For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
Hollywood does Captain Jack (Name that oreum, Part 3)
The next time you pull an American $50 bill out of your tote bag take a close look at that man in the middle, Ulysses S. Grant. I am about to share with you here my story about this militarist past-President’s expensive, frustrating, punitive little war waged in 1872-1873 against a small band of Modoc Indian rebels. They had tasted reservation life and didn’t like it. Now they were fighting a last stand for their collective destiny (togetherness in the near and distant future) within their ancestral homeland.
If the Modocs had won this impossible war, America would be a very different place today. Imagine, for example, a Modoc war chief named “Captain Jack” replacing Grant on that banknote.
But don’t let me get ahead of myself. In the spring of 1873, 50 or so Modoc warriors (the “Hot Creek” branch of the Modocs) and their families were holed up and secure in a natural fortress in a volcanic wilderness. They were under siege, but making an impressive statement to the entire country about the virtue of staunch perseverance against overwhelming adversity.
While Grant sat in the White House, many thousands of miles away in the Pacific Northwest, in the remotest northern reaches of the State of California, the Hot Creek Modocs were holding off a deadly coalition comprised of the American Army, combined California and Oregon militias, diverse long-time tribal enemies — and Manifest Destiny itself (which appeared to be slowing towards a halt in the Far West as long as the Modocs blocked in the Pathway of Progress.
Meanwhile, restless packs of dirt-poor farmers, miners, business entrepreneurs and property speculators, all of whom coveted the considerable natural resources of the Modoc homeland, hastily gravitated from afar to the safer perimeters of the battlefield. There, they chomped at their bits in anticipation of an Army victory and the slaughter of the Modocs. This would leave them free to swarm into the void of the battle’s aftermath to stake their various claims to the forfeited Modoc homeland.
But the Modocs were physically and psychologically prepared to fight and win. Before the public eye then, Civil War hero and now President of the United States General Ulysses S. Grant unexpectedly found himself and his corrupt administration being publicly humiliated by the example of valor and fortitude set by these besieged but feisty Modocs.
Reporters and camp followers on the battlefront, who fairly outnumbered all those cavalry riding against the elusive, lethal Modoc defenders, contributed blow-by-blow accounts of the siege and kept newspaper subscribers across the continent on tenterhooks while awaiting the latest updates from the war zone.
Grant was concerned and annoyed because the nation was becoming divided as to the justness of this (in his opinion) mismanaged, trifling war. Few Americans in that day and age were unsentimental racists and wanted the “savage renegades” wiped out as ruthlessly as deemed necessary. But an increasing minority of the general public — Quakers, romantics, idealists and such — perceived the Modocs more sympathetically: These Modocs were “noble savages” and the “last of the Mohicans” of their present era. They dared to reject the yoke of an exotic industrial civilization encroaching into their own backyard. The Modocs were striving to achieve on their own terms the impossible Native American dream of true sovereignty and self-determination. This was no doubt a dream shared secretly by God only knows how many other peoples in America resigned and consigned to laboring under the industrial yoke in the employ of total strangers.
The Modocs were an ancient people intimately adapted to and in essence inseparable from their extensive homeland of lakes and lava. They could not have known the extent to which future generations might construe their valiant fight at the Stronghold as a pivotal juncture in history of the pioneering West. But they fought as if they did.
Nature mysteriously seemed to be on their side during this battle in the lava beds. When the aggressors rolled in their howitzers and prepared to attack in force, a heavy snow fell to thwart their plan. And when the snow melted away and they actually attacked, fog intervened to give the Modoc warriors a demonstrated military advantage. Thus, again and again during the early months of 1873 U.S. Army assaults on the Modoc fortress went awry. Sporadic thrusts of government and mercenary troops into the Stronghold were all beaten back. The intruders suffered high casualties.
Meanwhile, within their Stronghold, the Modocs were riding a spiritual high under the influence of their own special brand of mystical nativism. They had a charismatic shaman named Curly-Headed-Doctor who had mesmerized the warriors and their families into believing an optimistic prophecy about the outcome of the war. He persuaded that a miracle was close at hand, and so convinced the warriors to fight on valiantly.
Above all, the Modocs had come to believe in the prophecy of victory that would be secured through the efficacy of their ghost dance and drum ritual. The ghost dance originated with the Paiutes, whose ancestral lands bordered Modoc territory several tens of miles from the Stronghold, to the east.
Curly-Headed-Doctor had learned the ghost dance ritual from the very shaman who had invented it. They had fought side by side against the U.S. Army five years previous, at the Battle of the Infernal Caverns. The terrain there (as the name implies) was similar to the surroundings at Captain Jack’s Stronghold. For both the Paiutes and the Modocs — and later as well for the Sioux in the Dakotas — the ghost dance proved to be some powerful medicine, in the short run.
Indeed, modern students of the Modoc War have generally concluded that the ghost-dance-and-drum ritual was for the Modocs a most powerful psychological weapon irrespective of the material forces being waged against them. Some even say that the Modoc War boiled down to a religious war between the traditional spiritual powers of an indigenous shamanism against a modern material aggression of industrialism closely associated with the white man’s Christianity.
How demoralizing it must have been for the thousand armed aggressors of all stripes surrounding Captain Jack’s stronghold — who had yet to win a single battle — to have to stand on guard on pins and needles night after night within earshot of the eerie chorus of the Modoc ghost dancers.
Somewhere deep within the labyrinthine volcanic Stronghold, amidst the myriad knobs, caves, crags and ravines, was a ceremonial circle that none of the aggressors had yet to see, but could only fearfully imagine. From the center of that circle emanated the foreboding drum beat and chant of the ghost dancers prepping for their next fight. Encircling Curly-Headed-Doctor the dancers held hands and shouted out while shuffling back and forth as the Spirits moved them, entranced, until they dropped from exhaustion.
“What did you see?” Curly-Headed-Doctor would interrogate those who had fallen while yet bedazzled.
“It is just as you prophesized!” They would reply.
Thus, in semi-consciousness the ghost dancers all reported back similar results experienced during their vision quests. In a nutshell, they agreed that their deceased brethren now in the Spirit World would soon reassemble in the ancestral homeland to live on through eternity in peace. Coincidentally the White Man will have suddenly vanished, inexplicably, from the Earth.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!” went the drum. Shuffle, shuffle. shuffle, on they danced; meanwhile chanting repeatedly; all through the night. How could an Army private from Ohio facing the mystery of the Stronghold begin to fathom what he was up against come daybreak? He could not sleep. He was terrified.
How appropriate that the only Hollywood movie to date that revisits the action of the Modoc War is titled “Drum Beat.”
Next Week: Connecting caves and parallel histories