There is at least one American path, heading from East to West, leading neither into the possibility of the future, nor the morning of the world and of humanity. In the 1830s, we the people of the United States removed tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homes in the southeast and sent them marching west to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Thousands died, along what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
Jerry Ellis, a Alabaman writer of Cherokee heritage, walked back to Alabama from Oklahoma and wrote Walking the Trial in 1991. It’s a exemplary walking book, mixing memoir and desire, the political and the personal, historical epic and sore feet. Ellis rambles some, but he stays on his path. He meets a representative sample of Americans on the way, some who know more about the trials and tribulations of his ancestors than Ellis; some who live next to the Trail and have never heard of it.
A fascinating digression: Ellis falls in love. Looking for a place to sleep, he wanders, with trepidation, into a Christian hippie commune in Missouri. “Zion’s Order” is one of those pure products of America that thrive under wide horizons and religious freedom. Venda is a young woman who was born and raised within the compound.
Jerry meets Venda, and they fall in love, in a stumbling unconsummated romance–a story too real for fiction. Like Ellis’s writing and walking, his love affair somehow melds deep meaning and random events. Its sudden starts, twists and stops seem less literary than literal: I believed in this strange assignation, because it seemed absurd.
Following this walk and such stories, I found myself humming the songs of The Old, Weird America, that invisible republic that Greil Marcus and Harry Smith repopulated, largely with the ghosts of black folk and criminals. But there are also Native spirits in the air–after all, Smith, “As a schoolboy, swirling in the irregular orbits of his parents’ religion, their fantasies, their poverty and delusions of grandeur, … discovered the local Indian tribes.”
That was years before Smith ever walked the Mississippi Delta, listening for America. Jerry Ellis meets some strange folks, as he crosses Arkansas, Missouri, the odd corner of Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, making his way home. He hears strange tales–not the least strange, as he tells more of it: the forgotten concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and genocide of his native land. The tales of my land include incest and insanity; but nothing is too weird for America.
I’ll be scouting for evidence of Native America as I walk in May. Not just because Hebert Welsh, whose footsteps I’m walking in, was an Indian rights advocate. But because it’s “as if the earth under our feet / were / an excrement of some sky” in the words of William Carlos Williams, and it is a Native Sky.
If the British tradition sees walking as a kind of recovery, while the American tradition is about walking as discovery, maybe the real American way is more about covery–covering up past crimes. The boundless American future has always been predicated on the emptiness of its past, specifically, the pre-Columbian emptiness of the North American landscape. The New World, it was once said, lacked history and inhabitants: terra nullius. The old world walker can wander Druid wonderways, trace an ancient pilgrimage, or tramp castle-to-castle down the Danube. If an American pedestrian wants to contemplate ruins, or wonder who walked this path before him, he has to consider the American Indians.
Herbert Welsh’s obituary in the New York Times (June 31, 1941) left no doubt that he had spent his life thinking of them: “FRIEND OF INDIANS”
“The Red Man,” as the Times obituary writer was not ashamed to call him in 1941, had been driven West across the continent, but not from the pages of The New Gentleman of the Road. Stopping in in Milford, Pennsylvania in 1924, and feeling nostalgic about an eariuer excursion, Welsh wrote:
I have another and less pleasant recollection of that summer spent in Milford, in the form of a little monument, a shaft of gray stone, set up through the enthusiasm and energy of a Presbyterian pastor, then resident in the town, to record the virtues of Tom Quick, one of the early settlers of that region. If I remember correctly, — I am open to correction, — this pioneer of Anglo-Saxon civilization had, by his trusty rifle, the old muzzle-loader pea-ball pattern, caused the death of no less than 40 Indians — men, women, and children. He lay in wait for them and picked them off from behind bushes or trees on every convenient opportunity. This was under lex talionis, — lawyers will amend my Latin, if it needs the same, — as Tom’s father had been shot by an Indian. My white brother seems to have gotten more than even with his adversary. I can understand Tom Quick’s feeling and his method of expressing it, but what has always puzzled me was to understand the school of theology to which the Presbyterian pastor belonged who felt called on to raise a monument to a hero of that type.
The Tom Quick Monument, destroyed by vandals–heroes of Welsh’s type, perhaps– in 1997, was recently restored. Progressive thinkers have added an interpretive plaque, explanation, if not an excuse, for the benighted, earlier, commemoration of “a hero of that type.” I want to see it for myself, because it is somewhat hard to figure out on the Web just what it looks like today. (A postmodern species of Robert Musil’s “invisible monument.”)
An indefatigable fundraiser, Welsh’s travel memoir also recorded meetings on his walk with donors to, and supporters of, the Indian Rights Association he had founded in 1882. Welsh visited the Sioux Reservations that year, and recorded his impressions in Four Weeks Among some of the Sioux Tribes of Dakota and Nebraska. Trained as an artist, Welsh evinced a Romantic faith in the potential of the Indians to acquire “civilization.” I won’t try to explain all his complex opinions about the Native Americans here. That is well done in a dry, but exhaustive, book, The Indian Rights Association: The Herbert Welsh Years 1882-1904 (1985). The historian William T. Hagan highlighted this line from Four Weeks:
The Indians at Rosebud quite unconsciously presented to us a series of brilliant pictures, with a touch of the Orient about them, which might have inspired the genius of a Delacroix or Decamp.
I note not merely the Romanticism, but the literal Orientalism, with which Welsh quite unconsciously observed the Natives. The Indian Rights Association was assimilationist, and committed to Christian education and private ownership of land among them.
The IRA had been founded…
… with the object of acquainting the people of our country with the actual condition and needs of the Indians, and of so enlightening public sentiment as to ensure adequate support for legislative and executive measures for securing and protecting the just rights of the Indians, and maintaining the government’s faith plighted to them in treaties.
That faith in treaties did not seem much on Welsh’s mind as he strolled the banks of the Delaware River, where a shameful, if non-violent appropriation of Native land by the Quaker State had taken place in 1737: the infamous Walking Purchase.
The Delaware (Lenni Lenape) Indians of Pennsylvania were convinced by Thomas Penn, a son of William, that the white folks had found an old deed. In 1686, Penn said, his ancestors and the Indians’ had agreed to sell the Quakers a tract of land upland from the Delaware River, “As far as a man can walk in a day and a half.” I pick up the story from Harry Emerson Wildes (The Delaware, 1940)
All was ready for official measurements. The “Walking Purchase” was to made in the fall of 1737. There was a difference in in point of view, however, as to the methods to be used. According to Indian interpretation, a friendly party of whites and Indians would set out, strolling leisurely in gentlemanly fashion, until thirty-six hours had elapsed. There would be frequent rests for food and smoking, and the day would be limited to the time the sun was visible.
Sounds like the kind of walk up the Delaware that I would enjoy.
Thomas Penn had other views. He combed the colony for young and wiry woodsmen. Selecting … the best athletes to be found, he trained them well and ordered them to make themselves thoroughly familiar with the route. They were instructed secretly to blaze a trail through the woods, and to clear it of all underbrush.
Penn’s athletes made it into a competition, built their own track, and won. The Lenape were pushed west and landed in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, where Welsh would have found them in the early 20th century. In the early 21st, as late as 2006, the Delaware were asking the United States Court of Appeal, 3rd Circuit for relief from the fraud. They failed, on an interesting interpretation involving sovereignity.
I want to keep the natives in mind as I walk in May, in part because I want to walk and write in the British tradition, and recover something. Do any traces of Ancient America remain along my path?