Monday, November 26, 2012

The Dakota War, Lincoln and Sibley

"This American Life" offers up some sharp audio portraits, along with the occasional dud. Seldom do they knock me flat and send me back to a broadcast for repeated digging. That is, however, exactly what I find myself doing after a first listen to this week's show - "Little War On the Prairie" - and with good reason. It not only satisfied my own interest in learning more about trade and cultural interactions with those Nations of inhabitants who predated the expansion of the United States. It does so by providing the most compelling portrait of a previously hidden history I've experienced in a very long time. Do yourself a solid and listen to it all the way through. Maybe you'll even find yourself following my lead, which will mean checking out what other work is to be found at the Minnesota History Center's online and in-person (if you're so lucky - on display through September 2013) exhibit on this conflict which they call the "U.S. - Dakota War of 1862". The little that I've browsed through this compiled work stands as wholly impressivex.

Taking this a bit farther, let me first of all say that I don't think this is a spoiler alert for either this audio documentary (done by John Biewen) or the fresh and fabulous movie "Lincoln" which I saw over the Thanksgiving holiday. But for those most staunch in their seriousness about knowing nothing of any particular narrative going in, you might want to return to this post after you've gotten through both. Wth that's no surprise that the real Abraham Lincoln was a leader who had to weigh immense philosophical costs for benefits that sometimes only he could see coming down the pike. Such is possibly the case with respect to his treatment of the Native Americans and the effected mostly white settlers in hugely complex situations like the Dakota War. It is stunning to imagine how Lincoln dealt with such daunting news while simultaneously trying to soldier on through the bloodiest part of the Civil War (September, 1862 included the Battle of Antietam - the first major battle to be fought on Union soil and the single deadliest day in the history of all U.S. wars). But that is just what ol' Abe did. Which tangentially brings up my admiration for the truly amazing storyline used in the film version of "Lincoln". I have yet to hear of arguments raised with respect to Tony Kushner's script or Daniel Day Lewis's uncanny portrayal. Which makes me think they were spot on. That being said, Lincoln's implied presence also factors into this narrative about the Dakota War. Specifically, he's described from a distance dealing with the difficult decisions of what to do with captured Dakota warriors who certainly sound like were the victims of horrible injustices. Heartbreaking stuff. In this, the Minnesota History Center's bibliographic sourcing offers much more fuel for future mental journeys.

The leap of my specific interest(s) have then taken me to one character in the Dakota War episode - Henry Sibley. This guy's name is all over Minnesota, but the story behind his ascendancy was a blind spot for me. Thanks to this incredible hour of radio drama - and the thoughts that got rolling from seeing "Lincoln" a few days ago - I'm headed in a fascinating direction toward that understanding. I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

The point being? Hidden history provides storytelling gold. Or an honest attempt to accurately read and capture that history once in a while offers a chance to shoot for an artful summation. That is, after all, what some of aspire to do. All the while looking to others who have done it so dang well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Recycling the immortal tribute "and PFFT! You were gone."

While so much post-election journalistic energy has been spent oogling the orbiting awfulness around ex-CIA Chief David Petraeus, two flown-over stories recently caught my eye.

I. I've been wonking out on an intriguing little Bill currently wending its way through the U.S. Congress. Oddly, this was the first business the Senate took up after the election. Which now seems like eons ago. The title for the Bill must drive copy editors wild - the "Sportmen's Heritage Act of 2012" - and the hodgepodge of issues covered therein never makes it above the fold. Plus it's well on its way to passage even as it was sent back to the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources after a cloture vote (meaning a voice vote without objection...after which Congress seemingly just greases the skids we've got ourselves a new-car-smell law). A few papers and blogs from places presumed to still care about hunting and fishing ran headlines last week mentioning, well, not much up top. Other than that a few dozen hunters upon passage will be allowed to import polar bear trophies from Canada. But aside from the cutesy focus on what a "baculum" is (that's a polar bear penis bone, folks - extra credit for those who've heard of the Inuit term "oosik"), there's been almost no ink spilled for the range of special interests getting extra dap in the Heritage Act. I'm still trying to tease out who benefits and whether or not that's something to be troubled by. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) had a tough re-election back home, and he's among those most responsible for what's called for in the Bill. Which runs from changes to the rules for hunting, fishing and recreational target shooting, to changing the sizing of what can be called "wilderness", to letting those polar bears who've been dead and skinned since at least 2008 finally cross the border from Canada to the U.S., and a whole musket load of small bore issues in between. Support in the Congress seems to be broad and largely unquestioned. The Obama Administration even weighed in by saying the bill would be good for the "conservation economy" - take just what bowhunting contributes to the U.S. economy and you've got $38 Billion. Yes, with a B. Admittedly, I don't really have any skin in this legislative game or the background to have a reaction to the ones I've read elsewhere. Yet. When the Heritage Act's post-scripts comes around (Senate Bill 3525, mirroring H.R. 4089), I hope to have a bit more to dress out. Or maybe I'll just prep myself to bid on a pimped-out oosik sent down from a taxidermist in Nunuvut. I know, I know - get in line, cowboy.

