Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The once and future Kansas

I wish I’d known when we arrived in early evening at the Pawnee Indian Museum near Republic that my uncle Troy Parker used to impress upon girls that he was a direct descendant of Cynthia Ann Parker and the famous Parker clan of central Texas. He was well aware of the lie, my father told me, but as a pickup line it had immediate name recognition and just enough plausibility to make it work.  Sometimes, anyway. Problem was, Pyote was a small town even then (and smaller now), and most people knew who everyone else belonged to, where they came from and, seeing as how the population was largely Baptist, where they going if they didn’t mend their ways. 

Lying, naturally, was a fast-track to a very hot place—hotter even than West Texas in July—but more than that, trying to attach himself to another family could be construed as a renunciation of his own kin. Nor did it help that the ruse was undertaken in the pursuit of wanton desires. With two strikes against him and a shrinking pool of unsuspecting dupes, Troy eventually went back to being himself, a son of hardscrabble ranchers in a hard, unforgiving land.

My wife and I had come to the museum to hear Kansas film-maker Audrey Kalivoda  speak about her recent documentary entitled “Following the Parker Trail.” She had spent two-and-a-half years tracing their route from Maryland down through what was then an untamed wilderness, often following trails that were little more than animal paths. Like so many others of that era, they might have been just another pioneer family that lived and died in obscurity if not for what happened on May 19, 1836.

On that fateful morning, a band of about 200 Comanche and Kiowa Indians descended on what was known as Fort Parker, a heavily-fortified compound. Unfortunately for the Parkers, they had left the main gain wide open. Nine-year-old Cynthia Ann was whisked away, as were four others, and several men killed. The other prisoners were eventually ransomed and released, but Cynthia Ann wasn’t seen again for almost 25 years. She was found when Texas Rangers massacred an encampment of women and children on the Pease River, and with great fanfare returned to her family. The reverse acclimation from Comanche to Anglo proved impossible, however, and she died not long after of a broken heart.

I knew the story—as Kalivoda said, “If you’re from Texas and don’t know the Parkers, it’s like saying you never heard of the Alamo.” I knew about the Navajo and the Zuni, the Acoma and the Apache,  but I didn’t know much about the Pawnee or the Otoe or the Kansa, the tribes that roamed what is now our adopted state. I was hoping the museum would enlighten me.

We arrived early. While waiting, we wandered the grounds reading the interpretive signs and gleaning what we could of the village and the people who once lived there. What struck me was the view—the village was built on high ground with a 360-degree vista over rolling hills and the wooden ribbon of the Republican River. The view was the first line of defense; a surrounding earthen barricade was the second. Slanting hard from a few degrees above the horizon, the sun brought the terrain into sharp contrast, and nowhere more evocatively than on the museum’s lawn. Each shadowed dip and fold was a sunken remnant of what once was a village. 

With more time to kill, we followed a dead-end road to an old iron bridge spanning the river. The bridge was cordoned off, the road closed in perpetuity. Backtracking past the museum to the town of Republic, we drove the few streets to get a feel for the place. Like so many other small rural towns, it had fallen on hard times. No more than a fading shadow of itself, its shuttered buildings and hollow windows were open to the sky, and the cracked and potholed streets pooling shadows in the lingering light. The Pawnees had been here first and had left few traces other than slight indentations on the land. It was easy to imagine a future traveler standing at the spot on some distant late-summer afternoon, each shadowed dip and fold a sunken remnant of what once was a village.


Anonymous said...

Interesting family heritage story, Tom. I enjoyed it...and had wanted to read more about your ancestor who'd been taken by Indians. Sorry to learn that she died so shortly after being returned to her family.

Tom Parker said...

Well, I'm glad you enjoyed the story but Cynthia Ann was no relation of ours. That branch of the Parker family was fairly well off with political influence, and my family was fairly not-so-well off and had zero influence. But none of us were kidnapped, either!

shoreacres said...

I made it to some of those fading-away towns, and love your view of them from some future horizon. Of course, the other side of it is that there's still life out there. Some of it's visible. Some isn't. But the life is there.

You mention of the Pawnees and their "indentations" on the land reminds me of the admonition to hikers and backpackers: "Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories."

Tom Parker said...

Oh, I agree, Linda--as one guy told me, "This dog ain't dead yet." But some towns, more than others, are hanging on by their broken and bloody fingernails, and they won't see the dawn of a new millennium.