Saturday, November 28, 2009

blackhawk, my mother and me - introduction

the long weekend gave me time to get serious about a story that i’ve long known i had to tell. it involves family, art, irony, and celebration of the life of a very special 19th century indian warrior - and a genuine story line.
makataimeshekiakiak, [in english: blackhawk or black sparrow hawk] a sauk, lived from 1767 to 1838 in the parts of the midwest that became wisconsin, illinois and iowa. then and now he has been described as one of the most famous of indian ‘chiefs’, but he was not a hereditary chief. his military exploits involved continuing defense of traditional lands and ways. his last battle was a defeat by a numerically superior force that included 2 future american presidents and jefferson davis in the infamous ‘blackhawk war’ of 1832. after his defeat andrew jackson attempted to humiliate him by forcing him to tour as a captive in white man’s clothes but he became more of an icon than jackson during the tour. his life is recorded in an autobiography, at least one biography,and more images than you can imagine.
but i knew nothing of all this 20 years ago when i first found my way to a now longtime super favorite painting in the gilcrease museum in tulsa. the painting was of two somewhat similar indian men against an unusual black background which emphasized their images. the older of the two was in formal whiteman’s garb; the younger was in traditional or warrior’s garb. the painting was the work of one john wesley jarvis and was entitled ‘black hawk and his son, whirling thunder’. my love of the work resulted in regular returns to it and my almost always having at least a small copy somewhere around my home. but it did not result in my pursuit of blackhawk, the man.
meanwhile, my mother and i maintained a dialogue about the white oklahoman indian creation myth*. originally she maintained the classic oklahoma indian ‘heritage story’ - descent from a cherokee princess. she slowed down on the story when i told her the flaws in these claims from indian people’s point of view and my own. but somewhere along the way she started speaking of a new, apparently more sophisticated, story. i didn’t pay much attention but tried to explain when she received what she considered an offensive/offended response to her letter repeating a new family myth about an ancestor from a distinguished ‘chief’ of a different tribe. at the time of her death it was one of our few areas of active misunderstanding and disagreement. after her death i found the sources of the claim including her research materials on the chief and her written summary. who was that ‘chief’ - blackhawk, of course.
today i began a blog journey to tell the story. the family part deserves a little time, but blackhawk deserves much more. so stay tuned for bwendo, the accidental historian. meanwhile here’s my first slideshow including the painting of blackhawk and whirling thunder, an image of blackhawk with some of his words, a bad copy of the response letter from a blackhawk descendant, a picture of my mother and me when the blackhawk blues band played for my last best birthday party and a picture of my very impressive great aunt who was supposed to be an example of the ‘indian look’ in my ancestors.

*a sly reference to the nonindian habit of labeling indian traditional stories of creation as ‘myths’.
see,e.g., this from a people many of whom refuse to believe science based explanations of their own evolution preferring to rely on words in a 2000 year old religious text.

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