Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Story of Red Cloud

The Heart of Everything That Is, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

The subject of this book, Red Cloud, is less known than Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, though they fought in some of the same battles against US forces. This history captures the period of time starting in 1851 when the tribes came to Fort Laramie to parlay with Congressional representatives, up to Red Cloud’s emergence as a pre-eminent warrior and war chief through his victory against the Cavalry in Wyoming at Fort Phil Kearny in 1866.

Unlike most of the Indians, who preferred to ride in fast, steal horses or kill braves or kidnap women, then go back home, Red Cloud studied the strategies of the whites and applied them in battles against them. He did not trust the whites. At one point he said, “They kept only one of their many promises to us. They said they would take our land, and they did.” Some he respected as warriors, but for the most part he recognized that the tribes would always be overmatched: the whites seemed in neverending supply, and they had better guns.

Red Cloud was an upstart. His father was an alcoholic, and this disadvantaged him in tribal culture. But he was brave and adept, and earned the respect of his band despite enduring slights that must have rankled. The first part of the book chronicles his development into a leader, and his relationships with young Crazy Horse, the better-connected Sitting Bull, and other chiefs.

The meat of the story, however, is the US Army’s establishment of the Bozeman Trail, threading from Fort Laramie north and west, through the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming, to the gold fields in Montana. Prospectors and the merchants who followed used this route, but without Army protection were being killed in lands previously ceded to the Sioux. So the Army drew their map, and situated Fort Phil Kearny in the Bighorns. From the start the outpost was understaffed, undersupplied, and its recruits, fresh from the Civil War, unprepared for harsh winters or isolation.

The officers in command, Colonel Carrington, who took a defensive posture against the Sioux, and Captain Fetterman, fresh from Civil War service and eager for battle and promotion, who preferred attack over waiting to be picked off, underestimated Red Cloud again and again. When they did finally muster to ride out against the tribes, most of the post’s men were massacred.

The authors are sympathetic to the Indians, describing the introduction of smallpox, cholera, and measles; liquor; and slaughter of the buffalo, making clear the genocidal character of white advancement westward. Attempts to appease the tribes were only stopgaps until they could be subdued by starvation, disease, and some of the harshest winters in recent centuries. Every treaty was broken when whites found reason to covet lands ceded to the Indians, including the “Heart of Everything That Is,” Paha Sapa: the Black Hills. Red Cloud beat the whites at their own game for a while, but he too was eventually pushed onto Pine Ridge Reservation. Read it and weep.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Harold and Maude - a fond look

Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby

Harold and Maude is a perfect movie. It takes no step wrong, the story is complete and flows beautifully. And a fine story it is, too: Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) the 19-year old son of a wealthy single (never clear whether she’s divorced or widowed) society lady (Vivian Pickles), is obsessed with death, suicide, and funerals. At one such funeral, for someone he didn’t know, he encounters Maude (Ruth Gordon), who’d never met the deceased either.

That’s enough plot. She is 51 years his senior. He’s in love with death, she with life. The soundtrack is by the former Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam). And Ashby’s career as a film editor is on full display – every transition is a perfect little segue, yet they are never contrived. The movie has no wasted shots nor scenes – everything serves the story’s progress and its conclusion.

Comic and absurdist moments are abundant, from Maude’s penchant for stealing cars (having none of her own, she prefers to borrow what’s handy to get around, and carries a huge ring of keys for that purpose), to the dating-service dates Harold’s mother sets him up with, having decided he ought to get married. Ashby riffs on popular culture and social unrest (this was released in 1971), but in a way that plays up the human penchant for self-contradiction.

I recently had the good fortune to see this gem on a big screen, where it rightly belongs, and was delighted to note the theater was packed – plenty of folks who’d grown up with this movie, along with a number seeing it for the first time. Somewhere in the ether, the spirit of Hal Ashby is smiling along with our absorption in this excellent love story.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

A refreshing look at Death

From Here to Eternity; Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
by Caitlin Doughty
Reviewed by NC Weil

Even as the American funeral industry strives to sanitize death, increasing numbers of us are questioning the institutions, chemicals, caskets, and the secrecy that wall us off from those we love soon after they have died.

This entertaining look at funerary practices worldwide offers plenty of examples of ways to celebrate the departed. Alongside this, Doughty, a Los Angeles funeral director, offers a pointed critique of societies’ relative comfort about the fact of death, and how cultural squeamishness robs us of acts of loving farewell: “A sense of purpose helps the mourner grieve.”  One of the strong points of this witty book is the abundant illustrations by Landis Blair, dispelling the revulsion and fear that for many of us surround dead bodies, mummies, and skeletons.

With Doughty as our guide, we visit communities and learn about burial practices in Colorado, North Carolina, California, Mexico, Bolivia, Indonesia, Tokyo, and Barcelona. To say that attitudes vary among this sample is the understatement of the year. In Indonesia, she visits families who lovingly dress up and groom their dead loved ones, even sleeping alongside them, during an annual festival. In Tokyo, mourners can visit the ashes of their dead relations in high-tech halls where there is nevertheless a strong sense of communion with the departed.

In Crestone, Colorado, a portable pyre enables a natural cremation celebration. In La Paz, Bolivia, indigenous villagers adorn and pray to skulls, asking for intercession in earthly matters. In North Carolina, a university professor studies decomposition in an effort to perfect techniques of composting the dead. We see there are many ways to deal with bodies, and by the time we’re done, we may be ready to think about our own flesh in a new light.

The challenge Doughty spells out for us is to push against a funeral industry that separates us not from death but from loved ones who have died. By showing how we can participate in the last phase of their bodies, she inspires us to look in the face this mortality we all await, and to embrace it instead of hiding from it. Give this book a read, then give some thought to what you want done with your remains, and what you don’t.