Her dissertation committee was waiting for her, two men, sitting at a table. In between them, sat a woman, the chair of the committee. There was a podium and water in a pitcher with a glass on a shelf below. When they said they were ready, she came in. Her hand was in her pocket where it gripped a clear film canister filled with dirt.
She walked across the floor to the podium, a bag over her shoulder, the canister in her right hand and her left hand across her abdomen, swelled by pregnancy. She set the bag down, and once she reached the podium, she removed her hand with the canister from her pocket. The baby was kicking and moving more than usual.
“Thank you for being here,” the chair said. “Take your time getting set up.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It’ll just be a minute.”
She took the canister and emptied it into the glass and poured water into it. The dirt from the Santuario roiled like a dust storm in the glass. She lifted the glass to her lips and took a long drink. Then she filled the glass again and drank it the same way until all the water and sand were gone.
“I have some materials you’ll need,” she said advancing toward the panel and handing them copies.
“Thank you,” the chair said and passed them to her colleagues.
“I’m ready,” she said with a smile. Throughout her presentation she didn’t look down at any notes; she spoke entirely from memory, keeping eye contact with the committee, a fact that they would grow to find as unnerving as the baby’s kicking unnerved her.
“Please begin with a general introduction,” said the chair. The members of the committee each wore glasses and they peered over them without irony.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” she began, quoting the opening of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“For some they come in with the tide,” she went on, but paused.
“For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”
She stopped for a second or two. Then she went on, still from memory, looking at the committee members in their eyes.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
“These words are the opening to, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she said. “The odyssey of a young black woman early in this century, in Florida, on the pilgrimage from girlhood to womanhood, from being a victim to being in charge.”
“My own journey here began on a road at the corner of my hometown, Lebanon, Kansas, near the intersection of a dirt road and Kansas State Route 281. I would ride my bike and park it in the middle of that dirt road, road 833, facing west. I would sit there and dream of what was beyond the horizon.”
“Eventually I learned of my family roots in New Mexico. Then, later, I learned that, in the past, a Spaniard expedition from New Mexico in 1720, the Villasur Expedition, passed just to the west of where I sat gazing off into the future. The destruction of the Villasur Expedition was historically important, establishing the limits of Spanish expansion into the heart of the North American continent.”
“The documents we have from The Spanish Archives of New Mexico, establish that Pedro Villasur was incompetent and rash and that well-armed, regular French soldiers combined with Pawnee Indians were responsible for the route of Spanish soldiers.”
“Here, we find the counter to what Sir William Francis Butler said of the unknown Scottish dead at Culloden: ‘It is the victor who writes the history and counts the dead, and to the vanquished in such a struggle there only remains the dull memory of an outnumbered and unwritten sorrow.’”
“In this case, however, it was the vanquished, the Spaniard survivors, who wrote the history of this battle. It was poor Villasur, dead and unable to defend himself, who, we are told by the survivors, walked stupidly into a French trap, one baited by the ‘ánimo sospechoso’ of the Pawnees. The Spanish loss was not at the hands of indigenous peoples but at the hands of a fellow European power using those people.”
“Were the Pawnees being used by the French? Or were the Pawnees using the French against Spaniards allied with their enemy, the Apaches? Were the French involved at all? To further reify the European nature of the battle, someone commissioned a painting, the Segesser Hide Paintings that show French soldiers in uniform at the battle.”
“There is a key passage in the documents from the archive:
“Y habiendo llegado a vistas la población de los pananas, en que habitan franceses, envió un panana católico, para que a sus nacionales les expresase iban en paz. Quedóse entre los suyos, y ellos enviaron a unos indios, con respuesta que no fue entendida, pero sí percibida su reserva y malicia.”
“Before the battle began, Villasur sent a Pawnee Indian – an Indian who had supposedly become a Catholic – to communicate with his fellow Pawnees. He never returned, instead an note came back. What did the note say? The next day Villasur was destroyed. Who was this ‘panana catolico’ who stayed with his people? What if he could speak? What version of the story would he tell? Will his story remain an “unwritten sorrow?”
