“…until day breaks and shadows fall…”

September 19, 2013

Quanah Parker

Quanha Parker

Somewhere between Waxahachie and Fort Worth driving west from my home in Houston to New Mexico I missed a turn and found myself with my map unfolded in my lap calculating the mileage of various legs of hypotenuses to return me to my intended route. I had time, so I wasn’t as distressed about being off schedule as I was at having to add hours to an already long driving day. Between the imprecision of my map and a few false turns on my part, I settled for a series of highway repairs on Rt. 380, if for nothing else, for the novelty. On 380 just west of Denton, Texas and a long hundred miles before Quanah, is a fenced open space with a metal sign fixed to the chain link that reads Muslim Cemetery. Not too far from the graveyard was a familiar roadside silhouette of a cowboy on one knee in prayer while his horse waits patiently. It’s not an uncommon sign, The Cowboy Church [www.cowboyfaith.org] has about 885 churches in the US and Canada. Not much farther I passed a large well-constructed Kingdom Hall that looked as if it used many of the architectural materials common to nearby stockyard auction rings. There are plenty of cattle and plenty of genuine cowboys in this part of the US. It’s a hard business built with long hours, tough weather, and plenty of labor. Animal husbandry is a Biblical occupation. The distance between many of the literal activities depicted in the Christian Bible or Koran is not metaphorical, only technological. There will still be blood, dust and lonely sky to contemplate as part of the day to day existence of many of these families. There were roadside signs for the Full Armor Biker Church, a “Commandments not Suggestions” billboard, I came to a rest area where two old boys had decorated their camper with hand lettered signs proclaiming why “Homos Go to Hell.” Dialing around on the radio I heard a man declare “My wife and I refuse to purchase any item that breaks God’s Heart.”

As I drove towards Quanah, Texas I kept wondering about the Muslim Cemetery.
There are approximately 125 Islamic mosques or religious centers in Texas and 425,000 members, the largest Muslim population of any state. 425,000 out of 26,000,000 doesn’t seem like much of a minority, but it’s still larger than the Native American population left in Texas (by contrast there are over 125,000 members in just the five largest Texas Christian mega-churches). In the Houston area there are nearly 50 Mosques and Islamic Centers, enough that they hardly draw attention. The greater Dallas Ft Worth area has about 20. The remaining mosques are spread throughout the state with about one in every city. Denton had a mosque. The growth of Islam in Texas remained a puzzle to me. In Texas instead of “What do you do?” you’re asked “Where do you go to church?” Perhaps those conversations don’t transpire the same way for everyone. But I wasn’t sure why any follower of Islam would be called to move to west Texas.

Buffalo SkullsBuffalo Skulls
I was wandering through the southern boundary of the now non-existent Comanche nation towards a town named after Quanah Parker. The area where I first became lost wasn’t far from Fort Parker, a small blockhouse fortress built by in 1836 by a Predestination Baptist Community in what was considered “Comancheria”. That fort was the actual location of the infamous Cynthia Ann Parker kidnapping portrayed in John Ford’s, “The Searchers”. Her story inspired a film that remains both one of the best westerns ever produced, but also an intimate and epic consideration of American racism. Following her rescue, and subsequent return, she was famous throughout the Western World as the “White Squaw”. She was a Caucasian woman who chose to leave white society and return to live with the Comanche people. In racist symbology of the Victorian Post Civil War Era of respectable parlors, churches and taverns little could have been worse a worse crime against God, the white race, or culture. Ms. Parker’s plight was to choose the less cruel redemption.