II. My second shout out comes from a reclaimed childhood memory that I didn't see coming. First of all, Frank Peppiatt died last week. Who? Exactly. However, if you recognize the title quote for this post - a famous bit from Peppiatt's most famous cultural contribution - you just may be...someone who can find some fascinating details in his life story. Whether or not you grew up in cultural circumstances similar to mine. Peppiatt was a co-creator of the TV show "Hee Haw" (with fellow Canadian, John Aylesworth, who died a few years ago). I watched countless episodes when I was a kid, invariably for the skits and bits. I couldn't get through the country music performances fast enough. Yet it's not an overstatement to say that I can't really think of my childhood's Saturday nights without the corn pone jokes and cutaways with sexy farm girls suggesting a playful roll in the hay. "Hee Haw" came on mild and steady with performers like the hosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens showing comedic chops far removed from the stylish New Country crossovers that now seem so ubiquitous. More interestingly, I had no idea until I read Peppiatt's obit that this long-running syndication hit for flyover America came into being as a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers. Their top-rated comedy show got axed after their satire went all serious and they openly opposed the Vietnam War on-air - probably one of the ballsiest moves in the history of TV. I kid you not when I claim that re-reading signature "Hee Haw" shtick like "I'm a-pickin'...and I'm a grinnin'" conjured up a long buried fondness. To then read that "Hee Haw" got canceled after just two short seasons when CBS did a "rural purge" of shows that didn't fall into the right target demographics sent me Googling for more details. Where and when I saw "Hee Haw" - along with most of the middle of the country - was in the 20+ years of syndication that followed that purge. I rarely recommend obits. Still, where this one led me after getting acquainted with Mr. Peppiatt's life was a sweet, corny treat.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Looking Back and Forward

Election Day. As an unabashed political junkie, today would seem like the perfect time for reflection. In terms of political analysis, however, today snuck up on me this go around. Not because of a lack of attentiveness - I assure you that my bets are well-voiced off-line and my Washington State ballot was tallied weeks ago. We do it all by mail here and in Oregon - this is the future of voting, America. Well, unless/until the Postal Service goes belly up.

Nonetheless, the point of my distraction from the national matter(s) at hand have everything to do with just getting unpacked and dusted off after one last research road trip. I've just unpacked the travel bag for what truly feels like the last time on the primary research for Pelting Out. This final jaunt I'm happy to report allowed me the chance to purposely bring along my curious and amazing daughter, while my wife pursues her own research travel in Africa (Zimbabwe in particular, for those wondering where in the world Sarah is this time). Maya and I went to Wisconsin for a once-in-nearly-a-century special family gathering that provided me with among other related pleasures the true, hands-on narrative ending my book needed. Which begs the question from some - jeez, is it done? That depends on what definitions for "is" and "it" and "done" you're looking to use. I'll just say that the "it" makes much more sense now. I'm happy to report - with a healthy dose of bittersweetness - that without this last trip back to my family's homestead, that "it" couldn't possibly have made as much sense. Or felt as true.

So today is all about "transition" for me. As a storyteller and a citizen. I won't say in which order of importance. However you may reflect upon today - whether you're celebrating or lamenting or trying to tease out why any of this really matters - I hope you've found an equally satisfying reason to move forward with your own work.