Sunday, November 28, 2004

On Native Ground


I suggested in a previous blog that whites in their relationships with Indians were like those South American tribes who first killed their foes and then ate their hearts to acquire the warrior virtues those foes possessed.

In North America, the warrior virtues were only the first useful thing whites took from the Indians. Once the Indians had been decimated by war, disease, and alcohol, once they had been removed as impediments to the exploitation of the continent, it was then possible to transform them, at least in the national imagination, into “Native Americans.”

The renaming, the recasting, of the Indian as Native American was part of the process of cultural cannibalization by whites. As Native Americans, Indians possessed other virtues worth appropriating, besides being warriors. Indians were cruel, uncivilized killers, which is how they are described in the Declaration of Independence: Native Americans, by contrast, are in harmony with themselves, with the environment, and with the Great Spirit. In the most extreme transformation of the Indian into Native American, he is turned by the media into a redeeming spiritual figure. He walks these polluted hills.

In a famous ad sponsored by the American Ad Council, which first televised it more than thirty years ago, a Native American sheds tears over the pollution of the environment, by people, of course, not by corporations. That particular ad, incidentally, first appeared on Earth Day, 1971, but the “Native American,” who became famous as “the crying Indian,” was bogus: he was Espera DiCorti, a Hollywood actor who was born in Louisiana of Italian immigrant parents but made a career in Hollywood and TV by claiming to be an Indian from Oklahoma. He made an early film appearance as an Indian in the 1919 silent, “Back to God’s Country.”

Indian captivity narratives were a favorite literary genre in the colonial period of American history, back when Native Americans were still Indians. Tales of white women held prisoner by savages were best sellers. The Indians of Lower Shawnee Town, located roughly where Portsmouth now is, held a white woman captive back in 1775. A stirring mural of that piece of local history would make tourists stop their cars, but it would be out of keeping with the politically correct, Portsmouth-Chamber-of-Commerce view of Portsmouth’s past that is depicted on the Floodwall. Better to commemorate Jim Thorpe playing the white man’s game than redskins menacing a white woman.

The natives of Lower Shawnee Town, in the mural above, are shown in peaceful pursuits, in the period prior to the arrival of the whites. Absent is any suggestion they valued freedom enough to die for it. Possibly because they were among the most nomadic of the native peoples, the Shawnee refused to be confined to one place, especially to a reservation. You would not guess from the Shawnee Floodwall mural that such people would produce such a defiant leader as Tecumseh, who said the following in 1810 to the Osage tribe of the Ohio River Valley: “Brothers: Who are the white people that we should fear them? They cannot run fast, and are good marks to shoot at; they are only men; our fathers have killed many of them; we are not squaws, and we will stain the earth red with their blood.” The Shawnee were among the most defiant of the native peoples, and they made their last stand in Ohio. That heroic resistance is no where commemorated on the Portsmouth Floodwall.

On land that they took in the vicinity of Lower Shawnee Town, the whites eventually built a university, which they named, along with a nearby state forest, Shawnee. What white Americans did on the North American continent they are now doing half way around the world. Through the military and the mass media, the most effective weapon of cultural transformation, we are imposing our political, cultural, and religious values on darker-skinned people, whether they like it or not. Who knows whether in a hundred years, in an another ironic convolution of history, after we have killed the Tecumsehs and subdued the rest, we might not idolize and name universities and forests after those who fought suicidally rather than submit to us.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Jim Thorpe: Return of the Native


To understand the ambivalent relationship between Native Americans and white Americans, it is instructive to recall the practice of some South American tribes who, in an attempt to acquire the strength, bravery, and other martial virtues of their slain foes, ate their hearts.

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was a proverbial American slogan in the 1800s. For hundreds of years, white Americans had deprived native Americans of their land, their culture, and in many cases their lives, herding those who survived onto reservations. Then, at the beginning of the last century, after native Americans had been virtually vanquished, the whites began to rehabilitate the reputation of the red man. The same qualities for which Indians were formerly feared and loathed, their unflinching fierceness, gradually became a virtue. As sports began to be a major national industry in the first half of the last century, amateur, college, and professional teams proudly adopted Indian names – the Indians, the Braves, the Redskins, the Chiefs, the Warriors, the Fighting Illini, the Seminoles, etc. The image of the Indian as unregenerate savage was gradually replaced by the Indian as outstanding athlete. Having practiced a form of genocide, the whites then in an act of expiation glorified, if not deified, their vanquished foe. They ate their hearts out.

