I grew up on a diet of Wild West novels and a dominant American narrative that celebrated the victory of the white man against the native American Indian. It was always about how the West was “won.”
The turning point in my thinking occurred in 1996 when I was lucky enough to attend a lecture and solo performance by the legendary R. Carlos Nakai at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Nakai spoke poignantly about how the West was “lost” by the Indians. If the point had been missed by anyone, he played a set of brilliant scores on the native American flute, which transported the audience to the America of a few centuries ago. A few days after the concert, I had bought 3 of Nakai’s albums which included this masterpiece – How the West was Lost.
In the last few months, as I re-read the complete 17-novel Sackett series from master storyteller Louis L’Amour, an extract from Treasure Mountain stood out. I reproduce it below – the short version of How The West Was Lost (as recounted by Powder-Face, an old Indian, to William Tell Sackett).
Powder Face shrugged. “I know,” he said simply.
“We killed them and killed them and killed them, and still they came. It was not the horse soldiers that whipped us, it was not the death of the buffalo, nor the white man’s cows. It was the people. It was the families.
“The rest we might conquer, but the people kept coming and they built their lodges where no Indian could live. They brought children and women, they brought the knife that cuts the earth. They built their lodges of trees, of sod cut from the earth, of boards, of whatever they could find.”
“We burned them out, we killed them, we drove off their horses, and we rode away. When we came back others were there as if grown from the ground—and others, and others, and others.”
“They were too many for us. We killed them, but our young men died, too, and we had not enough young men to father our children, so we must stop fighting.”
And William Tell Sackett’s subsequent conversation with Powder Face reveals the American value system relevant even in the 21st century:
“Remember this, Old One. The white man respects success. For the poor, the weak, and the inefficient, he has pity or contempt. Whatever the color of your skin, whatever country you come from, he will respect you if you do well what it is you do.”
“You may be right. I am an old man, and I am confused. The trail is no longer clear.”
“You brought your people to my cousins. You work for them now, so you are our people as well. You came to them when they
needed you, and you will always have a home where they are.”
The flames burned low, flickered, and went out. Red coals remained. The chill wind stirred the leaves again. Powder Face sat silently, and I went to my blankets.