Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Bear Valley Massacre and the Making of History

To stay put in the same place for 5 weeks seems like a luxury of sorts. Regular access to regular speed internet seems like a luxury. Having my clothes in a closet seems like a luxury.

House/cat-sitting in San Diego, about to teach a summer session poetry class. Sad without Eugene, but three warm fuzzy cats fill the void, some part of it anyway. Just read The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History by Kass Fleisher. So much in this book - especially the "making of history" taken up as a large component of the book - interests me quite a bit. Of many things I could mention, one of the last sections I encounter, from Fleisher's final chapter, "Ten Digressions on What's Wrong:

Julia Penelope has pointed out, in Speaking Freely, a 1990 study of the gendered nature of language, that rape is almost always described using passive voice. 'Jane was raped.' Who raped Jane? Who bears responsibility? It is mighty rare indeed to hear, 'John raped Jane.' At best we might say, 'Jane was raped by John.' And that syntax has an important impact: we may hear then that John was the culprit, but since we say so in passive voice, it seems as if Jane is the subject of the verb was raped, as if Jane is the responsible agent here. As in, Jane got herself raped. It's subtle, but unmistakable.

Reminds me to go back to thinking about the meaning contained in grammar itself, including punctuation...a good time to revisit Stein. Go through your inboxes, everybody, and tell me who uses the most exclamation marks in their messages to you. (I have a theory!)

But that wasn't even the most salient quote from the book - just what happens to be on my mind today -

From the back cover, just so you know:

At dawn on January 29, 1863, Union-affiliated troops under the command of Col. Patrick Connor were brought by Mormon guides to the banks of the Bear River, where, with the tacit approval of Abraham Lincoln, they attacked and slaughtered nearly three hundred Northwestern Shoshoni men, women, and children. Evidence suggests that, in the hours after the attack, the troops raped the surviving women-an act still denied by some historians and Shoshoni elders. In exploring why a seminal act of genocide is still virtually unknown to the U.S. public, Kass Fleisher chronicles the massacre itself, and investigates the National Park Service's proposal to create a National Historic Site to commemorate the massacre-but not the rape. When she finds herself arguing with a Shoshoni woman elder about whether the rape actually occurred, Fleisher is forced to confront her own role as a maker of this conflicted history, and to examine the legacy of white women "busybodies."

[Okay, that was a little lazy of me to use the backcover blurb, but it's probably much more succinct than something I would have said. It's written in pseudo-blockbuster movie format though: "When XYZ happens, Fleisher is forced to confront her own role as..." - which is true, more or less. It's not quite as sensational, as it is...difficulty honest, so much so that she'll even own up to her "issues," as if pre-empting (or at least acknowledging) the forthcoming criticism. In fact, she invites it, on more than one occasion - which seems to be part of the project (and part of the fun). It's a terrific critique on history that uses, as only one of its tools, the storytelling gifts of a novelist. And I still feel like I haven't properly expressed how much I admire this book. I admire this book so much.]

Anyway, this book is labeled "Native American Studies" on its back cover - though it might also say Nonfiction/Gender Studies/American History/ there a term for the study of history? This book is a remarkable feat of crossing over between genres, that works hard to challenge the systems and authority of (educated) (white) (male) writing (storytelling) and publishing to which it belongs - meaning, this book makes no bones about showing the conflicted nature of the author herself as she takes on a difficult, sensitive subject - I'm quite sold on it.


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