Imagine the unthinkable. Imagine that a world power far superior to the United States has suddenly invaded our shores. America is outclassed in weaponry and her people outnumbered fifty-to-one. And not only are these invaders driven by what they consider a God-given right to acquire our sovereign land and round us up indiscriminately like sheep, they also set loose a more ominous tool of warfare—bioengineered viruses, so virulent, that ninety percent of all living citizens of the United States are wiped out, their immune systems unable to cope. Whatever survivors are left have been transferred to small tracts of land unfit for supporting the barest essentials of human life, and so scores continue to die of malnourishment, disease and a simple loss of hope for a future. Your children, the ones who seemed to miraculously survive the horrors of invasion and placement into these concentration camps, are forcibly removed from your care, and trucked far distances to attend new state schools, institutions that transform them into docile subjects of the new order, under the premise that their education and their new language skills will enable them to assimilate into a system that has been force-fed.
Imagine too, as you walk to the camps set up for the conquered, that the invaders, who stand along the street, jeer at you. Your baby is ripped from your arms, and killed. Your daughter, your sister, your mother and your grandmother, are spit upon, and all because somebody wanted the land beneath your feet. And your son, your brother, your husband, your father, your grandfather—they’ve all been removed to prison, for being male, for trying to protect their people.
Sound impossible? In our modern society, the very concept of a world power steam-rolling the sovereignty of another first-world nation is far-fetched, an Orwellian vision that seems as distant as that high-school class where we were required to read “1984”.
But for the Native people of the Americas, all of the hypotheticals are a real part of history, and for many, a horror that still lives today.
In Indian Country, the campaign that started as Manifest Destiny*, a new age for white settlement in the United States, was appropriately seen by Native people as ethnic cleansing. Manifest Destiny was nothing more than a policy of government-sponsored genocide, and would have been decried in our modern times, as it was in Europe during World War II, and later, when the Srebrenica massacre took place.
Eurocentric greed saw the Americas as untried ground, despite being firmly settled by unique and complex cultures for millennia. The Natives, these non-Christian savages—who believed in a Creator—were doomed by the accepted ideal that they were unworthy of keeping the land they’d populated as recently as twelve thousand years ago.
This is why I wrote Death By Bitter Waters, to present a paradigm from the opposite side of American history. The first two paragraphs of this article seem mind-boggling, and yet, seven generations of Indigenous people in the Americas have been carrying this theme of cultural trauma, taught that they were bad, simply for being Indian.
Death By Bitter Waters details the elements of genocide and helplessness, now replaced by cultural empowerment, and community need. As the character Arlene Guerrero argues in Endings and Beginnings: Red Power is not a “motto of turbulence” but instead, “a symbol of positive change.”
In Smoke, Kate Sumner learns to live with the loss of a child, thirty years after her son was abducted by an ex-husband, and spirited off to Mexico, literally swallowed whole by the landscape. She carries the loss of her child, along with the loss of her culture, having been an abductee herself, removed as an infant by well-meaning whites from her Native American mother.
Winnowing describes the three Knight siblings as adults, and how culture and love transcend differences, whether in color or sexual preference. As Aspen Knight reflects, she and her brother, Buckeye and sister, Manzanita, share the quirk of stubbornness. The resistance to capitulation served them well in odd moments.
And in Second Chance Snake, Freddie Snake, having survived a life-changing gunshot wound while on duty as a Lassen County Sheriff’s deputy, nearly drowns what’s left of life in alcohol. It’s not the physical pain of the injury, but the denial of the cultural pain he remembers.
The title itself, Death By Bitter Waters is a misnomer, not tied to death, but to life beside a great body of water—in this case, Honey Lake—its content too alkali to drink. It’s similar to that line from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” In this fictional version of the Honey Lake Valley, the Washoe Indian people call the lake, deyuliyi, for certain death by drinking the bitter waters of Honey Lake.
Death By Bitter Waters celebrates life and culture, after enduring seven generations of genocide. As Kevin Gover, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said in a speech on September 8th, 2000:
“And so today I stand before you as the leader of an institution that in the past has committed acts so terrible that they infect, diminish, and destroy the lives of Indian people decades later, generations later. These things occurred despite the efforts of many good people with good hearts who sought to prevent them. These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin.
*Manifest Destiny: Coined by columnist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 to promote the annexation of Oregon Territory and Texas by the United States government, Manifest Destiny evolved in the 19th century into a vast collective doctrine or belief that the settlement and expansion of the United States was justified and inevitable. The term was used to further the concept of a God-given right assigned exclusively to white Christian males that knew how to better use the land, than did the aboriginal inhabitants, who were considered godless savages.
DEATH BY BITTER WATERS
Musa Publishing, June 22nd, 2012
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