Finding the Lost Cause

We wrap history around ourselves and we use it to define who we are and we sometimes don’t want to face the fact that the stories we’ve always heard may have been flawed or limited or even wrong.

 ~ Tiya Miles

I made my first cross country road trip earlier this summer. I was tracing family roots back to the Blue Ridge Mountains prior to the Revolutionary War. My route took me through Missouri, the “Gateway to the West.”

One morning I headed toward the Missouri River in search of a Lewis & Clark historical marker. Along the way, I passed through the little town of Waverly. In the center of town was a small park. In the center of the park was a statue surrounded by flags.

Confederate flag? ✔️

Military dude on a horse? ✔️

Historical plaque about Confederate war hero? ✔️

Plaque donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy? ✔️

Yep. I had accidentally arrived in the Land of the Lost Cause.

According to the plaque, the guy on the horse was General “JO” (Joseph O.) Shelby, famous for refusing to surrender and riding into Mexico at the end of the Civil War. Jo Shelby was a wealthy Waverly slave owner who became a leader of pro-slavery bushwhackers before the Civil War. He married a much younger cousin, Betty Shelby, which probably explains why the Betty Shelby Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored this historic plaque.

Later that day I looked up General Jo Shelby. His refusal to surrender seems to portray him as the quintessential unReconstructed Southerner. But Shelby was more complex and thoughtful than that one part of the story implies. Toward the end of his life, he voiced regret for his actions in the Border Wars, telling historian William Elsey Connelley, “I was in Kansas at the head of an armed force. I was there to kill Free-state men. I did kill them. I am now ashamed of myself for having done so. I had no business there. No Missourian had any business there with arms in his hands.”

Over the last hundred and fifty years, there’s been little room for regret and shame in the Land of the Lost Cause. Historical land mines like Shelby’s confession get swept under the rug. So we’re left with yet another statue of a guy on horse beneath a Confederate flag. No apologies and no explanation.

You can tell this statue is a recent addition (2009) to the Confederate pantheon because the horse is kinda wimpy. Its legs are too long, its head too small, and the ears look like an afterthought. If this monument had been made during Reconstruction or Jim Crow (the peak of Confederate monument building) you can be sure the sculptor would have gotten the horse right. I take hope in Shelby’s mutant equine. Maybe it’s a sign that the flaws of the Lost Cause story are finally coming to the surface.

In an article in the Kansas City Sun, Waverly mayor, Barbara Schreiman, said she hadn’t received any complaints about the monument. I hope I’m not the only one who sent that gal a letter.

Sister Cities

On a narrow peninsula in San Diego harbor rises a graceful Japanese bell tower surrounded by a moat. Beneath the sturdy beams hangs a massive bronze temple bell called a bonshō. It’s six feet tall and weighs two and a half tons. The bell is struck from the outside using a wooden beam suspended on chains. A bonshō’s deep tone can carry over twenty miles and reverberate for a full minute. The sound permeates to your bones.

This Friendship Bell was a gift to San Diego from the people of Yokohama in 1958. After the terrible destruction of World War II, President Eisenhower founded the Sister Cities International program as a way to rebuild trust and friendship between nations. The pairing of San Diego and Yokohama was one of the first sister relationships on the West Coast.

Yokohama’s gift is only rung on special occasions and New Years Eve when the local Buddhist Temple invites the community for Joya No Kane, the tolling bell ceremony. It’s customary to ring a temple bell 107 times before midnight and once just after midnight. The sound of the bell purges misdeeds, reveals illusions, expresses thanks, and on the last toll, offers a prayer for a fresh start in the New Year. Buddhists believe the bonshō bells have sacred powers and can even be heard by people who have died — or are not yet born.

I don’t remember being aware of any of these concepts when I was young and my family would go to ring the bonshō. I just remember the excitement of the gathering crowd and the anticipation as we were allowed to cross the moat and climb the steps toward the bell that I could easily fit inside. It took all my strength (and help from my dad) to pull back on the rope attached to the striker log. We’d swing it back and forth a few times, gathering momentum, then we’d let it hit the bell. The vibrations struck my body making it tingle and then continued out into the night like the pulse of the universe. I can still hear it ringing in my ears.

I hadn’t thought about that bell for a long time but then the idea of Sister Cities came echoing out of the past. After the American “War of 2016”, I wondered if it might be a good idea for communities within the nation to become “sisters”? If foreign nations can rebuild trust and friendship, maybe the American people can do it too?

Which begs the question, did President Eisenhower’s vision of Sister Cities even work? Did the people of San Diego and Yokohama learn to understand and trust each other after being mortal enemies?

I think the answer is yes. I may have been a little kid but the significance of the Friendship Bell wasn’t lost on me. The bell’s creator, Katori Masahiko, said, “…part of the spirit of the bell is the wishes and prayers that the people who make [a bonshō] put into it.” And he meant that literally. All kinds of things might be added to the molten bronze before it was poured into the bell’s hand-carved clay mold — copper plates with the names of those who contributed, coins from around the world, broken swords, and even poems and prayers written on paper scrolls. The Japanese concentrated their hopes of peace and healing into the crucible, poured them into the bell, then shared them with us. We could feel it.

What an amazing gift! They could have given us a statue but instead they gave us a sound. And not just any sound. A sound that carries through space and time.

