Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lion's Gulch and Homestead Meadows and the plight of Native Americans

The treatment of the many and varied tribes of Native Americans during the 1800's is an historical embarrassment...a national disgrace. The demonizing of these tribes, the stealing of their access to land, their general abuse and mistreatment has been well documented. The whole episode exists as a scar on the national psyche in much the same way as the Holocaust does in modern Germany. It isn't the only scar. The puritanical motivation behind prohibition and the long opposition to civil rights were also damaging in different ways - not to establish any of these as equivalent, but just to highlight them as obvious errors and transgression, some of them egregious.

An earlier trip with Otto.

I was thinking this when running the Lion's Gulch trail which climbs a steep stream bed before emerging on a meadow of 19th century Homesteads. Scattered over a fair distance the ruins of these Homesteads tell one story (that of the struggle to survive of their owners) and conceals another (the theft of access to land from Native Americans and their subsequent displacement). The Park Service tell the first story on interesting display boards, but completely ignores the second. 

These last few days in the foothills have seen cooler mornings and daytime temperatures lacking the searing heat of the last two months. Perfect running weather. I unloaded Livvy at the trailhead and we began the short descent to the footbridge. I was traveling light. With only about 10 miles to cover I carried nothing with me. Livvy could drink from the stream and I usually don't need water for only a short run like this. There is an initial sharp rise for 300 feet followed by a descent back to the river and then a longer undulating section to complete the first mile. The tree cover keeps the sun off and makes running very pleasant.

After a few stream crossings the trail becomes extremely loose and rocky as it climbs more steeply up the gulch. With nose to the ground I dug in hard and ran the whole way with Livvy sometimes in front and sometimes behind. Although there were a few cars at the trailhead there were only isolated groups on the trail and this didn't pose any problems.

At exactly 2 miles the trail crosses the stream one last time and the angle of ascent eases somewhat and after another half mile we emerge into the meadow. At 3 miles we encounter the trail junction with one option heading over towards Pierson Mountain. I have run that trail several times with both Otto and Livvy, but today I was going to do a circuit of the Homesteads. To be precise, the Meadow Loop, a very pleasant and easy angled trail.

I've read most of the information boards before and wasn't stopping today for a refresh. Quite a few of the Homesteaders were immigrants from the UK - a woman from Leeds being one of them. How much promise must this trip have held for them? The chance to discover a new life and potentially make their fortune. But this is an inhospitable place in winter and the higher elevation (about 8,500 feet) must have been difficult to deal with. No surprise that these settlers didn't last for more than a couple of generations.

The a homesteading story unfolded similarly across most of the west. Claims were literally staked. Land was registered (eventually) and the passing down of this land obtained by theft has made thousands of very wealthy Americans. The spoils certainly go to the risk-takers and there is no denying these settlers risked all.

But now we have a backlash...of sorts. Vocal groups of Native Americans are seeking recompense and are attempting to turn the clock back. It is understandable at one level, but also quite ridiculous. With the support of high profile backers ( the significance of some of the decisions will be immense.

I have no connection with the concept of an area of earth being "sacred". I don't even know what that means. Attaching some significance to an area of land because a group of people regard it as having "spiritual" significance is mumbo jumbo. It's not dissimilar to the roadside memorials we all too frequently see memorialising the death of road accident victims - tragic, indeed, but of no geographic significance. I haven't seen any memorials erected in supermarkets for those who die there, or even in elevators ( for that matter - apparently an average of 27 per year die there. 

While I have empathy with the plight of Native Americans who were uprooted at the time, there has to be some limit to how past grievances can be redressed. Leaving aside, for a moment, the disputes that went on between different native tribes, oft the cause of local warfare, it is impossible to put effective boundaries around what is claimed and impossible to establish fair redress to be given to descendants who themselves have not suffered at all. Even different native American groups are divided about what to do -

Furthermore, the lands in question are now invariably public - they are often protected lands preserved for and accessible to everyone. The Sioux and Lakota claims on the Black Hills represent an attempt to place these grounds under their ownership for tenuous reasons that have nothing to do with the public good, or with any attempt to protect public access. As such, their claims represent a serious threat to free access for the taxpayers expense.

Of course, the real problem is that the "religious sensitivities" of many lawmakers have been tweaked. The tactic of declaring lands sacred appears to establish them as having special worth. Claiming "spiritual significance" to a bunch of rock formations has no foundation in fact and the Government should not pander to these claims. Our current lawmakers, themselves enamored with their own version of mumbo jumbo are now torn with the possibility of being seen to oppose someone else's mumbo jumbo. The losers will be the wider public. I do not appreciate the possibility of being excluded from public land because a small group of people believe it holds special powers and significance for them.

There is no doubt the treatment of Native Americans represents one of the more repulsive aspects of US history. Seeking to redress this damage through re-designating long held public land into private ownership is just not the way forward.

It's funny what running on a trail can do to one's emotional state!

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