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Across the wide swath of flaming maples, I glimpsed bloodied feet of the Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Cherokees, and Seminole, five civilized tribes in the southeast, forced by our government to walk the Trail of Tears, between 1830 and 1850—their destination, the barren reservations in Oklahoma.

At the time, protesters lobbied, published, shouted out, lectured from pulpits and courtrooms, but the planters won. Cotton remained King, gobbling up nutrients from stolen lands, viewed as sacred by the tribes who had tended them. Such is our scarred history that greedily wants what it wants, but we are not alone.

The precedent of ethno-cleansing has fueled unspeakable atrocities throughout the world. With others, I cry, “Mercy!”

Searching for words to review this biography, Sarah Winnemucca (2001), written by the political historian Sally Zanjani, was hard, due to my superficial grasp of the Native American plight.

Born around 1844 within the Paiute in western Nevada, she was named Thocmentony, meaning Shell Flower. During her early years, she thrived upon the four-thousand-year mythology, traditions, and customs of this desert tribe, roaming in bands, ever in search of food: its focus led to their peaceful and generous nature.

What gives depth to this narrative is the author’s use of primary materials that activated my imagination. I was privy to the dismemberment of an ancient spiritual culture with the encroachment of Anglo-American settlers, of prospectors searching for gold, and agents from the government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Bloody skirmishes abound. Even Thocmentony was renamed Sarah because no one could not pronounce her name, a name, however that gave her access to the white world.

Fluent in English, Spanish, and three native dialects, the Paiutes, the U. S. Army, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought Sarah’s services as interpreter and as messenger. But her interventions did not curtail continuous bloodshed among the Paiutes and the settlers, a lei-motif of this tragic story. Occasional glimpses of Sarah’s notorious sharp tongue and wit and her love of performance as a circuit speaker in the northeast did afford me breathing space.

This biography, Sarah Winnemucca, has roused my compassion for the Native Americans who used to roam the hills and woodlands and waterways of Missouri where I was born. It’s time I learned about them.

“$300 Reward! Run away. An intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, named Harriet, 21 years of age. Five feet four inches high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl, but can be made straight. Has a decayed spot on front tooth. She can read and write, and in all probability will try to make it to the Free States….” Such was the advertisement posted in every public place in Edenton, North Carolina by her owner, a sadistic physician who lusted after her. This was in 1834.

For the next seven years Harriet Jacobs hid in the crawl space of her grandmother’s porch not far from the home of the physician and his wife and children until friends arranged her passage to New York. How she and her two children eventually gained their freedom fill the pages of this slim memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in1861 by Thayer and Eldrige of Boston.

Unlike other narratives composed by former slaves, Harriet’s witnesses to the evil of the Master-woman slave bondage, the latter, perceived as chattel to be abused or sold or killed. Only adherence to her grandmother’s principles sustained Harriet through chilling hardships.

Such testimony speaks to the evil that many women still experience, caught within the cross-hairs of men’s lust, an evil that damages psyches, often irreparably.

 

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