Sunday, June 13, 2010

Symphony in the Flint Hills

From Afar

On the wagon...

On the wagon...


Two Cowgirls

The banners in the humidity and South wind

The music - all photos by Anda - except for the photo of Anda by Mom

Thanks to my daughter, I had the chance to attend "Symphony in the Flint Hills" last night. Our first time but the fifth year of the event. In a celebration of the most beautiful area of Kansas, a symphony orchestra sets up out on the prairie and several thousand people come to listen. It is quite an event, grows in fame each year, and tickets sell out immediately. I had never been able to get tickets.

People come to enjoy the tall grass prairie and the beauty of the hills beneath the infinite Kansas sky. They spend a most pleasant day with horses and cowboys and wagons about, and all is blessed with the ever-present Kansas wind. It is truly an original Kansas event.

Large white tents were placed atop a long ridge, and tall standards tethering long white flags were set all along the area. The tent tops reflected shimmering silver from a long distance. The graceful flags adorned the south wind. The site appeared almost as a mirage. At first glimpse, my daughter and I felt the same anticipation every human being has ever felt arriving at a special gathering in the wide open spaces of these prairies.

Gentle people attend. Beer and wine are sold, but no public drunkenness, no whooping Kansas red necks, no one spoiling for a fight, no race or socioeconomic clashes. The sun goes down behind the gently rolling western horizon and stars appear, or lightning and lightning bugs, or all three.

Well into the concert, about sixteen cowboys on genuine working cow ponies gathered a sizable herd of cattle and moved them in a long trail across the opposite hillside. The front of the herd wanted to bolt, but some cowboys ran their ponies ahead. Those horses turned to face the oncoming steers, matching them turn for turn, slowing the herd and making the cattle go in the direction the cowboys intended.

A cowboy on a red roan appaloosa pony simply could not resist a bit of showmanship, prancing and rearing his horse before the crowd. Most cowboys work cattle and do all their cowboying far out of the sight of any appreciative greenhorn eyes. They are quietly proud of their good, hardworking cow horses. A modest show of skill before an admiring crowd is understandable.

A few cowboys rode along the temporary fence surrounding the hillside where the crowd was seated. Children and people of all ages gravitated along the fence, petting the faces of the patient horses, taking pictures and talking to the cowboys. I saw one elderly man, his back painfully bent, make his slow way to the fence. I imagined he had been a young cowboy and wanted to feel the soft nose of a cow pony and hear the creak of damp leather again. (Of course that is pure imagination, but why else would an old, crippled man make his way down such a steep and rocky hillside?)

It was an entirely unexpected gift handed to my daughter when those tickets were placed in her hand yesterday. I was enjoying myself immensely. I anxiously searched out the field journals created specifically for the event because I definitely wanted to buy one. The journals were artistic and beautiful, and contained chapters on everything about the Flint Hills except for a single mention of the Indians, the people who were here first. I simply could not stop the feeling of outrage spreading from my belly. How can hundreds of decent human beings put on such a great party celebrating this beautiful, unique area but absolutely ignore the people from which this land was taken? I was greatly dismayed. The journal was celebrating the Flint Hills, the beauty, the ranch culture, the long colorful history of the area, but apparently history began a mere 150 years ago. Bison were included, but not Indians. It was as if cowboys had simply appeared by magic in this magnificent emerald land. I was almost sick to my stomach.

I felt bad for my daughter because she was having a great time until I began bitching and moaning over this tiny little oversight committed by all the white people in charge of Symphony in the Flint Hills. I tried hard to tone it down but I simply could not see the event in the same light as when we first arrived. When we set up our chairs on the hillside in anticipation of the music, I tried to let the green and graceful beauty of the place calm me, give me perspective.

Then, the governor of the great state of Kansas took the stage. He gave a rousing speech to kick off the evening's festivities. It was a speech all about cowboys, and Flint Hills, and every Kansas college and university except Haskell, the Indian university located in Lawrence, where Quantrill's Civil War raid left over 200 dead because Missouri wanted Kansas to be a slave state, which the Governor DID mention. It was a perfect politician's speech suited to the occasion, but once again, the history of the Flint Hills began 150 years ago, when apparently a Christian God dropped white people into an empty landscape.

