The Long Shadow of Abraham Lincoln

Snowy WoodsTomorrow marks the New Year. Of course, this mark is simply a social convenience, and one can begin the new year at any point. I like the Winter Solstice as a starting place.

Traditionally, shamans serve their communities in many ways, as healers, seers, historians, and even politicians. Shamans, and many psychotherapists, understand history as continually unfolding, and realize that suffering may be firmly anchored in events that occurred long before our lifetime.  Social upheaval throws a long shadow, genocide even more so. 

A couple of nights ago we joined a group of friends for dinner. The conversation quickly turned to new films folks had seen, almost immediately settling on rave reviews of “Lincoln“. I was asked, yet again, whether I had seen the film. I explained that I have not,  that I am unlikely to, and why. This was met with understandable  incomprehension, then the conversation sailed on without me.

I grew up in Illinois and Indiana, committed Lincoln country. My father was a Lincoln scholar, and stood in awe of the man throughout his life time. Lincoln was, like all of us, a person of his time, caught in the ideas and social conflicts that threatened to tear apart the young nation he governed. One can view the Civil War as a conflict between the agrarian lifeways of the South and the rapid industrialization of the North. The money was flowing north, and the values and culture of the South seemed, to those living there, imperiled. This drama unfolded against the backdrop of the ever Westward expansion of the nation.

Even as he was evolving a moral stance against slavery, Lincoln continued policies that pushed against Indigenous people, and the treaties that ostensibly protected their sovereignty as nations.  When First Nations fought to protect their legal rights, he branded them terrorists. On December 26th, 1862, 38 Native leaders were hanged at his order.

This act, which foreshadowed the Massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, continues to have immediacy in the lives of First Nations people, even as it has fallen from the collective memory of the United States and Canada. Healing is an ongoing quest as evidenced in the following brief introduction to a recent film about the incident:

From Intercontinental Cry

In the spring of 2005, Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, found himself in a dream riding on horseback across the great plains of South Dakota. Just before he awoke, he arrived at a riverbank in Minnesota and saw 38 of his Dakota ancestors hanged. At the time, Jim knew nothing of the largest mass execution in United States history, ordered by Abraham Lincoln on December 26, 1862. “When you have dreams, you know when they come from the creator… As any recovered alcoholic, I made believe that I didn’t get it. I tried to put it out of my mind, yet it’s one of those dreams that bothers you night and day.”

Now, four years later, embracing the message of the dream, Jim and a group of riders retrace the 330-mile route of his dream on horseback from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution. “We can’t blame the wasichus anymore. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs. We’re killing our own people. That’s what this ride is about, is healing.” This is the story of their journey- the blizzards they endure, the Native and Non-Native communities that house and feed them along the way, and the dark history they are beginning to wipe away.

For more information about this film, visit: http://smoothfeather.org/dakota38/

Lincoln remains a complex figure. In the Caucasian South he is often seen as a heartless war criminal, who approved the humanitarian and economic destruction of the South. In the North and much of the West, as in much of the African-American community, he is viewed as a hero, martyred by Southern extremists. In Indian country he is remembered for his heartless efforts to destroy Native people and their way of life. These memories have taken on new immediacy in the face of Canada’s renewed efforts to force First Nations people to assimilate, and in doing so, to relinquish their claims to land and culture.

As a Narrative therapist I am left with many questions regarding the film and our collective understanding of Lincoln’s life. Who is the audience for this film? Whose version of Lincoln is privileged in this film? What might we infer from the film’s early winter release? How are we to read the general absence of the Native genocide in the film’s storyline?  Does the film serve to reinforce collective amnesia? Is this intended? Might refusal to see the film be an act of resistance? If so, who might act as witness of that resistance?

I think it unlikely my friends understood, even after I voiced it, my disquiet regarding the film, or the date (it was December 29th). The film under discussion was, after all, an award-winning, highly praised movie about one of the great cultural heroes of the United States. We are all tempted to think the world we inhabit is the same world that others inhabit. I came away from the evening feeling sad, and very aware that although we shared a friendship, a table, and a lovely meal, we live in different worlds.

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4 thoughts on “The Long Shadow of Abraham Lincoln

  1. Intentional or not the absence of Native genocide in the film does reinforce collective amnesia. Sadly I believe too many movies are produced with the goal of how much money the movie will make regardless of the accuracy of the content or in this case omission of information that may not have been well received by the audience. The older I get the more I realize that as far as certain historical figures are concerned I was taught a biased version by my childhood history teachers. They never taught this fact about Lincoln. I would have remembered it. Refusal to see the film is an act of resistance that will be witnessed by at least the people who read your blog and likely others as well. I doubt I will see “Lincoln”, but I am looking forward to seeing “Dakota 38”. Thank you for the history lesson.

    • My father, who’s father was Lakota, apparently did not understand the role Lincoln played in the genocide. My father was also a military man, and had he known, might have been more forgiving of Lincoln than I am.

      Oddly, I can understand seeing the film in order to more effectively critique its message. I am avoiding the film mostly as a way of taking care of my emotional self. I am looking forward to “Dakota 38”.

  2. I can understand why you would avoid it. There are plenty of movies and books I will never see or read because I would only hurt myself by doing so. I may not be able to handle “Dakota 38” it either, but I can always stop watching it if I find it too emotionally upsetting.

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