In the center of my town there is a monument.
A bold and proud depiction of America’s armed forces, originally created to honor those killed in the civil war. Soldiers, flags, and guns, all of gray stone.
Next to the monument, across a narrow street, is a plaque.
Poured bronze, mounted on brick of red soil, it is a portal into the past.
“Indian wigwams, a hickory tree, and a spring- that was old center square.” It boasts.
The plaque goes onto describe a grand process of redesign, in the year 1730. The mapping of the city, “an open square, streets crossing at right angles and 3 plots designated for a courthouse, a jail, and a market area.”
A few decades later, the last of the local native people, 6 adults and 8 children, were brutally murdered about a block away.
This is all real, based on facts, the ugly truth.
This is my letter to the ones who lived before.
To Betty, of the Susquehannock Native American tribe, murdered, along with her husband and child, and the remaining members of her people, by the Paxton boys on Dec. 27th, 1763, in the building that eventually became the Fulton Opera House, which still stands today.
From my mama heart to yours.
There must have been a time when you were very happy.
Before the violence began, before the killing, and torture, before the blood ran red over the paths of your village,
there must have been a time when you bathed in the waters,
laughing, with baby on your hip,
felt the mud between your toes on the bottom, caught fish bare handed,
their scales flashing rainbows under the sun.
There must have been a time when things were good,
when the deer were fat on chestnuts, their hides silvery gray with the coming winter,
soft smoke spiraling from the opening at the top of your shelter, your home blending with the landscape, bark of the tulip poplar and birch, tied with the strong rope of basswood, nettles, and dogbane.
Were you warm that winter? Did you lie at night, safe and cozy with your children between, husband’s rough hand in yours and imagine summer, all ripe berries and sun kissed skin? Feasts with friends and loved ones, a favorite stream, a secret spot?
Or were your dreams troubled, dark images and shadow shapes, fires, running, a premonition of things to come?
And when the violence started, when they killed your neighbors and burned their homes, set fire to the forest so the animals fled, with singed fur and scared eyes, were you scared? Did you think of leaving? Running far and fast with those you loved, escaping, getting away? Or were you angry? Did you dig your heels into the dark earth of your homeland and wear bullets on your dress like beads? Did you talk strategy with your husband, at night, over the sleeping heads of your silky haired children?
And then the final move, for protection they said, to the workhouse adjoining the prison. “You’ll be safe there.” they told you. Did your stomach clench at the sight of the bars, the small windows high above your heads, the rifles slung over the shoulders of the men who made the laws?
Did you cry? Did you wail, loud and long at dawn, over the memories of the ones already lost, to smallpox, to murder, to broken hearts? Did you tell your children stories at dusk? Of the far off mountains where the big bears lived, of the ancient ones who made the world, of the ancestors, the great hunters, tall and strong, aware, like cats.
Did you make love, secretly, with the love of your life, while everyone slept, under the scratchy wool of government sheets, lips locked in longing, gentle animal release of tension, sadness, stress? A trigger for fuzzy memories; your first kiss, the ceremony that bound you together, the just-born wails of your first child, soft sleep.
And when the men came in screaming, light glinting off steel blades, rifles at the ready, did it happen fast? Or were you caught as time stood still, hands clutching baby to breast, exposed, just nursing? Did your mind fixate on the tiny details, the loose thread on your child’s sleeve, the wrinkles at the corners of your husband’s eyes, the worn leather of the boot on the man at the door.
Did you have time to kiss your baby one last time, and nuzzle nose to nose? Did you feel your husband’s breath warm against your neck as he drew you close in a final loving embrace? Dark eyes somber, knowing.
And were you gone, eyes closed, cold upon the floor, when they ripped your child’s scalp from his head? Baby curls, brown and soft, taken as a prize.
Were you in your final sleep as they hacked your husband’s strong hands from his arms? Hands that had hunted, and carried, and caressed, and loved.
And were you at peace as they jumped on their horses and ran away? Hooves leaving tracks of ruby blood,
trails of tears,
tales of extinction,
all your people,
I love you.
Thank you for taking care of this land, and loving it, and living here before. It is very beautiful, I love it very much, my son plays in the water, my husband takes care of the forests, sometimes I lay on back and watch the stars.
Please forgive me for living here now. My family came here very long ago, before I was ever a twinkle in anyone’s eye. If they could have asked me I would have told them, “no, that land already has its’ people, those people are happy there, leave them alone, stay where you are.” But no one asked me. I am working very hard to take care of this land, to listen to it, to understand it, and love it. But the land still misses you, wonders where you have gone, longs for your soft singing on sunny mornings, your warm fires on chilly afternoons. Craves your gentle touches, your offerings, your prayers.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you lost your family, your people, your life. I’m so sorry civilization killed you, ruined your land, and is killing the planet. I’m so sorry those men did such horrible things to you, and left you lying like so many pieces of trash. I’m so sorry this land is poisoned, cut-down and torn apart, water contaminated, soil lost. I’m so sorry it’s all screwed up, all the beauty, all the life, all the magic. I’m just sorry. And I’m sorry I don’t even know your real name, must call you Betty, the name chosen by your oppressors. If you choose to tell me your real name, in a whisper, during a quiet moment, or in a dream, in the early morning, or the latest night,
I will hear you.
I will hear you because,
I will be listening.
I love you Betty.
But it’s not enough.