Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A book I read this summer that totally fascinated me.

Review - about four pages in length
Timothy Egan's
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:
The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis

Certainly I do not consider myself to be an academic. And it was only in my retirement that I discovered the joy of reading. Most of my reading has been confined to history and biography – my belated attempt to come to a greater understanding of the world I live in and the role significant individuals have played in making it so. In doing this I made many new "friends". How fascinating to discover the contributions of people I had never heard of before. – particularly the photographer of Native Americans,Edward Curtis. (I like to blame my paucity of intellectual education that when I grew up in Texas we neither had kindergarten nor 12th grade.
Having grown up in Texas with many trips through the Indian country of the Southwest, I should have known of the work of Edward Curtis. I feel fortunate therefore that I chanced upon Egan's portrayal of Edward S. Curtis'' lifelong devotion to documenting the lifestyle of over 80 Native American tribes and respect for Curtis. With no academic training beyond the sixth grade, he toiled for some 54 years to produce the definitive 20 volume set of books entitled "The North American Indian". Working on this masterpiece from 1898 to 1929 he worked with luminaries including financier JP Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt while enduring not only hardships but extreme poverty and jail in commitment to his cause.
Knowing that many (primarily in my own family) do not have the luxury of time to read the book, I want to share a bit of Egan's book from when Curtis began the project in 1898 until his death in 1952. I hope my writing conveys the fascination of his work and the exciting experiences he had.

It was in '98 that Curtis joined the “climber of an impossible peak,” "Bird Grinnell. That Grinnell? Yes George Bird Grinnell founder of the Audubon Society, and considered the world's foremost expert on Plain Indians. He traced his ancestry to the Mayflower. He knew George Armstrong Custer. He had grown up with people like Cornelius Vanderbilt. He counted among his best friends an ambitious young politician, Theodore Roosevelt, just gearing up that summer to run for governor of New York. Ten years earlier Grinnell and Roosevelt had founded the Boone and Crockett Club devoted to preserving wildlife in order to have the opportunity to shoot it later. Oh. and it was "Dr. George Bird Grinnell, a PhD from Yale, though Curtis could call him Bird. Please."

"Near the end of the Blackfeet summer, Curtis told Grinnell his mind was set. He would embark on a massive undertaking, even bigger than Bird's and suggested: a plan to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared 'the record to be of value to future generations must be ethno- logically accurate......What's more, after recording the song of the Sun Dance, Curtis further expanding the scope and ambition: he would try to be a keeper of secrets – not just as a a photographer but a stenographer of the Great Mystery. And did the Edward Curtis, with his six grade education, really expect to perform the multiple roles of ethnographer, anthropologist and historian? He did. What Curtis lacked in credentials, he made up for in confidence.– the personality trait that led him to Mount Rainier's summit. Bird loved the Big Idea.
The New York Herald stated "The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible. The real Savage Indian is fast disappearing are becoming metamorphosed into a mirror ordinary uninteresting imitation of the white man is probably safe to say Mr. Curtis knows more about the really in than any other white man

The headline was the least of it the story reported that Curtis had proof that Custer "had unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of the soldiers to further his personal end, and that he could've won the battle with little loss of life I know it is unpopular to criticize military, Curtis said but the Indians who were with him felt that tilted his judgment was flawed. When the wise old Indian warriors that were in this fight are ask what they think of Custer's course in the battle they point to their heads and say,' he must have been wrong up here'.
1908 - 1909
He was presenting "The Story of a Vanishing Race" a picture opera. This touring spectacle was a uniquely Curtis hybrid. The visuals were slides from the photographer's work over a 15 year span. He had painstakingly hand colored the slides, so that rock walls at sunset in Canyon de Chelly had an apricot glow, and the faces shot at the magic hour in New Mexico gave off a rugged blush. Using a stereoptican projector or magic lantern as it was called Curtis supplemented these stills with film and music .All of these images buttressed the story narrated by Curtis himself, about an epic tragedy: the slow fate of the people who had lived fascinating lives long before the grandparents of those in the Carnegie box seats sales from old Europe to seize their homeland. What made the entire experience more memorable was the music inspired by the recordings of Indian songs and chants to that Curtis had brought home on his wax cylinders. The whole of it was a visual feast of the aboriginal as the critics called it, created by a most American artist at the height of his fame.