To give the story mythic grandeur the film was shot on archetypal John Ford cinematic locations in Arizona and Utah. North Texas isn’t Monument Valley, Utah. It’s a peculiarly open claustrophobic landscape where it’s easy to get lost, even with a map. The geography rises from the piney Edwards plateau up through the hundred or so square counties in the high and rolling plains to the horizonless table of Llano Escondido. It’s hard dust hillsides, dry creeks, scrub oak, and hay fields that farther west give way to caliche, cholla, cotton and cattle feed lots. In summer its character is even harsher and even less inclined to generosity. This geography was once ruled on horseback by Comanche clans, legitimately feared since they had driven off the Spanish. The warfare between the Plains People and the US Army was a horrific culture of suffering on both sides. Take the worst images portrayed in stereotypical cowboy and Indian movie matinees, think of them re-envisioned in Quentin Tarantino’s nightmare and imagine them happening in 105 degrees, or in a relentless freezing wind.
Quanah, Cynthia Parker’s son with her husband, Peta Nocona, is famous as being the last Chief of the Comanche People. Legendarily he was wounded by Billy Dixon using a Sharpe’s rifle from a mile away (the distance varies based on the source) during the fighting at the Second Battle Adobe Walls. The Sharpe’s rifle was the weapon that allowed herds of buffalo to be exterminated at long distance without causing stampedes, and it is still possible to purchase a Billy Dixon model ($2,885.00). As a warrior Quanah Parker was a formidable tactician, a merciless fighter and was one of the last Native Americans to surrender in Red River War in 1875. He was also a participant in the inter-tribal Sun Dance of 1874 to restore the buffalo herds and the Plains People in the spiritual cycle of regeneration. Participation in a Sun Dance, along with numerous specified and unspecified Native American religious practices, was forbidden by Federal Law from 1830-1923, and was not de facto legal until the1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The terms of peace following the Red River War forced Parker to live on the reservation formed by The Medicine Lodge Treaty.
That was one of the treaties that beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, reduced the lands of the indigenous tribes of the Central Plains from an area roughly two thirds of the Louisiana Purchase (60,000 square miles) to designated portions of Oklahoma. The Red River War had been brought on by Manifest Destiny’s continual encroachment on traditional Indian territories and also by what is termed the great buffalo massacre of 1870. Buffalo Bill Cody earned his nom de guerre for purportedly killing 4,200 bison in eighteen months. Then he said he’d had enough (We all have limits.). Buffalo Bill’s departure notwithstanding in less than twenty years the vast herd of buffalo that ranged in the millions was slaughtered to near extinction for pleasure and to deprive the Plains Indians of food…or both.

Sharpes

Buffalo Hunters posing with Sharpe’s Rifles.
Increasingly since the Civil War the pacification of the Plains Indians” took the form of starvation and systematic destruction of resources. It was like Sherman’s March through a Sea of Grass (General Sherman was actually in charge, but the dirty work fell to Gen. “Bad Hand “MacKenzie). By destroying crucial portions of the symbiosis in a traditional nomadic route, the capacity of that lifestyle to remain viable is ended. Without open range, buffalo and horses the Plains People were doomed to a life they neither desired nor understood.
This statement by Paruasemena of the Numunuu Comanche, one of the signatories of both the treaties and the surrender following the Red River War like much of the literature of that genocide is romantic, brutally poetic, and true… psalmlike in its sensuality and lament.

“But there are things which you have said which I do not like. They were not sweet like sugar but bitter like gourds. You said that you wanted to put us upon reservation, to build our houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born on the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures …and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over the country. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them, I lived happily.” October 21, 1867.
Shortly after the resettlement of Plains Tribes on reservations, the US Congress passed the Dawes act that effectively allowed the Federal Government to allocate parts of reservation lands to individual tribal members and sell the surplus to Euro-American settlers. This was one of many measures like Indian Schools, to help ‘civilize’ Native Americans into patriarchal nuclear families. The federal government in collusion with real estate investors planned and actively worked to use its power to force its new “citizens” to abide by the majority lifestyle and mores, and actively sought to suppress their practice of religious belief with armed intervention. They corruptly divided of tribal lands into private property and sold the rest. Quanah Parker is considered the last leader of the Comanche People because following the individual land allotments, the tribal life and culture that had flourished for generations was made practically impossible. Males were considered citizens and liable under Federal and Local laws, while suffrage didn’t come to Native Americans until 1924. In spite of this Parker became a successful cattleman. He hunted wolves with Teddy Roosevelt in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the government from selling more land from the Comanche Reservation, and built Star House that still stands today.

