Speaking Volumes

 

What kind of English word is “Winnemucca”? How about “taco”? “Fond du Lac”? People who get bent out of shape over other people speaking languages besides English while out in public in this country probably fail to realize how many English words have their origin in other languages. As much as 30 percent of English words are borrowed from the world’s thousands of languages. It would be difficult or impossible for the average English speaker to use only Anglo-Saxon words.

 

In the United States especially, where nearly 100 percent of the population comes from elsewhere in the world, the English language is a polyglot mixture made up of additions from languages everywhere, and yet it stands apart in its diction, its spelling, and in other ways. Place names preeminently use some version borrowed from the many Native American languages that have all but disappeared otherwise. What does it mean to send somebody back where they came from, when almost everybody came from somewhere else at one time? Send them back where? To Ohio? To Florida? If we go back far enough in time, almost everyone will have to leave, and the Native Americans – what is left of them – will no doubt feel immense relief, as of an oppressive burden lifting away from them.

The Tower of Babel 2443
The Tower of Babel, a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1525/1530-1569).

Exclusionary talk is loco chauvinism. It is meshuga, and yahoos who go on about sending others back where they came from are clearly non compos mentis. They should examine their own origins, which in the latest generation or two or three might be in places like Tulsa, Santa Fe, Tennessee, or Baraboo, but going back further could be traced to Scotland, or Frankfurt, or Sarajevo, and ultimately to Africa. White folks weren’t always white, and anyway no deity ever descended from the heavens to declare whiteness a superior trait. It only matters to people who are terrified of losing their imagined superior place in society, and must have Others to look down upon. Ordering Others to speak English when they are conversing among themselves is not only high-handed, it ignores how immigrants have enriched and informed English itself with words and expressions from everywhere. The proper remark for an English-only speaker to make in that case, if any is necessary at all, is gracias, or merci, or danke, or mahalo, or arigatô, or . . .
— Ed.

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) sang a North American version of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, a song written in 1959 by Australian country singer Geoff Mack, and which in the original version included all Australian place names, many of them originating in the languages of the Australian Aboriginal peoples.

 

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A Pillar of Salt

 

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.”
Job 38:4, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Many Americans are probably familiar with it because it has been assigned reading in high schools when it hasn’t been banned or burned by the outraged and the self-righteous. Being assigned reading tends to sap some of the enjoyment of reading, and in that case it might be a good idea to read the book again voluntarily, as an adult.


Mr. Vonnegut was most of all a Humanist, as he himself proclaimed, and the last thing any Humanist would claim is to also be a Saint. On looking back at Vonnegut’s work, the one feature that stands out as discordant from our modern perspective is his treatment of female characters, whom he usually portrayed without much depth, and sometimes unsympathetically for no good reason. That again is viewed from our perch 50 years in the future. Mr. Vonnegut was not out of step with his times in regard to men’s views about women, sad and embarrassing as that may seem to us now. 50 years from now, who can say how people will view us for opinions and attitudes we hold in keeping with our own time?

Brand im Dresdner Zwinger D 18Jh
An anonymous painting, possibly by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774), of a fire at Dresden Castle.

We must remember that until Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, nearly every book and movie in Western culture depicted the Allies in World War II as the good guys, and the Axis as the bad guys, with little shading of gray to add any moral nuance. The Humanist in Mr. Vonnegut could not abide that state of affairs, particularly since he had been present as a prisoner of war at the Allied fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, a target which had virtually no military or political value. The primary reason Allied command ordered the fire bombing was to terrorize the civilian population. In doing so, the Allies sought to deal out righteous retribution for German bombing of English cities earlier in the war. Atrocities, in other words, were perpetrated to one degree or another by both sides, and that is the nature of war and part of human nature and cannot be avoided, no matter how much books and movies gloss it over and glamorize one side over the other. And so it goes – to borrow a phrase from Mr. Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse-Five was not revisionist history, but a necessary corrective to over two decades of mostly superficial accounts of World War II, at least in the popular media. It joined John Hersey’s 1946 non-fiction book Hiroshima in telling of war’s cost in suffering and the capacity for cruelty, alongside acts of kindness. In 1970, a non-fiction book written by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was published and changed the national discourse about relations with Native Americans, a discourse which had been dominated for over a century by white people of European descent demonizing them.