Jim Thorpe was living embodiment of the transformation of the young Indian brave from savage to star athlete. If Thorpe had not existed, he would have had to be invented, because he filled an important cultural need. From Oklahoma, where his ancestors had been driven on to reservations, which were the concentration camps of the 1800s, Thorpe came East to play for the Carlisle School for Indians, in Pennsylvania. Thorpe may have been the first minority athlete to be recruited to play collegiate sports. But Carlisle was not a college. It was a trade school founded for the purpose of not only taking the Indian off the reservation but also of taking the Indian out of the Indian. Parents on the reservation had no choice: the law forced them to give up their children to a school a thousand miles away whose aim was, in the words of its white military founder, who was speaking figuratively, of course, to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Carlisle students were forbidden to talk, to dress, to act, to sing, to dance, like Indians. At Carlisle, Thorpe excelled in football and ballroom dancing, but there is no evidence that he learned any trade, other than being an athlete.

Portsmouth, Ohio, was one of the more undistinguished stops in his career as a professional athlete, and there is irony in his coming to southern Ohio, for his Shawnee ancestors had been forced out of the area in an earlier period of American history. Thorpe was an underpaid player and manager of the Portsmouth Steel-Shoes for a season, and on the basis of that tenuous connection to the river city, he is memorialized in a Floodwall mural.

When his youth was gone and his athletic skills deteriorated, Thorpe drifted during the Great Depression into manual labor and alcoholism, although he did have a bit part as a native in the 1933 movie “King Kong.” He died broke in 1953, just a few years after the appearance of the film “Jim Thorpe: All American,” which was a Hollywood contribution to the process of cultural cannibalization of Native Americans, of which the Thorpe Floodwall mural, is a more modest and more recent example.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Changing Names


For Jim Thorpe, 1888-1953

He had an Irish name and an Indian face,
a half-breed, born on an Oklahoma reservation –
strength of steel tempered by balletic grace.
A bear of a man, he became the pride of a nation

that reveres the athleticism of inferior races.
In a collegiate dance contest, he first showed his stuff.
Light on his feet, he threw off the traces
until the judges conceded: “Enough is enough.”

The Carlisle Indians were real redskins.
In one game the score was Thorpe 18, Harvard 13.
They finished that season with eleven wins.
He was the best anyone had seen.

In 1912, thousands of miles from home,
his athleticism, like the Olympic flag, unfurled
before the blonds, agog, in Stockholm.
The king called him “the greatest athlete in the world.”

Fast-forward to 1953 and a poor drunk
dying in a trailer park in Lomita, CA.
His third wife sold his corpse to Mauch Chunk,
which changed its name to Jim Thorpe, PA,

a petered out mining town where
they buried him in a sure-fire tourist site.
An Indian name, Mauch Chunk means “Sleeping Bear.”
Thorpe’s, “ Wa-Tho-Huk,” means “Path of Light.”

Robert Forrey

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Culture of Dependency

Riffe mural
In spite of being dominated by conservative Republicans, who advocate the classic Horatio Alger virtues of strive-and-succeed, south central Ohio has a pervasive culture of dependence on government – city, county, state and federal. This dependency is obvious, even notorious, in those at the bottom of the social ladder – the uneducated, the unskilled, the unemployed. For them government aid takes the form of food stamps, Aid for Dependent Children, Medicare, welfare, etc. For those at the top, the business and professional classes of south central Ohio, governmental assistance is less obvious, but it’s there too. Want to start a business? Can’t do it by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps? There’s the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership to loan you government money, or the city government to sell you public land cheap for your new business, or tax breaks, write-offs, abatements, or other sweetheart deals. Are you going out of business and have a big empty department store to unload? Look to the city or county government to take it off your hands. Got a house that you are having trouble selling in Portsmouth’s flat real estate market? Look to the state university to buy it for more than you could ever sell it to a private party. Got a friend or relative who needs a job? Look to the city and country government, to the prison or the new jail; to the hospital or the university, but only if you know someone who knows someone. And being a Democrat doesn’t disqualify you. The incestuous nepotism and feeding at the public trough in south central Ohio is bipartisan. The godfather and the dispenser of much of the governmental largesse to south central Ohio, Verne Riffe, was a Democrat. He is enshrined on the Floodwall Murals. He walks these hills.

