Indigenous Historical Fiction Short Story: Jerome Berglund

“...old times there are not forgotten.” 

- Daniel Decatur Emmett

 

 

Whistling Through the Graveyard

 

This lynching is nothing new.

They recall it dimly across Mankato’s arid wastes. A college town these days, ever crawling with the most thick-headed, bloodthirsty townies imaginable, who’ll roll you soon as look at you— assuming you’re inebriated enough to make for moderately easy pickings, don’t appear sufficiently capable of putting up any considerable unwanted resistance, are one of those indistinguishable, pickled herrings come flopping out from the rank, ubiquitous brine barrels littering their boulevards, disheveled academics on ways home from the burg’s many repellent watering holes with their desperately quirky names, like “the Haze” and “the Smell” and “the Taint”. These ill-treated scholars are themselves no better, either, precisely—sots and carousers in toto, if one faction is fortunate enough to imbibe off the rail, whereas the other prefers pulling from fastidiously funneled and carefully rationed jugs of shine, concocted in home-brewed stills, from trailer sinks and tenement bathtubs—just a different economic stratum, derivation of those selfsame settler colonists who stole this acreage off its earlier inhabitants. They are the ones we’re interested in discussing here, incidentally. Not these comparatively well-to-do European descendants, who made this town they’d purloined from the indigenous people among the most septic herpes capitals of the nation, who forced the closure of an elaborate tunnel system devised for navigating campus during those onerous winter months because they could not refrain from pouncing upon defenseless classmates in the dark of nights. Mankato, that unsurpassed destination for visitors desiring to accrue baroque rap sheets of drinking citations from their late teens through early twenties, an ideal spot to find yourself embroiled in a gory room-clearing apartment brawl, after some frat brute takes an unmotivated poke, at a girl deemed too insolent for his liking. Mankato, pioneer sloppiness exemplified, graphic testament to expropriation at its most rapacious, keenly assisted via liquor’s insidious plying. There, manifold evils antecedent generations sowed, the children now find themselves tasked with unpleasantly reaping.  Sins of fathers sons repeat, get visited upon daughters. History reruns itself in ghastly echoes, tromping like hoof beats a gallop, across a bleak and wintery stage, wiped fearfully sterile at long last, cleansed coldly with measured precision... Mahkato, whose town motto somehow remains “Leading the Way”.  This story is transcribed in your dubious honor, to your less than sterling credit.  You call yourself the ‘Key City’ eh…  What, then, was the lock?  And can you truly claim not to have forced it open, like trembling legs, for the brutal assault which followed?  Students in attendance, and barbarous plebeians obliged to endure their insufferable gallivanting, both: you may vaguely recall certain rumors circulating, regarding your city’s historical hallmark, the act singed upon its legacy like a slave’s branding. Or perhaps on your bleary stumbles homeward, or during quiet moments alone blasting tin-cans from distant stumps, you’ll on occasion chance to catch some whispers in the wind—from an insistent chorus of stiff, wooden voices, many of them conversing at once in a strange and unfamiliar tongue, overlapping each other discordantly. Allow us to translate these cryptic words you’re hearing, so that you may understand what they’ve been trying vainly, continually to communicate to you for so very, very long, in language you can grasp.  

One ghost is louder than the rest. Let’s hear from him.

My story is short and ugly, like most you can learn from.

It was our own Old Chief Sleepy Eye who led the first interlopers to this place, where the Blue Earth and Minnesota rivers converge, showed them the best spots for building to exploit transit capabilities along the waters, demonstrated lucrative strategies for protecting envisioned constructions against flooding.  I can only surmise that sage leader must surely have been nodding off behind the reins, as they are so often wont to, if he was not plain venal.  Sleepy Eye would be rewarded for these kindnesses the same way the rest of us were, regardless.  

It would not be a decade after the township’s founding, that we should all be run off—to a man, woman, and child—like pestilent dogs, from this land of ours we in a spirit of brotherhood introduced them to. Robbed of its verdant pastures, abundance of fishing and game, nourishing wild rice and maple syrup.  They drove my people to the barren Dakotas, and alien Nebraska.  If we dared set foot upon our native soil again, those squatters defending it could lawfully kill us on sight, present our scalp to their authorities and receive a $25 reward, for the trouble of removing it.  