American prisoners caught in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 march to their quarters in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945, Allied air forces fire bombed the city, killing as many as 25,000 Germans, mostly women and children. The 1972 film, directed by George Roy Hill, starred Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, the character based on Kurt Vonnegut, and Eugene Roche as his friend Edgar Derby, the ranking soldier among the prisoners.

Important works by great writers and historians come along infrequently and, while nothing and no one is ever perfect, their overall worth to humanity becomes even more apparent over time than at initial publication. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another great work that has stood the test of time, has also been subjected to periodic bouts of righteous indignation and banishment by different groups for divergent reasons over the years. Certainly we cringe today at some of its language and at the attitudes Mr. Twain portrayed, but many readers, perhaps most, understand that at the heart of the novel is the growing respect and friendship between a white boy and a black man, which in its day was a radical idea that undermined social conventions. We are all prisoners of our time and cannot, like Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five, become unstuck in time. But we can be charitable and preserve and cherish the greater Humanist vision given us by Kurt Vonnegut and other writers whose works have stood outside of time, imperfect as the writers and their works, like we and our works, will always be.
— Vita

 

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As the Twig Is Bent

 

“‘Tis education forms the common mind:
Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”
— from Epistle to Cobham, “Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men”, a 1734 poem by Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

On Sunday evening, January 20, at the end of the weekend that started with the fracas in Washington, D.C., on Friday, January 18 involving members of the Indigenous Peoples March, Covington Catholic High School participants in the March for Life, and the Black Hebrew Israelites, tens of thousands of mostly white people got worked up cheering on the Chiefs in their American Football Conference (AFC) championship game against the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, by enthusiastically doing numerous tomahawk chops in unison to some sort of ersatz Native American war dance chant while encouraged by the stadium public address system. While the timing of Sunday’s so-called festivities coincidentally marked the two year anniversary of the Racist-in-Chief’s inauguration, Friday’s incident in the nation’s capital more properly marked the tone he has set the past two years.


The Tomahawk Chop (5050920787)
Fans of the Atlanta Braves doing the tomahawk chop on October 3, 2010, during the last game of the baseball season. Photo by Kyle James.

The history of mostly white sports’ fans enthusiasm for tomahawk chopping goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the success of teams such as the Atlanta Braves in major league baseball and the Florida State Seminoles in college football brought it to the attention of the rest of the nation. Native Americans objected, as they have to the more egregiously stereotyped names of sports teams like the Washington Redskins, but no one paid them much heed, not even Ted Turner, the ostensibly liberal owner of the Braves, nor his wife at the time, actress Jane Fonda, who has often professed her liberal views. When it comes to disrespect for Native Americans, there are apparently few differences among other Americans of whatever political stripe, ethnic origin, or religious affiliation.


Rod Serling’s introduction to “He’s Alive”, a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone television series, starring Dennis Hopper.

Naturally the boys from Covington Catholic were not born with mockery and dismissal of Native Americans ingrained in their systems. They had to be instructed, as Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in the lyrics to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, a denunciation of racism in a song from South Pacific, the 1949 musical Hammerstein wrote with Richard Rodgers. Even if their parents didn’t teach them directly, it would be difficult for them to not pick it up from the larger culture of privileged white people, among them those who have the wherewithal to buy tickets to an AFC championship game. The larger culture of privileged white people then came to the boys’ defense, among them large media companies that went to work smearing Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder most prominently involved in the Washington fracas, and the public relations firm with connections to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that was hired by the family of Nick Sandmann, the teen wearing the MAGA hat who stood smugly smirking at Phillips, to spin media coverage in his favor.


The end of the “He’s Alive” episode.

How would it be if the tables were turned and the Washington Redskins became the Rednecks and the Kansas City Chiefs became the Crackers? There are slurs for other ethnic groups that the teams could use, all of which are highly objectionable and would of course never be used. How about instead of pantomiming a tomahawk chop, the mostly white sports fans attending games started imitating a police baton swing? Perhaps in order to add insult onto injury and further enhance their reputation for insensitivity, the fans could do it during the playing of the National Anthem while black players are kneeling in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. No doubt some white people would enjoy the activity and feel entirely justified in doing it because of the satisfaction it would grant their perversely self-pitying sense of grievance, as evidenced by the white supremacist phrase “It’s OK to be white”. Like “Make America Great Again”, it is at first glance a defensible phrase, but examine it more closely and it becomes clear it is a code hiding a host of indefensible horrors.
— Vita


The title song to the 1972 documentary Imagine, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

 

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Three Sisters

 

The Three Sisters of Native American agriculture are corn, beans, and squash, grown together where they can complement each other and, when eaten together such as in succotash, they can complement each other nutritionally. The Three Sisters get on so well together that it’s tempting to ascribe their harmonious relationship to one of the many Native American legends describing it, ignoring the thousands of years of human trial and error, experimentation, and opportunistic capitalization on circumstance that played into the development of the relationship.

