Thursday, February 16, 2006

Glowing underbellies

My writers group, The Rebs, meet one evening every month and, yesterday, on the way there, I was passing by a small river and happened to catch a quiet but breathtaking spectacle. Beside the weir, I saw a flock of Canada geese silently feeding in the water. Pristine snow covered the banks and roof of a nearby abandoned mill, the pitch-black tree trunks and filigree of their naked branches standing in stark relief, and in the water, as scores of the geese dived beneath the surface their white underbellies glowed like beacons in the dusk.

For a while I watched them undisturbed and it was easy to imagine the Lenape Indians (the Native Americans indigenous to this part of Pennsylvania who were given gifts of fever blankets and 'evacuated' by the British and their lands taken and given to white settlers) watching them from their canoes with their bows poised centuries ago. In turn, that thought caused me to think how ignorant my concept of the American Indians had been when I was growing up in Northern Ireland. Then, all I knew about their culture was from Hollywood westerns. Then, all I knew was they were either Souix or Comanche, their men were called 'Braves' who rode piebald horses called mustangs near vast, rugged mountains and the women were called 'Squaws', their Braves were continually at war fighting cowboys and the US Calvary and they 'collected' scalps, and at night they returned to eat bison meat and sleep in tepees.

In fact, I'd wager if you ask any Brit, Irishman or woman, or continental European today about Native Americans, they'd say, "Are you talking about Red Indians?" before their mind would crowd with an image of trailing head-dresses, unsaddled horses and cowboys. Over there, we had no knowledge of the diversity of the Native American tribes, of their rich culture and diversity, how some tribes lived in the forests, others in the plains, etc. Most Europeans would also not know that there's tremendous poverty and alcohol abuse in the reservations today, or that the Native Americans living in and around Palm Springs (the Agua Caliente, part of the Shoshone tribe) are enormously wealthy because they own the land upon which many of the hotels, casinos, and houses are built and, consequently, collect rents in the same way the Queen of England and the Duke of Malborough receive rents for most of the housing in London's tonier neighborhoods.

In any event, when I stumble upon scenes like feeding Canada geese in the raw American countryside and I'm transported into her past, I love it. This country really is so vast and much of it is beautiful and, despite what is seen of towering skyscrapers and crowded East coast cities, pockets of the Eastern seaboard remain almost as it was when the Indians 'left.' And there's a chance they'll remain that way because bands of concerned citizens are fighting to contain urban sprawl.

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