Sunday, September 15, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Riding Alone into Indian Country

The trouble with Westerns is, that they are too in love with misconceptions about their aesthetic to come to grips with history.

The genre is long overdue for a renaissance. It's probably true that the vein of macho white male stories is pretty much mined out, but that leaves huge numbers of characters, equally macho, but less white and/or less male, with dumbfounding stories to tell.

Consider the story of the man known to his neighbors as (I'm sorry) "Nigger Britt" Johnson.

In 1864, Mr. Johnson was technically a slave, but had a large degree of autonomy, working freight, and was away from home when the Elm Creek Raid (a story that wants telling in itself) blew through, killed his son, and took his wife and two daughters off with him.

The usual pattern of Indian raiding on the Texas frontier at this time was that the Indians would strike, the local home guard unit or other miscellaneous available adult men would try to follow them, the Indians would vanish (often dispersing into terrain that's as difficult and confusing as any on earth), and the pursuers would either come home in a day or two, bitter and frustrated, or find another set of Indians with no connection to the raiders and massacre them to make themselves feel better. In 1864, the home guard units were understaffed, underfunded, and continually being raided for conscription into an increasingly desperate Confederate Army.

So Johnson came back, looked the situation over, and rode off into the west, by himself, armed with a gun whose percussion caps were as likely to misfire as not, because the local manufacturing facilities (i.e. kitchens) couldn't get the right materials, to look for his surviving family.

He got them back, too, as well as some of his white neighbors. There are people who'll tell you he didn't, that that's just a story, but excuse me, when did Reconstruction-era Texas ever go out of its way to invent a story to glorify black people? Never, that's when! And if he didn't personally ransom anybody, nobody can deny that he went out there, when other people with motivation just as great did not, and gave it his best shot.

It's a little hard for a modern reader to comprehend exactly how gutsy this was, because we're no longer raised on Indian atrocity stories. Which in a way is a shame, because although only hearing Indian atrocity stories is bad, alternating the Indian atrocity stories with the white ones is immensely productive. For one thing, many atrocity stories about one side are also, properly told, stories of extreme courage and resourcefulness about the other. A good solid dose of true stories about the savage guerrilla conflicts, no holds barred on either side, called collectively The Indian Wars, is the best corrective I know of to the myth of White Hats vs. Black Hats. If you read what Europeans did to Indians, and Indians did to Europeans, and what subsets of both groups did to other subsets within the same overall group, and how they overlapped and absorbed and spat each other out, you find yourself on a sympathy rollercoaster and eventually wash up on the shores of reality feeling shaky and staring down the evil in your species and realizing, once and for all, that everybody's history is guilty and all we can do is deal with that, admit it, and proceed to do better.

Anyway, from Johnson's point of view he was riding into country teeming with well-equipped, well-organized enemies with no motive not to shoot him on sight, except that they might feel like testing his courage by torturing him first. On the other hand, the tribes of west Texas did also have trading relationships with certain businessmen, known as comancheros, and mostly resident in New Mexico, through which unassimilable hostages were sometimes ransomed. Perhaps he thought he had some potential as a roving comanchero. Perhaps, being from an underclass, he was more willing to think about the motives of the raiders and believed that by bringing strategic thinking (as opposed to relying on brute force and the Natural Rights of White Men, which has continued to plague U.S. military policy into the present day)to bear he could keep his life and regain his family.

Or perhaps he just kept imagining his wife and daughters being gang-raped and couldn't sit still.

The point is, he did this thing, and it was epic, and then once he had everyone back and the war was over he started a freight business, and in 1871 a party of Kiowas out of the reservation in Oklahoma attacked it and killed him and his employees. The teamsters who found him said he had evidently taken up position behind his dead horse and fought to his last bullet. Which is pretty traditionally epic, too.

Especially when you also know the history of Kiowa-Comanche raiding out of Indian country, and how it was premised on the fact that, though these tribes had agreed to peace with the U.S., they had never ever said Word One about peace with Texas, which they weren't up for and considered unreasonable.

And no, The Searchers does not count! Though almost certainly inspired by Johnson's story, nothing starring John Wayne will fill the bill. Black leading man, or no soap. peace with Texas and considered such a thing completely unreasonable. Look into that and you open up another whole box of epic stories.

So where is this guy's blockbuster movie? Seriously?

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