 

Corn provides a tall stalk for the bean vines to climb upon, and her deep roots help stabilize the soil and pull up nutrients from deep down. Beans fix nitrogen from the air, providing fertilizer for herself and her two sisters. Squash sprawls on the ground where her large, prickly leaves keep away some pests and provide a living mulch for her sisters, keeping the soil moist and inhibiting weeds.

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Gateway image of the Three Sisters of Native American agriculture: corn, beans, and squash at Little Turtle Waterway in Logansport, Indiana. Photo by Chris Light.

The nutrients available from all three plants provide most of what a person needs. Add to that the capacity for all three to keep dried in storage through the winter, and it’s easy to understand how Native Americans in North America adopted them as the foundation of their diet. This Thanksgiving, along with hearing or reading some entertaining and philosophically informative legends about the Three Sisters, there can be great enjoyment in tasting one of the many recipes for succotash as part of the holiday dinner.

“Single Girl, Married Girl”, an Americana song from the Carter Family catalog, sung by The Haden Triplets on their eponymous 2014 album, produced by Ry Cooder. The song, the singers, and the producer all share deep roots in American music. For more of The Haden Triplets, view their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, where they lead off a four song set with “Single Girl, Married Girl”.

Most succotash (derived from a Native American word, like numerous others) consists of a base of corn and beans, leaving out the squash, but for autumn dining, and especially for Thanksgiving with its reminders of the autumn harvest and the debt of European immigrants to Native Americans, adding squash to a succotash recipe can only improve it for the season. The squash and its seeds will add many of the benefits a person could get from eating turkey, another native of North America, including tryptophan, the chemical many believe is responsible for a satisfied diner’s desire to relax on a couch after Thanksgiving dinner, as well as lazily escaping from kitchen cleanup duty.
— Izzy

 

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Poor Man’s Fertilizer

 

Historically, the term “poor man’s fertilizer” has referred to snow cover which upon slowly melting releases nitrates into the soil, and particularly to spring and autumn snows which make that fertilizer available to plants either just starting top growth or sending food down to their roots in preparation for winter dormancy. Expanding the definition to include the rain from summer thunderstorms makes sense because the “poor man’s fertilizer” of nitrates formed in the atmosphere comes down then in torrents, releasing far more than the trickle from melting snow, but the nitrates for greening up farmers’ fields and homeowners’ gardens is every bit as free and as welcome.

People and animals would no doubt rather do without all the drama accompanying the rains from thunderstorms. An ordinary sort of rain shower, however, does not produce the amount of nitrates for fertilizing plants that a raging thunderstorm can make in its electrical transformation of nitrogen into nitrates. Plain nitrogen, even though it is listed as such on commercial products as a fertilizer, is not the actual chemical used. Plants cannot do anything with plain nitrogen, nice as that would be since it is the most abundant constituent in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air around us. To make anything of all that nitrogen, plants need it transformed into nitrates, and while rain and snow gently falling provide some, the lightning from a thunderstorm creates nitrates in abundance.


Albert Bierstadt - Buffalo Trail, The Impending Storm
Buffalo Trail: The Impending Storm, an 1869 painting by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

 

Because a thunderstorm can drench an area with over an inch of rain per hour, many of the nitrates it produces run off into streams and rivers before providing any benefit to plants on land. This fertilizer runoff becomes more of a problem when it is increased by contributions from people who either added fertilizer to the land themselves, or dumped it into the atmosphere as a byproduct of their manufacturing and energy production. Sulfuric and nitrous oxide emissions from industry and vehicles produce particulate pollution that hangs in the air until it comes down in solution as acid rain, which is also heavy with nitrates. It is the countryside downwind of industry and heavily populated areas that suffers the worst effects of this excess of nitrates. For farmers and gardeners downwind, thunderstorms produce too much of a good thing.

