Monday, January 13, 2014

Ration tickets punched with a cross at the Smithsonian

Last Friday, the University of Denver Committee on John Evans and the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre met with 6 descendants of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes whom Evans and Chivington murdered. Some of them have been fighting for over 20 years to get the Sand Creek Massacre memorial created near Eads, Colorado - see Ari Kelman's The Misplaced Massacre, and here and here - and to get the truth out. The Massacre - the "removal" of Cheyennes and Arapahoes from Colorado - was a special part of the larger genocide all across the country. It struck against indigenous people who were determined to make peace and thought they had. Uniquely, Sand Creek has been recognized even by the perpetrators of aggression (wars of conquest) and ethnic cleansing generally as a slaughter of innocents.


The Sand Creek Massacre Memorial is the one monument of the US army/American government to a horror it committed. It is commendable for this reason, even though the story behind it, one of genocide across the Continent, is still deeper and uglier.


The courage and determination of the tribal representatives is palpable. To discuss Sand Creek, particularly among descendants for whom it is a living thing (it should be for all of us), is spiritually difficult. For to speak of Sand Creek is to relive the memories.

A 5 year old grandchild of one of the representatives had heard the stories and said to him movingly:

"The white people killed all my grandpa's indians. White people wanted the land. That is why they are all under the ground now."


Otto Braidedhair of the Northern Cheyenne and David Halaas, historian and longtime activist on this issue, went to the Smithsonian last year to retrieve and finally bury skulls of people murdered at Sand Creek. For pay, some "soldiers" had cut the heads off their victims and sent the skulls to Washington where they were used for "craniometry" - skull measurements alleged to prove a supposed "primitiveness," a predecessor to IQ testing and eugenics. See here and here. Racists need pseudoscience to enable them to look in the mirror (otherwise, they are just aggressors and murderers...) and the skull collecting and "thinking" were part of this.


As Glenn Morris wrote to me, the Smithsonian still has some 20,000 skulls. There is a national act - NAGPRA - to repatriate stolen body parts of indigenous people for burial.

In this case, however, Otto and David were able to retrieve the skulls. Some representatives of the Smithsonian are trying to do the right thing, make the institution less horrific (see the story of the Iliff library's theological text wrapped in human skin here...).


There has been a turn, for many people, in recognizing that Manifest Destiny was a horror, and the supposed "exceptionalism" or "idealism" of American "foreign" policy - these first inhabitants from whom the land was stolen were long not treated as having American "rights," as foreigners - will not survive this evidence. We have come to a turning point in our society, where we might recognize the truth of what was done and resolve to go forward, as best we can, as a serious, multiracial society in which the stories of each person are acknowledged and the dark history which still afflicts us rejected.


William Least Heat Moon also wrote a searing article, commendably for the Smithsonian Magazine, beginning to recognize what the Smithsonian was and to a large extent, still is. The article focuses on the Smithsonian's holding of a ticket for inadequate rations - often, starvation rations - and in fact, a sign of genocide, the replacement of the food of a people, the bison, with a stale and unnourishing substitute - on the reservation.(h/t Ava Hamilton) Woman's Dress, an Oglala Sioux, held a ticket for rations for 9 and tried to give it some Native American character. But as Least Heat Moon says, those rations are a grim substitute for the buffalo, which General Phillip Sheridan called for slaughtering to force those tribes he had not yet slaughtered off the Plains.

Those of us in Denver, crossing Sheridan Blvd. (Sheridan Blvd, Evans Blvd, Downing Blvd; few are the streets in Denver that do not "honor" genocide), might recall this...


Last Heat Moon makes this point about these tickets, without even knowing about the Smithsonian's collection of skulls.

These are signs of genocide (I mean this in the technical sense of the UN Convention against Genocide, the deliberate destruction of a people in whole or in part). The "niceness" of these exhibits is like some German collection of charming Jewish property taken from ghettoes including some lampshades of human skin. The American Holocaust - David Stannard's term - is a precise parallel and deserves not to be forgotten; one might otherwise falsely think the Smithsonian a nice place...


For a photograph of the ration card, see here.

"From the article below: 'The lower third of the ticket, once imprinted with the dates for collecting rations, shows each numeral punched out with a hole in the shape of a cross.'