1922 – 1927
The California of the 1920s was perhaps the most fertile place on earth to grow a life in a state the size of Italy with climate often compared to a soft caress, live barely 3 billion people. In the California of the 1920s it was easier to find fake Indians in Hollywood than real ones in the land of their ancestors. When the Spanish sent missionaries in the 1700s, Indians numbered about 300,000 in the state. They lived in extended clans, grouped into more than 100 distinct tribes none very big. They were sustained by acorns and game in the Napa Valley, salmon and berries around the Golden Gate, deer and roots in the Central Valley. They were as varied as the terrain. By 1848, when the American flag replaced those in Spain Russia Mexico and the Bear Flag Republic, the Indian population was about 100,000. Over the next 10 years the high of swift mortality wiped out 70,000 natives. What remained of the first residents in California scattered to isolated pockets of the state. The elimination – an indirect biological war – had been so systematic and complete that in 1911, newspapers around the world trumpeted a major discovery: an Indian named Ishi was found near the slopes of Mount Lassen. The last surviving member of the Yahi tribe was short, tangled – haired and middle-age, spoke a language no one could understand. His name meant “man”in the Yana dialect, and he was heralded as the last "primitive" Indian in the state.
From Montana they cross the Canadian border into Alberta seeking the last tribes in Canada. The tribes were spread over an enormous expanse of tableland at the foot of the Rockies. Reaching them, getting their stories and taking their pictures was akin to going into an area the size of Germany and looking for a handful of old ethnic – Polish families.
"The five civilized Tribes of Oklahoma are so much civilized, so white, they will be impossible while the wealthy Osage are not only becoming civilized but wealth gives them a haughtiness difficult to overcome." The Wichita were another kind of problem. It was a problem, this business of civilized Tribes and tribes grown rich from oil discoveries on tribal lands. The Wichita were another kind of problem. Mormon and Baptist missionaries had been all over them, and as a result, many tribal customs were now banned as pagan rituals. Their practice could mean a sentence to hell. "Couldn't even take a picture one of their grass houses.
No tribe in the country and fallen so far as the Comanche. Once as masters of an enormous swath of flatland, they forced Texans to retreat behind settlement lines and Mexicans to run at the sight of them. Indians from other tribes would slit their own throats before allowing themselves to be take prisoners by a Comanche.
The book on the Alaska natives, looked to be an easier production. There remained one chance for redemption: to finish on a high note in the far north. Alaska had held a special place in Curtis's heart ever since he sea journey there with the Harriman expedition of 1899. He was 31 that, still on the boyish side of manhood. The gimpy-legged graybeard of 1927 who made plans for the final field trip of the North American Indian was broken, divorced, he year shy of his 60th birthday. He had a lifelong nicotine addiction as well as assorted grumpy complaints about his bad fortune at this stage of life. The joy for Curtis was the first assistant, his daughter Beth who would finance the trip with money from the studio and from her husband Manford Magnuson. For much of her life she had dreamed of spending time in the wild with her father. Daughter Florence had gotten to experience him in action in California.

