The Meanderings of Troubled Mind Through Shipshewana

By Jack Riordan

November 5, 2018

Why would a wine group go to Shipshewana Indiana; it’s a dry and 4-hour drive? Our Frugal Grape gang makes a yearly, weekend excursion for a gabfest, taste interesting wines and foods, plus explore.  Knowing it was dry each couple brought wines to share plus an elaborate array of munchies which, as we age are more consumed than the wines. Shipshewana in the northeast corner of Indiana was much more interesting than expected and it helped to focus a problem that has troubled me. What is the source of the hatred that persistently permeates America.

Shipshewana is a colorful Amish community with hundreds of horse drawn carriages and their excrement. They follow strict forms of Anabaptism like Quakers that does not allow automobiles or wires into their homes.  However, the area surrounding the town is full of well maintained, prosperous farms. The Amish have devised many ways to succeed in business and be comfortable in their homes.  We saw solar panels on some buildings which are used to power water systems. In almost all the fields were large rolling irrigation machinery. We learned that they do not have any form of insurance but assurance; their community covers losses and provides cars for the sick and elderly to appointments. They rely on each other; all internal transactions are cash. The speak three Languages German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and English, formal education ends at the 8th grade. Generally, they do not vote, they wear simple costumes, believe in separation of Church and State and try to be independent and isolated as possible.

The high point of the weekend was a Saturday evening dinner in the home of an Amish family.  Their home had running water and a modern bath room with flush toilet.  The kitchen was lit by a propane light fixture suspended from the ceiling; a similar fixture over our enormous table was not a light but a battery power lantern was hanging from it. Our gracious hosts told us much about the beliefs and behaviors; she also explained that the white oak table could be double in size to accommodate some of the folks who attend the light lunch following a Gathering for religious services each family in their church must host. Our dinner was simple tasty fried chicken, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, frozen peas and carrots, salad and homemade bread with homemade sweetened peanut butter; it finished with pumpkin pie.

Learning the origin of Shipshewana was the low point.  Shipshewana was the Chief of a small band of Potawatomi Indians who had made their camp around a beautiful lake. The area had lakes, streams, swamps, and forest full of game. They grew corn, squash, beans and tobacco on clearings in the dense virgin forest and were able to easily contact other Potawatomi.  It was ideal for their hunter gatherer culture. The Potawatomi lived in peace and comfort for hundreds of years.  Their idyllic existence was crushed after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which authorized President Andrew Jackson to confiscate land occupied by Native Americans in existing States by any means and move them to land in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. The Indian lands were sold to raise money to cover the outstanding debt from the Revolutionary and War of 1812.  In 1838, Chief Shipshewana’s band along with other Potawatomi, 859 men women and children were marched 665 miles in 61 days to Kansas on what became known as the Trail of Death.  The next year he was allowed to return to his old camp where in 1841 he died along the shore of beautiful Shipshewana Lake.

I told this to the Lady with Cats.  She said the shameful way the colonial rulers and our government treated the Indians reflected an attitude that unfortunately still exists today; some people and cultures are not considered worthy.  The hundreds of broken treaties and the forced removal of the indigenous people – is it part of the justification that white Christian Europeans are superior to all other homo sapiens?

During the last year, I was able to visit two Indian Reservations – Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki of the Seminole, the only Amerindians not defeated by Americans.  In the middle of Florida’s Everglades there are large prosperous farms and ranches of the remnant Seminoles; an exquisite museum built with funds from a casino near Miami. It demonstrates the quality of their culture and their persistent determination that they are as good as or better than the rest of us. It is to educate the children and the rest of us.

The second is inside the City of Quebec Canada; the town of Wendake is a first Nation reserve of the Huron/Wendat Indians.  They split from the rest of their tribe when they became Catholics. Except for the signs in their language i.e. SETEN for STOP, the rest of the town looks just like the rest of middle-income Quebec.  There is an historic Church built in 1730 linked to the First Nation. To demonstrate their culture there is a small enclave with a long house and other structures used before European arrived.  A cedar built long house had three fires that burned 24/7; each fire was used by 4 families.  All occupants were under the direction of the oldest female who assigned daily work to men, women and children. In the town was an excellent hotel spa, and museum.  Our historically regaled guide said he was no longer a Catholic but was an Animist the religion of his ancestors believing there was a spirit in all-natural objects. These Amerindians are involved in many modern enterprises and broadly promote their culture accomplishments.

During my recent travels to New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, I came across the third edition of an excellent history of Amerindians, “We Were Not the Savages” by Daniel N. Paul of the Mi’kmaq tribe which originally occupied much of the Maritime Provence.  It explains some of the earliest contact with the French and English, who treated the indigenous people as inferior beings to be used and abused. That attitude still exists today by many White, Christian Americans despite ample evidence of the success of nonwhite immigrants. 

Long before Columbus, five tribes that lived along the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River formed a democratic confederation with three levels of governance, it even had a provision where the senior women could remove chiefs for malfeasance.  There is evidence that Benjamin Franklin used this as a model for our Democracy. There is ample evidence we are not superior, and that we even learned democracy from the people whose land we took by hook or by crook.  

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