Sunday, February 27, 2011

Maya Culture

        Who would have thought that someone would have been skilled enough to translate the writings of an extinct culture? As a result of new artifacts being discovered and break through in translating their hieroglyphs archeologists are rewriting the books about the Maya Culture of Middle America. An exciting exhibition of this work has been gathered from eight countries and five Mexican Museums and is drawing large crowds to the St. Louis Art Museum and will be there until May 11, 2011. The crowds are large so visitors must buy a ticket to see the exhibit at a certain time.
        The Maya culture covered what is now the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and part of El Salvador. It was a complex culture with writing, a calendar, math and astronomical systems. The culture really came together around 2000 BC with bustling cities, massive pyramids, temples and palaces. For unexplained reasons the culture fell apart a thousand years ago. At the entrance to the exhibit we were greeted by an imposing 10 foot high fa├žade of a temple in Belize with three masks depicting Water Lily Serpent.
        The culture was very water orientated and saw the surrounding water on three sides of culture as alive and filled with sacred objects like turtles and alligators. The objects on display are covered with fish, frogs, birds and legendary beasts. An island, Jaina, off shore to the west was where the sun went down and into the underground from which it reappeared in rebirth from the east every morning. The title of the exhibit the “Fiery Pool” refers to the how the sun looks as it rises out of the sea.
        We were equipped with iPods for an audio tour and in our case had to have the lesson in how to work them twice. Experts, with background sounds for atmosphere, than gave us detailed explanations of 25 of the exhibits the other 65 exhibits were plainly labeled to give a good introduction to the culture that produced them.
        Only one display used a modern digital device. A large round table with a viewing screen on which objects could be moved around. Among the animals on display were waterbirds, conchs, and sting rays. Each was surrounded by icons that when touched gave an explanation of what it meant, what the Maya word for it was, what the implications were, what its icon in their language looked like etc.

A Maya incense burner

        Some of the items on display were quite large, like the incense burner that when let made the deity appear as if it were peering out from the smoke. Some of the objects were a bit weird. A number of them were bowls with covers that an animal with its mouth open and deity heads coming out of them. One image had a man smoking a cigar. There was a chocolate container designed for drinking at the same time your nose would be dipping into the foam. There was a carved Taino Vomit spoon used in purification rites. Several hammered sheets of gold, from Chechen Itza, that were almost impossible for me to make out but that they had a clear drawing of so you see how complicated and sophisticated their art could be.

The ten pound piece of jade that appears on Belize’s one dollar pieces

         One amazing piece was a ten pound piece of jade that had been carved into a deity’s head that appears on all one dollar pieces in Belize. It was an agricultural based society so theme of water keep showing up and frogs were important icons because of their connection with water and rain.
          The turtle was considered the base of the universe and several items used that as their theme, especially bowls. Fiery pool was what the sun rose out of each morning from the Caribbean Sea. Sea and water imparted all life. Water was animate and intelligent. Chahk God of Rain and showers. Canoes were important.
          The show was arranged by Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. If you are interested about the complex cultures that existed in the America before the Europeans came Fiery Pool is the show to see.

A bowl cover with a deity emerging from an animal’s mouth

Pictures are from Peabody Essex Museum press release

Friday, February 18, 2011



        On our recent trip down the center of Texas we did not find the story of the Comanche, the most powerful tribe at one time in Texas, in any one place. Instead we found pieces of their story in three major museums, The Texas Rangers Museum and Hall of Fame, The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, and The Institute of Texan Cultures with some additional information from our guide at the State Capital in Austin.
        As we visited these museums it became clear that the Comanche played a major role in how the state was settled and its later independence. In the tradition of unexpected consequences having a marked influence many years later it may have been the Comanche getting horses from the Spanish around 1680 that led not only to the independence of Texas from Mexico, but our taking the southwestern part of the US from them.
        Getting the horse turned the Comanche from being hunter-gatherers to warriors who were mainly reliant on hunting buffalo for practically everything they needed. They became excellent horsemen and used their weapons so effectively that the Spanish and later the Mexicans could not cope with them. With the horse Comanche had become major players in the story of the 19th Century Texas. They had separated from the Shoshone in the southern Rockies and become the premier warriors of the plains.
        We were first introduced to their influence in history at the Texas Ranger Museum and Hall of Fame in Waco.
        They fought with other tribes and new Mexican settlers who were taking over their territory. The Mexicans had major problems coping with these warriors and invited American settlers into the part of the country that is now Texas to serve as a buffer between them and the Comanche. Mexico sought help from Americans because they were more effective against the Comanche.

