Reading "I Am a Man" by Joe Starita: Reflections on Genocide

Nobuko Tsukui, a Japanese scholar of the literature of the atomic bombings, was the guest speaker at the Lincoln NFP Chapter’s annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki Lantern Float this past August.  During her visit in Nebraska, she was given a copy of Joe Starita’s new biography of Chief Standing Bear, I Am a Man.  Reading the book on her return to her home in Tokyo, she recorded her reflections on this momentous episode in Nebraska’s history and has graciously agreed to share them with us. 

With very little knowledge of the history of the Native Americans, I started to read this book, I Am a Man by Joe Starita, the subtitle of which is “Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” with a conscious intention of learning historical facts.  When I reached about a third of the book, I found myself crying as I kept reading and taking notes.  Something like this happened before, when I was reading some of the writings by the atomic bomb survivors.  Now that I finished reading this memorable book, I asked myself why I cried reading it and why I also cried reading some works of the atomic bomb literature.  What follows is my reflection – in an effort to find answers to my own question.

It’s true that I Am a Man deals with facts of nineteenth-century U.S. history, focusing on Chief Standing Bear and his “journey for justice.”  The book is a “compelling narrative of injustices finally righted,” a story of “the struggle of our nation’s first inhabitants to find justice in the land of their birth.”  (The quotes are from the excerpts under the heading, “Praise for I Am a Man” printed on pp. i – ii.)  The book gives detailed accounts of Standing Bear’s experience, his family’s experience, and his people’s – the Ponca’s – experience: the suffering, pain, agony, hardship, starvation, illness, death, arrest, imprisonment, and more.  Through all these ordeals, his “perseverance” sustained the Ponca Chief, and on May 12, 1879, Judge Dundy “had declared for the first time in the nation’s history that an Indian was a person within the meaning of U.S. law.” (p.157)  Hence the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews writes: Standing Bear’s ‘case’ “established legal personhood for American Indians.”  (p.i )  (Of course, May 1879 was not the end of his “struggle,” but only the beginning of the end, which came in 1890, when “Standing Bear received Allotment No. 146: a 297.8-acre parcel of rich, dark soil hugging a bend on the west bank of the Running Water.” (p. 233)  [The significance of this event for Standing Bear and his people is explained by Starita: “In short order, in going from a tribally owned reservation to individual allotments, the Northern Ponca has lost 70 percent of their original homeland.” (p. 233)] 

These are the facts that did occur actually in the nineteenth-century U.S.

However, I wish to emphasize that what Starita’s book tells its readers transcends national boundaries.   

What Standing Bear and his people experienced represents the worst kind of atrocities the human race is capable of inflicting on its own members.  Standing Bear and his people are individual human beings whose very ‘human-ness,’ whose humanity itself, is being denied by the acts of other human beings.  But Standing Bear was not defeated.  He preserved his human integrity.  He persevered.

That is how I understand and how I interpret the ultimate message of this book.  This awareness led me to look at again some works of what is called “the literature of atrocities,” including the Holocaust literature and the atomic bomb literature – two literatures dealing with historical incidents of the era of the Second World War, the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, both of which are among the most grievous atrocities the human race has experienced. 

But, before turning to these literatures, let me reflect on some questions that have come to my mind.  After Standing Bear finally was able to fulfill his son Bear Shield’s dying request – “I would like you to take my bones back and bury them where I was born” (pp. 116-117) – and “laid Bear Shield’s bones to rest, and said good-bye to his son,” (p. 176) and after Standing Bear himself died and was laid “to rest in a family plot with his wife and two grandsons,” (p. 236) can we say that ‘American Indians’ have since been accorded the truly equal human rights in their own country?

Find out, for example, how Los Alamos was chosen as the site for the highly secretive development of the atom bomb.  Or, find out the ethnological composition of the area where each nuclear power plant is located in the U.S.

When we consider the ethnic diversity of the United States, we should remind ourselves that the questions of ‘human rights’ and ‘civil rights’ are still far from being solved and concern all the ethnic ‘minorities’ living in the nation – not just ‘Native Americans.’  In the first half of the twentieth century, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were ‘interned’ by the U.S. Government.  In the twenty-first century, after 9/11, the Moslems living in the U.S. or travelling to and from the U.S. were the target of suspicion.  And since the old Colonial days even to this day, African Americans have had to endure grievous atrocities. 

