“Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

My Mohawk grandmother.  This is the cover of the book my mother wrote about her adolescence growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

My Mohawk grandmother, Mary Sawatis Jacobs. This is the cover of the book that my mother wrote about growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

“History is a relentless master.  It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.   — John F. Kennedy

When I was a kid, we’d pile into the station wagon and head to the reservation to visit my mother’s Mohawk side of the family.  My father liked to go there because the men drank beer, fished, and told stories.  My mother liked it, because it was where she felt truly at home.  We kids liked to go because we had lots of cousins, the adults got busy talking, and we were left to look after ourselves. In the summer we swam in the river, and traversed the shoreline, weaving through sweetgrass that smelled like fresh rain.  The cousins taught us how to swear in Mohawk.

There was one church on the entire reservation and it was Catholic.  Father Jacobs was the priest.  He was Mohawk, but also a Catholic priest.  I never questioned this.  The church had a bell tower and a bell rope that hung in the entry.  You could pull that rope down and ride half-way to the ceiling when it was time to ring the bell.

Other than hearing the odd word or phrase spoken in the Mohawk language, or the fact that my male cousins all played Lacrosse, there was not a lot to make the reservation seem much different than the town I was from.  Except that on the reservation, nothing was paved.  There was only dirt and stubby patches of grass. When it rained, people set down planks of wood between their driveway and the door in an effort to keep mud out of the house.  Meals were simple, but hearty.  The items served most often were corn soup and beef hash. Both of which were lovely and delicious and always homemade.  (I guess they also ate a lot of fish, because it was there for the taking, being that the St. Lawrence river wrapped around one side of the reservation, while the St. Regis river cut a swath through the other end.  But I don’t like fish so the recollection of it tends be hazy for me.)

What was missing at that time was festival, ritual, and feathers.  I don’t remember any Native ceremonies or regalia.  There were no sweat lodges.  No pow wows. No moccasin-ed dancing for rain or peace or any other thing.  If we attended church there, it was the same Catholic mass as the one we experienced at home.

The point is, that my comprehension then of what it was like to be Mohawk, to be a Native American living on a reservation, was lacking cultural context.  It was years before I understood why.  I knew that when my mother was growing up, many of her cousins were taken from their homes and placed in an Industrial boarding school in Canada. They were forbidden to speak their native language or participate in native ceremony.  They were there, boys and girls (in separate schools), to be “educated”, which actually meant, to learn to be “white.”

That those schools were often brutal, the quality of education poor, and the food even worse, is well documented.  But Indian schools did more than decimate native cultures, they robbed those children of any value they previously may have thought they had.

Without a culture or a sense of worth, what is left?

My mother’s reservation has come back to their culture slowly, like a long forgotten memory drifting into consciousness once again.  It is not called St. Regis anymore.  We use the Mohawk word instead, Akwesasne.  I love the sound of that.

I began this post on Monday, which was Columbus Day.  In part because of the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge, which had as a topic:  Living History.  But mostly because of the day, which my mother cannot let go by without muttering at least once — Columbus, that murdering bastard!

And then I read a piece in the Washington Post which made me wonder again, why do we keep a holiday in honor of a man we now know dealt a brutal hand against the natives of the lands he explored (which wasn’t even America)?  In one of the reader comments, a man asked if there actually were any Indian reservations around these days?  I was about to reply that why, yes, in fact there were many reservations still around, but then I spied another comment a few lines down that wisely pointed out – Do not feed the trolls.  And I realized, of course, it does no good.  You can lead a person to information, but you cannot make him think.

Still.  Can we agree to not honor mean men?  I’d like to believe that history can teach us how to live better.  Kinder.

Maybe one day, we could even get it right.

n.b. The title of this post is a quote taken from a paper read at a convention in 1892 by Richard Henry Pratt, the U.S. Army officer whose brainchild it was to assimilate Indians into a white society.