Curtis had last plied these northern waters 28 years earlier. That ship was stocked with liquor, cigars and a canteen of costly preserved foods . Rail barron Edwsard H. Harriman had spared no expense for the passengers. By contrast the Victoria carried working stiffs – fisherman, bound for seasonal job with the salmon fleet, Argonauts still chasing a strike in goldfields that had played out years earlier. Nome was a dump. What it been in 1910 the largest city in Alaska territory with a population of nearly 15,000, was now a few hundred slope-shouldered souls in a hand-me-down town.
Frustrated that he could find it no one to take him to native villages, Curtis purchased a boat of his own, the Jewel Guard, 40 feet long, 12 at the be with sails and an an engine for windless days. It came with the skipper, a Swede called Harry the Fish. On June 28 they sailed for Nunivak Island a distance of about 300 miles – the four of them. On the island more than any other time other in the field, his pictures showed smiles! Native children, native women native elders exuding a deep beauty. Their nose rings and chin piercings were dazzling little orbs of jewelry sparkling in the sunlight. Think of it, he wrote, at last, and for the first time in all my 30 years of work with the natives, I have found a place where no missionary's work."
.But a day later they found the scene of squalor and grim faced toil among 300 and so Yuk'ip Eskimos. What struck the Curtis party was the filth of the people. They smelled as bad as they looked, reeking of rotten seal meat, smoked fish and sea detritus. I have not seen all the world's dirty natives but I can't say that no human can carry more sales than those here. Living as they do in mud and damp, it is estimated that 75% have tuberculosis.
Arriving in Seattle he was approached by two uniform Sheriff's deputies and several operatives of the Burns Detective Agency. "We have a warrant for your arrest." He was thrown in a cell with other unfortunate. His divorced wife Claire Curtis had gotten wind of her ex-husband's pending arrival and stated she was owed $4400 in unpaid alimony since 1920.

1927 – 1932
The judge summarized the Curtis defense. "Do I understand that you will receive no money for this lengthy project?" Curtis nodded, his eyes misted. "I work for nothing". Flabbergasted, the judge said. "Then why are you doing it?" "Your Honor, it was my job… The only thing I could do that was worth doing. I was duty-bound to finish.
He had two volumes to go. The book on the Indians of Oklahoma would be most difficult to write. In my lifetime, I've seen no group of Indians not influenced by Christianity.
Curtis felt he had done a fair job of making something from nothing. He printed alphabets, pronunciation guides, many full pages of sheet music of native songs and he tried, once again to correct misconceptions, about spiritual life with several pages devoted to a forceful defense of the Peyote society. The missionaries who describe the Peyote ceremony as "devil worship" and "drug–eating debauchery" had completely missed the point. In fact many Christian converts took Peyote in a ritual that lasted from dust till dawn, a mind altering way to connect to the creator. As Quanah Parker, the last chief of the wild Comanche had said in defense of the hallucinatory experience of Indian worship: “The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus."

1932 – 1952
In October 1932, Clara Curtis climbed into a rowboat near her sister's home in Puget Sound. In the chop of the sudden breeze fell overboard into the 42° waters and drown.
In 1936 Curtis stated, "Yes I am certainly broke. Other than that, I am not down and out." He had two daughters and a son nearby in Southern California and a fourth child in Oregon. He kicked around many a gold seal, scraping high mountain ground in the Sierra Nevada until dark. In the trough of the depression, Curtis was living and to mouse but good luck struck when Cecil D DeMille began filming a variety of Westerners in 1936 he asked if Curtis could help with photographic stills, camerawork and logistics.
on October 19, 1932, Curtis died of a heart attack. He was 84. It was a national curse, it seemed once again, to take as a life task the challenge of trying to capture in illustrated form a significant part of the American story. The Indian painter George Catlin had died broke and forgotten. Matthew Brady, the Civil War photographer who gave up his prosperous portrait business to become a pioneer of photojournalism, spent his last days in a dingy rooming house, alone and penniless. Curtis took his final breath in a home not much larger than the tent he used to set up on the floor of Canyon de Chelly.

Monday, July 3, 2017

I just can't stop ranting!

I am so fed up with the direction our country is going!  And it is all the result of one man's impact on a gullible segment of our population, many of whom have frustrations of their own and have fallen prey to a charismatic dictator.  THE MOST IMPORT THING FOR THOSE OF US WHO WANT TO BRING BACK CIVILITY AND RESTORE THE DREAM THAT ALL MEN AND WOMEN ARE CREATED EQUAL AND HAVE VALUE is for each of us to speak out and join  together in following constructive ways to combat the evil that has overtaken the executive branch of government.