How did this pervasive dependence of people in Southern Ohio on government come about? Once a bustling manufacturing and transportation hub, where employment was high and commercial competition presumably was intense, the Portsmouth area, as a result of regional, national and global changes that were beyond the control of any individual, class, or political party, began a steady economic decline about a half century ago. The Midwest generally and Ohio in particular, with its large industrial base, was especially vulnerable. Ohio found itself a rustbelt state and Portsmouth a terminal city in a downsizing digitalizing world. Rather than competing for the few jobs and scarce customers in the private sector, collaborating with public officials to tap into public monies became a way of life in south central Ohio. The $300,000 check delivered by Representative Portman for Portsmouth Murals, Inc. just prior to the elections last week is pure political pork.

In south central Ohio there may have been cultural baggage that exacerbated the problem of dependency on government. David Hackett Fischer in Seed of Albion pointed out that the wave of immigrants who settled in the Appalachia region brought with them from the border regions of Britain a shiftlessness, incontinence, and orneriness that was impervious to the American creed of strive-and-succeed. In the politically incorrect classic Taps for Private Tussie, Jesse Stuart, more in sorrow than anger, mocked the dependency of hill people on government handouts, but he said nothing of the dependency, mooching, and hypocrisy of those at the top. There is, for example, the Portsmouth real estate developer who received over 3.7 million dollars in abatements as he first ran down and then razed neighborhoods, in one of which he built dormitories for students but only after the university agreed to reimburse him if the occupancy rate ever fell below a certain percentage. He owns the dormitories, and pockets the profits, but the university, that is the government, takes the risks. That is the way business is done in south central Ohio.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Angel in Sydnor's Corner

What was very surprising about the results of the recent attempt to recall Ann Sydnor as Ward 1 representative on the Portsmouth City Council was the narrow margin of her victory. It could not have been narrower – a single vote. Out of the 1345 votes cast, 672 were for and 673 against her recall. The percentage by which she avoided recall (assuming the numbers don't change in a recount) was a remarkably narrow .03%. But that was not the only surprising thing, because her margin of victory was about as narrow as her political and financial advantages over her challenger, Tim Loper, were wide.

Sydnor has many years of experience as a council member; Loper has none. She waged an active campaign; if Loper waged anything more than a token campaign, I saw no sign of it. Speaking of signs, hers appeared throughout the ward, and they were commercially produced; Loper’s very few homemade signs (I saw three) were limited to the Front Street area. Sydnor had the support of most of the local political establishment, everyone from former Mayor Bauer and the Republican lawyer John Thatcher, to Lee Scott, a leader of the movement to recall Mayor Bauer. When the campaign expenditures of Sydnor and Loper are made public, I expect they will show that the disparity in dollars were as great as the disparity in signs. And yet her margin of victory was only 3/100ths of one percent.

In my few contacts with Ann Sydnor, who is my council representative, I have found her savvy and helpful. When Timothy Angel was running against her for the Ward 1 council seat and spoke to me about the need of new blood on the City Council, I was not persuaded to vote against her. Then in this recall election. Angel himself emerged as her strong supporter and treasurer of the Keep Sydnor Committee. So even her opponent in the last several council races was on her side in this one, and yet her margin of victory was only one vote out of 1345 cast.

In her campaign, Sydnor argued experience is her strong suit. But the issue to Sydnor’s critics is not her experience but her integrity, which they claim she lacks. They say her role on the City Council in general and her part in the Marting’s purchase in particular show that she is not to be trusted. In a campaign letter to Ward 1 residents, Angel implicitly defended Sydnor’s votes on the City Council, including her vote in favor of the Marting’s purchase, by saying, “She has made decisions based on the information she had at the time and voted how she felt was in the best interest of Portsmouth.” According to Angel, Sydnor, at worst, had been misled on the Marting’s purchase. But given her experience and savvy, shouldn’t she have been the one person on the Council who should not have been misled? Shouldn’t she have known the Marting’s deal smelled to heaven? Wouldn’t her nose alone have told her that?