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” oration.  The speech commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which King called “a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”  So, what was the reality of 1963?  “But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free,” King declared.  

Thirty years after King’s oration, in 1993, at the Inauguration of President Clinton, Maya Angelou recited her poem.  In it she refers to the atrocious experience of the Africans brought to the American shore by force:

    “You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
     Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
     Praying for a dream.”

The ‘slave trade’ involved the voyage from the West African coast to the American continent.  The trip “represented a true torture for the involuntary passengers.  They were closely packed in the hull to save space and often chained. . . Even by the standards of the time, food was inadequate, and water scarce.  There was no proper ventilation, nor were sanitary installations provided.  It has been calculated that at least 20 percent of all the blacks transported did not survive the voyage.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)  It is estimated that eighteen million of them apparently died on the slave ships.

Among the writers of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel (1928-   ) is one of the most powerful witnesses to the writer’s mission – for the need to write about the Holocaust.  Speaking of the difficulty, and even the impossibility, of writing about the Holocaust, Wiesel goes so far as to say, “One cannot write about the Holocaust.  Not if you are a writer.”  (*Note 1)  In his article, “Art and the Holocaust: Even Death Can Be Trivialized,” (in The New York Times, Sunday, June 11, 1989), he quotes the words of “A 19th-century Hasidic teacher”: “the cry unuttered is the loudest.”  He goes on to state:

“. . . The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes.  Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge.  Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so.”

However, he did not choose to remain silent as a writer.  His choice was to pass on to the generations to come his testimony as a witness.  Thus he observes:

“If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.  We have all been witnesses and we all feel we have to bear witness for the future.”  (*Note 2)    

He concludes his New York Times article with his answer to the question: “But then, . . . how do we transmit the message?”  

“. . . Today the question is not what to transmit, but how.  Study the texts – such as the diaries of Emanuel Ringelblum and Chaim Kaplan; . . . Watch the documentaries – such as Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog,’ Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’ . . . Listen to the survivors and respect their wounded sensibility.  Open yourselves to their scarred memory, and mingle your tears with theirs. 
   And stop insulting the dead.”    

“Study the texts” and “Listen to the survivors” are clearly Wiesel’s counsel.  And I believe that in writing his book, I Am a Man, Joe Starita did “Study the texts,” did “Listen to the survivors” (look at the extensive “Bibliography,” which includes “Ponca Interviews”)  and presented to the world “a compelling story that needed to be told, and one that all Americans should read.” (p. i )

In a lecture delivered at Northwestern University, entitled “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” (1977) Wiesel defines himself as “a Jew, a witness and a writer, and three are fused into one.” (*Note 3)  “Our tale,” he explains, “was not about Jews alone.  It was about what had been done to Jews by others.” (p.6)  “No one was spared, no one pitied.  All Jews were marked, singled out, doomed, massacred not for what they had done or acquired but simply for what they were, Jews.” (p. 6)  The statement quoted here could be applied to Standing Bear and his people – they were persecuted “not for what they had done or acquired but simply for what they were,” Native Americans.  And in his Oration of 1963, Dr. King addresses exactly to this issue:  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Further, just as the reviewer who writes that “all Americans should read” I Am a Man, Wiesel believes, “we all feel we have to bear testimony for the future,” (p. 9) and warns us:  “Anyone who does not actively, constantly engage in remembering and in making others remember is an accomplice of the enemy. ” (p. 16)

I wish to quote the sober reflection on the genocide – both the Jewish Holocaust and the nuclear holocaust – by Jonathan Schell:

“. . . In its nature, human extinction is and always will be without precedent, but the episodes of radical evil that the world has already witnessed are warnings to us that gigantic, insane crimes are not prevented from occurring merely because they are ‘unthinkable.’  On the contrary, they may be all the more likely to occur for that reason.  Heinrich Himmler, a leading figure in the carrying out of the destruction of the Jews, assured his subordinates from time to time that their efforts were especially noble because by assuming the painful burden of making Europe ‘Jew-free’ they were fighting ‘battles which future generations will not have to fight again.’  His remark applies equally well to a nuclear holocaust, which might render the earth ‘human-free.’  This is another ‘battle’ (and the word is as inappropriate for a nuclear holocaust as it was for the murder of millions of Jews) that ‘future generations will not have to fight again.’” (The Fate of the Earth, 1982,  pp. 146-147)