For all the damage thunderstorms can do, from wreaking havoc on home electronics to pelting livestock and crops with hail, they also provide benefits by fertilizing the soil and cleaning the air. Native Americans were well aware of the duality in thunderstorms, and tried to take the bad in stride with the good. Part of staying safe during a storm comes from maintaining a healthy respect for its destructive potential, and then part of enjoying life comes from stepping outside after the storm has passed and taking in the fresh smells and sights of rejuvenation.
— Izzy

 

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No One Gets Out Alive

 

There’s a wonderful feeling that comes with stepping outside into the cool of the evening after a hot day. There are a lot of little things that go toward making life pleasant if a person has been lucky in their circumstances. Living past middle age into one’s sixties and seventies is a great blessing, and while there may be pain associated with such longevity, most people would accept the trade-off. Asking for more life is almost too much. There are others waiting.

Into the Jaws of Death 23-0455M edit
“Into the Jaws of Death”. United States soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division wade ashore on Omaha Beach, France, on the morning of June 6, 1944. During the initial landings on D-Day, as many as two thirds of the soldiers in some infantry companies became casualties. Photo by Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent.


In the Native American cultures of North America, everything is living and everything eventually returns into the cycle of life when it dies, including people. In Old World cultures, and particularly those of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, almost everything is regarded as dead or inert, and when people die their passing has finality. No one in either culture knows for certain what happens after death, but it seems evident to some people that in a living world where a person is one part joining a river flowing to the sea, there is less terror in death, and more an acceptance of it as a metamorphosis into another part of life.
— Izzy

 

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Stupid Is as Stupid Does

 

Supporters of the current president gathered outside the State Capitol building in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 25, to protest immigration reform measures being debated by state legislators. They undercut any interest in their arguments by badgering and hectoring brown skinned legislators, state office workers, and even schoolchildren on a field trip as they walked in the vicinity of the Capitol, presumptively proclaiming them illegal aliens, while giving white skinned folks a pass. They reached the epitome of their belligerent ignorance when one of them challenged the citizenship status of State Representative Eric Descheenie, a Native American of Navajo descent.

 

Besides the ignorance of challenging such a person on his right to be here, there is the sheer gall of doing so. The ignorance has always been there with some people, but the gall has risen to the surface lately on account of how emboldened they feel by the angry rhetoric of their Supreme Leader in the White House. Many of these particular protesters in Phoenix were armed, as well, and their allies in the police stood idly by while they harassed the targets of their hatred.

Mexican Cession
1848 Mexican Cession of territory after the Mexican-American War. 2008 map by Kballen.

Viceroyalty of the New Spain 1819 (without Philippines)
The Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1819. 2013 map by Giggette.

The police were supposedly studiously allowing the protesters room to express themselves freely, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Strange how the ideology of protesters seems to affect how the police enforce First Amendment rights, though of course nothing can be proven. A similarly scrupulous desire for allowance of free expression strangely affected law enforcement at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, and that after an incident in July in Charlottesville when the cops tear gassed for no very good reason counter protesters at a KKK gathering.

Since self-reflection and a balanced view of history are traits that are probably either non-existent or very low on the list for some of the denser supporters of the Ignoramus-in-Chief, any appeal here will fall only on their deaf ears, if at all, and the words will serve merely as preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, on the principle that a trickle of water may eventually lead to a baptism, it is worth a try. Has the schizophrenic nature of Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric never struck a discordant chord with any of these Know Nothings? The fact that their economic betters in the Republican establishment, the ones who back their Supreme Leader behind the scenes solely on account of his capacity to put yet more money in their pockets, have no desire to change current immigration policy because it suits their business interests to have cheap, exploitable labor. It has always been so.

From the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks as the title character repeats a bit of received wisdom, “Stupid is as stupid does”.
Economically and politically the beliefs of the protesters at the Arizona Capitol will never get anywhere because they fly in the face of the moneyed interests who pull all the strings. So what is it all for, then? Blowing off steam from the angry white European descent base of the new hard right Republicans. The rich ones aren’t angry; they have no reason to be, since they are getting everything they want. It’s the people stuck in the economic levels below that who are angry. Why don’t they get angry with the people above them who are ripping them off? Good question, but one for a different day. They are angry with the people they see supplanting them as the most important demographic in this country, fragmenting solid white bread into hundreds of permutations of bagels and tortillas and pita pockets, many of them gluten-free.

