This article continues in the vein of my previous piece, Chain Reactions. The events described in both happen in roughly the same timespan, yet this one looks at impacts individuals can have. These articles share a common theme, that being; what are among the greatest assets of our country have come about as byproducts of our worst behavior. This is less a case of finding a silver lining, I prefer to see it as recognizing a lotus emerging from the muck.
We know plenty about Henry David Thoreau’s famous retreat, and his legendary wanderings. However were it not for the meeting and influence of his Penobscot friends, Joe Aitteon and Joe Polis, Thoreau’s time at Walden pond might have been a singular episode rather than the start of a lifelong obsession. It was these friendships that took HDT from admirer of Nature to avid student, from a pastoral pastime to a central compulsion.
Meticulous analyses flood bookshelves and dissertations about Walden. Less is known and written about Thoreau’s involvement with Indigenous Natives. We find very little on his eleven volume, 2800 page journal HDT kept on ‘Indian’ life. They were begun in 1847, while he was at Walden Pond, and continued until the year before his death in 1862. Subjects include every aspect of life, and investigation into tribes throughout the world. The material examines the gamut from language, and lore, to woodcraft, hunting, fishing, sexuality, games, and rituals from birth to death. (These works are now housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in NYC).
It could be argued that one of the more lasting effects of HDT’s work was as inspiration to a young student who was just commencing his career and interests as Thoreau was wrapping his up. That person being John Muir. Muir was born in Scotland and raised in Wisconsin. He always had a taste for the outdoors, and a natural affinity with ‘locals’, but it wasn’t until as a recent college graduate in 1861, when he received the collected works of Thoreau, that his explorations began in earnest. Muir devotedly annotated these pages, driven to follow in their metaphorical footsteps.
Muir immersed in Native life more directly than Thoreau, his contact was of greater duration. His Tlingit and Yup’ik guides took him deep into unblemished forests and the wilderness of California, and Alaska, among other places. To say he fell in love with Yosemite is of course a great understatement. His advocacy and commitment towards preserving America’s wild places remains unrivaled. He founded the Sierra Club. Muir took president Theodore Roosevelt camping in Yosemite, to see the magnificence for himself and press the case for conservation. It was this foray, and these vistas and epiphanies which convinced Roosevelt to protect precious natural resources, founding our National Forest Service. This and related agencies preserve our many spectacular sites, magnificent wild places emblematic of the Country itself.
Yet, our Native populations, what’s left of them, still struggle for their very existence. Genocide will forever be a blight that our progress is built upon, and we have still not reckoned such actions to this day. As we see in North Dakota at the Pipeline protest, disrespect continues towards Native people, and their lifeways and interests. Even as we stuff our ‘Winnebagos’, and pack our Patagonia gear heading to the great outdoors for R and R, the slight towards the original human inhabitants of this continent persists. We literally still do not see the forest for the trees.
Like the Blues, the Land belongs to everyone. We are merely fortunate inheritors, hopefully attentive stewards. Links in the chain of knowledge interlock, sometimes they lay unsorted and it’s hard to tell start from finish. Seas are rising again, read the news and Blues fill the air. By way of closing the circle, or pointing a way towards the start of an unravelling, the last words of Henry David Thoreau, spoken on this deathbed, “Now comes good sailing… Moose…. Indian.”