Here are two suggestions that come to mind.
  1. Take a lesson from the master of the use of the media, Donald J Trump. He has effectively used provocative monikers to describe his opponent – lyin', little, low-energy, crooked, crazy and goofy. I know it can be perceived as taking the low road with him, but I think we should find the ONE best adjective that describes him?  I've got lots to offer including windbag, blowhard, big mouth, know-it-all, showboat and motor mouth. What's yours?
  2. While Trump continues to bash all the traditional media, we must unite in supporting journalists and the true Free Press! I marvel each day at the miracle of having a newspaper at my doorstep early each morning. I know many, including friends, who in the past have felt the media have worked to maintain the status quo. But I find most mainstream of media to at least attempt to purvey the truth with some balance. The paper I read, while perhaps having a well-known bias, at least attempts to include editorials and reports from various points of view. In-depth articles of critical events are not subject to the rantings of one individual generally, but are the studied report of trained group of investigative reporters. They even respond to criticism and admit mistakes.
    • While many of us are fascinated by the information we can receive instantly via the Internet, I sincerely believe that all who value a Free Press, should subscribe and actually participate in the local newspaper through support and criticism including letters to the editor
    • And once again I am eager to share with readers an article in yesterday's Washington Post (7/2).
"Love Thy Neighbor" is another dramatic story I wish EVERYONE could read. It's in today's Washington Post (7/2) and tells the story of a doctor coming to a small town in southwest Minnesota. He is warmly received and welcomed as a leader - until Trump is elected president. The only thing that hasn't changed is that he continues to worship Allah! Now his and his whole families' world changes.
What a price our country is paying for electing Trump as our president. He has shown us how much PREJUDICED OUR CITIZENS ARE AGAINST THE PERCEIVED "OTHER."
Of course minorities have known that for a long, long time.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

How blind we are to the racism around us

I don't know when I've been madder!

Of course I've come pretty close with the trauma brought to our country by the campaign and election of a person totally ill equipped to be our president. But an article that has gotten me so riled up in today's Washington Post is just another clear indication of the long-standing problem we have faced in our country - racism and the belief that we Eurocentric whites are superior to everyone else in the world. It was of course first manifest when our forebears stole a vast portion of a continent from an indigenous population which we saw as inferior. And then African-Americans were enslaved not only to build the first edifices of our our capital that "express freedom" and also built the rich economy of the South. Yet for the past eight years we were misled as we felt that the election of a black president had overcoming all of that. And now, a simple story, fortunately not as traumatic as "police murders," shows us how far we have yet to go in realizing that Black Lives Matter

My horror was all occasioned by today's article by Petula Dvorak's in today's issue of The Washington Post, June 27, 2017, entitled:
"On the mall selling cold drinks can get a black youth into hot water"
with the subtitle
"On the mall, fear of young black men armed with bottles of water"

Having lost out on other summer jobs, three young African-Americans, ages 16 and 17, thought they could make some money and be of help to people by selling water on the National Mall on an extremely hot day for $1.00.

"Selling Water While Black was enough to get the teens… handcuffed and humiliated by
Park Police working a undercover sting targeting illegal vendors.
The three youth were dumping the melting ice out of their bins, about to head home,
when they were surrounded by three undercover officers
who pulled out their badges and cuffed the boys
before questioning or conversation even began…
There they were, hands behind their backs,
one splayed on a sidewalk, as tourists walked by and gawked…
It was embarrassing. All these people watching us thinking we”re just criminals.
He'd never been in handcuffs before. He said they hurt."

So that's the basic story. There's really no more I can add. You must read the rest of the article to get the flavor of its totality. One of the youth was fearful that his mother would be mad at him – when she finally picked him up, after about an hour and a half in 90° heat. His answer was heartbreaking. "She was happy that I was alive," he said.

It is infuriating to me the double standard by which so many of us make judgments. Perhaps this comes at a particular time when I was again sensitized to our countries racism by one of my former students, a large, heavy–set African-American. This gentle, extremely pleasant young man wrote on Facebook about the embarrassment he experiences time and again when clerks check his $20 bill to see if it is counterfeit!

