Keep Tahoe Blue

Sitting Bull & Buffalo Bill (1895) Photo: Wikipedia

I worked a few years ago (minimum wage) at a coffee shop (with absolutely no unionized workers) that was whimsically named “Local 123”. A kind of salable nostalgia for unions is now apparently a thing. And why not? It’s just another one of those items in the American cultural vernacular that has become a strange, hollowed-out version of itself. More than happy to talk about how the unions brought us the five-day work week. The weekend. An end to the work week. Job well done. Thank you. Your services are no longer needed. We’ll take it over from here. How, exactly, you ask, did the unions help achieve this mighty feat? Not so happy (or able) to talk about that. Bloody (bloodiest in the world) street battles; city-, county-, state-wide strikes; destruction of property; wildcat strikes. Tompkins Square; the Molly Maguires; the Great Uprising of 1877; Haymarket; Homestead; the Pullman Strike; Coxey’s Army. Better not talk about that stuff. Might upset someone. Or worse yet, someone might get inspired.

In 1885, Sitting Bull began performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Just nine years earlier, he had fought (alongside Crazy Horse) in the Battle of Little Big Horn. This battle was an anomalous victory for an Indian population that had only seen itself devastated by white settlement (i.e. genocide, murder, displacement) and the military might that enforced it. Performing as himself in a spectacle that dramatized Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn for $50/day, Sitting Bull became part of the show. This performance could not be a more accurate representation of American culture. Americanization. The mythologizing and commoditization of a strangely warped amalgam of the historical and artificial. Here, life is for sale. Culture is crucified and brought back to life in a ghostly apparition of itself. Devoid of it’s most meaningful form and function, this shell is polished, packaged, priced, put on display. It’s almost hard to contemplate. Here is a man, who experienced unimaginable suffering at the hand of the very society who employs him to perform as himself, in the very same events that comprise the end of his culture. This is our heritage.

Mountains, lakes, landmarks named after decimated peoples. Streets named after habitats that can no longer be sustained under the bitumen now covering the ground they once occupied. Cars named for places that are being destroyed by their own emissions. “Keep Tahoe Blue”. My other car is Caterpillar D9L bulldozer. A Belaz 75710. An AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma. I’d rather be… Excavating the earth. Hauling out minerals. Gathering surveillance and intelligence.

Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa Lakota; of the great plains. Medicine man. Tribal chief. Buffalo Hunter. He had a habit of dreaming prophetic visions with eerie accuracy (I wonder if he dreamt of Buffalo Bill). This was in the last decades of the 19th century. America was really finding its stride. The West was finally being colonized (in the fullest sense) after decades of minimal white settlement. 1876. The first Transcontinental Railroad train arrived in San Francisco from New York City. Two years earlier, in what is now the East Village, the Tompkins Square Riot had erupted. Mark Twain was writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. And, in late June, the Battle of Little Big Horn (or as the Lakota call it, Battle of the Greasy Grass) was fought.

The Lakota had been resisting white settlement on their lands since the 1850s. The United States was in the process of domesticating the Plains Indians. They forcibly moved them onto reservations, sometimes hundreds of miles from their homelands, most of the time to places that nobody else wanted to live. Later, thanks to the tireless work of individuals like Alice Fletcher and the Dawes Act legislation, the reservations would be sliced up and individual Indians would be forced to live as ‘homesteaders’, adding insult to injury in an onslaught that would make Ayn Rand proud. All this in order to clear out land for blood-thirsty, flesh-devouring American homesteaders (savages). After being captured, many of the Plains Indians would leave their open-air prisons and return to their old landbases, where they would continue to hunt what buffalo were left (“I saw not elsewhere in the world, the myriad herds of buffaloes — my eyes scanned in vain for they were not.”1) and enjoy dignity, freedom, their own version of Manifest Destiny.

It was at a Sun Dance gathering — a ceremony held annually where many tribes would get together and celebrate renewal, make vows, seek visions — attended by many of these escapees, where Sitting Bull dreamed of grasshoppers swarming into his camp. Locusts. Plagues. He became convinced that the United States army was planning an attack, and was now prepared. It was this vision which saved him and which ultimately led to the complete destruction of the entire 7th Cavalry company under George Armstrong Custer’s command by about 1500 Indians (Custer’s Last Stand).

How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?

…Behold this compost! Behold it well!2

Sitting Bull and his people fled north to Canada, but he later surrendered and was taken to Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota where he was eventually, inevitably, murdered by Indian police with the support of two troops of U.S. cavalry on the accusation that he was considering participation in a Ghost Dance ceremony (who wouldn’t!?) After his death, Sitting Bull’s followers fled to the Pine Ridge reservation, where they were caught up with by the…7th Cavalry (Of course. Why not?). They were, along with a Miniconjou Lakota Chief Spotted Elk, a Cheyenne who had helped Sitting Bull’s followers with the journey, rounded up and massacred by revolver, rifle, and cannon fire. Two-hundred and fifty men, women, and children were murdered. Wounded Knee.

The blood of the sacrificed (Indians, slaves, Wobblies, Chinese railroad workers (thousands died during the tunneling out and leveling of the Sierra Nevada alone), buffaloes, Sequoia) enriched the compost of an ever expanding America. The blood of Iraqi children now nourishes our ever-expanding industry. The blood of the American Pika (Ochotona princeps) spills over into a warming Crater Lake. Clarity in Lake Tahoe has reduced by 30ft since the 1960s. Clarity of mind, heart, spirit at an even more alarming rate.

Fresh come, to a new world indeed, yet long prepared,

I see the genius of the modern, child of the real and ideal,

Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the True America,

heir of the past so grand,

To build a grander future.

From Song of the Redwood Tree

Walt Whitman, written sometime after 1855


1Catlin, George. “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.” American Earth. Ed. Bill McKibben. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2008. 37–45.

2Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Airmont Publishing, Inc., 1965.