Monday, January 24, 2011

The Headaches of Jean-Baptiste

Catoctin Mountain
May, 1831

Jean-Baptiste cleared his throat. "Thank you all for coming and meeting today," he said. He bowed to Red Sky and her advisors, sitting on the furs to his left, and then to Lone Fox and his advisors, sitting to his right. They nodded in return. The morning sunlight filtered through the walls of Jean-Baptiste's tent and illuminated the swirls of smoke from their pipes. "All of us -- Haudenosaunee, Cherokee, and French -- have had our differences in the past. But now we have come together..."

Jean-Baptiste was barely listening to his own words: they were just diplomatic filler, the sort of thing he'd learned to spout out easily over the past decade. As his mouth worked, he watched the faces of the Indians carefully, looking for any sign of agreement or disagreement as he lay out the danger that the people of the Great Sun posed, and gave the French proposal again: favorable trade agreements and French approval of treaties, in exchange for French assistance and protection. For good measure, he tried the gambit he'd used with Lone Fox, talking about the French as a family, with the Emperor as Father, and the hope that all the tribes and the French together might be brothers one day. It sounded good to him, but the Indians were utterly stone-faced. At last Jean-Baptiste ran out of words, and sat down, spent.

Red Sky rose, and spoke. "Thank you, Jean-Baptiste. You have spoken of these things before now, but it is good to hear them again. We of the Haudenosaunee cannot agree to what you say, today. There are several reasons for this. First, I, Red Sky, do not have the authority to bind all the tribes of the Haudenosaunee to a treaty with the French. I am just an ambassador. Still, if I think the treaty would be good, I will take it back to the great council and see if they agree.

"But more importantly, Jean-Baptiste," said Red Sky, "I do not think this agreement would be good for the Haudenosaunee. You speak of the French family; you talk about the Father Emperor. But we of the Haudenosaunee are not French, and we do not wish to be French. Your ways are simply not our ways. You have your ways, and they are good for you; we have our ways, and they are good for us. And I think that it would be best if we kept our own fathers, and did not take the French father."

She paused, and Jean-Baptiste rose to speak again, but she held up a hand to show she wasn't finished.

"Still," she said, "I agree that the Great Sun and his people are a grave danger to us -- an urgent danger. Even today, as we speak now, some of our people have been captured by the Great Sun and are being tortured by them. The Great Sun rules over dozens of tribes all along the Great River. We Haudenosaunee are only six tribes; we cannot defeat them by ourselves."

"So you must agree to our terms," said Jean-Baptiste firmly.

"There is another way," said Red Sky. "Wait and listen, friend, and I will tell you. Generations ago, the five original tribes of the Haudenosaunee were always fighting with one another. Always this tribe or that tribe was making war. But at last one man, called the Great Peacemaker, came and showed us a new way to live. Through his wisdom, we became the People of the Long House. You know that we live in long houses, with several families together in a single building. In the same way, our six tribes live together as separate families in one dwelling.

"And since that time, a number of tribes have asked to join us in the Long House. The Raccoon People joined us a generation ago, and became the Keepers of the Eastern Door. I suggest to you, Jean-Baptiste, and you, Lone Fox, that we should consider joining in an alliance like that of the Haudenosaunee: not one family, but separate families under one roof."

Red Sky bowed and sat. Jean-Baptiste said, "May I speak?" When Lone Fox smiled and nodded, he said, "Red Sky, thank you for your honest words. I will speak frankly also. You talk about our three peoples coming together for mutual protection, like the Haudenosaunee do; but I do not think that will work -- for two reasons. First, the Great Sun is already on your doorstep. You must, you must decide quickly; and when you decide, you must act. If you, Red Sky, sign this agreement with me, I can send a message back to France, and French troops will begin marching within a month. They will come and protect you, and you need fear nothing more. But if I send a message back saying, "no, they want a loose alliance," then there will be argument and talking for months or years while we decide on exactly how it will work. By the time we have decided, the Great Sun's horses and ships will wipe you all away and enslave your families. I am sorry to speak so bluntly, but I have to emphasize that the danger is very real.