Max Aguilera-Hellweg
This ration ticket couldn’t come close to replacing the traditions of the Plains tribes.

The Ration Card: Ugly Renmant of How U.S. Decimated Indian Culture

William Least Heat-Moon

Of the some 136 million objects and specimens in the grand Smithsonian collections, most carry an implied positive energy, or a promise of better things to come, or sometimes just simple joy. But there are also, though fewer, things of a darker mien, artifacts revealing caliginous corners of American history, including one so unimposing in size and materials as to appear insignificant; you could slip it into a shirt pocket, forget it’s there and run it through to its destruction in the wash.

About the size of a business card or a major-league bleachers ticket, this little piece of heavy, printed paper is the federal government’s substitute for the bison of the Great Plains, that source of life and culture that unknown thousands of aboriginal Americans depended on for generations beyond counting. Until the ghost dance generation—the one that kissed the old life goodbye to face an enemy future—the tribes that dominated the grasslands for 8,000 years fought most of their battles over bison hunting grounds. The red people ate bison, dressed in bison, imitated and talked to bison, and died for and by the sacred bison.

This ration ticket, this seeming inconsequential token of conquest and devastation, is the graphic expression of an 1883 act of Congress that furthered the appropriation of Indian lands west of the Missouri by moving tribal peoples onto assigned reservations, where, proclaims the act, “they may live after the manner of white men.” The reality was something else. The enforced reservation system meant native, nomadic tribes could live neither like white men—unless those whites were indigents—nor like the red men they had so recently been.

The ration ticket shown here was issued in the mid-1880s to someone called Woman’s Dress (perhaps, though not certainly, a female head of family), a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe quartered on the Pine Ridge reservation in the southwest corner of what is today South Dakota. Pine Ridge in our time lies almost in the shadow of Mount Rushmore and its four granite presidential physiognomies, none of whom would have perceived the sorrow resident in this paper faux-bison. The penned numeral nine probably indicates Woman’s Dress was allowed to draw rations of beef—and, also when available, beans, corn, flour, salt, and occasionally sugar, coffee, soap and tobacco—for nine dependents each Saturday.

Never mind that the flour and grains sometimes had gone moldy or that most of the Indians found the taste of beef no match for the rich flavor of bison. For these foreign and sorry substitutions, Indian men no longer able to support themselves sometimes had to perform labor. An Oglala Lakota once memorably said to me, “They take our land, they take our hunting and then they force us to work for food that made us sick.”

When this ticket was issued, the Plains bison had largely been exterminated, an extirpation heavily assisted by white hunters who would slaughter bison for nothing more than the delicacy of its tongue or merely for the pleasure of the kill. In the winter of 1884, government rations were so deficient on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana, the people suffered from malnutrition: A quarter of them died of starvation. They couldn’t eat paper.

Perhaps it was Woman’s Dress who decorated the ticket with a rawhide thong partly wrapped with dyed porcupine quills and finial cones of tin. I see that craft as an attempt to give it a touch of cultural meaning once rendered to a real bison, an attempt to turn a piece of bureaucracy and (ironically)redtape into something at least suggesting the sacred. Not uncommonly, Plains Indians also made beautifully decorated, cow-leather pouches to carry and protect their tickets. With quills and tin, the people tried to put a benign face on a graphic token of a blatantly imperialistic action worked upon those who had lived on the land for 15,000 years.

The lower third of the ticket, once imprinted with the dates for collecting rations, shows each numeral punched out with a hole in the shape of a cross. Whether that figure is deliberate, I don’t know, but it surely appears symbolic.

The degree of genuine humanity and generosity behind the rationing system is revealed by a remark in the 1850 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: “It is, in the end, cheaper to feed the whole flock for a year than to fight them for a week.” Two years later, Gen. E. D. Townsend wrote in his California Diary of the Indians facing pressure from the 1849 gold rush: “If the tale of the poor wretches...could be impartially related, it would exhibit a picture of cruelty, injustice, and horror scarcely surpassed by that of the Peruvians in the time of Pizarro.”
A memoirist and novelist of English, Irish and Osage ancestry, William Least Heat-Moon says his research into 1880s Indian ration tickets was 'some of the saddest work I’ve ever done.'

This piece originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of SMITHSONIAN Magazine.

All Content © 2014 Indian Country Today Media Network, LLC"

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