Beyond all that or because of it Quanah Parker became a religious figure.
Throughout his life Quanah Parker, not only refused to convert to Christianity or monogamy, he was one of the early proponents of organizing and protecting the rights of the Native American Church. There are currently approximately 250,000 members of the Native American Church. Quanah practiced his religion until his death in 1911. Native American Church observes rites that have been practiced on the North American continent for centuries. Some ceremonies also employ a sacramental use of peyote. Texas is the only State in the Union where peyote can be sold legally for religious purposes. Unfortunately the Native American occasionally makes news when some Anglo defendant claims he was in possession of various drugs as a religious sacrament. Ironically the sacred aspects of the religion have been appropriated and co-opted to such an extent that non Natives are discouraged from participating in most ceremonies.

I was also driving within a hundred miles of the Mount Carmel Compound of the Branch Davidians. Three members of the Texas Values group who demand the theory evolution be removed from science textbooks and replaced with biblical interpretation live and work relatively near. Texas was also home to Madalyn Murray O’Hair who founded the American Atheists. Continuing west towards Gaines County at the New Mexico Border several communities of Mennonites have resettled to escape the corrupting life in nearby Lott and other cities. Either unfortunately or by Divine guidance they’ve chosen a desolate area in a county adjacent to Clark County where a private nuclear waste dump has recently started disposing of radioactive materials from Los Alamos. I’m not sure which requires greater faith.  If I wanted to find another semi-arid bit of geography where people had felt more empowered by God to act cruelly towards one another, I’d have to drive to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the center of a compass on my location and extending the leg out 150 miles the circle it would inscribe would contain all of these religious activities and white clapboard churches on gravel roads, storefront ministries, and religious home schools with Internet curriculum. This could have been Dante’s dark forest and Quanah Parker could be my Virgil, I felt I was lost in sacred counties.

Inn
From the free range of the Comanche territory to finding a place to dump nuclear waste took considerably less than two hundred years. As a perennial passing stranger, I remain in awe at the variety of intricate systems of belief that hold us in our various places. For the most part I can only believe what I learned as a boy in my catechism classes, that I don’t know, or frequently I don’t possess the same answers as other people. Theology tries to be logical; religion demands to be hard.

There is a fundamental part in us that seems to desire to be connected with things ancient, difficult and mysteriously cosmic, and there needs to be some trial or sacrifice to achieve our worthiness to accept belief. That desire to have contact with something primal fuels many the behaviors we don’t understand in others. We need a parental approval far deeper than the school counselor imagined when she tried to explain why we were disrupting class. Regardless of how it manifests itself, if we don’t somehow believe we are in contact with a genuine touchstone to our past, we are as lost as an old newspaper ad. People share some need to suffer correctly, obedience is somehow wired into us beyond a behavior to merely survive. It is a path to salvation, just as hard as this state highway bending through the villages left outside the storm linked Gates of Eden.  We traverse a series of speed zones built in townships where paradise has been postponed by a cruel variety of reasons and life continues amid the ungodly. Only here there are so many types of ungodliness buckling up with the pavement. When I stop for gas, it feels easy to believe.
A homing instinct for authenticity brings our bodies to places on this earth and allows us to endure and hope to understand. Perhaps it is in rare desolate places that religion seems most attractive. We’re misguided if we believe the people I’ve referred to are somehow primitive or inadequate because they don’t shop at Whole Foods, or employ the heels on cowboy boots for purposes other than style. Nor do I contend that they are privileged to a higher communion with the universe than an elderly widow living in a one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia. If a wrought iron man gets off of his horse to kneel and pray to the sense of order that keeps his allotment of land from spinning away from him whether by godless savages, or a government intent on persecuting his religion, or Stephen Hawking re-calculates the Higgs Boson’s relative value as a dark matter at the simultaneous beginning and end of the limits of our universe in the same frozen posture that has held him for decades, I may need both of those things and more to continue driving lost on this religious highway where theology has been written in blood down the way from the Dairy Queen.

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