From my forthcoming book, The Mysteries of Ohio, native ghost of the Adena peoples, from 600 B.C., who built a “Serpent Mound” and a very long earthwork of a snake about to receive an egg in its mouth located south of Columbus.
With the election ever nearing, operatives and politicians are beating Ohio like a rented mule. From river to city there are dipshits with clip-boards talking a smooth line of sophistry from both parties.
Democracy, down where the kernels get small and greasy,(the margins) are where elections are won and lost.
Sadly, that IS the history of this unique slice of ruptured geography.
The word, “Ohio” is Iroquois for “Big River.” The iroquois peoples were part of a powerful conflation of First Nation tribes known as the nation of six. The others, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and the Seneca, inhabited a wide swath of the Northeast from New York to Ohio and including the St. Lawrence seaway.
They primarily farmed, trapped fur and protected their nations which extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of Ohio and north through Canada. In my research, I’d always thought of the Iroquois peoples as primarily Canadian. I was wrong–their home base seems to have been mostly New York State and along the Great Lakes.
Only the tribes of the Sioux were a bigger nation of indigenous peoples.
The Iroquois were tough. They fought the French over land, water and beavers. In fact, there were whole wars about beavers and their pelts in the 1600’s. Over the glacial march of a couple of centuries, any American Iroquois were mostly in Ohio.
Ohio was where you went when you lost the Indian wars of the American Northeast. That, or flee to Canada, who treated First Nation peoples a little better, but not much.
The Iroquois kinship extended through a great many Matrilineal tribes, meaning the women ran things.They were broken up into “clans”–Turtle, Bear, Elk, Eel Hawk. They are also known as the “Haudenosaunee,” which means “people of the long house.” Unlike a great many tribes, the Iroquois built their housing like long barracks (an actual house) rather than tipis. Their architecture was more evolved and soon copied by white settlers.The Quakers owe a debt to the Iroquois’ “long houses. As tribes go, they succeeded at farming, raising animals, fishing, fur-trapping, etc. In other words, the Iroquois were self-sustaining and doing fine when the French decided to “civilize” them by murdering them and trying to steal their land and resources, as well as convert them to Christianity.
To this end they sent a couple of earnest young missionaries–Jean deLalande and Isaac Jogues–to civilize the savages. The Bear clan didn’t know quite what to think of these two funny-talking, pasty-assed Jesus freaks who wore their shirts down to their shoes.
So they shanked them and ate their hearts. A message to the French (and the Huron tribes) that “When we need your advice, we’ll fucking beat it out of you.”
Ohio has a fascinating history. The more I read about it, the less, I realize, that I (or the rest of the Republic) know about it. In the 1800’s, Ohio natives were fond of reminding the rest of the country that what we had in this bloody, merciless, expanse of natural beauty was, in fact, a Republic. That as Americans, we owned ourselves and didn’t answer to any kings or queens anymore. It is a bitter, horrific irony that we would not cede these ideas about liberty to the Africans we kidnapped or the First Nation tribes who, rightly, were this great land’s caretakers before we stole it.
Americans who go to the polls in the next few weeks would do well to remember that those they will cast votes for are our employees, and we, the people, are but custodians of these fifty states, and that our haggard, beleaguered, beating heart can be found somewhere between Canton and Dayton where we, the people, clip the coupons and hope.
As proud as I am of my Irish heritage, I will admit that we believe in some pretty goofy shit.
We are fishermen from way back and believe in any number of aquatic phantasms–nymphs, Jenny-Linds, Selkies, sea serpents and many other manifestations of floating apparitions.
Mermaids are the killers though. They are beautiful and imperiled, and many a Mick dipshit has dove overboard to “save” one clinging to a rock only to find that by the time he gets to her after fighting off a rolling sea.she actually looks like Don Knotts with tits.
I decided to make a Chicago Mermaid, a blues girl. Who wouldn’t do you like that. Who wouldn’t hide her beauty. No. . .she would save you with the blues in shades of blue and green and velvety black.
This one too, is for my pal and fellow Mick, John Manion.
He looked up at the sky. From the inside of the boxcar there was a perfect rectangle of inky blue-black speeding by. The stars didn’t move an inch.
The North Star just hovered up there in all its majesty like a stoic king, Ursa Major reached its long math across the sky over Kankakee’s rail yard like a Greek god lining up the perfect three-bank billiard’s shot.
He thought maybe if she bothered to look up at the same time–wherever she was–maybe, just maybe, they’d see the same carpet of light at the same time, and that would be a small something.
Her brown eyes were as deep as space. He’d stare into them, wordlessly, and swear he could see comets racing at the speed of his heart.
In honor of my pal John Manion’s new restaurant, La Sirena Clandenista. All hail Manion!
In his imperfect but fascinating “Nothing Like It in the World-The Men who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” Steven Ambrose, the often suspect popular historian, tells the story of the building of the railroad between Council Bluffs Iowa and San Francisco, the many lives it took, the blasting, digging, excavating and back-breaking labor of it all. I’ve read a number of Ambrose’s books and he has often been accused of shoddy fact-checking, misquotes and outright plagiarism. Still, the old grouch wrote a damned entertaining story.
