A Legal Victory For Native Americans

Supreme CourtOn July 9th the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling affecting Native American tribal rights. The question before the court in “McGirt vs Oklahoma” was whether Congress eliminated the Muscogee (Creek) Indian reservation when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. In a 5-4 ruling that addressed federal criminal law inside the reservation, the court held that… Because Congress has not stated otherwise, we hold the government to its word. Land promised is still Indian land.

Since the publication of my novel on westward expansion, Palo DuroI have frequently written posts commenting on the long history of mistreatment and broken promises towards Native Americans:

What the majority [of Indians] didn’t comprehend and couldn’t understand was that as the U.S. expansion continued westward, it meant the circumstances as well as any promises made today would change tomorrow. It mattered not that these promises were in writing. A different day, a different administration, a different treaty; each time the new document diminishing or totally negating any assurances previously given. (Standing Rock – “Water Is Life,” Mar 1, 2017)

Many of those promises were never fulfilled resulting in the Indian Wars which did not end until 1891, and the modern American Indian Movement which, since its inception in the 1960’s, has sought to focus attention on the history of broken promises made by the U.S. government to Native Americans. (Broken Promises, Nov 1, 2017)

Throughout American history Native Americans have struggled to protect their people, land, and way of life against the advancement of civilization. (Sacred Land, Dec 6, 2017)

What remains uncertain is whether the United States government will honor long standing treaty rights. (Broken Treaties, Sep 5, 2019)

For the moment, that question has been answered. Much remains to be negotiated between Muscogee leaders and federal law enforcement, but the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision is that federal officers, not state authorities, will have the power to prosecute major crimes committed in the defined area (three million acres in eastern Oklahoma which includes the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second biggest city.)

The majority opinion, as expressed by Justice Neil Gorsuch, also asserts that only Congress, not the courts, has the authority to modify treaty agreements. Since no such action was ever initiated by Congress when Oklahoma achieved statehood, the ruling could also affect over two million Indians (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) whose forced relocation to eastern Oklahoma occurred during this same historical period.

Each treaty will probably have to be adjudicated separately, however the legal precedent has now been established for the protection of tribal rights and holding the U.S. government accountable.

 

 

Big Wonderful Thing – A History of Texas: My Review

Many of you will be familiar with author John Steinbeck’s statement, Texas is a state of mind, something felt rather than articulated, which certainly applies to my feelings about the place I’ve called home for fifty-four years… 1966-2020. Moreover, should you count my years as an adolescent living in San Antonio from 1952-1960 (I was three when my Dad got assigned to Headquarters, 4th U.S. Army, and I attended school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas from kindergarten through the fifth grade) it adds up to sixty-two years that I’ve claimed the Lone Star State as my own.

Big Woderful Thing Book CoverBecause of my inability to adequately explain what it is about Texas that I love, I find myself periodically reading books by authors far more gifted than I at expressing their observations and thoughts on the mystique that separates Texas from all other states. For example, it was almost on this exact same date two years ago that I wrote a review of the book God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright (see my previous blog post dated Jul 5, 2018) which was actually being researched and written at the same time that Stephen Harrigan was compiling his history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing. The two men happen to be friends and visited some of the same historical sites together.

However, Harrigan’s book is encyclopedic compared to Wright’s; at 925 pages (829 if you exclude the Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography, and Index) it is massive in scope, yet surprisingly readable. History is often nothing more than dates, historical figures and events; dry and boring. Harrigan blends these same elements of history with great storytelling, so the only real issue I had with the book was the difficulty I had holding it up to read!

Meticulously researched, Big Wonderful Thing is informative, educational, and entertaining. It spans the years 1528 to the present, but rather than a strict chronological record it uses anecdotal information and individual stories of people and events – not just those that are well known, but obscure men and women and their involvement in moments that shaped the progression and evolution of Texas.

The portrayal goes well beyond the myths about Texas that as a child I learned in school. The reality is far more complex, and Harrigan deftly blends factual material with his abilities as a novelist to engage readers in the small details and stories that give context to the larger picture. Some author bias is inevitable in the telling of these stories, but on the whole it is a notable literary achievement.

The title of the book comes from a quote by the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe: I couldn’t believe Texas was real… the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are. 

Certainly Texas, with all of its faults, complexities, and contradictions has achieved singular elevated status (for better or worse) among the fifty states that comprise our Union, and Stephen Harrigan has given us a worthy rendering of its history that compares favorably and even exceeds that previously attempted by other historians and authors. It is the type of history book that you can literally open to any chapter and find enjoyment in learning something new about Texas or adding to the knowledge that you already had.