And there was something more. According to foundry bell maker Ikko Iwasawa, “The thing that matters is not the form, but the function, the content, the space inside. … in this space is the bell’s true meaning.” So, from a Japanese perspective, the Friendship Bell is a frame for whatever we might wish to fill it with. It is an emptiness created by peoples’ hope for peace. It is an invitation.

That’s the kind of beauty that can happen between international Sister Cities — reconciliation that transcends (and hopefully ends) human atrocities. As my own country flounders in hatred and conflict, thinking about the Friendship Bell gives me hope. Thank you, people of Yokohama. It’s taken my whole life but I’m gradually learning to appreciate the magnitude of your gift. ありがとうございました


(And thanks to Kongo of for the use of the close up photo of the Friendship Bell.)

Day of Remembrance

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19th, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066 forcing all West Coast people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes for confinement in inland detention camps. The families only had a few days to prepare and could only bring what they could carry. Successful businesses, farms ripe with crops, houses, cars, pets, Victory gardens, all had to be hastily sold, leased, given away, or abandoned. The majority of the “evacuees” were imprisoned from 1942 to 1946 without criminal charges or trial. By the end of the war, most had lost everything and had to start over from scratch.

This photograph by Dorothea Lange shows an art student at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, June 16, 1942. The evacuation ordeal is only two months old. Already University of California art professor Chiura Obata has set up art classes for his fellow detainees. This woman is probably only a few miles from home at this point but she’ll end up living in some horrid dusty “camp” in Utah or Arizona for years. She doesn’t know any of this yet. Perhaps art will help her survive. As Delphine Hirasuna wrote, “Everything was lost, except the courage to create.”*

As with all of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, this one is beautifully composed and executed. There’s a compositional tension between the vertical streaks of sunlight coming through the doors behind the artist, and the soft light washing over the horizontal surfaces of the tables. The placement of the larger tables focuses our eye on the small table holding the still life. Beneath the fruit bowl is a folded newspaper. It’s the Pacific Citizen, a weekly journal published by the Japanese American Citizens League. The headline is about the Relocation Centers. The paper has just moved from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to avoid being shut down. It will become the communication lifeline for the imprisoned Japanese American community. The whole scene conveys a quiet strength and dignity.

This image, and about 800 more of Dorothea’s Internment Camp photographs, were censored. Even though the War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the “evacuation,” military officials quietly made sure the public never saw the photographs. For many years after the war, Dorothea didn’t know what had become of her work. Eventually, the prints showed up in the National Archives with “Impounded” written across them.

Those in power didn’t want the public to see photographs of well-dressed, middle-class American citizens, mostly women and children, living in horse stalls with open sewers flowing outside their doors. There could be no pictures of guard towers, barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, and especially resistance. No one was supposed to see the depression and despair on the people’s faces. They had been good neighbors, fellow students, church members, valued customers, and upstanding citizens but now, according to war-time propaganda, they looked like the enemy.

Dorothea didn’t see it that way. She had friends behind the barbed wire and quietly focused her camera on the injustice. Others would have to censor her vision.

* from The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna.

For more of Dorothea’s photographs see: Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (Editors).

A Passing Dragon

Ouroboros is an ancient alchemical symbol showing a serpent or dragon eating its own tail — the visual representation of something constantly recreating itself. Uroboros  (alternate spelling) is also the name of a legendary glass maker in Portland, Oregon. In the art glass world, ties to the medieval art of alchemy are entirely appropriate. The recipes for creating certain colors, textures, patterns, and combinations are labored over and jealously guarded. Which is why when Uroboros announced it was going out of business earlier this year, many glass artists fell into deep mourning.

So did I. My grandfather and great-grandfather both worked for Tiffany Studios in New York during its heyday, so I grew up around windows and lamps made with luscious colored glass. Uroboros glass replicated the luminous materials produced by Tiffany between 1892 and 1928 — a nearly impossible task. If they stopped production, it would be a terrible loss to glass artists around the world.

Fortunately, like its name sake, Uroboros is being reborn as part of Oceanside Glasstile, another artsy West Coast company with a broad product line and economic viability. Artists are praying they will keep the magic alive but only time will tell.

What will die is Uroboros’ magical home in Portland. Built before the widespread use of artificial light, walls of windows flood the interior of the former railcar plant with natural light. The place feels like an enchanted combination of industrial smoking dragon and sparkling crystal palace. It has the patina of nearly a half century of use by creative minds. Will this ever happen in Portland again? Gentrification lurks just around the corner. If the building survives, it will probably become a trendy brew pub.

So if you appreciate authentic artistic spaces, and the crafts that create them, make a pilgrimage to Uroboros before this beloved dragon finishes swallowing its own tail.

Uroboros hopes to stay open at least until the end of April, 2017, but check here for updates:

Cranes in the Family

I love this historic Nevada picture! A Newe (Shoshone) gal and her tame Sandhill crane head out for a day of gathering … or gardening? She has her hoe and her basket and a bemused smile on her face as if to say, “What? You don’t have a pet this cool?”

If you want to know what it’s like to be adopted by a crane, read Dayton O. Hyde’s book, Sandy: The Sandhill Crane Who Joined Our Family. After rescuing an egg from floodwaters, Dayton gets it to hatch and has a feathered friend for life.

All that happened decades ago, before cranes became a protected species. Hatching out wild bird eggs is generally frowned upon these days. But there are marshes, irrigated fields, and riparian areas in the high desert where cranes will mosey up close, if you sit quietly and thank them for their long standing friendship.

Historic photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno.

The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”