Speaking of the nuclear holocaust, or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, John Berger states:

“. . . The victims are chosen indiscriminately in the hope of producing a shock effect on political decision-making by their government.
    The two bombs dropped on Japan were terrorist actions.  The calculation was terrorist.  The indiscriminacy was terrorist. . . .
    To apply the epithet ‘terrorist’ to the acts of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki is logically justifiable, and I do so because it may help to re-insert that act into living consciousness today. . . . 
. . . The concept of evil implies a force or forces which have to be continually struggled against so that they do not triumph over life and destroy it. . . .
    Nobody can confront the reality of 6th August 1945 without being forced to acknowledge that what happened was evil.  It is not a question of opinion or interpretation, but of events. . . .
. . . We need to show their [atomic bomb victims’] drawings everywhere.  These terrible images can now release an energy for opposing evil and for the life-long struggle of that opposition.”   (John Berger, “Hiroshima.” 1981)

The drawings by the survivors of the atomic bombing, “hibakusha,” that John Berger refers to are, of course, a form of “testimony” that Wiesel emphasizes.   

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of human beings whose ‘human-ness’ or whose humanity itself is denied.        
After the triple disaster of March 11, 2011 in Japan, many surviving victims find themselves ‘uprooted’ against their will from their home town or village: many of them who had survived the severe earthquake lost everything by the horrendous tsunami.  Even now, almost six months after the disaster, some people still look for their family members, hoping against hope that their loved ones might be found.  They cannot bring themselves to accept their missing family members’ death.  The meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant caused by the earthquake and tsunami created additional ‘refugees’ forced to flee from their home town or village.  Now, some of these ‘refugees’ from the Fukushima meltdown have been told that they might not return to their home town to live for thirty years or longer.  We should also be alarmed by the fact that a large number of workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant have been exposed to high and dangerous levels of radiation.

In Hiroshima, perhaps the most famous ‘structure’ is what is called “the atom bomb dome.”  In the passage quoted here, Ms. Hayashi Kyoko, a Nagasaki hibakusha writer, describes the structure and suggests its symbolic significance. 

“The atom bomb dome is directly beneath the point of explosion . . . According to the intention of the weapon called the atom bomb, the building had shed dutifully everything that would obstruct the explosion.  The steel frames of the roof and the walls, the minimum requirements for the shape of a building, remained.  At that moment, inside the body of the hibakusha, only the heart that was essential for life palpitated.  For those who were burnt so badly that one couldn’t tell whether they were human or a lump of flesh, and for us who were exposed to enough radiation to destroy the functions of internal organs, the only proof that we were living human beings was the palpitation of the heart.  As long as the palpitation continued, people sought water and asked for medicine.  Many died, and we have survived.  The atom bomb dome represented the surviving hibakusha’s state of being “alive and well.”  (Hayashi Kyoko, “Buji.”  Translated by Nobuko Tsukui.)

The skeleton dome, stripped of everything except for the frames of the dome, that remained in the atomic wasteland symbolizes the skeleton-like people whose single proof of life was their heartbeat. 

Among the perished by the atomic blast were of course young children.  In Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, school children were gathered at school, when the bomb exploded.

“The big bones must be the teacher’s;
Nearby are gathered small skull bones.”    (Shoda Shinoe, Sange.) 

And when the gigantic tsunami came half an hour after the earthquake on March 11, 2011, at one school, the school children were gathered on the school ground, ready to march toward a safer location with their teachers.  After the tsunami subsided, about seventy percent of these children were missing.  Some of them have never been found since.

In the writings by the witnesses of atrocities, we find not an encapsulated, self-reflective misery but a grief and compassion that look outward, claiming kinship with all human misery, past and present.  I find in these works something that touches the human heart – the very essence of the power of literature that can transform hearts, minds, and purposes.

Joe Starita’s I Am a Man has that power.  It touches the human heart. 

(September 5, 2011)
Note 1.  Elie Wiesel, “The Holocaust As Literary Inspiration,” in Dimensions of the Holocaust:  Lectures at Northwenstern University.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1977, p. 9.
Note 2.  Wiesel, p. 9. 
Note 3.  Wiesel, p. 5.

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