Island Life


There was an active advertising campaign by a certain car company at a time now many years passed, that was geared to urge Americans to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet”. It was the Chevrolet that was cast as the gleaming chariot that would carry anyone willing to buy into the Chevy dream straight out into the beckoning, golden sunset whilst taking in the natural wonders one might find just around any corner way out there in these United States. In the summer of 1964, it was indeed a white Impala station wagon that took my family from the suburbs of New York City to Colorado and Montana and the wilderness of British Columbia and back along the still under construction Trans-Canada highway and home again.

I kind of remember Denver and what seemed to be impossibly high step-ups from the street to the sidewalk, at least it seemed like a tall order for me at the time. I remember the Going to the Sun highway in Glacier National Park and my Mom freaking out at the drop-off at the edge of the road, with no guardrails to keep anyone from plummeting over the edge. I vaguely remember just barely getting over the province line into Yoho National Park in BC and how light it stayed late into the evening in August. This was the first of our family camping trips with our Apache tent trailer, and my Dad and I would regularly compete with ourselves in trying to best our set-up time at each camping stop. I also recall dealing with a set of mixed emotions as we headed off onto each gravel road, as they spelled both a bit of adventure with their primitive nature, while being cloaked with a bit of foreboding as well. At the age of eleven, this was my summer to learn how to change flat tires, since we had somewhere in the range of twelve or thirteen of them on this trip- both on the car and the trailer. It was a passing stranger with a patch kit and a pump that saved us one of those times out on the Trans-Can, when we had two flats at once from the sharpness of the crushed rock they were using for base material for the incipient highway where there still was no paving, and we found ourselves with only one spare that would never have gotten us to the next service station and tire repair.

But it was something else that I woke up to this morning, something that resides in that foggy, hazy, uncertain land of reminiscence- a transmission from an event that blew by me nearly sixty years ago. It was something that had a deeper resonance that lodged and logged it into my memory banks, and it went like this. I recall a turnout next to some big rocks, somewhere in the upper middle of these United States. It was in the middle of nowhere, and for some reason there where a couple of Native Americans in full Indian regalia and they had a horse and they were standing off to one side at the edge of the turnout parking. Some people- kids as I recall- were having their picture taken with the Indians. As all was being wrapped up and the people turned to walk away from their roadside Kodak moment, the Indian on the horse leaned over and held out his hand. I don’t recall words being exchanged, but perhaps there were. I remember the mother of the kids looking at the outstretched hand in disgust, opening her purse and pulling out what appeared to be a dollar. She walked over to the Indian on the horse and handed him the dollar, but let go of it just before he had a hold of it, and it floated to the ground as she turned and walked away. I think this was the first time I felt the shockwave of racial hatred, although I can’t say I identified it as such. It just seemed like a mean thing to do. On a primal level though I knew it was wrong, even if I didn’t understand it.

Leap forward from there to two years ago, somewhere east of San Francisco. I am cruising along in my Sportwagon, which curiously enough was the name of the car we had when my family went on its second cross-country jaunt, although neither car, then or now, was or is a Chevy. I was heading east, following in reverse the route that Horace Greeley took in a westward direction in 1859 from New York to San Francisco. The plan had been, using Greeley’s book that recorded his travels, ‘An Overland Journey’, that I would try to find where Greeley had gone and do a kind of then and now type video documentary. This had seemed like a good idea, and still seems to be in one way or another. But something snapped as I was passing through the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and I came to the realization that I was a white guy following a white guy who had spent most of his life telling people to ‘go west young man’, all with the assumption that anything one came upon along that westward way, be it farmland or timber or Pike’s Peak gold was just there for the taking, in complete disregard of a native population whose home it all had been for millenia. It seemed that that part of the story needed to be told as well.

And so it was that I started digging, and what I kept noticing in my readings is something I have mentioned here before but had previously never heard of- the Doctrine of Discovery. The essence of it was set forth in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, and what it said was that any lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be “discovered”. Coming from papal pen to paper, just a year after Columbus “discovered” America, it stated that by decree, Indians could occupy the land that they always had, but they had no right to ownership, and in the end that occupancy right could be abolished as well. Wow, thank you Jesus.There was also a stipulation that “the barbarous notions of the peoples of the discovered lands should be overthrown and that those peoples should be brought to the faith”. In 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion for the majority in a unanimous decision in the US Supreme Court case of Johnson vs. M’Intosh (McIntosh) which set a judicial precedent using the discovery doctrine, stating that where it had been established that because Great Britain had to give up the right of US land ownership to the US government after independence had been declared by those darned colonists, that the land here could originally only be purchased from the US government, and that any tribe, though occupying the land, had no right to sell it to anyone but the US government.

It has come to be noticed in some corners of the internets recently that, regarding removal of names and statuary of confederate soldiers and heroes,  William Lewis Maury, for whom Maury Island was named in 1841, spent some time as an officer in the Confederate navy. As a career naval officer and having been born in Virginia, not to make excuses or dole out absolution from guilt, it seems that choosing to serve the one’s native South in that conflict was probably expected and was what other military men did as well. History is cursed with the context of the times and leaves us with the dilemma of judging the actions of a then with the wisdom of the now. It is in fact yet another of the problems I have had with dealing with the Greeley story. On my first trip following his trail two years ago, I wound up in my home town of Chappaqua, which is where Greeley had a farm, and is why I decided to find out more about him and his 1859 journey. While I was there, I was sitting in a pub having dinner, and a shot of Greeley’s statue, precisely where I had been that morning, came on the big screen news over the bar. It turned out that one of the seniors at Horace Greeley High School was suing the school board over some racist, disparaging comments that he attributed to Greeley, and he was suggesting that the school be renamed for someone else. As it was, Greeley did make the statement saying that blacks were an inferior race. It is also true that Greeley was one of, if not the leading advocate of the day for the abolition of slavery, and from all I have read it appears that if Greeley had not been as persistent with bugging Abraham Lincoln about issuing Proclamation 95, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, it might not have ever seen the light of day.

This is another part of the Greeley story that still does not make sense to me, at least in today’s terms, with the modern enlightened view sitting in direct conflict with a norm of the past. Greeley dedicates an entire chapter in his book to mostly denigrating the image of the American Indian. In many ways it makes no sense to support basic human rights for one group of people and not for another. This is the crux of my problems with moving ahead with telling the Greeley story. It is as simple and complex as do unto others as you would have others do unto you. It is hard to understand now that that was not understood then, except that in many ways it appears that we still don’t get it. From Black Lives to the police to civil rights to human rights to human health, its all pretty complicated right now, but in many ways we are being given an unprecedented opportunity to hold it all up to the light and see where we are and where we might be going. Things are changing- something I wasn’t thinking about saying just a few days ago. In fact, my overall feeling has been that given the downward spiral of most everything lately, it mostly seemed like we are pretty much doomed. Somewhat more than to the contrary though, I chanced to watch a fascinating discussion about defunding the police and funding social services last night on the Daily (social distancing) Show last night of all places, and while it is too much to discuss here, it is perhaps the one thing of late that has given me hope. We will see if it all continues, because it also seems, as of late, that the only alternative is that it all won’t.