June 20, 2005

Into the West

By Demosophist

I'm slowly becoming enraged as I watch Stephen Spielberg's latest epic Into the West, which purports to recount the history of a family in Virginia as they migrate westward and merge with the native Americans they encounter. It's hard for me to put my finger on what it is that bothers me about Spielberg's tale, but the essence of the problem is that it's inauthentic. And it's not one single thing that gives me that impression, but more like the fact that I grew up in a family in which the pioneering generation was only once removed from my own. Therefore, the stories really weren't that old when I heard them recounted by people who actually knew the principals. I actually knew my great grandmother, who had become the matriarch of the family by the time I was old enough to toddle around. I actually touched the bridge to that past so inauthentically recounted by Spielberg.

My great great grandfather was born in 1831 in Hemstead County Arkansas, into a family of eleven children. He lived with his parents on the farm until 1854 when he got a job as a "bull-whacker" driving an ox team to California. In the sanitized version of the story he simply returned to Arkansas in 1860, without explanation. According to my grandfather, however, he had fallen in with another Arkansan who was making his living as a "horse thief," and when the predation business got too tough this fellow convinced my ancestor to return to Arkansas with him, on the promise that if he did so he could have his pick of a litter of the fellow's sisters. In reality they weren't his sisters, but wards of his parents. The girls had lost their parents during a migration from Tennessee to Arkansas, and had been informally adopted by this fellow's family. So in his mind they were, sort of, his property and he could dispense them as assets.

At any rate my forbear ultimately made his choice, a stern young woman named Rebecca, whom he married in 1861. Shortly after that he and three brothers were conscripted by force into the Confederate Army: the 35th Arkansas Regiment. They served grudgingly, to say the least, until during the middle of January in 1863 one of the brothers was killed. It's not clear whether he died during a battle, but at any rate the three surviving brothers decided they'd had enough fighting for the Confederacy, and lit out with the army in hot pursuit. And I do mean hot. Apparently one of the three, John, was wounded during the chase and died a short time later at his home, at the age of 18. Two of their sisters, ages 16 and 17, were apparently killed during the same violent encounter with the Confederate establishment, but he and Rebecca escaped and headed to Washington State, where they became homesteaders. My grandfather said that the old fellow was "the most hard working man I have ever known." My guess is that he wasn't exaggerating, and that my great great grandfather was really running from that disaster he had barely escaped, for the rest of his life. No doubt he considered hard work a small price to pay.

There's a lot to this story, and I suspect it's not atypical. It's paralleled by many others of the time, but there really isn't much grist for a "politically correct" yarn. When you look at pictures of Joseph and Rebecca it's clear that they were rather stern folk to say the least. Their religion is listed in a number of documents as "evangelical," so I don't imagine that would pass Hollywood's ancestral heroes standard either. And though "decent," the life they led was hardly idyllic. Homesteaders of that era tended to just work themselves to death... which is what one had to do just to keep from going under. One could lose everything with a single bad crop. There aren't many people around now with much appreciation for what that was like, but I know a few hippies who tried homesteading in the '60s and they starved and froze for over a decade before they achieved any sort of stability in their lives. And homesteading in the 1860s must have been considerably more difficult than homesteading in the 1960s, one would imagine.

Into the West is supposedly about a kind of multigenerational, multi-ethnic family epic that must have been a rare exception, if it ever happened at all. Not that there weren't examples of intermarriage between native Americans and white settlers, but the conditions of such merges must have been incredibly difficult and they hardly coursed through the vital guts of either culture. They were fringe histories, and to learn the lessons that such stories have to tell us it's important to represent them accurately. To look at Spielberg's depiction of the Lakota and Cheyenne one would think that the two cultures would have met on equal footing had it not been for the intervention of a few evil men. But the unfortunate truth is that both cultures were naturally brutal, and of the two the native American culture had no moral advantage. It just wasn't as lethal, in the end. When, for instance, the Lakota managed a victory over Custer they savagely mutilated "survivors" leaving them to die in agony, with their scalps, genitals, arms and legs removed.

This is not the stuff of which great PC myths are made. Nor did my great great grandfather desert the Confederacy out of any sense of affiliation for the noble Union cause, although it was no accident that the South filled its ranks with abductees. That was, after all, the nature of the virus. (It's what the "insurgents" are currently doing in Iraq.) Of late the fashion has been to paint the Confederacy in mellower tones, if only to avoid the implication that there's such a thing as a "just war." How convenient. If we understood the Civil War on this level it would become difficult to avoid comparing the anti-war Democrats of that day, the Copperheads, with our present antiwar movement. And it would be impossible to avoid the insight that both seem to suffer from the same lack of moral clarity about the great evil of their own era. There is simply no way to give this story the PC slant it needs, without perpetrating a deep lie.

(Cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia and Anticipatory Retaliation)

By Demosophist at 01:03 AM | Comments |