Much more entertaining is “Hell on Wheels,” AMC’s nihilistic, grim history of those who built the railroad– freed men of color, Confederate veterans, the newly immigrated Irish and poor southern whites. Later,past the Mississippi, it would also be the Chinese and no small amount of convict labor.
All the while, the Lakota Sioux, as well as the Cherokee and Cheyenne and many, many, other First Nation peoples, were trying to hold onto their lands. The white man took it by force. The railroads were given a remarkable amount of latitude with the law. They had their own police force as well as the Pinkertons, a bunch of rent-a-cop type pukes who were mostly criminals themselves.
“Hell on Wheels” introduces us to a Confederate veteran and widower named Bohannon who has a positively biblical sense of justice, and the band of cutthroats, shysters, swindlers and and con men who built and profited from the expansion of the railroad. They are some nasty, dirty, scurvy motherfuckers.
Needless to say I love this show. The Indians are portrayed as blood-thirsty and savage and for my money, should have been more so. It is like an Oglala Sioux friend of mine once said, “We should have killed you fuckers at Plymouth Rock.” The theft of our country was intentional, savage and absolutely without mercy. Upon seeing railroad tracks for the first time, Sitting Bull referred to them as “The Path of Thieves.”
This piece is part of the visuals I’m making for Steve Earle’s next recording, “The Low Highway.” Per usual, I get to hear the record before anyone else does and it is an astonishing collection of songs. I can’t really say much more than this. Trust me. You will be rewarded if you get it when it hits the street.
Steve is an incredible student of American history and a small part Cherokee. One of the books we’ve discussed is Cormac McCarthy’s bloody and unyielding novel of the Plains Indian wars, “Blood Meridian.” It is a sobering and shaming piece of writing that led Steve to once comment to me, “Yeah, I’ve read all of the Cormac McCarthy books and he means us no good.” I understand this. McCarthy paints a grim picture of mankind altogether.
We’re bastards. And when you know as much history as McCarthy (or Steve Earle), it is easy and perhaps inevitable that this conclusion is arrived at. The difference is on Steve’s record there is always a glimmer of hope…a bolt of light…a saving grace. On some of this record there is an abiding sadness, but it never blots out the sun. In McCarthy’s sometimes pitch-black narratives like “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Blood Meridian,” though they can be mordantly funny in places, there are two kinds of hope–Bob Hope and No Hope.
If you wonder why I prattle on about things like this, I think of those bloody epochs of history as distant mirrors. We are STILL this country. Brutal, violent and unrepentant about taking that to which we feel entitled. There is a moment at the end of the film version of “No Country for Old Men” where the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, tells his wife he is giving up; essentially that he is no match for the evil in the world. It is a sunlit slice of utter despair. It is a good man deciding to do nothing in the face of evil. It chilled me to the bone.
However, on Steve’s new record, there is a psychological map of our republic drawn; one that tells us our definition as a country is still being determined; that it is not too late to find our better selves. What my my grandmother used to refer to as the “angels of our better nature.” He often channels the voices of those marginalized and rendered voiceless–the migrant worker, the addict, the hobo, the outsiders charting their own maps as they go. The people on the other side of the billboards. The imperfect, hobbled and luminous. We, the people.
Ohio is an Iroquois tribe word–it means “Big River.” It’s actually bounded by many rivers and a century ago was a major port in the trades and commerce that traveled by water. It was also a favorite waterway for bootleggers delivering whiskey via the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Back then, Ohio had a piece of everything. The dark machines of Ohio propelled themselves ever-forward, devouring towers of steel, of glass, of paper, of rubber, and of flesh.
She was Ohio, and she stood up on her sticky black-iron legs under a bolt of the oldest lightning of a century, wet from being born every day, only to die at five o’clock, watching the fences swing open.
One of the great worries American Indians had when the white man started encroaching was watching the depletion of nature occur at an accelerated pace. Trees were cut down, mountains plowed through, rivers damned and bridged; as well as animals slaughtered for meat, fur, hides and bones. The white man was a whirling dervish of waste and destruction. This led Native Americans to some destructive behavior of their own. They hunted the bison to the brink of extinction in an effort to deprive the white man of a primary food source. It didn’t work. the white man kept coming and ate elk, deer and antelope in lieu of buffalo. It was one of many desperate measures taken in order to stanch the inexorable march of the murderers, thieves and rapists who stole our country for us.
Of course it didn’t work, and the genocide and internment of the First Nation tribes, which exists to this day, was a fait accompli. The grinding erosion and elimination of natural resources, plants and animals also assumed a murderous pace as well. The making of this Republic was a bloody, awful business. It meant the unmaking of a natural world. Naturalists will tell you that extinction is part of nature. As the planet changes, each species’ ability to change with it is tested. The last passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1912.
They were at one time so plentiful. It would take 2 or 3 days for a single flock of them to pass over head during migration. Less than a hundred years later, they were extinct. The march of mankind did them in. New emigres from Europe would feed them to their hogs. Massive “pigeon shoots” were commonplace. There was an idea out there that the supply of passenger pigeons was infinite. This, sadly, is an American thought. We devour the world in front of us because we think there will always be more. We plan…and nature laughs.