“It will not. I have discovered a first-person report from a Pawnee Indian, Francisco Sistaca or Banit Hadikuas he called himself, that expresses the balance of power between white explorers and colonists in the new world and the people who had lived there already for centuries. This account unravels the notion that native peoples were primitive, meek, and easily subjugated. This account is found in a letter from no less than George Washington, passing the Indian’s story on to his superiors. My research will be to expand the understanding of this document, its origins, and the light it sheds on the history of the plains Indians and their role in the larger world.”
“Indigenous people of the prairie were not victims of powerful European colonial interests but were equal participants in a worldwide global effort to understand, give meaning, and control the vast North American continent. The indigenous people of the prairie were as much conquerors as the so-called conquistadors of Spain, taking advantage of far-off disputes and prejudices to leverage benefits for themselves.”
“The indigenous people of the prairie were not monolithic; instead, they were a complex web of societies connected by a sophisticated transportation network, a diverse economy, and many shared traditions and origin stories. Often, they were less than impressed with the shabby, exhausted men from European colonial powers that arrived in their world often defeated by the terrain and confusion. Those men depended on the prairie people for translation, direction, and meaning in a vast unknown place.”
“Most important, my work won’t just rewrite history but it will rewrite the future. Traumas can be healed, pain and dislocation resolved if we can remember and dream. The sorrow of the vanquished need not remain unwritten.”
“Now,” she repeated her opening quote, “women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
“I’m ready for your questions,” she said.
There was a pause and shuffling of papers and squeaking of chairs.
“Isn’t it convenient,” said one of the men, “That this document you seemed to have discovered just fills in this loose end so nicely. It’s almost as if the letter wrote itself to support your thesis.”
This was going to be a fight.
“Convenient?” she asked rhetorically, “Isn’t any substantiation of a claim or a proposition or of a narrative a good thing? I’d hardly say it was convenient. I had to go further than 7-11 to find this document. What is your point?”
The man folded his arms. His colleague leaned forward.
“Why would you go rooting through George Washington’s papers?” he asked. “What in the world does the French Indian War have to do with your thesis?”
The woman on the committee looked at her and then at the two men, “Yes, what evidence is there that there were prairie Indians engaged in the French Indian War? Isn’t this a stretch?”
“If I hadn’t dug into this question, this committee would have asked, appropriately, ‘why didn’t you consider the role of prairie Indians in the French Indian War if there was one?’”
She stopped. She lifting up a copy of the stappled papers she had given them.
“The Pawnee, and many prairie tribes were heavily dependent on the French and the French on them. If the French lost the continent, the Pawnee would lose an important trading partner and ally against hostile Apaches and Comanches. Remember, the Villasur expedition was an effort by Spain to probe the limits of their colonial influence over and against the French. An expedition the Pawnees destroyed.”
She walked out from behind the podium.
“Zebulon Pike,” she said, “when he visited what is now called “Guide Rock,” heard from Indians who told him that Otos and Osage Indians had joined the French effort to defeat General Braddock at the first battle of the French Indian War.”
“But that doesn’t mean Sistaca and Pawnees would have been fighting in the Ohio river valley,” said one of the men.
“I didn’t expect that he was,” she said. “I wanted understand more about the native peoples who were involved in that war. I was as surprised as anyone to find a Pawnee Indian at the beginning of the greatest world war of the 18th century, just as surprised as most Americans are to find George Washington there.”
She walked back behind the podium, felt another kick from inside her, and then quoted George Washington’s words from one of his letters when he was tangling with the French.
“Another thing worthy of consideration, is, if we depend on Indian assistance, we must have a large quantity of proper Indian goods to reward their services, and make them presents; it is by this means alone, that the French command such an interest among them, and that we had so few. This, with the scarcity of Provisions, was proverbial; would induce them to ask, when they were to join us, if we meant to starve them as well as ourselves.”
