Sunday, January 22, 2017

Joe Starita's "A Warrior of the People"

For the last twelve years, Joe Starita has held an endowed professorship at the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism. He was the New York Bureau Chief for Knight-Ridder newspapers and a veteran investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. His stories have won more than three dozen awards, one of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting. His books include The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge, which won the MPIBA Award and received a second Pulitzer nomination, and “I am a Man.”: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice.

Starita applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor, and reported the following:
From page 99:
During Susan’s two years at Hampton, there was a young oak tree not far from Winona Lodge. In 1861, not long after the Civil War began, a Union officer at Hampton’s Fort Monroe made a startling announcement: Should any slaves make it to Union lines, he said, they would be safe, they would not be returned. They would be free. Soon, hundreds of slaves began pouring into the fort, seeking their freedom. A camp to house them was built outside the fort. Then came a push to offer some kind of schooling, although it was against Virginia’s 1831 law to educate slaves.

Nevertheless, Mary Smith Peake, the mulatto daughter of a free black mother and a French father, was invited to begin teaching the recently arrived former slaves. So on September 17, 1861, she conducted her first class of about twenty students under the shade of the young oak tree. One day a few years later, in 1863, members of the area’s black community once again gathered beneath the tree. They had all come to hear something they couldn’t quite believe: the first reading on southern soil of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Some wept openly at the words. Over time, the tree became known as the Emancipation Oak.

It still stands today – near the entrance to the Hampton University campus.
So what happens when you’ve lived on your lands for millennia and a more powerful outside force comes along and blows up your culture? Forbids your language, religion, dances, customs and clothing. Who do you become?

What happens when you’re hunted down, captured and beaten, stolen from the only homeland you’ve ever known, shipped away in chains to another world? A place where it’s illegal to learn to read and write. To vote, own property, move about as you please. Who are you when someone else chooses your identity?

What happens when you’re an 8-year-old girl and you sit through the night with an elderly woman, watching helplessly as she dies an agonizing death, vowing you will do something one day to prevent it. But you’re an Indian woman in the Victorian Era and an entrenched white male establishment lobbies forcefully against women attending college. The stress, they claim, will destroy a woman’s reproductive organs, render them infertile, threatening the existence of mankind.

Page 99 helps provide a powerful anchor for Chapter 4: “Can Black Children and Red Children Become White Citizens?” It’s a pivotal chapter that frames a key theme of the book: The fragile nature of cultural identity. Who gets to determine how we see ourselves? The chapter details Hampton University’s early attempts to use education as a post-Civil War tool to help integrate the sons and daughters of slaves and chiefs into the American mainstream.

Later chapters reveal in detail how Susan La Flesche, the youngest daughter of an Omaha Indian chief, used her Hampton experience as a springboard to eventually fulfill the vow she’d made as an 8-year-old. In the end, her genius was to delicately thread a bicultural needle, to absorb the best of American education without ever losing her Native soul. So she ignored the white male establishment. Instead, she found a way to get into the only medical college in the world that accepted women. And on March 14, 1889, she graduated No. 1 in her class, becoming the first Indian doctor in U.S. history – 31 years before women could vote and 35 years before Indians could become citizens in the lands they had lived on forever.
Visit Joe Starita's website.

Writers Read: Joe Starita.

--Marshal Zeringue