I highly recommend Big Wonderful Thing.

 

The Cemetery of Lost Books

Book SalesI recently came across an obituary notice for the world renown Spanish novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I was saddened by his passing but reminded that in one of his greatest works, Shadow of the Wind, he wrote about a library of obscure book titles and the importance of each. To paraphrase his comments on writing and reading, he stated that every book, every volume in that library had a soul. “The soul of the person who wrote it and those that read it and lived and dreamed with it.”

Today, it is estimated that over one million books get published annually. Few become an overnight success. Less than 2% of those sell more than a few copies. Readers are drawn to new releases by well known authors, with many of their works becoming best sellers even before their release to the general public. So, while self-publishing has made it easier to become a writer, it has become harder than ever to be noticed. This is one of the reasons I try to promote books by new or local authors and occasionally use this platform to reach out and elicit comments or conversation related to my own works.

Bookstore closures are the norm during these difficult times. Independent bookstores that showcase new or local talent are largely shuttered or only offer curbside service, and in-store events with authors are either cancelled or postponed indefinitely, as are book fairs, literary festivals, and trade shows.

Online availability helps, but the reality of the marketplace is that books do not reach readers for free. Discovery comes at a price. Major online retailers rely on advertising money which may be beyond the means of authors who do not have the financial backing of mainstay publishing houses.

As with any endeavor, writing and success as an author demands persistence as well as talent, and part of that persistence is reaching out to readers requesting their assistance with spreading the word about a book they’ve read. I’ve commented previously about the importance of getting written reviews or comments, but equally important is word of mouth. Vocal support not only spreads the word about a story you’ve enjoyed, found compelling or informative, but also helps to expand awareness about an author who might otherwise be unknown or yet to be discovered. Author recognition is just as important as remembering the title of a book. In fact it is essential in this oversaturated market.

Be sure to explore works by new and local authors. For information about myself or to familiarize yourself with any of the books that I’ve written go to Amazon or Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, June 14th

In the midst of our national anguish over systemic racism, the coronavirus, and record unemployment our focus has justifiably been on police accountability and reform, the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, and finding a balance between reopening the economy and the need for social distancing. The Black Lives Matter protests, the pandemic, and financial hardship not seen since the Great Depression are our daily reality, all extensively covered by the media, the subject of conversations between family members  and friends, as well as factors in our decision making and activities.

We are certainly witnessing a historical confluence of events in this country and throughout the world, yet it is also important for Americans to acknowledge Flag Day and the Army’s 245th birthday. Both occurred yesterday (Sunday, June 14th) yet largely went by without notice or observance.

It was on this day in 1775 that the First Continental Congress authorized enlistment of soldiers to fight the British in what became known as the Continental Army (before the United States was even established as a country.) After the Revolutionary War and our independence, it would be re-designated as the U.S. Army on June 3, 1784.

Also on this day in 1777 the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our National flag. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson would recognize the date as Flag Day, but it wouldn’t be until August 3, 1949 that President Harry S. Truman officially established June 14th as a day to pay tribute to this symbol of national unity.

Though this nation is far from united, and we have yet to achieve equal justice under the law for all our citizens regardless of race, I proudly fly the American flag 365 days a year. For me it is a symbol of hope, of what we aspire to be as a nation. It still stands for freedom and embodies the words penned by Thomas Jefferson and contained in our Declaration of Independence… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I also take great pride in the United States Army as an institution that protects those freedoms. In the oath of enlistment and oath for commissioned officers are the words “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” It is an oath not taken lightly. Among its many provisions, the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to vote, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. I took and upheld this oath during the twenty-four years that I wore the uniform as did the enlisted and officers with whom I had the privilege to serve. I hold them in the highest regard as I do the men and women of today’s Army.

Though Flag Day and the Army’s birthday have passed, Americans are encouraged to fly the flag all this week and it is always appropriate to express appreciation to our veterans and the men and women currently serving in the Armed Forces. Even amidst the uncertainty and turmoil of today some observances are worth our effort.

Finally I pray that in 2020 we also finally acknowledge systemic racism and institute meaningful and long overdue change, that we successfully develop a vaccine to fight and defeat this infectious disease, and that we return to economic prosperity not for just for the few, but for everyone.

Why Do We Read Books?

The answer to that question is as varied as individual preferences and literary genres. As a young boy, my tastes tended towards adventure stories. I saw myself as a Knight of the Round Table, a buccaneer or pirate roaming the high seas, an explorer in deepest darkest Africa, a defender at the Alamo. The descriptions of far away places, heroic deeds, and narratives about mythical kingdoms and creatures fueled my imagination.