43 thoughts on ““Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

  1. Mary,
    Thank you for your words here. I’m reminded of a wonderful film I saw years ago about the “Indian Schools” in Canada called “Where the Spirit Lives.” It was the story of a young girl who was abducted and taken to a school where the students were prohibited from practicing their cultural rites. In the end, she managed to escape and find her way back home. And Columbus? I agree – honoring someone whose main goal was to ransack and brutalize the Americas seems strange to say the least…
    Cathy

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    • Cathy — thank you so much for your kind words. I just checked Netflix to see if I could find a copy of that movie. They may have it on DVD, but it’s not available for streaming, which is the plan I currently have. It’s easy enough to change, though. I’d love to see the film.

      As for Columbus, even as a kid I couldn’t understand why we had a holiday for him. The Americas were named after another explorer entirely! I recently learned that the Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus lobbied for the day to be set aside until FDR finally signed it into law in 1937.

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      • Interesting about the Knights of Columbus, Mary. Yes, we really should have a holiday set aside for Amerigo Vespucci! And I suspect you would love the film. I remember details about it even fifteen years after seeing it…brilliant, touching and I think it told such an important story about our First Nation People of which you share their DNA!

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  2. “My father liked to go there because the men drank beer, fished, and told stories”
    We still do – Crow Rez – 10/17/13….slow good life especially when the trout are hitting – thank you for sharing.
    Just remember “Indians Discovered Columbus Day” was celebrated at our school last week here in Lodge Grass –

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    • Yes, it is a slow, good life. I have always thought that the way to slow things down is to spend some time on the Rez. You can sit in a room full of people and nobody feels the need to talk unless they have something to say. It’s peaceful.

      Thank you for reading.

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  3. We are so lucky you are doing this writing program that insures us something wonderful to read every week. Please keep it up – and I’d love to know more about your mother’s book, too —

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    • Ronnie, my mother’s book is out of print now, but we’re looking into using Amazon’s Create Space publishing site to make it available again.

      Thank you for saying such kind things about my writing. I do so appreciate it.

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  4. “You can lead a person to information, but you cannot make them think.” — true in many cases, but not in mine, Mary, or most of your readers, because you always make us think. Granted, I think you have the smartest, kindest, best-looking readers out there, but that’s because you are the same and I am biased.

    Sadly I can still name all three of Columbus’s ships from the silly grade school poem, but most of my Native American history comes from Thanksgiving teachings, The Last of the Mohicans, and Dances With Wolves. I find that very sad.

    As I’ve grown older I see nothing celebratory about Columbus Day. I don’t even shop its sales.

    I enjoy these mini-history lessons, the glimpses into your family and, of course, the brilliant writing you offer us grateful readers and friends.

    My love,
    Christy

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    • My husband and I were talking about what we were taught about Columbus in grade school – which was pretty much what you learned, too. Most of it is misinformation. I wonder what they teach about him now, whether it’s the same crap?

      I’m glad I make you think. Lovely of you to say so – and, yah, I like your bias! I’ll take it, and be forever grateful for your friendship.

      xxx
      Mary

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  5. Thought-provoking post.
    I am so glad that there is a return to cultural roots. Those children who were uprooted and taken away to be ‘educated’ would I guess lose their sense of belonging. Without roots, we drift aimlessly.
    And your Mother’s book-what a great keepsafe of memories for you.

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  6. Beautiful post! my belief is, It’s never too late for a comeback… to honor your ancestor’s traditions & ways of living.
    I have always been attracted to your culture & its authenticity & gather information wherever I could so, I thoroughly enjoyed your writings on the matter, well done!

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  7. I applaud your post, Mary. The damage done in this land to the original inhabitants is beyond measure and our sanctimonious condemnation of other countries’ human right issues infuriates me. We sweep under the rug our shame and point the finger at others. When will we mature enough to realize that apology and reparation are necessary for strength to be rebuilt? Keep on writing.

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    • Thanks, Barb. Sadly there is blame enough for everyone everywhere. It is infuriating. I think the one thing that could make the most difference is spreading kindness like the plague. What if kindness took hold as fast as that? Imagine.

