Sometimes I get teased about my habit of writing about legendary figures of history and how they got to be that way. Modern heroes still walk among us all today and possibly the best is still yet to come. Ideally, we should never forget those who came before us, especially those we still know something about.
Possibly if a poll was taken of the most famous Native Americans, it might look something like this. In no particular order, the list probably includes Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Cochise, Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Sequoia and Red Cloud. Also included might be Wilma Mankiller, Ely Parker, Pontiac and Osceola. That is just the way fame works. You can’t hold it against public opinion for what they don’t know about people they probably never met.
Furthermore, it would be interesting if all of these famous people could be brought back at the same time and formed into an All-Star Tribal Council. That would be something.
Note to reader. Don’t worry. This is not a sideline into alternative history or science fiction writing. It is just a fanciful way to measure our current place in Indian Country today against the past that these figures knew in their times.
The civil rights movement has had many watershed moments that might have taken place, say during Cherokee Nation Chief Mankiller’s heyday. We all can be affected by solutions to human rights issues, even if the campaign is not on our own people’s behalf. Indeed, we have to believe as human beings that things are getting better, despite the endless struggles to succeed, with many failing prematurely.
The perspectives of those famous Native notables probably are much different than ours today might be, as interpreted by conventional news outlets.
What would be the first item on a universal agenda of the All-Star Tribal Council? It might be a very pointed question. Are we better or worse off as North American Indian nations, since the oldest of these historical figures passed over to the other side?
There is no doubt that peace has led to prosperity. Keeping the peace has been great in general for a wide-ranging population. This holds true for Native people that were clearly on the ropes, and very low in number, especially at the end of the 19th century. As Native populations have rebounded splendidly in modern times, however, does the same gratitude exist for survival and American citizenship as it would have for Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce people, on their forced flight to Canada, away from the U.S. Army?
How will Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader, react to word of hundreds of Native-owned casinos and state gaming compacts? Might he ask about the political costs and what is the plan to re-gather the original homelands with the newly earned wealth?
What would Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee say about his name used on a line of durable small 2 and 4 cycle engines, used for many years in the United States? Will he ask for royalties on this name usage and give the proceeds to his own people? When the Bedonkohe Apache leader Geronimo was told American airborne soldiers had evoked his name as they parachuted to the ground from flying planes, he could only shake his head. When told that his name was also used for a high-level military operation against an infamous American enemy, he became instantly silent.
Imagine taking this All-Star Tribal Council and sitting them at the front row of the NCAI annual address. Will they be the first to stand and give an ovation, or will a message be made clear to them that creating a central Native government facsimile is a futile exercise? Do individual rights outweigh the common good to many of these historical free thinkers?
As the knowledge of modern challenges becomes more apparent to the Native All Stars, the novelty of the differing eras begins to wear thin.
Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa wanted to know about the condition of his people’s land. When told, for example, that the city of Detroit had been in dire straits, he shook his head and wanted to know who was defending those people who lived there? He was informed that those people were told to hope that it would get better, that they should have faith that it would. Pontiac said that was not enough.
Ely Parker, a Seneca who had lived during the American Civil War, was more conservative. He wanted to know how the Great Lakes were doing. He was told that Lake Erie had caught on fire due to environmental pollution in the 1970s but had been improving in recent decades. Parker wanted to know if it was due to mankind’s efforts. The former Union general was informed that nature had done most of the heavy lifting via the invasive zebra mussels that had filtered the water. It figured, Parker snorted.
Water quality and tribal water rights remained a topic of conversation. When Red Cloud, from the Oglala Lakota, heard that California only had one year of drinking water left, he wanted to know what was being done about the people who relied upon that resource. He was told that water could be bought elsewhere and shipped in. When he heard that he almost fell over. Who would be so greedy as to sell off water when people were in such great need? Red Cloud asked about the ocean water but was told that desalinization technology was once considered but had been determined to be too expensive to utilize.
Chief Wilma Mankiller was able to counsel her fellow council members on many subjects from her own lifespan. However, when she was told that a steady disappearance of Native women had continued up to the present day, her spirit was shaken. For as long as we have lived, we have remained under attack, especially to our most vulnerable members, she sadly noted.
A great publicity campaign had been organized for the All-Star Tribal Council by the world’s media. They were to be broadcast live to a global audience, where they would have a chance to speak to their neighbors in distant lands, with all of their collected wisdom.
Instead of the famous taking to the stage to demand action, however, only a young Native girl appeared before the microphone. She had been asked by all of the historic leaders to ask a single question.
“Are we getting better or are we getting worse?” asked the young lady quietly. As if on cue, many of the assembled media flipped their notepads shut and shut off their cameras. The lights were dimmed. There was no story here, many of them murmured as they headed for the exits.
As the All Stars faded back into history, so the ripple in time was swirled away. Their message might have been that our future is truly only ours to address. Yet we have no high school or college class to take to help us see this responsibility. We have lived miraculously immune to a collective sense of action. Instead, we have taken comfort in slogans about the seventh generation and the unborn. By doing so, we may too have become historical figures. Only we are the ones who could not get it done.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.