A statue in South Dakota dedicated to Sleepy Eye’s memory describes the venerable statesman as being ‘Always a Friend of the Whites’—there lurks a certain mutual exclusivity in that arrangement, don’t ever think there won’t be; it’s a fence you cannot straddle and manage a foot on both sides of, effectively—in recollection of that habitual groveling he did famously, before America’s supposed presidents. And signing half a dozen devastating treaties, prior to expiring quietly on a reservation he was subsequently forced onto.  

It was his nephew actually, inheritor of that same illustrious name, whom I knew personally, who fought beside me bravely in the great uprising of ‘62.  

It was too late for us to do all that much, by then, alas; the damage had already been effected, quite egregiously.  

On ranches, they call the goat who authoritatively leads his fellow livestock to be slaughtered each time, gets permitted to escape butchery every culling for doing so, ‘Judas’.  A hundred years henceforth, in Germany, they would accuse any Jew who brokered accords with the Nazis, advised them shrewdly, of being a ‘collaborator’.  They emphatically would not erect statues to commemorate such betrayers, who’d helped facilitate their people’s determined, businesslike annihilation, though that Fuhrer might well have opted to—had the fascists triumphed in their crusade across the Easter continents, the way your West was so callously won.  

Their missionaries told us Lincoln was our ‘Great Father’, watching over we children from his capital those many years.  One has to laugh, recalling that image of Saturn’s parenting techniques, which the Spaniard Goya painted on a wall of his home so strikingly.  Abe, if he were truly honest, would have to admit he treated us analogously.  

Nor would we deign to recognize their Christian rites, when the clergymen offered them to us, in those final hours.  These same sorts would quite conceivably have crucified their precious savior himself, obediently albeit apologetically, were they ordered to, was he here beside us in confinement—having perpetrated some recent destruction to Roman property, disrupted usurious lending and caused a tumult at the temple.  Charlatans and hypocrites every one, speaking confidently nonetheless, as though at their messiah’s behest. With the audacity to invoke his name and philosophy whilst persecuting, before martyring

 

***

This was truly not so very far back, relatively speaking.  When your father was born, men still walked this earth who’d seen it pass, remembered it happening, though time had rendered them ancient and hobbling by then.  But still, a meager century, before the year the U.S.

announced its trade embargo against Cuba.  Not long ago at all. 

Yet, think, that mní sóta had been a state—in the eyes of your government—for but the merest handful of years, not even half of a decade then.  The ink was drying, that goes to say, still is.  The papers themselves were already becoming visibly whited out, however, more than might be preferable; it left a surplus of blank space, in need of filling in…  

To my people, I went by the name Wa-kin-yan-wa.  You may call me ‘Little Thunder’, if you care to—it’s what that translates to, in your vulgar Saxon tongue.  

I am of the Dakota nation. Very possibly you have not heard of it. 

We were paid no especial tribute, did not figure prominently into your schemas for assimilation, or merit recognition as one of those ‘five civilized tribes’ preferenced by the occupying forces—having no taste for your religion, or plantation slavery, ourselves. The Cherokee and Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole and Chicasaw were more adaptable, keener about such things. They took quicker to legalese and market economy, had no qualms about owning and working a man in their power.  

Those penchants would not save them either, exactly.  

Our people, taken collectively, make up a paltry third of a percent now, don’t even comprise a solitary hundredth of those walking upon our ancestral lands, these dismal days. 

The French trappers asked our enemies what to call us by. They reported ‘Sioux’.

Meaning, the ‘Snake’. 

We are not snakes, but like anything with teeth will bite if forced to, are mistreated or threatened sufficiently. You can judge for yourself whether nippings delivered were vindicated, in the eyes of posterity. Things undeniably got heated, on that narrow stretch of uncultivable land we were herded onto. 

In due course, it would be remembered as a period of great political and social upheaval. At the time, we were truly only starving and betrayed.

We had been promised space enough. Farmable tracts. Territory which could sustain our mothers and daughters, our grandmothers would find comfort upon. They went first, in the famine to follow. 

The promised rations never arrived, war efforts quashing the confederate insurgency taking logical precedence in the eyes of officials managing associated municipal coffers, who controlled their divvying, made executive decisions regarding allocation of finite resource. Vows once coolly ratified and agreed upon with confidence, before our tribe’s relocation, were suddenly deemed impossible extravagances, nonessential or downright prodigal, in light of more pressing priorities remedy of the American empire’s fracture demanded.

So we waited, quite patiently I swear to you. We lost our elders first, then it came for our youngest. The babies bawled and withered, finally succumbing one after another as well.   

