Owen Thursday was unimpressed. With the new command the Army had given him. With his own prospects for achievement and glory. And most of all with the appearance of the local Native Americans — “digger Indians” he dismissively called them — which he had been sent west to keep under control, by force if necessary.
He was already depressed by the fact that the much smaller post-Civil War Army in which he continued to serve no longer needed so many generals, and so he was now, as he said, being paid as a lieutenant colonel.
Capt. Kirby Yorke welcomed Col. Thursday to his new command, and tried to impress upon the newcomer the long-standing reputation of the Apaches as fierce warriors, worthy foes, who had once run off the formidable Sioux.
“I suggest the Apache has deteriorated since then,” Thursday observed, “judging by a few of the specimens I’ve seen on my way out here”
No, I’m not going all Ronald Reagan on you, confusing, in my old age, the plot of an old movie with real events. That story was a movie. A really great movie. John Ford’s “Fort Apache,” with Henry Fonda as Col. Thursday, John Wayne as Capt. Yorke and every grizzled old Irish actor in Hollywood as the rest of the U.S. Cavalry.
Not only is the 1948 black and white movie a classic — much of it filmed in Utah — it also plays remarkably against type for the two stars. Hollywood liberal Fonda is the stand-in for Col. George Armstrong Custer, racist and seeking personal glory at the expense of Indians and his own command. Jingoistic Wayne is the defender of the Indians’ honor and their rights.
Lambasting the corrupt Indian agents who were supposed to help the Apache live peacefully and well on their reservation, but tricked and swindled them instead, Yorke delivers a list of indignities that pushed Cochise to break his treaty with the U.S. government, leave the reservation and take his people to Mexico. It’s a statement that has echoes of the Civil Right Movement to come 20 years later.
“Whiskey but no beef; trinkets instead of blankets; the women degraded; the children sickly; and the men turning into drunken animals,” Yorke expounded. “So Cochise did the only thing a decent man could do. He left.”
Eventually, Yorke’s pleas for the dignity of the Indians go unheeded and Thursday suffers his own little Little Big Horn in Monument Valley.
In the real Utah of the present day, it has not been the Apache who go unseen by their own design. It is the Navajo who have long been invisible due to the inability, or unwillingness, of local, state and federal officials to see them.
There is reason to hope, though, that the same United States government that so mistreated Cochise will now stand up for the Navajo. Or, at least, be able to see them. The feds (not the Cavalry) will, with luck, set off a political ripple that will change Utah’s path to the advantage of everyone.
By learning to see, and to count, Navajo, the Census Bureau and the federal courts stand to redraw the power structure, first of San Juan County and later of the rest of the region. First would come the plan, ordered by a federal judge, to redraw the county commission and school board districts in San Juan County in a way that the Navajo gain power in proportion to their numbers. Which basically means they would be in charge.
And, having gained that power, the Navajo would see that it would be harder for state officials and Utah’s congressional delegation to ignore their plight, and their dreams. No longer would the pipe dreams of coal and oil riches, or the mythical return of the cattle empire, rule. Instead, respect, preservation, recreation and tourism would become politically dominant and economically sustainable.
The reported plan of the White House to slash the size of the Bears Ears National Monument, the creation of which was the culmination of years of effort by the duly elected leaders of the Navajo and other Native nations, would be a modern, and real, version of Col. Thursday’s desire to win fame and glory for himself by demeaning and degrading the Apache.
There’s no other rational explanation for what’s happening.
In the movie, of course, the Native nations won the battle but lost the war. Today, in real life, it promises to be the opposite. With ballots and legal briefs taking the place of guns and arrows.
And that will be another made-in-Utah classic.
George Pyle, the Tribune’s editorial page editor, is still waiting for the Navajo Nation to open an embassy in Salt Lake City. In case he ever needs to seek asylum. firstname.lastname@example.org