“That’s George Washington,” she said. “In a letter to Governor Dinwiddie. The French understood how to work with the native population far better than the Anglo-Americans. The native population and the colonists were interdependent. The French leaned into that. So, the prairie Indians needed the French to win that war to keep their trade going, and the French needed the Indians.”
“How do you do that?” asked one of the men. “You’re not reading anything.”
“I have an amazing memory,” she said putting her index fingers on her temples.
“So, the route,” said one of the men, “what facts do you have to support a route that goes from Quartalejo, well, by your house?” The other man snickered a bit. The woman on the committee faced her colleagues, but her eyes swiveled toward their student, and she held her breath.
She could feel her lower lip curling under her front teeth as the “fuck you!” came racing up from her soul, deep inside her, past her lungs, where it would catch a blast of breath then traverse her vocal chords, then leave her mouth, travel across the room pass through his auricles, down his ear canals where it would trigger the malleus and incus, and then stimulate the cochlear nerve and reach the bastards upper cortex like a hard punch.
But she stopped, even while her hand began the search for something to throw. If felt like the baby was doing summersaults inside her.
“Excellent question, professor,” she heard herself saying. Before she could answer the other man added another question.
“What about the idea that Villasur went through Colorado, not Kansas?” he asked. “What if Quartalejo was in Colorado? What if, as my colleague suggested, he didn’t go by your house?”
“The evidence and common sense don’t support that,” she said. “All the primary documentation of the diaries from participants in the Villasur expedition cite at least 1,200 leagues of travel, that’s 285 kilometers, or about 741 miles.”
The men looked perplexed.
“I have a calculator if you need it,” she said reaching into her bag. “The Colorado route is, well, too short. Something I think you’d understand.”
The men were rankled and the woman tried to come to the rescue.
“It’s not necessary,” she said. “You’ve made the point.”
One of the men leaned forward and took off his glasses.
“You have cited a known forger in your notes,” he said. “Let’s be honest, how do we know this letter from George Washington isn’t a fake?”
“It’s pretty easy to look at this and see it’s forged,” said the other man.
“How would you answer that?” the woman asked.
“And there is reason to believe you and the forger have a closer relationship that just academics,” said one man.
“Now I don’t think that’s fair,” the woman started.
“Stop!” she said. “Of course, it’s fair.”
She came from around the podium.
“If it’s a fake I want to know who faked it and why,” she began. “Maybe it isn’t a fake, and maybe this man Washington met was lying. Why was he lying? Maybe George Washington made this up. Why? Maybe the person Washington met was Sistaca and maybe he lied to Washington. Was the person in this letter is the source of the Indian Blanket legend, or did he already know this story and add it for effect? This is the essence of scholarship, asking questions and finding answers.”
There was a nervous silence.
“As for the forger,” she said, “Of course I would engage someone who understands forgery of historical documents. He was a consultant, and he was important to helping understand these questions.”
The room was silent. The sun was beginning to set setting the room on fire with a reddish light. The men shifted around nervously. The woman looked at them. All of them made eye contact. Then one of the men stood up and started to clap. Then the other man did the same. The woman smiled and joined them.
She smiled and sighed.
“Goddammit!” one of the men exclaimed, his hands on his hips, “You are good.”
“But this is child’s play compared to what you’re going to get outside of this committee,” said the other man.
The woman walked over and hugged her.
“You’ve done some great work here,” she said. “We’re on your side. But not everyone will be.”
Library of Congress, George Washington Papers, Series 8, Miscellaneous Papers ca. 1775-99, Subseries 8A, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Notes: Correspondence and Miscellaneous Notes, 1773-1799 [Misfiled*]
*The following document is under consideration. It was discovered in the Library’s collection of Washington’s correspondence from a later period than the date, apparently misfiled. Work is underway to determine its authenticity.
