Understanding Charlottesville: Driving Old Dixie Down
The more people are quiet about the world they wish to live in, the easier it is to accept that things around them will never change.
Watching the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia which led to the senseless death of a young activist and countless injuries to others brought many memories to my mind. As an amateur historian, I have a sense of how things ended up in such dire straits. Are there parallels between resurrecting fallen political movements like the southern Confederate states and Native American history? Can such history be cherry-picked to make it easier to live with today or is a clean sweep needed to satisfy the most ardent voices being heard?
Being born in northwestern Pennsylvania does not provide particular insight to revivalist Southern historical groups, but the popular culture feeds the awareness of anyone curious about the world around them. One such compelling ode was the 1969 Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, most memorably performed, in my opinion, by his group The Band in their 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Robertson also shared a Jewish heritage through his late father, so he is an unlikely guide, but for his close friendship with the drummer and vocalist, the Arkansas-born Levon Helm. Under Helm’s geographical mentorship of the Deep South (for which I give Helm a song co-writing credit), Robertson crafted a haunting narrative of loss and realization that has been covered by many other artists since it was first performed.
And although I was focused on alternative music at this stage of my life, I found myself ordering a cassette copy of The Band’s Greatest Hits from the mail-to-home Columbia House music service. It was the only song on the album that interested me at first, but I played both sides many times, often out of laziness to rewind the medium. Now I count myself as a huge The Band devotee, but it started with this one song.
Developed as an anti-war melody in the Vietnam War era, Robertson successfully captured the essence of modern times in a folksy way through another’s eyes. As I grew older and continued to absorb the song’s meaning, I considered undertaking an adaptation that would shed light on the last Confederate general to surrender, who happened to be the progressive Cherokee leader Stand Watie.
Watie remained elusive of Union forces, for two months after the capture of Jefferson Davis, the overall Confederate leader, until he eventually signed a peace treaty in what was then known as the Indian Territory, and later to become the State of Oklahoma. For Native North American Indians, the American Civil War accelerated the dispossession of their lands, no matter the side of the Mason-Dixon Line they lived. General Watie’s reputation as a scourge to his own Cherokee people is well known, but he represents a bookend to the wider narrative of this American history we are still wrestling with today.
As unlikely as it seems, I have seen some transposition as well between the Civil War commemorative actions of August and the arrival of replica Columbus-era sailing vessels in New York waterways in July by confederated Native activists. When the two ships representing the Nina and Pinta berthed near Albany, they were met by canoes piloted by a vocal group of protesters who referenced the symbolism of the 1492 Encounter as a genocidal reminder. Words became heated next to the cool flowing waters until a crew member of one ship yelled for the Natives to “get over it” and the threat of calling the U.S. Coast Guard was invoked amidst the media spectacle.
I looked at photos of the two groups in Albany interacting and could see the wide divisions between them. The current captain of the ships played down the negative emphasis, saying that he needed to raise funds to keep his ships afloat through a short tourist season and they were merely traveling educators just making their way to paying audiences. A proud Haudenosaunee woman by the name of Mercedes Terrance looked on with her companions as the otherwise lovely day of confrontation began to fade into nightfall. Her expression captured the essence of this whole summer to me, seemingly thinking out loud, when will this treatment end; when will the healing begin?
The music that drew me into these comparisons remains relevant to the controversies today. The late folk singer Johnny Cash wrote a poignant song about the loss of the Seneca Nation lands to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Kinzua Dam project. The dispossession of the historic Cornplanter Tract had been a violation of the agreement dating to George Washington, but progress under eminent domain superseded the words of the man known as the Town Destroyer.
Should modern-day Seneca people occupy the Kinzua Dam or Mohawks confiscate the Robert Moses power dam on the St. Lawrence River, they would be depicted as disgruntled delinquents most likely. It would likely only be in passing that a historical reference to their original lands as a footnote to current events would be made. The resurrection of former glories, including the upholding of the seminal Iroquois Confederacy original constitution itself would be considered spurious, or of little consequence to today’s events. That is because to the winners go the spoils, including the stifling of lawful land claims and the writing of historical interpretation.
Johnny Cash participated in a thematic concept album series called White Mansions, featuring the late southern “Outlaw” singer Waylon Jennings from 1978 that was followed up by another Cash vocal contribution to a similar 1980 album featuring the aforementioned Levon Helm as Jesse James. Both of these unique projects were done under the supervision of the British lyricist Paul Kennerly, and provide a balanced set of depictions that favor no side or cause. They are collections of songs sung by the living about the dead, in an era locked in time.
The difference, however, between the American Civil War, which was supposedly settled, and the American Indian Wars which have apparently continued, is that Americans tolerated murmurs of the South rising again (as Levon Helm’s father confided to Robbie Robertson, spurring his lyrics specifically). The legacy of Robert E. Lee continued safely through 2017 in the form of limited edition minted plates and coins sold in advertisements included on the back of Sunday newspaper inserts and mailing advertisements. His former plantation named Arlington remains the name of the famous national military cemetery, as well as the name of the municipality near Washington D.C.
Other “lesser” Confederate generals with still-prominent names include the marginal Braxton Bragg (Fort Bragg, North Carolina) and Leonidas Polk (Fort Polk, Louisiana). The U.S. Army is currently resisting the renaming of military institution locations, but in this atmosphere of sweeping the deck historically, the refrained question remains, when will this treatment end; when will the healing begin.
Heather Heyer, the dead paralegal in Charlottesville, won’t be here to benefit from the opportunity for America to come together. Her cultural epitaph I think will remind people of her choice to engage in living through social involvement and not just exist in seemingly safe isolation. The more people are quiet about the world they wish to live in, the easier it is to accept that things around them will never change. To lose hope is to die in a small way instant to that decision. The slow death of the Confederate cause has possibly numbed some of the victims of modern culture wars to feel similarly. Native activists seem to bring the contentious issues to the forefront more directly in recent times. Who knows where the underlying political lines will cross between words and action for them? On the Hudson River, the exasperated looks from those so young is a worrying signal. For them, the heavy lifting is just beginning. I hope that they will live long enough to reap the benefit of their efforts. As time goes by for me, it is my own hopes and expectations being driven down because the American way of life seems rigged from its own start. Only through young blood pumping through the heavy heart is it revitalized. The ashes of the burnt-down Confederacy create the fertilizer for the next crop that follows it. May the fruits of their labors make the taste as sweet as their actions allow. For the sake of all of us.