A Texas Ranger, Surveyor stands in the Texas Ranger Museum

        Stephen Austin who had come to Mexico in 1821 to colonize northern Mexico originally organized the Texas Rangers to do two main jobs, one was to protect the frontier from Indian raids, and the other was to survey the land. The Comanche didn’t understand the concept of a private individual claiming to own a particular piece of land, but they did understand that these men with the strange equipment intended to take this land away from them. Therefore the surveyors had to also be armed and ready to defend themselves.
        These surveyors were sometimes not paid in money, but in land for doing the surveying so being a Ranger became a good way to get some of the best land to settle on. The Rangers became a standing army in 1836 working for independence from Mexico and from 1845 to 1860 went back to defending the frontiers, mostly against the Comanche.
        Initially the Comanche had an edge in battle, given their expertise on horse back and the fact that they could shoot six arrows in the time it took a Ranger to load a rifle once. The breakthrough came when Samuel Cole developed the five shot revolver called the Patterson after the city where it was manufactured. In 1842 these handguns became the main weapon of the Texas Rangers giving them fire power against the Comanche that turned the tide of battles. The Texas Ranger Museum highlights the guns importance in the Battle of Bandera Pass. Samuel Walker of the Rangers became a major proponent of the Colt Revolvers and pushed for an improved model that was named after him, the Walker Colt.
        The Comanche called the Texas Rangers “Los Diablo’s Tejanes,” the devil Texans.” In 1861 to 1865 the Rangers served in the Civil War by continuing to protect boarders, but some groups were formed to fight the Union who were called the Texas Rangers because the reputation had an impact. From 1870 to 1874 the Rangers were frontier forces, but with the calming of the Indians they got into Special Forces again criminals.
        The Texans were not sympathetic to Indians owning land in Texas and either killed them or drove them into Oklahoma and New Mexico. The last battle the Rangers had on Texas soil was not with Comanche, but with Mescalero Apaches who were pursued by the Rangers after they raided a stagecoach. The rangers killed eight and sent the rest running.
        At the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum the story of Texans relationship with Native Americans goes back further than the Comanche. The story starts with the Spanish and their problems with dealing with the Indians who recognized that the Spanish were bringing in diseases that were killing them off. The Indians in the area got short shift from the settlers who were brought into the area from the U.S. by the Mexicans to form a barrier against the Indians. Most of the tribes who disappeared had names I didn’t even recognize. In a section given over to the Indians in Texas a TV set up in a Tipi on which the story of the settlement of the area is given from the Comanche’s point of view as to how their way of life was destroyed.
        At the capital we learned that it had been placed so far into what was then wilderness because of the Comanche problem. The capital was to form an outer protective border for the civilized part of the state. This did result in some problems with legislators traveling such long distances to get to the capital so sessions were two months long because some of the representatives took almost two months to make it to the session on horseback and two months to get home.

An exhibit on Comanche life style at the Institute of Texan Cultures

        Our last contact with Comanche history came as a surprise to me and was unexpectedly impressive. The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio is run in association with the Smithsonian and like so much in Texas was in a modern large building with lots of space for it exhibits that had been carefully selected. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The goal is to show the variety of people who contributed to the development of Texas and share their stories and some of the objects they brought to enrich Texas culture. Great sized wall painting introduces us the Native Americans who were here over time starting with the Clovis people. Again the tribes I had not previously heard of are covered.
        The Battle of Adobe Walls in June of 1874 was the last major military campaign against Indians. A Kiowa and Comanche war party led by Quanah Parker had attacked buffalo hunters who were camped in the abandoned trading post. At the end of the battle three hunters were dead and thirteen Indians. This encounter provoked the military action of 1875 that forced the last Indians living east of the Pecos River into Oklahoma territory.

Comanche (right) trying to lance Osage warrior. Painting by George Catlin 1834.

For more information go to

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cherokee Strip Land Rush of 1893