I thought of my son, one quarter Potawatomi by the white man's blood quantum. Leonard McKinney once said to me, "Your son is op-toh-zi [half] but which half is Indin'?" I thought of my son's Potawatomi grandmother and his father, and aunts and uncles and cousins, and all the Potawatomi who were given this land by treaty after it was taken from the Kansa. The Kansa were herded like cattle on foot from their diminished reserve in Council Grove, south to Oklahoma. Their trail of tears quite likely passes not far from where the Governor was standing, rah-rahing for the white people on such a festive night.

I thought of Patti, and her sons, and all her relation. I thought of all the Indians I love, and it brought tears to my eyes. So, I put a pinch of tobacco on the earth and assured the spirits I still remembered them. I offered a prayer for all the Indians who are still alive and well right here in Kansas, including my son. (It is quite a shock for white people to discover a few Indians made it through the genocide.) And, I told myself, someone will eventually come along and rub out the white people, too. That made me feel much better and I was able to shake off the anger and sense of outrage. I was able to enjoy myself and be good company for my daughter the rest of the night.

After the concert, which was wonderful, my daughter and I chose to walk all the way back to the parking lot instead of standing in line for an hour or two for the shuttle. I was huffing and puffing and sweating in the 90% humidity and well, maybe I was complaining about the long walk. I said we had to just keep slogging through and we would make it, and my daughter said, "Just like the Indians."


Dave said...

Hi Jackie ... glad you were able to make it to SFH. If you had come last year, you would have seen a very striking tribute to the indigenous peoples, heard a narrative about the Kanza people & their displacement from the land ... and also read about it in the field journal ... and ended the evening with music performed by a Cherokee flute player, who also gave presentations in the education tents. This year, the main focus was placed on the ranching heritage of the hills, so it had a different flavor. Not making excuses, just letting you know. be seeing you ... Dave Kendall

Jackie said...

Hello, Dave Kendall! I thought I recognized your voice last night as the MC and sure enough, when we looked, your name was there.

I do need to eat a big helping of crow. After I found the link to the SITFH, I saw that indeed Native Americans had been included in the past. It would not have been the first time people simply forgot Native Americans and it always just breaks my heart, so I ask forgiveness for my rush to judgement. So, to you and the other organizers, I make my sincere apologies. In all other ways, it was a spectacular evening. Both Anda and I were happy to have been luckily enough to have been there. It was something!

Dave said...

No need to eat any crow as far as I'm concerned, Jackie. I'm actually not involved in organizing much other than my own comments. I DO share your concerns about the importance of remembering all who've been here before us ... and who share the land with us still.

Jackie said...

I do owe an apology. Focusing on the ranching aspect of the Hills is valid, especially in light of the fact that the Indians have been included and invited in years past. I feel 100% better, thanks to your post. So thank you, Dave.

My son was a little boy when we heard a pharmacy radio advertisement with the Lone Ranger and Tonto characters in Topeka. Tonto was so stupid he bit a bullet. The punchline was the bullet exploded in Tonto's mouth. That was the first time the reality of marginalization, dismissal, ignorance and outright prejudice against Indians hit me with clarity. Who was so ignorant to use Tonto to advertise in the listening area of three reservations and a high population of urban Indians?!

My son volunteered to create a tic tac toh board with famous Indians as the answers. His elementary teacher asked me if there would be enough Indians to fill the board!!!! Not enough doctors, scholars, world class ballerinas, athletes, authors, artists, attorneys, actors, politicians etc etc - past and present?!

The basketball coach at my son's high school called my son Captain Tonto! The list could go on, as you can imagine.

Leonard McKinney tried his best to warn me how to handle the prejudice, set an example for my son, and save myself the wear and tear. He told me Indians do not consider the racism against them as their problem. It can consume a person to no good end, and make a person racist in return. I was holding all the white people associated with the SFH for failing to recognize the Indians - making wrong assumptions and seeing exclusion where it did not exist.