Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Caught Between Two Cultures: The Brothers Tsarnaev in a Shadow World and the Sad Story of Plenty Horses

More and more it appears that, to whatever degree Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is ultimately found to be fully culpable for his participation in the terrible bombing last week at the Boston Marathon, the driving force behind the attack was almost certainly his older brother, Tamerlan, who - it appears - wanted to be killed in some twisted idea of finding glory for the  Chechen or Islamic cause.  Unlike Dzhokhar, who was only 8 years old when his family immigrated to the U.S., Tamerlan was 14 and had a much harder time adjusting.  A few years ago, their parents returned to Dagestan in the Caucasus region, leaving both sons on their own.

In this regard, the case of Plenty Horses (Senika-Wakan-Ota) is instructive.  Plenty Horses was twenty-two years old in January of 1891, one week after the Wounded Knee massacre.  From a family of BrulĂ© Sioux, he had been born in 1869, eight years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn and been steeped, in his youth, in the values of the traditional way of life which centered on hunting, family relationships, and an intensely personal religious bond to the natural world.  

However, when he was 14, his parents sent him to the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, the stated goal of which was “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.”  Arriving at the Carlisle School in the Fall of 1883, his long hair was cut short, his traditional clothes were taken away from him and he was made to wear the clothing of the whites and, most important, he was forbidden from speaking his native tongue.  In all of these regards, his experience was no different from any other Indian child sent to Carlisle.  Teachers remembered Plenty Horses as a quiet student of average intelligence who made little progress during his five years at the school.

When Plenty Horses returned to his home on the Rosebud Reservation in 1888, he was no longer an Indian nor was not a white person either. Later he explained:

“I found that the education I had received was of no benefit to me. There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school. To forget my school habits and English speech was an easy matter.”

At Rosebud, government officials and Christian missionaries continued the process begun at Carlisle: they assailed native values and sought to transform the proud Lakota into placid Christian farmers embracing the values of white America. The aim, as one Commissioner of Indian Affairs put it with unintended irony, was to "make the Indian feel at home in America."

During this time, the Lakota were living on half-rations during a brutally cold winter.  They could not leave their reservations without permission from the (white) Indian Agents who controlled them, and, even if they could have, their historic source of sustenance, the buffalo herds that had once freely roamed the plains, had been hunted to near extinction.

Plenty Horses had fled to the Bad Lands with some friends following the appearance of soldiers at Rosebud and Pine Ridge Agencies in November of 1890. A month later he had come to Pine Ridge Agency along with a number of other followers of  Short Bull and Kicking Bear as a result of an Army General's patient diplomacy. On December 29th Plenty Horses had heard the distant rumble of guns and hastened to Wounded Knee. “It was an awful sight,” he remembered. “The survivors told such a pitiful tale.”

A little more than a week after the massacre, on the morning of January 7th, Plenty Horses was out from his camp watching that no troops came to harm his father and relatives.  He later said that he "was in a bad frame of mind. Our home was destroyed, our family separated, and all hope of good times was gone. There was nothing to live for.”  He was one of a party of about forty Sioux that chanced on Army Lt. Ned Casey and two Cheyenne scouts, White Moon and Rock Road, on the slope of a low hill about two and a half miles north of one of the Sioux winter camps.  Though, by all accounts, the Lieutenant's task was a peaceful one, Plenty Horses surprised his Lakota companions by pulling out his rifle and shooting Lt. Casey in the back of the head.

Plenty Horses was seized and arrested by the Army in a small camp north of the agency. He was quickly removed from the reservation and imprisoned in the  guardhouse at Fort Meade, about a hundred and twenty-five miles to the north, near Sturgis, South Dakota. 

As March gave way to April, Plenty Horses still had no defense counsel, and he grew so despondent that visitors to his cell feared that he might try to take his own life.  Both he and his father, Living Bear, had written repeatedly to a Deadwood lawyer known as a friend of the Indians, imploring him to help, but the lawyer could not afford to take the case without fee, and the defendant and his family could not scrape together the three to five hundred dollars the lawyer felt would be needed.  Ultimately, the case was moved to the federal district court at Sioux Falls and two able young Sioux Falls lawyers, George Nock and D. E. Powers, were retained. 

Nock and Powers came up with a novel defense: they sought to demonstrate that the Army and the Sioux, and specifically Casey and Plenty Horses, viewed themselves as belligerents engaged in warfare, that a state of war existed between the Sioux and the Army and that the killing of a belligerent during a state of war could not be regarded as a criminal offense within the competence of the civil courts.

At the trial, Plenty Horses was allowed to testify, over Nock and Power's objection, in English, despite his lawyers' contention that the nuances of their clients' motives and state of mind could not adequately be conveyed without his testifying in his native Lakota language with the assistance of an interpreter.  As recalled by the foreman of the jury, Valentine T. McGiIIycuddy, a former agent at Pine Ridge, Plenty Horses declared:

"I am an Indian. Five years I attended Carlisle and was educated in the ways of the white man.… I was lonely. I shot the lieutenant so I might make a place for myself among my people. Now I am one of them. I shall be hung and the Indians will bury me as a warrior. They will be proud of me. I am satisfied."

The trial ended with the jury deadlocked, at the end of twenty-three ballots, as to whether Plenty Horses was guilty of murder or only of manslaughter—in effect a hung jury.

A second trial was convened.  Again Nock and Powers made their procedural argument. This time, the Army was forced to respond.   Testimony, together with military reports introduced in evidence, clearly established the Army’s view that it was at war. Baldwin also conceded under questioning that Casey could even be regarded as a spy in enemy territory, although he made it plain that “we do not call such a thing spying, we call it reconnoitering.”

During the lunch break, it was brought it to the Judge's attention that, if no state of war existed between the Army and the Sioux, then the atrocities perpetrated on the Indians at Wounded Knee could not be justified as an act of war, and the soldiers who gunned the Indians down were chargeable with murder.  After the lunch recess, Judge Shiras announced to the astonished participants and spectators that the guilt or innocence of Plenty Horses turned wholly on the war issue and, since the defense had shown beyond doubt that war existed, the slaying of Casey by Plenty Horses could only be called an act of war, and Judge Shiras could not accept any verdict other than acquittal.

Plenty Horses and the other Indian witnesses were packed aboard a train for the trip back to the reservation.  A large crowd had gathered to see them off.  The Indians put forward American Horse to say what was on their minds. “What must the Indian do?” the chief asked his white audience. “Die, starve or fight? We ask not much. Give us a chance to learn your ways and do not charge us three prices for what white man gets for one. The spot of snow is melting. Soon the Indian will be no more. Give us a chance, keep your treaty."

Of course, the whites did not keep their treaties, and, ultimately, Plenty Horses' misbegotten act in killing a white soldier to make a place for himself among his people did not bring the end that he had wished.  He was not hung by the white's court nor did he die a warrior's death.  Rather, like other Carlisle graduates who went back to the reservation, Plenty Horses lived miserably in a shadow world which was neither Indian nor white.  Indians on the Rosebud Reservation dimly remember him as a lonely figure living quietly with his wife, Josephine, and son, Charles, in a one-room log cabin on Oak Creek. Agency files record his death on June 15, 1933, a year after the death of his wife and son.

So it will likely be for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  If convicted, he will spend the rest of his life, alone, in a very small cell in a federal prison, a pathetic footnote to a misbegotten act by his older brother to make a place for himself between two worlds.


1 comment:

  1. Great post! It indeed raises the question: are we not in a time of war? And if so, should we really be surprised when atrocity hits our doorstep?