Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lewis & Clark arrogance ... and "coppolating" grizzlies

American Indians hunting grizzly bears,
by George Catlin (1796-1872)
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark brought just a little arrogance with them as they explored the undeveloped northwestern United States in the very early 1800s. For example, familiar with only the relatively small black bear of the eastern United States, they discounted Native American reports of a large, ferocious brown bear – the grizzly.

Lewis and his men looked forward to meeting some of these brown bears. With an air of superiority, he wrote that the Indians had only bows and arrows or “the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance that they frequently miss their aim & fall a sacrifice to the bear,” as noted in Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Lewis also noted that the Indians prepared for a bear encounter with the same types of ceremonies in which they prepared for battle against other men, but felt certain that the animals would be no match for his men’s superior arms and expertise in using them.

The expedition’s first encounter with the grizzly was a little disconcerting. Lewis and another man, walking on the shore of the river on which their boats traveled, shot two bears. One ran away, but the other charged Lewis and pursued him for about 80 yards. He and the other man were able to reload their guns and shoot the animal again, killing it. Although this bear was not full-grown, it began to earn some respect for its species from Lewis, who wrote that it is “astonishing to see the wounds they will bear [certainly he meant no pun?] before they can be put to death.” He added, though, that “in the hands of a skilled rifleman [the bears] are by no means as formidable or dangerous” as the Indians believe, Ambrose reported in his book.

The next encounter, a few days later, ended with the death of another bear, but it wasn’t easy. Lewis described “a most tremendious [correct spelling wasn’t Lewis’ strongpoint] looking anamal, and extremely hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five other in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died.”

The expedition came across another grizzly a week later, but it ran away before it could be attacked, to which Lewis wrote that “I find that the curiosity of our party is pretty well satisfied with respect to this anamal.” The bears’ size and ferocity “has staggered the resolution [of] several of [the men], others however seem keen for action with the bear,” Lewis added.

Of those who looked forward to additional encounters with the grizzlies, Lewis added a bit of humor:  “I expect these gentlemen will give us some amusement shotly as [the bears] begin now to coppolate.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The swastika ... before Hitler and the Nazis

The front of a postcard mailed from New York
to Connecticut in 1910.
Before Hitler and the Nazis made it their symbol beginning in the 1930s, the swastika was a favorable, positive image among many cultures around the world for thousands of years.

“The first appearance of the swastika was apparently in the Orient, precisely in what country it is impossible to say, but probably in Central and Southeastern Asia among the forerunners or predecessors of the [Hindus of India and Nepal] and Buddhists,” wrote Thomas Wilson, curator of the U.S. National Museum, in his 1896 book titled The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol, and Its Migration; with Observations on the Migration of Certain Industries in Prehistoric Times (free Kindle edition or free Google Books edition).

Swastikas adorn pottery, dating
to about 780 B.C., from Greece.
The word itself comes from the ancient Sanskrit language, still in use in Hindu religious liturgies and Buddhist scholarly works. In Sanskrit, “svastika” derives from the smaller words “su,” conveying something positive, such as goodness or wellness or life (from what I can tell, there’s not really a direct translation in English), and “asti,”meaning “to be.” Adding a “ka” on the end makes it a noun – giving us “svastika” in Sanskrit today. And, of course, that easily becomes “swastika” in English.
Swastikas embedded in the design
of a weight used in Ghana
to determine gold amounts.
After spreading throughout the world, and perhaps developing independently among different cultures as well, the symbol became especially popular as a sign of good luck in Europe and the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Some scholars trace that development to archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th century discovery of swastikas in the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. Noting their similarity to swastikas he had seen at archeological sites in Germany, and knowing of the symbol’s prevalence in ancient Indian civilization, Schliemann concluded that all three cultures – advanced ancient civilizations in India and near the Mediterranean Sea (such as Troy) as well as the less-impressive ancient cultures in Germany – must be closely related. Other Europeans took that to heart, too, as did the many Americans with strong ethnic ties to Europe. Soon, the symbol was not uncommon throughout the U.S., and a U.S. Army division even used it as a logo before World War II.
Swastikas on uniforms of the basketball team
from the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School,
Oklahoma, in 1909.
Other evidence that would seem to void that conclusion was overlooked, or perhaps even inexplicably dismissed. For example, the swastika was known to American Indian cultures long before Europeans arrived on American shores. So the European-American pride in the swastika seemed to swell in the early 1900s, and Hitler and his Nazi party took that to the extreme in their warped visions, believing that they represented a master race that was the modern incarnation of that ancient lineage. They co-opted the swastika, making a mockery of that distinctive design’s long history as a symbol of good in the world.

“Regardless of its context, I still cringe every time I see the mark, yet I’m continually drawn to it – perhaps in the same way that others have been drawn to it over the millenia,” writes Steven Heller, a long-time art director at the New York Times, in his 2008 book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?Food for thought.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The North's General George McClellan ... and underestimating the South's Robert E. Lee

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left)
and Union General George B. McClellan (right)
As the Civil War ramped up in 1862, Union General George B. McClellan was glad that Robert E. Lee replaced the wounded Joseph Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, one of the major Confederate forces in the Civil War. McClellan had known both Lee and Johnston when all three men served in the U.S. Army prior to the war. McClellan believed that Lee would be a less formidable foe compared to Johnston.

“I prefer Lee to Johnston – the former is too cautious & weak under grave responsibility – personally brave & energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid and irresolute in action,” wrote McClellan to U. S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Although Lee had a bit of experience as a field commander earlier in the war, he was serving as an adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis when the appointment was made. At that time, approximately 105,000 Union troops under McClellan were advancing on the Confederacy’s capital city – Richmond, Virginia – which was defended by approximately 60,000 men. After assuming command of the Confederate Army, Lee initiated a series of surprise attacks and major counter-offensives that kept McClellan off guard and ended the threat to Richmond. For much of the rest of the war, Lee often out-maneuvered larger Union forces, proving much of McClellan’s judgment of him to be far from accurate.