Saturday, April 09, 2005

Controversy in Clarksville

In the town of Clarksville, Missouri, there is a controversy as to whether a long-closed tourist attraction, built on an Indian burial mound, should be reopened. The Clarksville Skylift, a chair lift of the type normally seen on ski slopes, used to take visitors from the town next to the river, to the top of the bluff, offering stunning views of the river below; the top structure is built directly on a burial mound, and the graves are now being exposed due to erosion. The current owner wants to reopen the attraction, while the Sac and Fox Nation want the graves protected.

Clarksville is located 75 highway miles from downtown Saint Louis, in Pike County, on route 79 between Elsberry and Louisiana, Missouri. It is situated on the Mississippi River at the base of steep bluff called The Pinnacle, which towers more than 300 feet above the river. Federal Lock and Dam 24 is here also. Clarksville is near the mouth of Calumet Creek, named after the American French dialectical word for an Indian ceremonial pipe.

The Skylift closed in the 1990s due to safety concerns. According to a Hannibal Courier-Post article, neighbors were also concerned with dogs collecting bones from the site. Local business owners would like the Skylift reopened to help encourage the tourist trade, especially since many of the business owners are artisans who have set up shops in this spectacularly beautiful area, and depend on outsiders for sales. Some local political leaders, such as the current mayor, are more sympathetic with the concerns of the Indian tribes, although they are under pressure from potential lawsuits. It is a Class D felony in Missouri to disturb unmarked graves, and the Federal government has additional laws regarding Indian remains.

Some possible solutions to this problem are rebuilding the Skylift, ignoring the Indian claims; removing the Skylift and keeping the site as a cemetery; and third, removing the remains. Clearly, the first won't happen -- graves are there and the law won't allow it. The third solution would be the contemporary solution.

In our current Culture of Death, we both want the right to kill our unwanted children, elderly, depressed, and disabled, but we don't want any reminders -- or evidence -- of it. Moderns don't want to be reminded of death, which is so very far removed from the ancient Catholic practice of being in the presence of death daily. Cremation and scattering of the ashes is the most progressive manner of dealing with the dead, which leaves absolutely no evidence that a loved one is gone; no grave, no body, no monument, no relics, no reminders of mortality. That way we can live our lives without any unpleasant reminders. Perhaps, we think, our departed friend is just away on vacation. This is also the best way to run a concentration or re-education camp: leave no evidence of atrocities committed.

As a child, I used to fear the old churches, which had adjoining cemeteries, and especially the Catholic churches which had above-ground tombs or even exposed relics. As I matured, I gained an appreciation of these reminders of my own mortal existence. Now as a Catholic, I am joyful at the opportunity of being able to pray in the presence of relics of a Saint, and also to pray for the repose of the soul of the departed.

Our modern churches, even Catholic churches, are sanitized and have few reminders of our earthly fate. Cemeteries are no longer adjacent to the church, and altars are no longer icons of tombs, or even actual tombs, like the ancient altars of the catacombs.

So the Indian burial mounds are an unpleasant reminder of death and most would have them done away with or ignored. And progress is being impeded. Current practice for subdivision development is the removal of the old pioneer cemeteries, and recently a massive removal of graves was done next to the Lambert-Saint Louis airport. The cemeteries of downtown Saint Louis were removed after the Cholera epidemic of 1848-1849, for health reasons, but the modern removals are to avoid unpleasantness. We all will die sometime, but we don't want to be reminded of it.

Some Christians worry that giving the land back to the Indian Nations would be inviting unwanted heathen practices in their town. Heathen or not, however, all human remains are holy relics, remnants of a temple of the Holy Spirit made in the Image and Likeness of God, and deserve to be protected. I understand that the Skylift is in disrepair; perhaps a better site could be found for a new Skylift nearby?

Catholic missionary work with the Indians in the United States centered primarily along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and was wildly successful, and even now half of American Indians are Catholic. This model of missions was successful because it worked with populations in their own environment, land, and culture, and didn't try to make the Indians just regular Americans nor did it try to change their way of life; moral standards, if not practice, among the heathen Indians were quite high and were not much different from the moral standards of Catholicism. This should not be surprising, since the Moral Law is written into the hearts of all men, of all nations. A Catholic missionary, helping Indians live up to their own moral code, did God's work, for many Indians, like Whites, were greedy and lustful, caused pain to their fellow countrymen, and did not follow the Universal Moral Law. And they knew it: most Indians of the Missouri River Valley were very happy to be visited by the Black Robes, or Jesuits. They hated the constant intertribal wars, adultery, drunkenness, and murder as much as anyone else, and Catholic missions worked against these evils. And Catholic Christianity has been well-received everywhere it has been preached, and the American frontier is no exception. Much Protestant missionary work did not succeed, since it too often was used by the Whites as a way of manipulating the Indians to go on reservations. Compare the U.S. experience with Latin America: in the South, the Catholic tribes remain where they always were, keeping their customs and lands, but now living up to their own moral code, in peace, and being a part of a larger whole: their country and the Universal Church. Of course, secular Latin American governments do not like this, and are attempting cultural genocide (and eliminating Catholicism while they are at it), by forcing people to move to the cities for wage labor.

Sadly, Progressive-minded Americans of the late 19th century saw the Indians as impediments to the expansion of the country and attempted to either eliminate or relocate the Indians. This is quite unlike the experience in Latin America. Not willing to coexist with them, they had them killed. I recall reading some accounts of the Army attacking villages while Mass was being said, with the priest being killed along with his flock. The typical Cavalry-versus-Indians war had as actors secular Americans fighting Catholic Indians. Scientifically-educated men of the 1880s knew that Indians were evolutionary behind Whites, and Darwinian Survival of the Fittest ensures, and may even morally demand, the elimination of weaker races. Catholicism was viewed as not being a progressive religion, since it dogmatically preached that all men are created equal, while ignoring scientific theories that proposed that some races are more highly evolved than others.

Clarksville is the home of Mary Queen of Peace Catholic mission, which holds Mass on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. Do not forget that this is still mission territory.

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