Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Searching out pathways where the jimson weed stands tall

When one hikes in a prairie transition zone, sometimes the open spaces can be nothing but tall jimson weed and raging grass. The trail turns elusive in this part of the hike--barely a slender filament in the broad expanse of grass. In inland California, in the high desert Antelope Valley, the grass rolls in Spring like a roiling sea, excepting that the sea does not contain lily pads which bloom in golden poppies. But on an open north Texas field of weeds, it's just grasses and stubby wildflowers until one gets to the small horizon of stubby trees.

We spend a lot of time talking about the 'natural' beauty of these outdoor spaces, but in fact this patch of nature is comprised of much that is invasive and imported. The original bluestem blackland prairie was long ago broken up, to make farms and graze cattle. The wild native grasses now live on sparse reservations, set aside by governmental authorities as showpieces of how the land once appeared. But even though the "new" grasses, trees and flowers all around me include many that do not "belong" here, the entire landscape still seems natural and free to me.

My part of Texas is the transition zone at the edge of the Grand Prairie, which stretches from Texas upward through Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Colorado, and even into the Dakotas and Montana. This is the area in which seas of grasses still grow,some native, some invasive. Once my part of Texas was the shore of a great sea, where dinosaurs plodded and great lizards swam. When the first Europeans came, my part of Texas was a rolling array of native grasses, in which bison roamed freely and native American tribes lived on a broad expanse without horses.

All the romance of these past times has been reduced to memory, though, which we visit on weekends at county museums. We speak of times less than a century and a half ago as formative history. We barely record the native peoples we displaced to move here. In an earlier time, Oklahoma was the "Indian Territory", the place to which native peoples were exiled, ranging from the peaceful and financially prosperous Cherokee in Georgia (forced to migrate overland on a "trail of tears") to the war-like and largely non-assimilated Comanche. This territory was given by native Americans exiled there by treaty, unti in 1907, Oklahoma was thrown open to Anglo homesteaders, who made the famed "Sooner run" to grab the best non-reservation land.

The demarcations of the remaining Oklahoma native American reservations was largely handled by government officials. In some cases, one could justly accuse them of selecting land which seemed to have less favorable prospects for the reservations, while other lands with more favorable agricultural prospects were given over to the Anglo migration. Our American pattern of ethnic cleansing was so contradictory that by the turn of the 20th Century, we moved people into the separate place we'd created for native Americans.

The parable arises in the story of the Osage. The Osage originally lived along the Osage River in Missouri. They moved into Oklahoma to follow the bison. When the federal government forced the Cherokee to resettle near Osage country, ethnic violence broke out among the two peoples. Ultimately, the federal government, always patriarchally trying to administer the lives of people whose land had been taken, forced the Osage to cede back to the government most of the Osage lands. Osage were settled in Osage County, a far cry from the broad range of this people. The "sooner" migration of Anglos to Oklahoma soon placed much of the good agricultural land in the hands of Anglos. Oklahoma, for those who have never visited, is an incredibly beautiful state--Ozark mountains in the southeast, dense woodlands alternating with prairie in the north, and wild prairie punctuated by mountains and plattes in the west.

The parable arises in Osage County, as it turned out that a massive oil deposit was underneath this otherwise undesirable land. The Osage became for a time frighteningly, immmensely wealthy. We're talking Beverly Hillbillies wealthy. I take some great meaning about the irony of life from these inadvertent oil barons, who once roamed after bison, but now control a massive oil deposit that they would never have gotten had people realized what oil would come to mean.

I wish all life contained such delicious irony, but I am afraid that my stories are not all so favorable. My part of Arkansas was settled by two peoples--the Quapaw and the Caddo. Both were largely peaceful agricultural tribes, which in the main welcomed the Europeans. But by 1820, 45,000 acres of Quapaw land just south of the Arkansas River were bought by the United States government for 18 thousand dollars. The Quapaw were forced to move to Oklahoma, where their crops failed repeatedly. They dwindled from a tribe that controlled a broad swath of land to a tribe that controlled a sliver of northeastern Oklahoma. Some mineral deposits existed on their lands, which ameliorated their situation, but in general they are much diminished.

The Caddo were a group of related but distinct nations throughout Arkansas and Texas. Their largest concentration lived near Caddo Lake, Texas' huge natural lake in the piney woods. When they were forced by Anglo incursion and discrimination to move to Oklahoma, they settled with the Wichita, which were a related set of tribes which had sundered centuries earlier from the Caddo. During the Civil War, the Caddo and the Wichita had to flee to Missouri, because they supported the Union side whereas many of the Oklahoma native peoples supported the Confederate side. Now they live in western Oklahoma, to which they are not native, on plains country.

When I stand on these seas of invader grasses, it does not escape me that I, too, am an invader. In their turn, the native Americans were invaders, as their migration is but thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of years old.

I believe that in this country we do not face the moral problems rife in our western expansion in the ways that we could. Our histories now belittle "manifest destiny", but they do not call for social justice today. Although some efforts are underway in the courts and in the Congress to restore to native Americans their treaty rights, we have not had the recognition of native rights which our neighbors in Canada have had. I do not believe it is realistic to "undo" the settlement of the United States. But I wonder how hard it would be for corporations to locate businesses near native American reservations, and how hard it would be to pay some form of reparation for wrongs done. I tend to believe that both native American and African-American reparations are not efficiently done by government, as the issue is so divisive. But surely a better job can be done to make up for the invasions which displaced these peoples.

Meanwhile, though, I hike on grasses from the east and Europe,through lands broken up for farming and cows. I fish in man-made lakes, and watch tract home neighborhoods move up the Central Expressway. I am searching for a natural pathway through the grass, but I do not believe that any of us--really, any of us--really belong here. I don't think we should all move or anything, but I do wonder if we can't make things a bit more right.
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