An official tabulation of colonizer slayings dispensed at our hands throughout the conflict was never compiled, conspicuously.  This only aggravated speculatory inflation and embellishment—amongst a population whose public lives principally gravitated between the telling of fish tales and campfire stories, whose main stocks and trades consisted principally of various brands of yarn and embellishment. 

Our crimes hence gravitated almost immediately into the realm of things virtually mythic. There are grains of truth in them, surely.  I will spare you the upset of recounting details overly harrowing.  When you hear described all manner of grandiose, unsubstantiated carnage, of fetuses cut from flailing wombs, children nailed to trees and fenceposts, have no doubt: what atrocities related are grounded in reality were patently inexcusable, uncontrovertibly. But let the fever and senselessness engendered by similarly shattering afflictions, which served to catalyze our despairing wrath, at minimum somewhat mitigate each retaliation, and explain from whence it originated—if not justly, at least explicably.

Realize before that, how long we continued trusting in the white man, and his silvertongued promises. Civilly we sought answers, explanations, to contrive some viable solution.

They only scoffed. 

I was in the peanut gallery myself, silent, that fateful day my people met with the government traders, when a base scoundrel speaking for their whole snickered at our plight, mocked our emaciated babes, our parents who had passed on so early, too soon before their designated times. He had the nerve to smirk, at me individually it almost seemed, and tell us we should not be starving, when there was so much grass for the eating. 

Forsooth, that became the final straw, for myself as much as the rest of them. 

In the moving pictures, projected upon those cinema screens we once rode on horseback across in droves—landscape which, even there, we have since disappeared from—they would describe it as a smash cut. I stood on the platform, a unique scaffold built for this singular occasion, unprecedented and handsome, erected between the prison and the river, which would become Mankato’s claim to fame in the annals of Western history. 

On either side of me, a succession of brothers in arms from my native tribe, amounting to thirty-eight of us altogether. 

The story goes, that Lincoln said, ‘You may hang one for each step leading up to this white house of mine built by slaves.’ And just before I fell, toward that dirt I so revere, an image passed through my mind, of that demon’s lifeless face, eyes bulged, mouth crammed full of all the grass we could fit in it—until it came spilling riotously out, onto the prairie’s hard, unforgiving ground. And just before I plunged, I softly smiled.

Only when we had all gone stiff and still, did those five thousand gathered there to watch get up the nerve to start their cheering. They cast all our carcasses into one large hole together by the river.  

Less dramatic, or perceivably worthy of monuments, was the contagion which swept immediately thereafter, claiming the lives of another three hundred interned aboriginals, incarcerated deplorably in their own filth at Pike Island…

Our bodies actually escaped that pit though, ultimately, I should mention. 

Feeling magnanimous with these remains, we were covertly gifted rather liberally to the Mayo Clinic, who were always sniffing about for stiffs in those days, it being something of a cadaver dry spell.  Good William Mayo dug me out of that trench himself then, if you can believe it, beneath a full moon’s glow, like an honest to god grave-robber! So that he might have the privilege of dissecting, before his august colleagues, such a strapping specimen of unruly brave.  He extracted my skeleton and kept it as souvenir and teaching aid, on prominent display in his clinic for over a century, until finally someone squawked loud enough that they passed a law forcing the bones’ sheepish return, allowing for a proper burial in the nineteen nineties.
***

Bio: Jerome Berglund is an author and fine artist who cowrote a television pilot which at a festival for them received numerous accolades including best in show. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California’s Cinema-Television Production program, with emphases in screenwriting and philosophy.  Berglund is author to the novel Havenauts and the story collection Dick Jokes.  His short fiction has been exhibited by the Watershed Review, Paragon Press, and the Stardust Review. His poetry appears in Abstract Magazine, Bangalore Review, Barstow & Grand, and most recently O:JA&L. A drama he penned was published in Iris Literary Journal.  Berglund is furthermore an established, award-winning fine art photographer, whose black and white pictures have been exhibited in galleries across New York, Minneapolis, and Santa Monica.  In another life he worked as a visual effects artist for Lucasfilm and Dreamworks, and assisted on set at Lifetime and Comedy Central.  He has the unique privilege of being able to say he was once Minnie Driver’s driver.  Berglund is a committed activist as well, and has been actively involved in the Occupy, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter movements, and supported grassroots efforts promoting the Green Party.

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