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  8. Mary, you did an excellent job with your story/ writing lesson. As I’ve maintained right along, you are a gifted writer. Tears welled up and sat up straighter with pride. “that’s my daughter,” I’m so blessed to know.
    Here’s a question: Is there anyway I can copy this so that I can share this story with the ones here at Sweetgrass who do not have computers? I tried twice, but just the photo of my mother is printed – i’ll be out of ink in no time this way.
    let me know soon.

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  9. There is another film about “saving men” it’s called “the thick dark fog” telling about the damage that has been done which is so often rather subtle if not as terrible.
    Anke

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    • Gotta love Berkeley! In South Dakota they call the day, Native American Day, in Hawaii they celebrate the day as Discoverer’s Day for the Polynesian discoverers. Oregon and Alaska don’t celebrate the day at all.

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    • Oh, Cayman, I’m sorry to make you cry. It wasn’t my intent. We do possess a bully culture, and I don’t believe it will ever change entirely, but I do like to think it gets better, however slowly. It does get better.
      As for trolls – you can’t live with them, you can’t drop ’em off a bridge. Pity.

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  10. As a teacher I often wonder why we have the day off, in fact why we have any of the days off we do… Veterans Day, Memorial Day, MLK, Jr. Day, but I digress Columbus Day, really should be a day of mourning for a civilization destroyed in the name of progress….but history is written by the victor, the last man standing, the conqueror. Sometimes I wonder where our culture is headed and look at how our nation is changing and many others are changing as well…. much food for thought, much to think about, to wonder. Thanks.

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    • You know, Clay, I live in Rhode Island, and here we have a state holiday in August that no one else in the US celebrates – “Victory Day.” It’s origin came from the years the US celebrated Victory over Japan Day. My hope is that history will be more open and honest in the future and less sanitized as it was when we were growing up.

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  11. Mary, we speak the same language. My late husband had native American in him, Cherokee, and he would spend countless hours searching the banks of the Tennessee River finding artifacts from his ancestors. Hundreds of arrowheads, many tomahawks and other tools. Several times I went with him when the river was low. I was in awe at how many different types of arrowheads we found, each one used for a specific purpose when hunting game.

    He even found burial pottery with the full skeletal remains of Cherokees who once lived along the riverbanks. We were living in Alabama at the time. After he passed away, I went back to the river, had a small ceremony in honor of those Cherokees, and my partner, then put them back into the river where it would be unlikely that they would be found anytime soon.

    During Thanksgiving, I always feel some sadness. But rarely have I shared that with anyone. One day, I was listening to Jon Stewart around Thanksgiving and he said:

    “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”

    That’s the legacy of Thanksgiving, and so few know this. I agree with you that we should not be honoring men who’ve been so inhumane. I will close with a quote from Aldous Huxley and a final comment.

    “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

    And that is a travesty. Post like yours bring necessary awareness, and help to reminded us of our history — and that we had better learn from it or else we just may become extinct by our own doings. Dr. Carl Sagan said that an organism at war with itself is doomed.

    So nice to meet you, Mary.

    Victoria

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    • Victoria,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about my post. I often wonder about the holidays we chose to celebrate, their true origins and how far away from the original intent we have gotten. I can only live with Thanksgiving if I view it as a time to give thanks for family and loved ones, and a time to share good food, a few stories and laughter. And as far as I’m concerned, Christmas has always been about “Christians” trying to get the pagans to stop partying at Winter Solstice. I like the fun of pretending that there’s this jolly guy in a red suit who flies around world in a single night handing out presents while people sleep. I’m never giving that one up. Though, as an interesting side note – when my son figured out that Santa was indeed imaginary, he was angry with me for lying to him. He got over it by the time Christmas rolled around again. He didn’t want to give up the ritual of leaving Santa a note along with milk and Christmas cookies and so we kept all those little rituals for a while longer.

      But Columbus? Nope. Can’t do it.