As I grew older, the power of the written word translated into thoughts and emotions about the human condition. I learned details about history and insights into other people’s lives that caused me to view things from different perspectives, and my awareness of the world past and present built a sense of community and empathy with different cultures, languages, religions, social situations and mores. It opened me up to the connection that we have with one another in spite of our differences and the shared manner in which we handle life’s challenges. The expression of this commonality can be found in flowery language or gritty realism, beautiful and captivating imagery, deeply personal pain and suffering, the triumph over adversity, or in the extraordinary nature of commonplace things.

My love of literature led me to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas A&M University, and more recently to write books of my own. My first book Silver Taps looks at death, suffering and growth, the importance of family in healing, past regrets, faith… a very personal reaction to my father’s passing. If you’ve suffered loss because of the ongoing COVID-19 virus, I cannot claim to know what you’re going through, but my thoughts and emotions might mirror your own or perhaps help you out of such an emotionally significant event. My second book Palo Duro hearkens back to my love of westerns. It looks at westward expansion and the Southern Plains Indian Wars. It is an ode to a genre that is fading from public consciousness, and a tribute to the the individual ruggedness that forged this nation. My latest book Tarnished Brass is based on my experiences in El Salvador during its ten-year civil war. It looks at America’s involvement in that war and how our immigration and border issues and the rise of the brutal street gang MS-13 evolved from this conflict.

Books can be the pathway that lessens our isolation from one another and in these uncertain times that bond is essential. Obviously, I’d love to have you as one of my readers, and should you choose to do so, I’d very much appreciate your feedback by providing comments on this website or by writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Most importantly, I encourage you to read! Today many of our libraries and book stores are closed to the public but are finding ways to offer curbside service or availability of books online. Virtual book club meetings and readings are ongoing. Podcasts allow authors to discuss their books, and social media platforms offer blog tours of the latest releases. Support them all if you can. You’re sure to find something to your liking that will ease your social isolation and lift your spirits.

The Law West of the Pecos

One of the most colorful characters to come out of the Old West was Judge Roy Bean, the self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos.” As Justice of the Peace, Bean had a reputation as a tough hanging judge. However, while he was known to occasionally stage hangings to scare away criminals, he never actually hung anyone.

Bean settled in Vinegaroon, Texas in 1881 at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers where he set up a tent saloon to sell liquor at exorbitant  prices to railroad workers (mostly Chinese laborers.) Two years later with the construction of the Pecos High Bridge the rail lines shifted away from Vinegaroon and Bean relocated to the town of Langtry where he built the Jersey Lily Saloon and Judge Roy Bean’s courtroom on the railroad right of way.

Western legend holds that the town was named after the British stage actress, Lillie Langtry. Bean is said to have fallen in love with a portrait of the lady though he never actually made her acquaintance. Nonetheless, he followed her career, wrote her letters inviting her to visit the West Texas town, and even constructed an Opera House adjacent to his saloon in the hope that she would one day perform there.

As Justice of the Peace, Judge Roy Bean’s methods and rulings were often questionable, mainly carried out to line his own pockets. One of the more humorous judgments handed down was fining a dead man $40, the exact amount found in the deceased’s pockets! Judge Roy Bean died in 1903 after a particularly heavy drinking spree.

Lillie Langtry did visit the town six months after Bean’s death during a brief stop of the Sunset Limited on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Among the gifts presented to the actress by the townspeople was Judge Roy Bean’s six-shooter. The Jersey Lily Saloon and the Opera House were sold to a wealthy Texas cattleman and later donated to the state of Texas.

Judge Roy Bean’s story has often been portrayed on the silver screen, most notably in William Wyler’s 1940 movie, “The Westerner” (Walter Brennan won an Academy Award for his portrayal) and in John Huston’s 1972 film, “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” starring Paul Newman.

 

Losing Ground

I would normally be publishing a literary related post today (look for a Lone Star Book Blog Tour post 3/7/20), but I’ve just returned from a trip to  Muskegon, Michigan and thought to comment on the erosion along the banks of the lake that I observed while there.

Climate change is triggering record high water levels on the Great Lakes impacting not only the coastline, but inland communities as well. Heavy winter and spring precipitation is to blame and lake levels are expected to remain high. Normal evaporation which might otherwise offset the rising waters isn’t occurring due to the extremely cold weather.

Gusting winds and high waves have created swift water currents that have washed away people, roads, bridges, and embankments that previously protected private property. The soil is being undercut by the waves, destroying homes that previously offered spectacular views of long sandy beaches and beautiful sunsets. Desperate efforts are underway to move houses away from the shoreline before they too fall into the water.

