Last Updated on January 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
In the prologue, the author reflects upon Native American history, much of it unknown in typical American culture. In 1621, new colonists invited Massosoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, to a feast to celebrate a land deal. This meal became the basis for modern American Thanksgiving celebrations. Two years later, another meal of friendship was arranged, and two hundred Native Americans died that night from an unknown poison. Massasoit’s son, Metacomet, enjoyed no friendly relations with the colonists. He was forced to sign a peace treaty giving up all Native American guns, and his brother was likely poisoned by Plymouth court. This led to war that lasted for three years; at its conclusion, Metacomet was on the run. He was captured, quartered, and beheaded. His hand was kept in a jar which people paid to view; his head was put on a spike and carried through the streets of Plymouth.
In 1637, hundreds of Pequot gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists surrounded the village, set it on fire, and shot anyone trying to escape from the flames. Afterward, the governor declared a day of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving celebrations were common after “successful massacres,” and in Manhattan there was once a celebration which included kicking the heads of Pequot people through the streets.
The author recounts a Cheyenne story about a man who came home one day to find his wife in the lake, locked in an embrace with a water monster. He cut her up and fed her to his children. His son, who was still nursing, thought the meat tasted like his mother; their daughter believed it to simply be venison. As they ate, a head rolled into the room. They all ran, but the head kept following them, through thorns and rocky places. Finally it came to a stream and drank all the water. The rolling head needed more of anything and everything, so it kept rolling.
Native Americans have been “defined by everyone else.” Kevin Costner has saved them. John Wayne has slain them. An Italian actor plays their role in movies and commercials. They have been turned into logos and mascots, reduced to a feathered image. Their heads appear on everything from jerseys to coins. Yet the truth of history is now “out of circulation.”
Native Americans have grown up with stories about massacres. They have learned how Native Americans were mowed down with howitzers at Sand Creek; Colonel John Chivington came to kill women, children, and elders while men were away to hunt. They were told to fly an American flag, so they flew one along with a white flag of surrender. Yet they were still mutilated. Militia cut off their ears and scalped their hair. They “tore unborn babies out of bellies” and then broke those babies’ heads against trees. Native American body parts were taken as trophies and displayed in downtown Denver. When Colonel Chivington danced with dismembered Native American body parts, it was quite a celebration.
It was assumed that moving Native Americans to cities was the final step in assimilation, or the “five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign.” Instead, Native Americans weren’t lost in the city sprawl of tall buildings—they found each other and started up Indian Centers. They learned to share their powwows, dances, songs, and beadwork. They went to school and joined the armed forces. They did not move to cities to die. Cities took in Native Americans as part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, with an effort to simply make Native Americans disappear. Yet that isn’t what happened. Instead, this group of...
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people came by choice with goals of their own: starting over, making money, seeking new experiences. And after World War II and Vietnam, the city often seemed a more appropriate place for vets to settle because the noise of the city became easier than the quiet of a reservation.
Native Americans are urban now not just because they live in cities but because they live online. They used to be called “sidewalk Indians” if they didn’t live on a reservation, dismissed as superficial and cultureless. Yet they survive just as their ancestors survived; feelings from these ancestors “bloom unexpectedly” in their blood, making them sing, pray, and dance the way they do.
Native Americans didn’t stop moving when the first bullets were fired upon them and didn’t stop when those bullets reached their bones and hearts. Instead, those first bullets became “the promise of what was to come, the speed and the killing.” The consequences of those bullets can still be felt landing on their bodies.
An “Urban Indian” is of a generation born in the city. Still, the Urban Indian is connected to the earth because cities are part of the earth. Nonliving things are not excluded from being a product of the earth. Urban Indians feel at home in large cities, becoming comfortable with skylines instead of mountain ranges. They know the sound of a freeway better than rivers and the howl of trains better than those of wolves. This isn’t “traditional” Native American life, but reservations themselves aren’t traditional, either. After all, “nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed.” Orange concludes in his prologue that being Indian is not dependent on a return to “the land,” because the land exists everywhere or nowhere.