave me something write about something to distract me from the horror of the present, during the dark hours when I should have been sleeping.

25 November 2014

“I Am Darren Wilson”

Lt. Ray Albers (from Wikipedia)

A
s the grand jury has finished up going through its appointed motions in the whitewashing of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenage boy in Ferguson Missouri, officers throughout the United States have been proclaiming their solidarity with the killer cop by putting out the logo, “I am Darren Wilson.” It seems like an odd point of pride. Are they also confessing—perhaps boasting—of the unarmed civilians they’ve killed? Or announcing their intention of killing unarmed civilians in the future? Or asserting their right to open fire on random members of the public? Or what?
I’ve got to say that I’m not really interested in what was going through Darren Wilson’s mind at the time of the incident, or what exact events led up to it. I’m not interested in whether the victim was a strong-arm robber or a model college-bound student. I’ll leave it to others to wade through the thousand pages of whitewash produced by the world’s worst stage-conjurer. (I can see the wires, goddamn it!) I don’t care that the laws of Missouri apparently allow an officer to use lethal force to effect an arrest. This killing shouldn’t have happened. It is a law-enforcement failure.
The focus shouldn’t be on Darren Wilson at all. The focus should be on reforming the Missouri systems—legal and otherwise—that allowed things to come to this pass.

24 November 2014

Pigs for Cronus, Goats for Dionysus


A
nd so as we wind down the road of darkness this year toward the inevitable winter solstice (at least those of us in the Northern Hemisphere) we come to the Roman holiday of Bruma, celebrated on this day in the time of Tertullian, a sort of bleak harbinger of the darker days to come. As time went on the Bruma was expanded to the Brumalia, a twenty-four day era ending neatly with the beginning of Saturnalia. I suppose in a primarily agricultural society you’ve got to invent things to do during the fallow times.
As there were twenty-four letters in the Greek alphabet each of the days could be correlated with one of them, and the custom was to throw a dinner for people whose name began with that letter. I don’t know how this worked in practice; it seems unlikely that a person would necessarily have only one friend with a name beginning with delta, for example. The prospect opens for slights and hurt feelings that could outlast the joyous season well into the darkness beyond.
But as far as I can tell the old pre-Byzantine festival was confined to this single day, and involved no such complicated scheme. I could easily be wrong; I’ve never looked at the primary sources on this thing, but have only accepted what standard reference works and stray scraps of forgotten papers have to say.
Sixth-century pop-historian John of Lydia tells us some interesting details of the thing. Farmers, he wrote, sacrificed pigs to Cronus and Demeter, civic officials would collect wine and honey and olive oil “and as many [products] of trees as endure and are preserved” for the priests of the Great Mother, and the vine-dressers—well, they had a bizarre custom. In honor of Dionysus they would kill goats, skin them, fill the skins with air and jump on them. Their excuse was that “the goat is the enemy of the vine”. It probably made some sort of sense at the time.
The festivities, he wrote, took place at night—not because the nights were long and the hours of darkness exceeded the hours of light, but because “in truth, the Brumalia are festivals of the subterranean daemones.” Nice to have a scientific explanation.

23 November 2014

Darkness and Bullshit


“T
he more people know about what’s happening, the harder it is to control them,” Lao-Tse put it two and a half millennia ago or so. And make no mistake about it—he was on the side of keeping people in the dark and feeding them bullshit. Lao-Tse would have hated the internet. How do you keep people in the dark when they can find out what is going on with the click of a button? You can still baffle them with crap, of course, burying key information under tons of of garbage, as the mad tea-partiers have figured out, but it is a problem that remains to be resolved in human affairs, as Judge Story might have observed, whether a nation can be permanent where keeping people uninformed and suppressing information constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable state. Future experience should settle the problem, I suppose.
Today is the International Day to End Impunity on the five-year anniversary of a mass murder in the Philippines in which thirty-four correspondents, editors, cameramen, writers, and other journalists were murdered by supporters of a thuggish politician who apparently figured this was the best way to influence the vote. (Mad tea-partiers take note! Why stop with merely suppressing the vote, when murder can put an end to voting altogether?) Their party seems to have expelled the (alleged) perpertrators, and the trial is still going on, despite the diminishing list of witnesses, whose mysterious murders continue to plague the prosecution.
According to the official site the day is intended “to demand accountability for the journalists, media workers, activists, lawyers and many others who have been targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and empower organisations, government bodies and individuals to help dismantle systems of impunity around the world.” It’s an uphill struggle. I live in a country where impunity is handed out like party favors to corrupt prosecutors who connive to sent the innocent to the death chamber, to high officials who order prisoners tortured in the name of national security, to companies that spy on their customers illegally at the behest of shady politicians, to celebrities who drug and rape young women for their private amusement, to businesses that poison our air and rivers and oceans, to criminals of all stripes and breeds and credos. It’s some comfort that the US hasn’t descended to the depths of the Philippines, I guess, but I’d feel a lot better if the city set on a hill was a beacon of light, rather than a den of darkness.

22 November 2014

The Broken Earphones Crisis


W
ords are failing me. It’s the end of another wasted day, in which the main feature has been the broken earphones crisis, which has forced me and one of my roommates to share earphones much in the manner the Graeae used to share their common eye. It’s raining here in Portland, and water runs over the sidewalks and into the gutters like small but substantial streams. That doesn’t affect me much here in my basement suite, but I know it’s going on, and the damp seeps in at least in spirit, if not in the physical realm.
And words continue to fail me. They’ve been failing me now for at least two years; as though my access to the realm of symbols had been somehow cut off—nonpayment of dues or something. Having my library tucked away in some metal chamber in a different state doesn’t help either. I reach for familiar volumes that aren’t here, and honestly the internet doesn’t help much in this. I had those volumes for a reason, and at least one of them is that the information in them isn’t readily available in other forms.
I keep hoping the words will come back. They haven’t so far, and forcing them to dance for me isn’t really working either. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; and so it goes. Maybe tomorrow. Sorry about that.
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