Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Massacre Monument

When I was a boy in the 1960s, I used to linger at this statue in front of the Chicago Historical Society. It's huge--certainly in my memory--these figures are larger than life. It shows the Potawatomi Chief Black Partridge rescuing the white settler woman Margaret Helm from being killed during what is remembered as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, when Indian tribes allied with the British during the war of 1812 successfully destroyed the Chicago-area settlement of Fort Dearborn. It's an evocative statue in a sort of heroic realist style. The "hostile" warrior raises his tomahawk to strike, the "friendly" chief's hand raised to stop him; the lithe Ms. Helm writhes dramatically, indeed erotically, between them. A white baby raises his teeny hand out for aid at their feet. I don't remember the other side clearly, though I remember further mayhem: I think another Indian crouches over his fallen victim. There's a visceral quality to it all: the rippling muscles, the violent instant eternalized in bronze.

Sometime after my departure from Chicago in the 1970s this statue was removed to a warehouse, a victim of changing sensibilities, and protests from Native Americans have prevented its planned re-installation in a memorial park for Fort Dearborn. Indeed the term "Fort Dearborn Massacre" seems to be falling out of favor, replaced by the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

I'm sure the railroad robber baron who commissioned this statue in 1893--interestingly enough a few short years after the final defeat of the Sioux nation at Wounded Knee--intended it to strike fear into the hearts of little white boys and virginal white maidens. It's surely some kind of triumphant monument to the final defeat of the fearsome savages, and proof that the industrious white race deserved its victory, so recently having proved its mastery of the continent. It's a justification for everything that happened between 1812 and 1893 as the United States moved west, pushing the indigenous residents onto smaller and smaller patches of land at bayonet point.

Oh it's clear that in the battle/massacre of Fort Dearborn, the Indians killed about half of those hapless settlers, soldiers and civilian alike, about 45 of them, and the half who survived were sold to the British allies. But in the ocean of blood spilt by the new republic as it pushed into Indian lands, this massacre was but a drop.

I don't remember feeling fear when I looked at this statue as a little boy. What I remember feeling was a kind of admiration. I wanted to meet those fearsome Indians, and it didn't matter whether it was the "bad" one about to deprive Ms. Helm of her scalp, or the "good" one nobly intervening. Those weren't savages, those were people; mysterious and compelling people, but people nevertheless. When me and my little friends played settlers and Indians I knew from this statue I always wanted to be the Indian. In my own play fantasies with my little toy figures I remember that the Indians always won the battle of the bedroom floor. My poor little cowboy and pioneer figures; half the time I was content to leave them in the toybox and just play with plastic Indians. Is this the way the world works among children? Do we choose sides so early?

Today America's bugaboo is no longer wild Indians, it's Muslims and terrorists, though in the popular imagination those two words mean the same thing anyway. A community board in New York City has just given permission for the construction of an Islamic mosque and community center, Cordoba House, near the "ground zero" site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, and predictably there's no end to the outrage. The imam of this center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has plainly condemned terrorism; numerous victims of the 911 attacks were Muslims, and yet somehow, in typically bigoted American fashion, because the 911 hijackers were Muslim extremists this mosque is being called an insensitive insult to the memory of the fallen. Well, to the memory of the fallen non-Muslims apparently, since they're the only ones who count. Somehow the presence of an Islamic center near the eventual 911 memorial is just too much for these people to bear.

Even on the gay blog I read frequently, Joe.My.God., this mosque has engendered a fierce debate, with numerous gay men repeating ridiculous canards against Islam, basically suggesting that all Muslims want nothing more than to behead gay men on sight.

I am struck by how the tomahawking Indian savage of past American imagination has been replaced by the bomb-throwing, sword-bearing Muslim savage of present American imagination: both are charging fearlessly toward our heads, their goal expanded from just our scalps to our entire heads. This is rich with metaphor. Americans are nothing if not consistent. I suppose we are lucky that artistic sensibilities have changed: I'm trying to picture the bronze statue showing fiendish Muslims ravaging a modern Ms. Margaret Helm.

There's just something so arrogant about American intolerance. 911 was a terrible tragedy. I witnessed it. I lived with it. I walked home across the bridge with thousands of other frightened, saddened people. Every morning for weeks after the attack I saw the pillar of fire and smoke from my bathroom window. The nearly three thousand innocent people who died that day deserve to be honored and remembered. But we have no monopoly on tragedy. Our suffering as Americans doesn't make us superior beings. How many 911s has the United States inflicted on the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in its almost ten-year quest for vengeance? If you're a family in the rugged borderlands of Pakistan murdered by a predator drone that's mistaken you for a band of terrorists, is your death less tragic than an investment trader doomed at his or her desk? In the ocean of blood spilt during this misbegotten war between the US and "terror," what drops reflect the innocents of 911? Are those redder drops than all the people killed by "shock and awe" and its aftermath?

Whatever monument is built at the site of 911, I hope there are directions from there to Cordoba House. The monument to those lost that day needs to humanize people not demonize them. Oh I'm not saying it needs to rehabilitate the criminals who carried out the 911 attacks, nor am I offering sympathy for the perverse fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda. But as long as Americans fail to see themselves reflected in the faces of others, it will just be a matter of time before we have to build yet another monument to another massacre.

By way of humanizing the Potowatomi nation who won the Battle of Fort Dearborn--or committed the massacre of Fort Dearborn, your choice--check out The Pokagon Times for a video of the Pokagon band of Potawatomi performing at the rededication of a park at the site of Fort Dearbon in Chicago in 2009. A detailed history of the Potawatomi nations can be found at Also recommended is the First Nations site index.

Top postcard photo from Chuckman's Chicago Nostalgia. Bottom image of the statue at its original location on the south side of Chicago from Wikipedia.

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