Empathizing With Everyone: Patty Limerick and Violence in Western History

A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874, one of several clashes between Southern Plains Indians and the U.S. Army during the Red River War. Image from TARL Collections (TMM-1988-21 Reverse).


Folktales will return next week.  The recent discussion about Oregon counties reminded me that we can feel compassion for everyone.  There’s no need to ration compassion, as the human heart can be infinitely elastic. In Patty Limerick’s words:

Refusing restraint, empathy defied and transgressed the most clearly marked lines of antagonism and opposition,

So I thought I’d post this piece by University of Colorado history professor Patty Limerick that talks about her journey toward CTA (compassion or empathy toward all) in terms of Western American history.  Which is not unrelated to #EnvironmentWithoutEnemies.  Somehow many environmental (including forest) issues have folks involved who tend to see “good guys” and “bad guys’.  Or black-and-white issues (e.g., salvage logging must always be bad).  Or perhaps they don’t really think that way, but choose to communicate in those ways because they think good guy-bad guy narratives get more clicks, or portraying something as black-and-white is more persuasive.  Hard to tell. There are also many people who don’t see the world this way, but perhaps it is more difficult to find them on social media.

Anyway, Here’s the link to Patty’s entire piece and an excerpt below.

In the early 1990s, I called a halt to this awkward effort at self-protection and wrote an essay called “Haunted America” on violent conflicts between whites and Indians. This essay appeared in a book of photographs taken at places where calamities and tragedies had occurred. With rare exceptions, most of these sites had become places of forgetfulness, without any visible indication of the brutal events of the past.

For three months, I read nothing but stories of violent encounters between Indian people and Euro-American soldiers and settlers. When I woke in the middle of the night and when I got up in the morning, my mind found no refuge from bullets, knives, arrows, sabers, ropes for hanging, and torches for burning.

Soon, there was nothing left of the emotional distance I had tried to keep between me and the violence of the Western past.

There is no question of who provoked these wars and who invaded whom. Euro-American people were the invaders, and Indian people were the inhabitants of the lands the invaders wanted.

And yet, immersed in wrenching stories of violence, I lost the ability to choose sides.

I empathized with Indian people, who had been besieged, pursued, and attacked in episodes beyond counting.

I empathized with settlers, who were often genuinely oblivious to their status as disruptive invaders, but who became, for reasons that would be hard to miss, targets of attack.

When people suffered devastating attacks on their homes, I responded with equal anguish to the miseries inflicted on families of Indian people, families of white people, and, maybe most vulnerable of all, families of people of mixed heritage.

Refusing restraint, empathy defied and transgressed the most clearly marked lines of antagonism and opposition, and I found myself unable to discount the ordeals of the soldiers who had been placed squarely in the middle of situations where resentment, retaliation, and rage ruled.

Many of these soldiers were immigrants who arrived in the United States with little money and who saw signing up as soldiers as one of their few routes to opportunity. Others were African American men who were emancipated slaves, or refugees from the injustices of Southern tenant farming and sharecropping. Meanwhile, even if Army officers may have come from origins in what we would now call “white privilege,” there was nothing that could pass for comfort or ease in the life of soldiers from the white working class.

Indisputably an army of invasion, this was also an army of unreliable equipment and inadequate clothing, especially in seasons of heat and cold; meager and often inedible rations; and constant risk of accidents, exposure, illness, exhaustion, and injury and death in battle. Perhaps most important, the soldiers faced these risks because they were following the orders and executing the policies decreed by distant presidents, senators, congressmen, and appointed officials who had only a sketchy knowledge of the conditions in the West.

Yes, these soldiers participated in devastating military campaigns against Indian people. But nothing in their stories could convince me to lead the campaign for their demonization.

By the time I sat down to write the essay, I had empathized with nearly everyone. But a few individuals, who had moved through life with a savage and intentional cruelty, gave empathy a chance to take a break. In truth, it was a relief to come upon dreadful people who I could simply find contemptible.

I’m not sure that we have any of those in our (forest) world.

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