To Robert Dinwiddie
From our Camp at the Great Meadows [Pa.]30th of May 1754
I regret to inform you that my last correspondence relaying the recent encounter with the French and their Indians must be slightly amended. I conveyed before that I had sent Lieutt West and Mr. Sprilldorph with 20 men to contend with the prisoners which I noticed to you would receive all the respect I cou’d to them here, including cloathing and food. As we were affording these men what they should have, a man emerged from them who spoke to Mr. Spilldorph in plain English though he said he was an Indian. The man is older, he says 54 years, and that he was born in what is now French Louisiana but was then a great disputed area on the plains between Fort Orleans and Santa Fe.
He says he is Pawnee and his given name is Banit Hadiku or Black Bird in English. I trouble you with this seemingly trivial set of facts only because he was Spanish slave in 1720 when he was part of a foray by the Spanish into the convergence of the Platte and Loup rivers, an excursion which was a disaster for the Spaniards. His given name as a slave was Francisco Sistaca and he asked earnestly of both West and Sprilldorph that he might speak directly to me because he wished to unburden his conscience about his role in the conflict between a Spaniard called Villasur and the Pawnee Indians, the one which the Spaniards were defeated.
At the outset, I confess my skepticism, for although I was familiar with the skirmish more than 30 years passed, I was sure that his claims were a rouse. But as I considered it, I asked West to bring the man to me which he did. He was a striking figure with dark black hair and streaks of gray. His eyes were of the most peculiar green color, lit like glass from some ancient flame. One could not forget them. But importantly, your Honour, he struck me as sincere and honest at least as I measure a man.
As we spoke, he prevailed upon me to transcribe what he said was his testimony. I assured him he was not on trial, neither for the late events between our troops and the French, and even less so for some event that has long passed into history. But it was this point that he pressed, your Honour: his testimony was for History. He won my heart, being myself but one little bit of floatsam in the waters of action and struggle that one day will be called the ocean of history. Any man that is swept into it and lives long enough ought to be able to name his own Livinium should he reach the shore.
So, then I tasked Mr. West with a quill to take down this man’s efforts to square himself with posterity and his own conscience. I promised that I would forward this to you, in confidence that you might determine its use and value. For his part, Banit as I took to call him, felt that his purpose would be fulfilled with the transmission to you and the whatever consequences or lack of them was irrelevant.
Two notes I would add. Banit made the point to me that the Spaniards had told a story of French regulars to deflect their loss to the Pawnees. Better to have lost to trained French soldiers than savages. When he told his story though, he did not burn with indignation at the Spanish lie.
Second, the child mentioned is alive, a boy, now a man. In what follows, Banit did not discuss him, but he shared more with me in other moments together.
What follows my signature is the story I heard and Mr. West wrote down.
As ever and always, I am Yr Honour’s most Ont Hble Servt
My name is Black Bird, Banit Hadiku, and I was named after the omens given to the families of warriors still on the plains. When warriors were too long in returning home, and families worried, the priests would point to the black birds flying overhead that would promise their return. My mother knew what my story would be when she named me.
My home was in a round earthen lodge among many others south of the river named by the white man after my band, Kitkehahkis. My home was along what would be called the Pawnee trail, it ran south to north from the trail that runs from Santa Fe in the West to Missouri. Our people fished, foraged, and hunted here and made black etched pottery we traded with parties along the trails that crossed back and forth between the Spaniards and French.
Ours was a prosperous and peaceful people, tending to ourselves and with welcome hospitality. But the Apaches to the west and south found us easy to raid and pillage. Our time wouldn’t last before we were in a struggle. We took to taking horses when we could and we fought back. And even still, despite their incursions, there was trade with the Apaches and Comanches.
I learned how to steal horses and trade and the languages spoken along the trails. One time, I wrapped myself in a blanket from another tribe and I sat on a hill above their village. When a man is wrapped in a blanket it is assumed he wants to be alone, he is talking to God. But I wasn’t talking to God, I was watching where they put their best horses and kill after the hunt. They left me alone, and then I went down and surprised the women. They saw me and the blanket and thought I was someone important. I rode off with the kill and the two best horses.
By the year 1718 I had experience but I also met my wife Sakuru. She and my mother warned me of the dangers of my life, but I ignored them. One day the Apaches overtook me, following me home. Sakuru had run away into the trees. I knew she could hear me when I said I would return. She heard my voice saying the “Black Bird will return!”