      I love that your husband explored and learned more about his heritage in such a way. I spent my the summer after my sophomore year in college on an archaeological dig in norther New York. We didn’t find human remains, but we did find an array of different types of arrowheads and various stone tools and pottery shards. The farther down we dug, the more artifacts we found, the different layers representing different periods of time. That was amazing to me, that refuse left behind is buried and forgotten and new people come and the process repeats itself again and again. It’s like looking at the striations in rock and marveling over visible proof of the passage of time. I like the way you chose to honor your husband and his people.

      It’s nice to meet you, too.

      Mary

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  13. Wow! I was in awe at your first line “When I was a kid, we’d pile into the station wagon and head to the reservation to visit my mother’s Mohawk side of the family.” I too had the same experience with my family, station wagon and all. My Mom grew up on the St. Regis Indian Reservation and her maiden name was Sawatis. She had many Sisters..I think 6 altogether and 1 Brother. My Father was 100% Italian and my Mom 100% Mohawk Indian. We grew up on the west side of Buffalo and owned a little corner store. I remember my Cousins…some were really nice and some were very mean calling me half breed (which I had no idea what that meant being so young) and picking on me. The nice ones would teach me how to open up Black Walnuts and eat them as they fell off the tree. They had a little playhouse we would sit in and crack open our walnuts which we kept stored in big mason jars. I remember being at my Aunt’s (Dorothy maybe) on the St. Lawrence River and the total blackness out her big picture window and you could see the big ships lights passing in the night. We always stayed in our Grandfather’s house which was a big white house with a big front porch and 6 or 7 bedrooms and a “pot room” which was always smelly but saved you a trip to the outhouse which was down a trail with woods on one side and a huge field on another. The mean Cousin’s locked my Sister and I in there one day and we had to cry and scream for a long time before someone heard us and came to our rescue! I caught poison ivy there the first year I played in that field with my Sister. Geez…the memories! I wonder if we are somehow related! I would love to read your Mom’s book…sounds so deep with history…something I would love! I will definitely be ordering it soon. Anyway I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful blogs. I enjoy reading them and have only read about 3 so far. We have so much in common it seems already. Please keep up your writing….it is eye opening experience and also a familiar place to me. Very nice to meet you Mary…sorry this is so long. Sincerely, Michelle Proper (Sciabarrasi)

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    • We must, indeed, be related as my mother’s mother was a Sawatis. My mother’s maternal grandmother was Agnes Jacobs who married Tom Sawatis and had a daughter Mary (for whom I am named). I remember mean cousins, too! We’ll have to swap stories. I was not only part white, but blonde as well. Isn’t it a small world? Glad you found my blog. It’s late here now. I’ll email you later.

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  14. Wonderful. Columbus was a man like all men. Potential for mean-ness and for glory. Nowhere is the story of our paradoxical behavior more pointed or sad than in the whites’ treatment of American native tribes. Also a good reminder about the trolls.

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  15. Hi I’m brad the great grandson of Anna Sawatis Ohmann. She was born on the reserve. As she grew older she decide to leave the akwesasne reserve and knee in order for to have any success she had to pretend to be a white women. She legally changed her name to Swartz and began her journey into the world of the white man. This upset the family but she went on to meet my great grandfather a son of German immigrants. My great grandmother often returned to the reserve to visit family bringing my grandfather along, a tradition the he continues even to this day. He would often bring myself and my brother which I have always greatly appreciated. Nothing is better than knowing your family! Thank you for the story!

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    • Hi, Brad. I’m the great-granddaughter of Agnes Sawatis Jacobs, so we must be related. How exciting is that?! According to my mother, Agnes also left the reserve when she was young. I think she went to Syracuse, made some money and returned to Akwesasne and bought the International Hotel which famously straddled the US and Canadian border. It was quite the place during the Prohibition era in the US. My mother returned to live at Akwesasne several years ago. My siblings and I were all just there a couple of weeks ago. Small world, isn’t it?

      I’m glad you stumbled onto my post. It’s nice to “meet” a relative I hadn’t previously known I had.

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