Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Shawnee caverns in Bellefontaine, Ohio. A group of Cleveland Institute of Art students and friends were going down for the weekend as volunteers to help fix up the grounds, primarily prepping for the winter. I drove down on Saturday to join them, getting lost only once in the process. Nearly everyone was still sleeping when I arrived, giving me plenty of time to look around what was to be headquarters for the day, a combination home, museum and gift shop.
I spent most of that day stuffing insulation into the cabins that visitors can rent out, a process that started in confusion and quickly turned into giggling fits of frustration. Conveniently, two of my friends drove up just as I installed the last screw in the new ceiling; dinnertime, they said. A small corner of the room was still lacking its ceiling, but without screws there wasn’t much to be done, so we packed up the power tools and I hopped into the car.
As it turns out, my friends misinterpreted “starting dinner” as “dinner is ready,” leaving nearly half an hour of free time. I took this opportunity to sit down with Hawk, chief of the tribe.
He asked me what I wanted to know. “Anything.” I said. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to ask. The only problems I knew involved Native Americans occurred well before my time; “Made in China” dream catchers and Halloween headdresses were among the handful of things I even attributed to the culture. Standing before this giant of a man in his wheelchair, neither of those felt like the largest problems in his book.
He took a couple moments to think before finally sharing. “There’s a book, American Holocaust,” he began, “It’s a horrible book. I don’t know why anyone would read it… But I think everyone should.”
The history of the Native American people is something of a large debate in the world of history. There are no concurring records of population, leaving estimates ranging from 50 to 100 million in what’s currently the United States (for reference, the U.S. currently has a population of over 313.9 million). As few as 70 percent but as many as 95 percent of them were dead by the dawn of the 20th century. The American Holocaust outlines three primary causes, all of which began before European armies set foot on North American soil.
The first largely leading cause was what Hawk referred to as biological warfare. The complete lack of immunity to European diseases lead to the greatest decline in Native American population. The chiefs of that time, out of concern for posterity, encouraged their young to mingle with the Europeans; their hope was that the European blood would give their children’s children a chance against the new diseases.
The second cause was, as Hawk put it, chemical warfare. The Native American people had never experienced alcohol like the Europeans brought with them. The younger members of tribes quickly lost their lives to European spirits.
The third, cultural warfare, attacked on a level that can’t be quantitatively measured by population. Christian missionaries assaulted what little culture managed to survive through the sharp loss of so many lives, leaving in its wake an even further loss of active members across the tribes.
The physical violence didn’t begin until after what accounted for almost 70 percent of the deaths. Lasting well into the times of today, though nowhere near as large a scale as a century ago, physical violence and systematic oppression of Native Americans is still one of the biggest problems the current tribes face. The Shawnee Caves are state-recognized, and through the efforts of Hawk, the federal government recognizes that the caves are state-recognized, but they are still not a federally-recognized reserve. Affirmative action requires legal proof that you are at least one-quarter Native American by blood. Worth noting, the only other two living beings that require a pedigree are horses and dogs.
As he paused in his story, I took a moment to look around the room. A few tribe members stood by the wood-burning stove, sharing a brief conversation before going back to their business. A woman sat on the other side of the counter, listening in such a way I almost expected her to continue the story. My friend reached over me to fetch the ash tray from the counter, and as she pulled back I could see the tears coating her eyes. She wasn’t the only one from our group with glistening eyes, I noticed.
Hawk drew a breath and continued.
This time, Hawk spoke of his late grandfather, who had passed away some years ago. He was one of the few fluent speakers of the Shawnee language. Holding back tears, Hawk explained how this man spent the last years of his life in silence, unable to indulge in daily conversation for lack of other fluent speakers.
For nearly two more hours, well past the end of dinner, Hawk shared his experiences with my friends and me. He shared how he ended up in a wheelchair, and how he felt he was physically targeted. He shared how he dealt with politicians trying to further push out the tribe. He concluded with the actions of people that add to cultural appropriation, the one thing I was aware of before sitting down with him:
“They take our land, they take our culture and then they want to take our names?”
It’s unfortunate that the space of this column is not infinite; I would love to share in full detail the events of that day. After talking with Hawk, my friends and I stepped outside and I listened as a few of them shared how they related to Hawk’s stories. It was, ultimately, an incredibly eye-opening experience for me.
For those interested, the book Hawk mentions is “American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World,” by David E. Stannard.
Kyle Patterson is a senior computer science major looking forward to the end of spring semester, his decided graduation term. He’d like to make a special note that this column is written as a personal column and is not related to his duties as a web director of The Observer. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Family Matters stem from his desire to be the change he wishes to see in the world.