The Apaches took me to Santa Fe, and a man named La Serne bought me. La Serne gave me a different name, Francisco after Saint Francis and something that sounded like Pawnee for fair or white man, chahistaka. They said, Sistaca. I became Francisco Sistaca.
I was valuable and thus fortunate. I spoke languages and could translate, I knew horses, and I knew fighting. So, when Valverde told Villasur to prepare an expedition, La Serne made sure I would go. How could I not go? Sakuru was waiting. I knew she was. Francisco Sistaca would join the Spaniards to challenge the French as you do now here in the Ohio. I would even become a Catholic. Or so they thought.
We set out along the trail to Missouri to an old Pueblo camp called Cuartelejo. We followed the trail to the Pawnee trail that ran north right near my home. Nobody knew anything about Banit Hadiku; I had woven a story to cover him with Francisco Sistaca. They didn’t know I was home when we passed the dwellings. I had cut the hair on my head and let the hair on my face grow, so my people wouldn’t know me, even family. When we stopped to rest, I looked for Sakuru.
I learned she had been taken as a wife by another man, my brother. But I said nothing. I had been gone two years. I was sure they had forced her and said I was dead or gone forever. But Black Bird had returned dressed in the blanket of Francisco Sistaca. And I’d keep the blanket on for now, because Villasur wanted to go north, towards the rivers. So, we did.
It was many long days and nights that August as I wondered about Sakuru, longed for a return, for revenge. But I waited and took my orders. The Apaches followed us to where the Loup and Platte came together. Villasur was foolish and inexperienced. I knew there were no French forces, only angry Pawnee, an anger made worse because of all the Apaches trailing our expedition.
I rode out to the Pawnee. They tried as hard as they could to learn who I was and where I was from. But I wouldn’t give them a chance to see past Francisco. I knew some of them, including my brother who was there asking about what the Spaniards wanted.
“The French,” I said. “They expect French soldiers.”
They told me there were only traders and no regular French troops.
I rode back to the Spaniards. They told me to go back and negotiate and Villasur gave me a letter. I never gave my people the letter. I kept it. That was the 10th of August I believe. I looked at my brother.
“Move further out, south toward the other river,” I said. “I’ll bring them back, closer, and you’ll cover the distance at night. They’ll think you’re further away from them than you are. In the morning you can ambush the Spaniards.”
Instead of going back to the Spaniards, I sent some other Pawnee with a note telling Villasur to move south toward the Jesus Maria River. Later I learned that Villasur did what I’d said to do in the letter, moving into a position where they could more easily be attacked the next morning.
The Spaniards worried when I disappeared and about whether the note was a trick. That was the only time they worried about the right things, and the only time Villasur took my advice.
When I returned to the Pawnees, my brother greeted me.
“The Black Bird has returned,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve given you victory tomorrow, now give me back my Sakuru today.”
He held up his hand and rode his horse away, just out of site, and he returned with Sakuru on another horse.
“Expect no treachery from me, brother,” he said. “But you are dead now and so is Sakuru. I will tell our mother the Spaniards took her.”
He told me I was to disappear into the East, as far as I could go. So, I did, with Sakuru. But we had not gone too far before I learned she was pregnant with my brother’s child. I could have lived with this, perhaps. We carried on until we arrived in Quebec. She died in childbirth, so I never learned if I could live with her and raise my brother’s son as my own.
I did betray Villasur’s expedition and the Spaniards, but not to the French only to the Pawnees who were incensed by the presence of Apaches. I deceived my master, but only for the love of a woman who held a promise greater than what I owed him. That the great God above deprived me of any spoils of this is no tragedy, only His will of which we are but grateful actors.
Since then, I have been in the service of France, fighting with them against the British as I did in this late battle. I sense this fire will burn hotter and brighter soon between your people.
As for me, I am happy to be a prisoner again. The Black Bird has returned to his cage, and Francisco Sistaca is free.