Google celebrates the 155th Anniversary of the Pony Express, and as a purveyor of information in the digital age, it is hard not to observe its fall into the age old trap of Romantic Nationalism. While there is no doubting the place of the Pony Express in the history of the United States, there are parts of this story that are conveniently left out. In glorifying colonial history, Google fails to mention the other things the Pony Express carried with it: devastation and dispossession of the original inhabitants of this land, powered by Manifest Destiny, the great justified land grab.
Unfortunately, the swell little video that Google produced whitewashes the troubles of the west, perpetuating the romantic tall tales to which the United States has grown so attached. In mentioning the Gold Rush, for example, and the need to communicate across the plains, Google rhapsodizes about how ‘very dangerous’ the trek was without ever addressing WHY it was dangerous.
Oh, I don’t know, maybe it was because those people actually living on the land were being aggressively and violently removed from their home lands, resources and what not?
The Gold Rush alone resulted in the complete annihilation and extinction of entire tribes, all in the name of greed. Google wouldn’t have you look at it that way, of course, but instead as a happy and exciting time of innovation that did nothing more than shape this country under the flag of right, truth and freedom! As the go-to resource for information in the digital age, it seems pretty short sighted to negate the impact these actions had on an entire population of people.
The tradition of “American” history is to tell the parts that build up the propagandist agenda of Nationalism. That propaganda plays into the hands of building the “American Dream”, a distraction from the truth that corporations and those in the top 1% would assume to control us through the mechanisms of advertising or the repetitive power of images calculated to make us see the world in a particular way. Within all of that is a conspiracy to cover up the dirty and inhumane aspects of Western Culture in America to erase an entire population of human beings. What undermines the scores of statements surrounding opportunity, freedom and righteousness more than America’s relations with Indigenous people? If you’re not familiar, let me explain:
It is estimated that between 50 and 100 million people were here on this continent prior to first contact in 1492. While many have blamed disease, few can deny the documented destruction of Indigenous people and cultures through torture, mutilation, slavery, and death. Christopher Columbus alone was responsible for enslaving Indigenous people on the island that would now be the Dominican Republic, facilitating the rape of women, death of children, and mutilation of those that would not find their coveted gold. Even the atrocities committed in the infancy this country paled in comparison to the Trail of Tears and the bounty hunting of those that would stand in the way of ‘progression’ called Manifest Destiny. Those bounties are the very definition of the term ‘Redskin’, in reference to the bloody red skins that were obtained as proof of Indian kill to collect said bounty. Those skins would be severed limbs, genitalia, heads, scalps and even the removed skin, or Indian pelts, of living breathing Indigenous people.
And so we come back to the romanticized view of The Pony Express. By framing this symbolism in the context of the progress of communication and perseverance in the face of adversity, it ignores the fact that this adversity was equally, if not more so, that of those who would inhabit these lands before anyone else. I take pride in knowing that my own tribe played a role in disruption of mail service in the spring/summer of 1860.
The outbreak of the Paiute Indian War was facilitated by a permanent station of the Pony Express and served to heighten tensions with settlers. While the average, red-blooded American might hear this and think “but people just want their mail,” perhaps the better question would be “why was the Pony Express the tipping point to a major Indian war in the Great Basin area”? Of course, none of this is in our history books, and independent institutions like Google simply follow the status quo, erasing indigenous experience in an effort to uphold the tradition of romanticizing those who would oppress them, all in the name of opportunity, industry and ‘freedom’.
Whose freedom, exactly?
Gregg Deal is a husband, a father, an artist and a member of the Paiute Tribe of Pyramid Lake. As a provocative contemporary artist/activist and 16 year resident of the DC metro area, much of Gregg’s work deals with indigenous identity and pop-culture, touching on issues of race relations, historical consideration and stereotype. This is especially true with Gregg’s performance piece, The Last American Indian On Earth, a work that exploits the stereotypes that exist in American culture while challenging the viewer’s considerations of the indigenous as both contemporary and relic. Within this work, as well as his paintings and mural work, Gregg advances issues within Indian country such as decolonization, the mascot issue (local and across the US) and appropriation. Within the context of such heavy subject matter, Gregg speaks intelligently to these issues, brings a sharp wit, and is keenly aware of his place as an indigenous man and a contemporary artist. You can follow him on twitter @greggdeal.