 

Why do they vent their hatred and anger on brown skinned immigrants? Who else is left? The economic and political arguments of the anti-immigrant crowd largely fall apart under scrutiny, at least they do if this country is to continue to operate under the same principles it has going back hundreds of years, when the ancestors of the current anti-immigrants made their way here with little government interference and then, with the active encouragement of the government, violently shouldered aside the indigenous peoples who had been here thousands of years before them. It is a dangerous game that Republican leaders are playing, however, standing aside to let the angry base blow steam so that the moneyed interests can loot the country while everyone is distracted. They are counting on the casualties falling among groups they care nothing about other than their utility to them, such as liberals and immigrants. The people steering the Thief-in-Chief and his hard core minions around like a crazed nozzle spitting vituperation need to understand, though, that high pressure steam has a history of escaping control and blowing up in everyone’s faces.
— Vita

Early indian west
Early Native American tribal territories, superimposed on the present day western United States. 1970 map by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Geological Survey. Where’s Arizona, and where are all the white folks of European descent?

 

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Prick Up Your Ears

 

It’s hard to fathom how far to the right Republicans in particular, and the country generally, have moved in the past half century that people are surprised to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, that it was the Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. To be sure, Nixon was no environmentalist, and his establishment of the EPA was in his view a way to steal thunder from his political opposition on the left, where the environmental movement had been gathering momentum since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Nonetheless, he signed the necessary papers and backed the new agency’s initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.

 

Fifty years later, Republicans abominate the EPA and associated environmentally protected areas around the country. The latest natural areas to come under attack are Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah. The current Republican administration, at the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to reduce Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%, opening up the areas taken away from them for commercial and recreational use. The executive order mandating the change pleased Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch a great deal. The changes will undoubtedly be challenged in court by private environmental protection groups and by Native American tribes in the area.

Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill
Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).

When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act at the end of 1970, he did so in the White House in front of a painting by Frederic Remington called Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, which prominently featured Theodore Roosevelt leading his regiment of volunteers at the 1898 battle. It was not the most politically correct staging of the signing of an important document by today’s standards, considering how the United States merely replaced Spain as the colonial power overseeing Cuba, rather than liberating the Cubans as American propaganda had it at the time of the Spanish-American War, but for the period around 1970 that aspect may have been overlooked by most bystanders to the signing in favor of the possibly intended point of celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and his championing of environmental protection, a first for an American president.

 

Contrast that rather sensitive staging with the completely insensitive, tone deaf staging by the current administration of a recent ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers and their contributions to American military efforts in World War II. Not only did the ceremony take place in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, infamous for his hostility to Native Americans and for his authorization of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, known as the Trail of Tears, but the current president added a completely irrelevant snide remark that doubled as a smear of one of his political opponents on the left as well as Pocahontas, a Native American woman notable as a mediator with the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The current president apparently mistook his comment for wit, because he laughed, while very few others at the ceremony did. Paying attention to the current president’s remarks in person and on Twitter gives us insight into his character, but his actions and his choice and use of symbols speak louder than his words and tell us what he and his administration are actually doing to this beautiful country and its people.
― Izzy

Andrew jackson head
Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, painted by Ralph Eleasar Whiteside Earl (1785/88-1838).

 

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The Art of the Steal

 

The Republicans have passed their tax bill in the House of Representatives, and next week it goes to the Senate for a vote. This week the Senate Finance Committee held hearings on the tax bill, and Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) became so upset with Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) criticism of the bill and of Republicans’ motives in trying to pass it, that he exclaimed “Bullcrap!” in response. “Bullcrap” seems to be a favored light curse among Republicans in public life. The last time the term made headlines was when a self-absorbed Republican representative from Oklahoma used it earlier this year to rebuke some critical constituents.