In my 91 year of life I have been heartened to see – and be a modest part of – the positive direction I thought had brought us beyond the divisiveness that surrounds us. The task before us is greater than ever in arousing a “true moral majority" that seeks equality and justice for all.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I'm sorry, I just can't stop ranting,

and this time it's not about the presidency. It's about us, and our selfishness and concern for our only comfort and convenience that we failed to do all we can to help save the planet for posterity. Thus I become cynical and yearn for the old days. Oh, I know they were anything but the "good ole' days" for far too much of our population – African-Americans, Native Americans and those of a minority sexual orientation.  While I recognize we have ways to go  in those areas,I am truly amazed by the progress we have made since my growing up in Texas in the depression years. But for most of the "other" Americans it was a time of commitment to a cause and ready to deny ourselves for the good of the world as we saw it.  For us a much larger middle-class it was a relaxed and comfortable way of life.

I say this because I have been pondering a recent article in the Washington Post, "The inevitable climate solution." It was written by two former presidential cabinet members, one Republican and one Democrat, George P. Shultz and Lawrence H. Summers.  While I must admit that while I didn't understand the technicalities of their position, I was not prepared for the statement that follows

This approach ensures that working-class Americans
benefit financially.
Because energy use rises with income and the dividend
would be equal for all.
The Treasury Department estimates that the bottom 70% of Americans would be better off
with the carbon dividend plan.

How many of us "liberal activists" fall into that category? We are the selfish major destroyers of the environment. I'm appalled at how often we fail to follow the simple practices that scientific studies – from proper waste disposal to excessive use of plastic water bottles and the thousands of other proven environmentally wise practices.

I truly believe that too many of us in, or nearing that 30%, who have been content to exert our energies toward the ballot box and selfishly pursued our own comfortable lifestyle. In doing so we have failed to join what I am still convinced are the majority of Americans who want a more civil, sharing country and world that cares for more than our own comfort and the future of the world.

I wonder what sort of revolutionary spirit to join us in such an enterprise? Personally I still have hope and faith that this idealistic, committed younger generation can move us in this direction.

Monday, June 12, 2017

It's hard to muse at 92*

when one is a bit "under the weather", and does not have enough intellectual strength to work on the rant he would REALLY like to produce.  Thus it feels strange to merely add my "two cents worth" during this, one of the most perilous times I have witnessed in my almost century of life.

I've already disclosed my predilection to fall back to personal clichés. (I recall that in answering the thousands of Reddit questions during the past two years, I was asked about the use of idioms and clichés from my era.) I think they are more expressive of ones feelings than the computieze and tweets of today.  So I shall continue to do so.

The one that has come to mind first relates to the "chickens coming home to roost."  And I think that relates to "one reaps what one sows." Certainly the "Liar in Chief" was telling the truth when he stated he "knew how to make deals". And this is what we have gotten, a dealmaker who casts aside established rules, protocols and commitments as well as moral rectitude to achieve victory for himself over anyone or anything standing in his way.

I'm affronted by his being seen throughout the world as speaking for my/our country. Through his caustic divisiveness, he has turned back the progress of  human and civil rights made in my lifetime.  He has personified and resurrected the image of the "Ugly American" throughout the world that millions have worked for years to overcome.   I am personally dismayed as an educator that our educational system failed in its responsibility to educate a thoughtful citizenry that would so  easily fall prey to the hollow promises of someone who represents the worst of the American character.

Through the years our country has achieved a vaunted reputation identified as "American Exceptionalism". In spite of our "sins" a reputation has been built and accepted by many throughout the world that our countries' leadership has had a positive influence in ameliorating suffering and leading the nations of the world toward peace.

Yet in far too many cases this leadership has been undermined by actions and moral failures that have "come home to roost."  I sincerely believe that for many reasons – from selfishness to the speed of change – we have begun to lose our way and must return to re-committing ourselves to human values that reflect a concern for the welfare of all races and religions.  "Globalism" is not a newly coined word or concept.  Republican candidate for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie's  book, ONE World joined the pronouncements of President Roosevelt in recognizing our role in leadership toward world peace through the United Nations.

And that's why I'm hopeful that I'll feel better soon to complete the one topic "weighing heavy on my heart". Of course I had to end with a cliché.

