Apr/May 2013 Nonfiction

Sins of Our Fathers

by Laura Story Johnson

Artwork by Clinton McKay

Artwork by Clinton McKay

A Proud Look

The tip of the flag he carried crested the hill. The field was thick with smoke, with bodies. They watched him march: forward, forward. He was only twenty. The hat my mother had mended fell over his eyes, a forage hat too big for a boy. He didn't move it back: his hands were clenched to his task. I watched him kneel in the grass and lift the Union Flag, steady it against the cannon fire.

September 20, 1862: Harper's Weekly. The front page was an illustration titled "Gallant Color Bearer." Looking at the image I could feel the tenacious grip with which he clung to his colors.

My brother wore indigo, and so I was proud. He bore no gun but was armed with the most important task. Never let it touch the ground, not even in death. He did not die that day. Our flag, the flag of our fathers: broad stripes and bright stars.

The Confederate States of America was formed through secession. More Southern than American put our broad stripes at a crossroads. Bright stars were bloodstained. At that time Harper's Weekly called itself a "Journal of Civilization."

"Is it over?" I asked. In war there is no closure. I saw a group of Confederate farbs returning to their camp. One of them cracked open a Mountain Dew. Even in reenactments no curtain falls. Yet we applaud the sins of war. Goosebumps that arise on flesh at the highest note are a standing ovation to the land of the free. Our hubris, the hubris of our fathers: the home of the brave.


A Lying Tongue

The home of the Braves is Atlanta, Georgia. Sports Illustrated named the Braves "America's Team" in baseball. Atlanta is built on lands that once belonged to the Creek Indians. There are no federally recognized Indian tribes in Georgia today. The Braves play America's national sport.

As a child my father played baseball. As a child I failed miserably at softball, hours kicking the sunburned dirt with my unused cleats. I dreamed of rounding the soft white bases, everyone finally watching me run like the wind.

June 13, 1829: Nile's Weekly Register. The newspaper ran a copy of President Jackson's communication to the Creek Nation. He promised them everything West of the Mississippi. That land belonged to the President and no one else. Just leave Alabama, he said, and it's yours. As long as the grass grows or the water runs.

As a child my father played cowboys and Indians. As a child I pretended to be Sacagawea, my American Girl doll strapped to my back as I wandered the woods behind our farm. I made piles of pine cones, pieces of bark, leaves, dandelions. I smeared the banana-scented yellow across my doll's face to feed her, crammed grass into the tiny opening between her plastic lips.

May 31, 1831: Letters to Andrew Jackson. White residents of Georgia complained about the Indians who were going from house to house begging. They were starving. The letters pleaded for the President to help. America refused. Aid promotes idleness. The Creeks had no land but the land was all they had: they were living on roots, berries, and the bark from trees.

As a child my father played basketball. America's most passionate basketball fans are Indiana's. Fans that called Bob Knight "The General." Indiana was divided during the Civil War. Some towns voted to secede and to join their brothers in the South. Indiana remained in the Union, critical to the North's victory. Decatur, Indiana is in the North. In Decatur high school boys play basketball as the Braves. The girls' sports teams are called the Squaws.

Alabama. Georgia. Mississippi. In 1814 Andrew Jackson became an American hero when his army killed eight hundred Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. Andrew Jackson, the General. In 1829, Andrew Jackson took office and gold was discovered in Cherokee territory in Georgia. Andrew Jackson, the President. In 1832 Andrew Jackson signed the Treaty of Washington and thousands of Creeks were driven from their homes into the woods, into the swamps. Andrew Jackson, Great Father. Cherokee. Creek. Choctaw.

January 26, 2011: Decatur Daily Democrat. The headline read "Squaws hold off Generals."


Hands That Shed Innocent Blood

"The squaws offered no resistance." Their bodies became jewelry for the soldiers. The men cut the unborn from their mothers. They shot toddlers in the back. They sliced testicles to make tobacco pouches. They bashed infants into the ground, breaking their skulls. They attacked, mutilated, scalped. Women begged for mercy. It was 1864, but a different civil war. Still, the Union Flag flew overhead: through the perilous fight. "As long as the United States flag flew above him no soldier would fire upon him." The soldiers poured into Sand Creek. The women and children gathered around the broad stripes and bright stars. Black Kettle held a pole: "the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn." He told his people not to be afraid. And then they were massacred. As winter's cold sun rose in the sky a six year old girl carried a white flag on a stick. If her blood was not innocent then there can be no innocent blood.

The soldiers were drunk on whiskey.


A Heart That Deviseth Wicked Imaginations

He was drunk on whiskey, like everyone else. I was dressed like a prostitute. Pimps and hoes. I decided to leave after I watched a woman demonstrate to the packed living room how far she could swallow a dildo. Deep throat. My friend collapsed by the door as I shuffled through the chaos of coats, hats, boots. The door opened and I saw a gun. He was only sixteen or seventeen. They had asked him to leave. They said because he was in high school. Maybe it was because he was Native. He returned with a pistol, his father's. I reached past him for my friend. "I'm just looking for my shoes." I prayed my smile, my feigned ignorance of the weapon in his hand would protect me. We fled into the darkness. I wrapped my arm around my friend to help him walk. "He had a gun. He had a gun. He had a gun." My friend couldn't register my words, too deep in a nightmare of his own. "Everything is going backwards." I strained against shivering to listen for gunshots. A terrifying silence followed us staggering along the dirt road, stumbling into ghosts. As winter's cold moon sank in the sky I carried him home. We stood on his front porch in an embrace. "That boy had a gun." "Time is going backwards." I could feel myself falling with him into a forgotten past. Blood tinged with whiskey is still blood. If we forget, nothing changes.

I held him to keep myself safe in the now where he needed me.


Feet That Be Swift in Running to Mischief

Need You Now won for Best Country Album last year. Lady Antebellum swept the Grammys.

Antebellum is Latin for "before the war." The Antebellum Era was the era of cotton growing, plantations, slavery. It was the era before Gone with the Wind, but it is the era that created Scarlett O'Hara. It was the era that created the South.

August 9, 1814: Treaty of Fort Jackson. The Creeks signed away over twenty million acres, half of their land. This was payment for what we called an "unprovoked, inhuman, and sanguinary war, waged by the hostile Creeks against the United States."

With calm dignity the Antebellum Era removed Native Americans from the South. Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina. The United States of America was formed through secession. More white than human forced the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Seminole, the Chickasaw, the Creeks to walk. Their trails were tearstained. At that time the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Seminole, the Chickasaw, and the Creeks were considered to be the "Five Civilized Tribes."

May 28, 1830: Indian Removal Act. Groaning, staggering, inching toward the setting sun. We watched them march: forward, forward.

The cotton kingdom was built on the backs of slaves, on the graves of Native Americans. Genteel sin is still sin.


A Deceitful Witness That Uttereth Lies

There are no Indians in the South.
I am not Southern.


He That Soweth Discord Among Brethren

The Creeks call themselves the Muscogee. Mvskoke.

September 17, 1981: United States Government Memorandum. The Bureau of Indian Affairs denied an application by a group of Muscogee. The memorandum stated: "they do not exist as an Indian tribe." They never existed. There was not enough proof.

The BIA gave four reasons as evidence for their decision:

1. Unstable membership.
2. The lack of historical data for most geographic areas.
3. The apparent recent institution of "clan" organizations.
4. The lack of historical connections or associations between families that would be expected from the asserted tribal character.

The Mvskoke belong to the clan of their mothers. Our mothers.


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