 

Senator Brown’s criticism of the bill was entirely accurate and to the point, which of course was why Senator Hatch called it “bullcrap”. No need to respond with strong language like “bullcrap” if Senator Brown’s remarks weren’t close enough to the mark that they might alert the slumbering masses they were about to be screwed so that a handful of wealthy people and corporations could stuff even more money in their pockets at the expense of everyone else. Like any old master at shilling for wealthy patrons, Senator Hatch understands that the game is pretty obvious to anyone who is halfway paying attention, even mainstream journalists, but it lacks decorum to point it out to the rubes, who must always be led to believe there is something in it for them.

If-us-land-mass-were-distributed-like-us-wealth
An illustration of income inequality. Map by Stephen Ewen.

The tax bill plainly enough steals from the poor and gives to the rich. The question remains whether the Republicans will get away with it, not only by passing it in the Senate, thereby making it the law of the land once the Capitalist-in-Chief signs it, as he certainly will, but in the 2018 congressional elections. Americans have notoriously short memories, at least for the dry details of economics.

Orson Welles as the plutocrat Charles Foster Kane in his 1941 film Citizen Kane campaigns for governor of New York with the usual palaver about the “working man.”

The conventional wisdom says people vote their pocketbooks, but that has been disproved over and over again in recent elections. The wealthy vote their pocketbooks, but since there are relatively few of them and therefore their actual votes don’t amount to much, they open their pocketbooks to their favored candidates, who then convince the rubes to get fired up about social issues like gay marriage, and never mind that in the long run they are voting against their economic self-interest. Getting screwed by the very people who profess to be your friends has been a time honored strategy that works, just ask the Native Americans not long after the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim settlers, and again and again to their misfortune through the years after that.
― Ed.

 

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Long Live the Monarch

 

The Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, may not seem to have any connection to Halloween other than its orange and black coloration, but in Mexico, where they overwinter, the butterflies are hailed as the spirits of friends and relatives who have died in the past year and are returning at the time of Halloween for one last visit with the living. The important dates for Mexicans, and indeed for many Hispanic peoples, are October 31st, and November 1st and 2nd, known as The Days of the Dead, or Los Dias de los Muertos in Spanish.

From the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum as a murderous and greedy self-anointed preacher sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, while Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper protects the children inside her house from harm.

Before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples believed Monarch butterflies were returning human spirits. After the Spaniards imposed Catholicism throughout the region, the Native Americans transposed some of their ancient beliefs onto the new religion. In the case of the Monarch butterflies, since their annual migration brought them to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico more or less at the end of October and the beginning of November, it was a simple matter for Native Americans to meld their traditional celebration of the dead and honoring of the return of the butterflies at that time of year with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Eve (Hallow e’en, or evening) on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.


This mixing of indigenous traditions with Christian beliefs and holidays follows a pattern seen in Christian communities throughout the world. In Ireland, for instance, where the version of Halloween celebrations started in a way that most Americans would recognize, the Christian holidays were overlaid on existing Celtic harvest festivals and honoring of the dead. It seems in the northern hemisphere at least, where the harvest occurs approximately in September, October, and November, that honoring the dead at the same time was commonplace. People prayed to their honored dead for a good harvest, and when the work was done they often symbolically shared the bounty with their dear departed at altars in the home. It was a short step for the Church to substitute, or merely add, saints and martyrs to the list of honored dead.

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Overwintering Monarch butterflies in November 2005. Photo by Samuel from Toluca, Mexico.

Monarch butterflies, meanwhile, have troubles beyond being Halloween symbols for human beings. Habitat loss, pesticides, and destruction of food sources have all led to a general decline in their numbers over the last few decades. They are not yet under the protection of the Endangered Species List, and they may not be anytime soon given the hostility toward environmental protection of the current presidential administration.

The ending of the 2010 version of True Grit, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, with Iris DeMent singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.

It is more important than ever, therefore, for individuals to do everything they can to assure the continued survival of Monarch butterflies, rather than relying on governmental entities to take the lead. It’s not hard; the butterflies don’t ask for much. Leave some tall weeds standing at the edge of a property rather than mowing absolutely everything down to half inch high grass. Among those tall weeds, plant or encourage some milkweeds as fodder for the caterpillars, and some wildflowers as nectar sources for the adult butterflies. Stop using pesticides and herbicides, at least the general purpose ones that kill all insects or all vegetation. Pay attention, be observant and respectful, and in the end enjoy what you have helped along in a way you could not possibly enjoy yet more grass or asphalt. The spirits are watching.
― Vita

 

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