So The Boy comes home from school a couple weeks ago and tells me there are parent-teacher conferences coming up. Because I am a Good and Caring Mom (and because I live in a small town, and the school administration and teaching know where I live and while Hunt Me Down if I don’t show up) I dutifully trot myself down to the school on the night of conferences, The Boy in tow. It’s a beautiful place, our school. I think it was designed by the same guy who designed Central Park in New York (he did a number of schools in our area, apparently while he was out slumming), and the building has been kept up, but not aggressively modernized. Our school has not an auditorium, but a theater, with theater seats, plaster molding and a crest around the proscenium, and a stage. I sit in the dark in that theater and I slip out of time, and sit with all the other parents who have listened to their children play and sing from those seats. It’s a good part of history, and I love history.
I particularly love local history, and so when The Boy’s history teacher tells me that she’s going to have the students read Deep Creek, a novel based on local history, I am intrigued. She explains that the incident on which the novel is based occurred at Deep Creek, on the Oregon side of the Snake River.
So I go home, and download the novel onto my kindle and start to read, and then every afternoon The Boy and I sit in the sun outside our coffee shop and talk about the book we’re both reading. At least we do that for a few days, and then I get far, far ahead of him, so we can’t talk about it anymore lest I spoil the story for him.
I finish the book. It’s a terrible story. Well written, but a terrible story. The facts are these: A group of Chinese miners were camped at Deep Creek on the Snake River while they mined various sites in the area. And then one day a group of seven cattle rustlers swept down upon them, tortured and massacred them. According to some sources it’s the worst such even in Oregon history.
That was bad, but then it got worse. Turns out that the men doing the massacring (and there’s virtually no doubt who they were and what they did) weren’t just cattle rustlers. When they weren’t rustling cows and and massacring Chinese miners these men were good, upstanding, church-going members of the Wallowa community. They were ranchers, farmers, laborers, family men in some cases. In fact, that was their primary defense–that they were “good men” (in one case a “good schoolboy” with a bright future in front of him–the youngest member of the group was in his mid-teens) and so of course wouldn’t have done such a thing, and if they did, well, the Chinese probably deserved it–they weren’t real Americans. They looked different, spoke a different language–there was some question whether they had souls. Certainly they didn’t see America like the good folks in Wallowa saw America…is any of this starting to sound familiar?
In the end, the three men who were caught were acquitted (they blamed the others who had evaded capture–even though all of the men had been there, and from the ammunition recovered it appeared that all but possibly one had participated in the killing). After all, they were Good Men, and the Chinese were, well, Chinese, not good Christians, likely not even fully human. Nobody was even completely sure how many men were there–eventually the best estimate was that around 34 men had died at Deep Creek. There wasn’t even an accurate record of their names. Besides, they were dead, and Deep Creek was so very, very far from anywhere. Even if one of the miners had survived, he quite likely wouldn’t have been allowed to bring legal action, or possibly even testify, since they weren’t citizens. In the end It was easier, and better for Lewiston (the closest town) to simply push the dreadful incident into one of those dark and shadowy corners where we put the shameful things that remind us that all too often we are more than we appear. In this case, the records were literally shoved out of sight–lost or hidden for nearly 100 years in a basement.
Eventually the records were unearthed, and there was a sort of acknowledgement of the Deep Creek Massacre–the cove where the creek enters the Snake River is now called Chinese Massacre Cove. But we still don’t have a firm record of them men’s names who died that day. After all, they were Chinese, not real Americans.
I finished Deep Creek, and found myself wondering about the men who perpetrated this outrage–and about the people who chose to close their eyes to the monsters in their midst, to deny that “good men” had done a horrifying thing–and torturing and killing 34 virtually unarmed men is horrifying, particularly since there seems to have been no real reason for the act apart from race hatred.
What does it mean to us when the “good men” we respect and admire commit evil deeds? What does it mean that we prefer to look the other way, to refuse to call their actions by their true names, and hold them accountable? What does it mean when we refuse to demand an accounting from those who have done evil in our name, when we say we choose to “focus on the future?” How can we have a healthy, happy future when it’s built on such a shoddy foundation?
There has been a lot of talk about returning to the principles that we like to ascribe to our forbears. Nobody likes to mention Deep Creek. Nobody likes to mention the havoc wreaked on the people who were here before us. Nobody likes to mention the deep prejudice that has marred our history.
There are many good and honorable things in our national history, but there are also dark and shameful things, things with which we have yet to really grapple as a nation. Like the men judging the “good men” who went out one weekend and slaughtered 34 other men for no good reason, those who shout the loudest about returning to our forbears’ values don’t like to acknowledge the deep wounds those who went before us caused.
Why does this matter? Because the values that have come down to us have been shaped by those “good men” who loved their children, tended their farms, and in the off season rustled cattle and slaughtered defenseless men. It’s not a spoken thing, but the fear and hatred of the alien, strange, and foreign persist. Listen to the debate about guest workers. Listen to the rabid rhetoric directed at “Islamist Extremists”–and many seem to have forgotten that there are any other kind. Listen to the hate speech about healthcare making us “like Europe.” The attitudes that shaped the tragedy of Deep Creek are very much with us because the values that created those attitudes are still very much with us.
And that is why I get nervous when I hear conservative public speakers and politicians begin to wax eloquent about the virtues of our forbears, and how we should return to their values that “made America great.” Yes, crossing the continent took great courage. Surviving took great ingenuity. Exploiting and enslaving the vulnerable and robbing, imprisoning, and slaughtering those who were here before us because we coveted what they had took a very different set of skills.
All too often these days it seems that conservatism is paired with increasingly open racism, sexism, and exclusionary language and policies. Conservatism in its most virulent form has become little more than an attempt to roll back history on the social contract–and with that rollback we are seeing a new public acceptance of sexism and racism that would have been considered gauche and backward in the last years of the last century.
I don’t believe those restrictive, divisive values made us strong. I think they made us bullies. I don’t believe we should return to those values. I believe we should recognize that those who came before us were human, and sometimes monsters and heroes rode around in one skin, just as they do today.
History is important–we learn from it. But after we learn from it we should grow beyond it. We should recognize that Thomas Jefferson might have written movingly about freedom, but he still kept slaves, just as the men of Wallowa were good family men–and criminals and murderers. Perhaps this is the lesson of our time–understanding ourselves means understanding the darkness and the light that live in each of us.