Due to the dangers of getting too close to the edge and the extreme cold that kept me bundled up inside, I only got these two photos of the property belonging to my sister and her husband. They’ve lost about 15-20 feet of land in just the last two years, and the gradual disappearance of their yard continues unabated. Fortunately their home was moved back years ago and isn’t in any immediate danger, while their neighbors home is perilously close to the receding embankment.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Wilson has yet to declare a state of emergency. Local jurisdictions like Muskegon are working with county emergency managers, but there is little that can be done to alter the course of Mother Nature.

 

 

Print the Legend – The Life and Times of John Ford: My Review

Print the Legend Book CoverI do not often read biographies. In fact, I can only think of two in recent years, this book and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, both given to me by my son Sean, who knows of my love of history and my admiration for John Ford’s movies. Both are detailed accounts; Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a daunting 995 pages, while Scot Eyman’s Print the Legend runs 660 pages. I guess he also understands my love of reading!

Print the legend has its origin in Ford’s last great western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the film Jimmy Stewart’s character, Senator Ransom Stoddard, returns to the town where his political career began to bury his old friend, Tom Doniphan (played by actor John Wayne.) The senator’s fame as the man who shot and killed the stagecoach robber Liberty Valance is a lie, and Stoddard comes back not only to pay tribute to his friend but to finally reveal the truth that it was Doniphan who killed Valance (portrayed on screen by the actor Lee Marvin,) not him. However, the truth is never printed. The newspaper editor interviewing the senator kills the story, with the now famous line, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Just as the myth of the Old West is what people want to remember, it is the myth that surrounds John Ford that moviegoers most want to associate with one of cinema’s greatest directors.

After this motion picture, John Ford was no longer the master  of his craft; age and infirmity had taken its toll. With illness (cancer) overwhelming him, he no longer had the energy to direct movies that so vividly depicted early American life. He had created the mythology of westward expansion and the transition from wilderness to civilization using beautiful landscapes and richly drawn characters who embodied the spirit of the new nation; so much so that Ford became known as “the man that invented America.”

His genius lay in his ability to visualize the scene in his head, positioning the camera in the right spot (never moving it) to recreate that scene, minimizing dialogue, and manipulating actors to achieve the desired performance in one take. He could be a tyrant, humiliating even the biggest names in show business to get the performance that he desired.

Ford also demanded total loyalty from his cast and in return used the same actors in multiple movies often carrying them on the payroll for an entire shoot regardless of how small or even non-existent their role was in the finished film. Contradict or question him on set, however, and though he would outwardly remain your friend, you might never again work in another one of his projects.

Scott Leyman doesn’t spare the reader the many inconsistencies between the man and the legend. Ford was an alcoholic who would go on binges that left him totally incoherent. He was stereo typically Irish, subject to melancholy and self-doubt.  The son of a bartender from Maine, he never felt at ease in society, and created a persona that didn’t care about anyone’s opinion but his own. He could be cruel, crude, arrogant and snobbish, but underneath that facade was a very private sentimental old man that simply didn’t know how to relate to the people he most loved. A Roman Catholic, Ford never considered divorce from his wife of over fifty years, Mary, though he apparently had both flings and affairs with other women, most notably Katherine Hepburn. He was estranged from his son Pat and would later disinherit him, while he indulged his daughter Barbara in spite of her alcoholism. Politically he was thought to be a die-hard conservative, while in fact he was a life-long Democrat and liberal. He filmed many of his movies in Monument Valley using Navajo Indians to portray Apache, Comanche, and Cheyenne. It didn’t matter. He saw the plight of the Navajo Nation and tried to assist it economically by using the locale over and over casting the same people each time. He argued against racism in his masterpiece, The Searchers, and strongly advocated equality and dignity towards the black race in the film Sergeant Rutledge.

In many regards these films reflect the political realities of Vietnam and the changing attitudes and tastes of his viewing audience in the 1960s. The public desire for movies that glorified the Old West had been replaced by the demand for a more nuanced portrayal of the events and those involved in them. Ironically, it led John Ford to dismantle the very mythology that he had created in his earlier movies.

There is absolutely no way that I can capture the essence of John Ford in this post. His career and filmography spanned several decades, 1914-1971. He remains the most decorated film director of all time, winning six Academy Awards. He received the Purple Heart Medal for wounds suffered during the Battle of Midway in WWII, and rose to the rank of Admiral in the Navy. Prior to his death August 31, 1973, he became the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the President of the United States.