"And the other reason," he continued, "is that while we French wish to join with you, to protect you from your enemies, we do ask some things in return. If we have an alliance, but we do not have favorable trade, and we do not have a say in these affairs, then what do we gain? The Haudenosaunee are great warriors, but they cannot sail to Europe and defend France from, say, England. What would France gain from such an alliance?"

Red Sky was frowning and staring at the door of the tent. Jean-Baptiste could tell she had stopped listening, and was turning his words over.

Lone Fox cleared his throat. "I will speak now," he said. "I had words with Jean-Baptiste earlier today, and many thoughts afterwards. And it comes to this: I am not a chief of all the Cherokee; there is not now, and never has been such a chief. But if I agree to either of these plans -- if the Cherokee join the French family, or become the Keepers of the Southern Door of the Long House -- then I, or someone like me, may become such a chief. Certainly such a chief will be called for. Perhaps, like the Haudenosaunee, the Cherokee can become a set of clans in one great house.

"But is this a good thing? For many, many generations, since the land was hung from the sky, the Cherokee have lived as we live now, and it has been good. We did not all need to live in one house, or choose one chief. If we do this now, because of pressure from outside, how can this be good?

"We speak here of families. We all like families; families are good. But a nation, a tribe, is not a family. A family lives together, they eat from the same bowl, they heat themselves by one fire, their bones and flesh are one. They will die to save each other; they love each other more than they love themselves. Can you tell me truly, Jean-Baptiste, that if the Cherokee join the French family, that the French Emperor would lay down his life to save me? For that is what a true father would do for his son.

"The Long House is better; Red Sky, your idea is tempting. But even with that I am very uneasy. If the Cherokee keep the southern door, who will come to our aid if we falter? Will we be called to help hold the eastern door if the Raccoon People fail? Who will decide? What if no decision can be reached? If a decision is reached, how will it be enforced? If a decision is wrong, who will take the blame? How will it be rectified?

"I know," said Lone Fox, before Red Sky could answer, "I know that the Haudenosaunee have answers for these questions. But I do not know if they are good answers for the Cherokee. I do not know if the Cherokee and Haudenosaunee can live in the same long house. If there are two families in a house, they can share a meal, share a smoke, and the grandmothers and grandfathers can reach an understanding. But this would not work for us."

"Then what?" demanded Jean-Baptiste. "For something must be done."

Lone Fox nodded. "Yes," he said. "I have been thinking." He took a long draw on the pipe. "This morning I walked in the forest. I have not been so far north before, and it was good to see this forest, so different from the forests of the south, but also much the same. Here there are many different kinds of trees, many kinds that we don't have further south. You do not have so many pine trees; but you have more birches and maples. Still, the forest is strong and healthy.

"A forest," said Lone Fox, "is not a family, but it is strong. A healthy forest can stand against disease, fire, and floods. It is made of many different trees, many different animals and plants, and they do not gather in meeting, or make plans, or guard doors, or have ceremonies. Each animal and plant lives its own life, sometimes in cooperation, sometimes not; and together they are woven into a strong fabric.

"If we are to be strong," said Lone Fox, "and yet still remain Cherokee, and Haudenosaunee, and French, as we should be, then we must be like a forest. Some of us, like the wild cat, will fight. Some of us, like the spiders, will creep and spy, and capture enemies. Some of us, like the fish, will be strong in the water; some, like the hawk, will be strong in the air..."

"This is just chaos," said Jean-Baptiste. "A forest isn't strong; it's -- it's just a bunch of trees and animals. It's just -- it's messy. I have no idea what you're trying to say."

Lone Fox didn't look at him; he just looked at Red Sky. Red Sky stared back at him, and slowly nodded. And Jean-Baptiste knew that, somehow, he had lost.

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