One of the positive things about Portsmouth politics is that party affiliation, gender, and sexual orientation are not all that important. The people who get in bed with each other politically don’t let things like that get in their way. The alliance between Sydnor and Angel strikes me as a marriage of political convenience. Sydnor has said that she does not plan to run for City Council again when her term is up next year. It would not surprise me if Angel did run, with Sydnor’s blessing. After all, if he had not voted for her, she would not have achieved her razor-thin margin of victory. He literally was the Angel in her corner.

Semesters: Veri's Revenge

In addition to giving a Shawnee State trustee the chance to tap into public monies, as I pointed out in my previous blog, the Portsmouth Floodwall murals also provided the artist an opportunity of showing a troubling period in the history of Shawnee State U. in an idyllically academic light.

The mural “SSU Expansion” stresses academics, not expansion, showing President Clive Veri (in the detail above) in his robes standing in front of Massie Hall talking to several graduating students. The mural does not show the dozens of homes in the area around Massie that were eminently domained and subsequently pilfered by a Shawnee State administrator on behalf of the overprivileged of Portsmouth, who coveted the doors, chandeliers, mirrors and other valuable accoutrements of these historic homes. The bulldozing of Portsmouth’s architectural heritage was part of SSU’s “expansion.” And as for academics, there is no way of telling from the mural that during Veri’s troubled nine years as president, from 1989 to 1998, SSU was annually consistently ranked by U.S. News as one of the worst liberal arts universities in the nation, near the very bottom of the fourth and bottom tier of small liberal arts institutions.

In spite of his poor performance as president, Veri regularly received commendations and merit raises from the trustees. If he was an abysmal failure with faculty (in the year prior to his resignation only 5% of the polled faculty gave him a vote of confidence), Veri was the darling of the trustees and the overprivileged of Portsmouth, whose obliging servant he became. As long as he did nothing to upset the corrupt status quo or upset the trustees, his incompetence was no bar to his remaining president of SSU. If a trustee, like Frank Waller, wanted to start a travel business that would eventually become the preferred agency for the university; and if another former trustee sold her white elephant house on Franklin Boulevard to SSU for much more than it was worth, Veri would have been the last to question whether there might be a conflict of interest.

Veri didn’t have a clue how to lead a small new state university in Ohio or how to operate in the shadow of SSU’s political godfather in Columbus, Vern Riffe. A heavy drinker and smoker, instead of dealing with difficult realities, Veri resorted to 1950 fantasies. As his model of what SSU might become, as I learned from a conversation with him, he took as his ideal a picturesque New England college, Middlebury, in Vermont, which he had not attended but which he looked enviously at when he was president of déclassé Lyndon State College, in a more remote part of the state. From a blue-collar ethnic background, Veri may never have recovered from the disappointment of not attending a picture-postcard New England college. He became SSU’s Great Gatsby, and an upper-class New England college, with its football, fraternities, and semesters, was his East Egg.

With no-confidence votes and rumors of scandals swirling around him, Veri resigned in 1998, possibly because he was pressured to. But as a reward for his servility, the trustees in his last months in office gave him a degree of satisfaction by endorsing one of his Gatsby dreams. Though they made no sense for the type of institution SSU was and is, semesters were mandated by the trustees, but they would not be imposed until after Veri had left. If semesters was originally a dream of Veri’s, what semesters became in his final embittered months as president was an act of revenge. What Veri dared not have the trustees do during his nine years – mandate semesters – they did in his last months in office, leaving the dirty work for some future president to deal with.

Politics, not academics, have always been the priority at SSU, and politicians not educators continue to call the shots, and as long as they do SSU will continue to have one of the worst reputations among small liberal arts colleges in the United States, as it has again this year. Among 217 small liberal arts universities, there are only four ranked lower than SSU by U.S. News, and those four survive not on the public treasury but on a wing and a prayer. It is a scandal that after eighteen years and many millions of dollars of state support and subsidies, SSU still has one of the worst academic reputations in the nation. And what is the best solution the trustees can come up with to improve SSU? To switch to semesters! Once it does make the switch, after several years of herculean fruitless efforts, SSU will have one more thing in common with Arkansas Baptist College, Barber Scotia College (NC), Christendom College (Va), and Christian Heritage College (Ca): they will all be on the semester calendar.