I wrote previously of his influence on my decision to write my western novel, Palo Duro:

The western genre no longer holds the public’s attention as it once did in cinema and published media. But I grew up in the age of Director John Ford and his rousing tributes to the U.S. cavalry in the film trilogy “Fort Apache,” She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande,” as well as his homage to one of the most recognized icons of the Old West, Wyatt Earp, in the classic film “My Darling Clementine.”

I have watched John Ford’s movies countless times in my youth and into my adult life, and there is no doubt that they have left a lasting legacy not only on me, but on the motion picture industry. After reading Scott Eyman’s book, I now know many details about Ford’s private life that are contradictory to my image of him, but while it has often been said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” I prefer to remember his towering achievements.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Femme Fatale

The origins of the sexually attractive woman who sets out to seduce men for her own purposes can be found in ancient biblical and historical texts as well as in classical literature. The temptress Delilah is cited in the 16th chapter of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament as the means by which the Philistines discovered the source of the Israelite Sampson’s strength. The first century historian Josephus writes of Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter in exchange for an erotic dance on Herod’s birthday. Even Greek mythology speaks of half-birds, half-maidens whose “siren song” lured sailors to a rocky shore and certain death. In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so that he can experience the allure of the Sirens without succumbing to their temptations.

However, that sultry allure, sex or the promise of sex, characteristically results in either a lifetime of regret or self-destruction. Deliberate seduction is a weapon that draws some men into compromising and even dangerous situations leading to their downfall or death. There’s a price to pay for the pleasures of the flesh – loss of one’s manhood,  manipulation and commission of acts on the woman’s behalf that can result in blackmail or even murder, and choices that compromise or even endanger the lives of others.

The seductress has existed throughout history and has often been used as a plot device in literature. In my latest book, a novella of the Salvadoran civil war, the fictional character Diana Montego (an urban guerrilla) serves that purpose.

She was exposed to training like any other recruit, learning weaponry, explosives, tactics, and strategic objectives under Nidia’s tutelage. These were all secondary, however, to her sexuality, and she was soon given her mission. Use her looks and wiles to find and seduce an American staying at the Hotel Presidente. The endgame, of course, would not be this one individual. Her task was to get inside, become totally familiar with the layout of the hotel, and specifically identify the rooms where the American advisers were lodged. To be successful, she would need to use all her womanly skills. That it proved so easy was a surprise both to Diana and the FMLN leadership. — Excerpt from Tarnished Brass.

Follow Diana’s story and learn more about American involvement in the war and the repercussions that continue to affect the United States and this small Central American country.

 

 

The Soccer War

SoccerSoccer arrived in Latin America in the 1800s. In the beginning it was primarily played by affluent Europeans, but was soon adopted by people from all socio-economic classes bridging the divide between the ruling elites and the indigenous population.

As a cultural institution, it quickly became synonymous with national identity and disputes on the field of play frequently resulted in violence between players, fans, and in extreme cases even countries.

The visible displays of nationalism include flag waving, national anthems, even colorful clothing. They are an expression of the emotional attachment that individuals feel for their teams. So when deliberate physical injury to a player or perceived bias by referees alter the outcome of games, fan violence is inevitable. Add to that political tensions between the governments of the competing teams, and international competitions have even led to war. Such was the case in 1969 between the neighboring Central American countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

The Soccer War (sometimes referred to as the 100 Hours War) was fueled by extreme national pride. Violence erupted between fans during the first two 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. The teams split the first two contests spawning yet greater tumult between the two fan bases as the third and deciding match approached.

Tensions had been building for months between the two governments over new immigration laws in Honduras that stripped land ownership from Salvadoran citizens settling in that country. The expulsion of over eleven thousand such immigrants and migrant workers just happened to coincide with the timing between the first and second games. Citing Honduran nationalism and fan violence as the reason for its action, El Salvador severed all diplomatic ties with its neighbor and deployed soldiers onto Honduran soil.

The war was brief, beginning on July 14, 1969, and ending on July 20, 1969, with a cease-fire negotiated by the Organization of American States (OAS). El Salvador initially demanded that Honduras agree to reparations for those Salvadorans who had been displaced and assurances of fair treatment for those settlers who chose to remain. It finally withdrew its forces on August 2, 1969, after promises of protection for its citizens on Honduran soil.

The dispute simmered long after the Salvadoran soccer team defeated Honduras 3-2 in the final qualifying match in Mexico City and long after cessation of hostilities between the two armies. A final peace treaty would not be signed until October 30, 1980. — Excerpt from Tarnished Brass.