        One of the great moments in American History was the opening of the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma Territory, which had been purchased from the Cherokees’ in Indian Territory. The strip was 226 miles east to west and 58 miles north to south. Parts of the strip were opened for settlers at different times and the biggest event was the race for land in 1893 where the contestants for the were allowed to claim a quarter section (160 acres).
        On the day of the run there were 100,000 people in Arkansas City the main starting point; three days later only 5,000 were still there. A hundred and fifteen thousand individuals registered for the run, but friends and relatives came along so as many as 150,000 made the run racing for the 42,000 claims. The land parcels were handled like homesteads and the winner had to be a citizen to get a patent for the land. Since Native Americans were not citizens they were not allowed in the race.
        The name Sooners for Oklahomans comes from people who found ways to get claims before the official race began. Many cities and towns grew out of this the largest competitive event in history.
         Our first stop in exploring the Cherokee Strip was Arkansas City, Kansas where the Cherokee Strip Run began for most people, others started at smaller starting gates including one in Perry, Oklahoma that also has a museum. The museum in Arkansas City is small, and the building it is in was originally a bowling alley. It is obvious they need money and are working to make improvements in their displays. The staff has hopes of making the museum a major tourist stop and they are running various programs to raise the necessary money.
        At the time of the land rush the United States was in an economic depression with 18 percent unemployment. Pressure was on the government to do something to provide opportunities for those who were unemployed. The open land was seen as a chance for many people to start over and for others to get rich.
        Contestants set off to claim land on horse back, in buggies, in covered wagons, on bicycles and some even on foot. Many were not well prepared and water and food was often in short supply. At the museum in Perry the story is told of Truman Daily of the Otoe-Missouria tribe who provided water and food for the rushers who seemingly had not taken into account their need for either in their haste to claim the land.

Preparation for the starting gun

        People died in the rush, no numbers are given, but the indications are that some killed others in arguments over who had the right to the land.
        Equipment on display in Arkansas City from the run includes buggies, wagons and various kinds of farm equipment.
        Besides covering the Cherokee Strip Run the museum has material on the history of Arkansas City, a stage and dressing rooms for plays, and on the outside of the building a one room school, a small rough looking jail and a Cherokee fort. The fort is made of large branches and the house made of straw. It looked like it would be dangerous if you tried to make a fire in it. Close by was an Indian Industrial School of 8,640 acres that was intended to civilize Indians by training them in white mans’ ways. While at the school Native Americans were not allowed to speak their own language, had to wear white man’s clothes and learn to make a living doing white man’s jobs. Runaways were frequent. On the other hand it did give students some skills for living in the new world that replaced the one they had lost.

A Cherokee straw house at the Arkansas City Cherokee Strip Museum

        Oklahoma’s Cherokee Strip Museum in Perry is a small building constructed from local stone and looks like it was intended to be a museum. Much of its charm of its exhibits is based on the use of old pictures coupled with personal reminiscences. The first panel is mammoth bones and flint points of the early Indians in the area. Then we learn about the Cherokees who always seem to get taken advantage of by the whites. They’re given land; they follow the rules, turn into Americans and then lose their land. We also learned about the Osage and a group I didn’t know about previously the Otoe-Missouria who came from Michigan. A set of their relics, beads and clothes are on display.
        Next we were shown how cattle men used the Cherokee Strip to fatten their cattle before moving them up to the railroads in Kansas. There is a display of tools of the period. This museum does a lot with little by making good choices and presenting background to let the visitor know what was happening.
        In the run of 93 there were Sooners who managed to get on the land early and claim choice spots. Towns grew up overnight because besides claiming homesteads people could claim plots in the future towns.

In the Cherokee Strip Museum in Perry Oklahoma forth grade students
experience a day of 1905 school.

        Rooms of the period have been created and furnished. A back porch, dental office, living room with musical instruments, general store, dress shop, doctor’s office, kitchen, sheriff’s weapons, and in the reception room various samples of furniture—desks, book cases of the period.
        The big treat of the day for us was the fourth grade children who were bused in. They came wearing clothes like those in 1910, and carrying old fashion lunch pails with simple foods of the time. Their teachers were also dressed in period clothes. Next to the museum is a one room school house that regularly brings fourth graders in to experience a day in a one room school as it was run in 1910. The teacher had the discipline of the period down to its fine points. The boys and girls stood in separate lines, and marched into the room in order. They stowed their food and coats in the anti room, carefully seated two to a desk, given instructions on their behavior: including how to get permission to use the outdoor toilet.
        We watched their penmanship class that included instructions on to use the inkwell, the old fashioned pen. Many were having trouble managing it. Later they were to get instruction from the McDuffie Reader and have a spelling bee. We were told by the docent that the children really like this experience.
        We also stopped in Guthrie to visit their history museum that has many original objects, lots of personal accounts of life in the pioneer days and many items from the actual land rush. The museum also spends time on the five different occasions when land was made available. On the second floor is an account of more recent history especially the story of how the capital was stolen from Guthrie, the original capital and taken to Oklahoma City. Despite the professional layout and presentations we found the displays difficult to read and see because they kept everything so dark.

At the Perry Museum old farming equipment of the period is on display.