The other day I visited Fort Sheridan Cemetery, a local veterans memorial and gravesite in Lake Forest, Illinois. Normally I park there because it is at the trailhead of a local forest preserve, but this time the trails were closed. Strolling instead through the rows of uniform headstones, I came across one particular soldier that stood out above the rest.
Michael Keegan, private in Company L, 7th US Cavalry, Indian Wars. This guy, whose name is way too similar to Michael Keeton, was one of the soldiers who burned the villages and laid waste to the west. That was my visceral reaction in any case. This man was an enemy. I was fascinated and whipped out my phone (2nd brain) to find out more about his service, especially because the 7th cavalry sounded way too familiar. Where had I heard of that unit before?
It was not an exhaustive search. This man was one of the survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was one of the very few to tell the tale of Custer's Last Stand. It was fascinating to be confronted with one of the most dramatic episodes of Indigenous American history so near my own back yard.
It got me thinking about my own family. My Indigenous ancestors came out North Carolina and into Tennessee and Illinois. Still publicly known as a mixed race person of Indian extraction in the mid 1800s, John Bass signed up in the Army to fight against Ma-Ka-Ta-Me-She-Kia-Kiak (Black Hawk) who had dared to set up a settlement of his people on land already "lawfully" stolen land in Northern Illinois. Not far from my house, John Bass crossed the Des Plaines River with the army and helped the United States defeat Black Hawk. Though Bass's individual actions aren't known through the records, the army he served perpetrated one of the worst massacres in the history of Indigenous-Anglo warfare when the Sac and Fox people were cornered against the Mississippi. Google it. It is heartbreaking.
Another of my ancestors, from my non-indigenous lines, was Colonel William Crawford.He was a personal friend of George Washington and a veteran Indian fighter. He actually came out of retirement during the Revolution in order to campaign against the Wyandots and other Nations in the Ohio Valley, but suffered a spectacular defeat, himself being captured and slowly tortured to death, as depicted in this historic painting. I supposed, as I thought about this, that I would be a hypocrite to shun this man while honoring my own ancestors
I identify as an indigenous person. But does that mean I am to ignore those relatives of mine that stood against indigenous people? I think not. Every one of my ancestors came together to make me who I am, and every one deserved to be honored. That said, I am quite sure if you put all my American ancestors in a room together it would have been a bloody brawl.
Coming back to Michael Keegan, the soldier of 7th Cavalry, he, in all likelihood, has his own descendants who honor his memory, as they well should. We all come from somewhere, and here we all are now together. The past is full of wrongdoing, and reading indigenous history in America requires a strong stomach. Colonialism has done its full measure to separate, categorize, patronize, and antagonize indigenous people. And now, while we see a lot of cooperation among American First Nations, such as at Standing Rock, we do not see this cooperation across the board. Whether in North Carolina or in reservations out west, there is often as much political infighting as we see in Congress.
We all know that things have happened, both historically and in recent memory, to cause such rifts in the fabric of Indian Country. But to give in to the desire to hold a grudge, to refuse to cooperate with sister nations, is to give in to Colonialism. It means they have won in further dividing us. No more. But I am encouraged! Because more and more I am seeing the young generations rise up together. Whether on the rez or in the rural communities of North Carolina, a generation is rising that, I believe, will make new beginnings in Indian Country!
In the coming weeks and months, I will be posting on a variety of topics. From history and culture of North Carolina indigenous communities, to issues of identity and colonialism, I hope to be a benefit to the indigenous people of the Roanoke-Chowan region, as well as to our many relatives living across the nation. Your comments are my fuel both to improve and to come up with new topic ideas, so do not hesitate to comment below or leave me messages, I will reply to all.
Kenah maka anah! (Thank you and farewell!)
Lars Adams is a North Carolina Native American descendant, researcher, and author. He is winner of the Smithwick Magazine and Newspaper Article Award, founder of the Chowanoke Descendants Community, and author of Breaking the House of Pamunkey: The Last Powhatan War and the Fall of an American Indian Empire, as well as many other journal and book contributions.