Ron Lehker

*I know I'm only 91, but I like the rhythmic effect.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The beauty of each day

I know, I know, it sounds rather Pollyannaish, or perhaps it's the "affliction" of old age, but hardly a day goes by that I don't see acts of love, charity or beautiful acts of kindness from strangers on the street. This came to me particularly last Wednesday as I was coming home from my volunteer job at the White House Visitors Center. My aching back was living up to its name in the 92° heat, and the "walk" sign said I had to wait 62 seconds before crossing the street. I could see that the other side of the street was in the blistering sun while I was in the shadow of a building. Consequently I leaned against a light post with my left arm while holding my cane in my right. I must've looked like Charlie Chaplin in the movie "City Lights". In a matter of seconds a young woman came to me to offer me a drink of water.

And it wasn't too long ago that I was riding the escalator, bent down and rested my arm on the rubber moving banister. How thoughtful of someone to ask if I were okay and offered to help me.  And each day people smile and say "hello".

So much of our lives are filled with anxiety with much of it induced by the national political scene and traumatic events around the world constantly on display. Yet with time to look around and not be fixated on a smart phone, I am impressed each day with the friendliness and greetings I receive from people as I walked down the street.

Louis Armstrong said it quite succinctly:

                                           "What A Wonderful World"

I see trees of green,
red roses too.
I see them bloom,
for me and you.
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue,
And clouds of white.
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow,
So pretty in the sky.
Are also on the faces,
Of people going by,
I see friends shaking hands.
Saying, "How do you do?"
They're really saying,
"I love you".

I hear babies cry,
I watch them grow,
They'll learn much more,
Than I'll ever know.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

Yes, I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.

Oh yeah.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What do you consider to be the invention that has most changed American lifestyle in your 90 years?

"What do you consider to be the invention that has most changed American lifestyle in your 90 years?"

I vacillated a great deal as I answered this question many many times on Reddit's AMA. At first I felt it was the automobile which provided unimagined mobility and then, coupled with the interstate highway, made suburbs possible. Then it was the rapid development of aircraft which truly made our world the "One World" as predicted in Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie in his book of 1936. And optimist that I am, I at one time thought it was the United Nations to assure lasting peace.  Of course television completely revolutionized our entertainment and along with yer-round team sports almost completely changed family structure. Further on the social scale,  I've personally felt that American family life was dramatically changed after World War II.  Before that time – even in the lower middle-class families like mine  – only (generally) fathers worked and mothers stayed at home.  

Now, after reading a pre-publication copy of Franklin Foer's "World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech," there is no question in my mind that the most dramatic change and one that is still growing is the Computer/Internet.  (Full disclosure – Frank is my partner Linda Greenfelder's son-in-law.)  I'd already begun to be influenced by young people to the marvels of the computer age. How convenient to be able to type letters by talking on my Dragon dictation device and send emails.  My suspicions of the magnitude of change wrought by computers/Internet increased with the election, Now Frank's book opened my eyes to the dangers that have accompanied this truly earthshaking, human behavior changing phenomenon.

Some of you may recall my last/last rant when I set aside ranting to work on a major thought trend of mine. It's listed below. And now Frank's book gives me another tangent to consider.

"But as I discontinue weekly rantings, I'll give my attention to preparing a major write-up on a topic of lifetime concern to me personally. It relates somewhat to the insightful book of Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone". In it he calls attention to the fact that a great many of the social organizations that have unified our country have now been lost. And for me personally this includes the continuing decline of the effectiveness of the three institutions that have had the greatest impact on my life: the family, the public school and churches. Certainly the family and schools have received a great deal of attention. Yet while religion has increasingly played a predominant role in worldwide affairs, a major development in America has been a continuing decline in church attendance – particularly by young people. Indeed I have seen it in my own family and understand fully the rationale for this phenomenon. I hope that my personal observations will be of value to others in considering this topic: i believe that religion has played a major role in creating the problems of humankind, but i believe that it can provide a way to solve the problems.  I hope to enlarge on this by showing how my religious/philosophical concepts have changed in my 91 years so that religion can be seen in a new light as a place for adding meaning and purpose to ones life and increasing the opportunity for world peace.