Monday, August 9, 2010

The Shoot-Out

My husband died last week in a shoot-out with Shoshone Indians on the Oregon Trail, and while it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else (including my husband), I find myself brooding over the situation as I put away laundry and wash dishes.

We were approached by six Shoshone Indians on horseback. There were seven of us, and we panicked. Well, the kids did. One of them wanted to start shooting right away. The other convinced him to call their grandparents.

The reasoning was quite rational. It went like this: you can’t outrun them. You’ve got oxen and a wagon. If you try to talk to them, and they’re “fierce,” you won’t have a chance to get to your guns. So the safest, most logical thing to do was shoot.

And they did.
Yeah, we were pretending. But my kids still chose to shoot at innocent strangers rather than talk first. They were caught up in the simulation, I know. In real life we don’t even own any guns, and we never shoot strangers. I’m taking it too seriously, I’ve been told.
But I played the simulation with my husband before the kids began. I knew that the situation could be gotten out of with a friendly conversation and a gift. Like most things in life, if we will use our words, we will have less trouble.
The “guns” we shot were just rolls of the dice. The Indians were make-believe. Nobody got hurt, not really. “But,” I asked them, “who were these men you killed? Brothers? Fathers? Husbands?” And even now I want to weep. Because I know that these imaginary people in a history simulation represent real people who were killed just as senselessly as my sweet children rolled the dice.
Yes, it seemed safer to just shoot. In many ways, it often seems safer to just shoot. Then we don’t have to worry about understanding other people, being hurt, risking ourselves in an attempt to cross the chasm between one human heart and another.
But I believe in stepping away from my guns and risking my life to cross the prairie to a stranger, hand held out in friendship. It doesn’t sound like much, not shooting strangers for fear they’ll shoot you first, but sometimes…when you’ve run out of food and outrun cholera and winter’s approaching…sometimes life is hard, and it’s easy to think only of survival. In those difficult, stretched-to-the-point-of-breaking times, that’s when we really choose Who to follow, and survival was not a message He preached.
My husband and I have a strict policy of non-intervention with this simulation. We let them buy the snake oil from Professor Thaddeus P. Farnsworth and get sick trying it. We let them bring the silverware and every spare part a wagon could need, even though that meant bringing less food. We giggled but said nothing when they decided to buy oxen instead of donkeys, since that meant they wouldn’t have to bring donkey food. We knew those oxen would come to places where the grass was too scarce to eat, would pull the wagon too slowly and leave them fighting blizzards and avalanches.
We let them decide to shoot the Indians, too.
The simulation does not teach you what to think. It’s merely fact, choices, odds, dice. If you try to outrun the Indians, they’ll ride beside you and laugh. If you try to talk to them, they’ll trade with you. If you shoot them, they’ll shoot back. The impetus to give meaning to these outcomes is on us as teachers.
I’ve told the kids what I think: they killed innocent people. But you can see in their faces that the information does not register, not really. They think they went left when they should have gone right, made an error of judgment. They don’t see the deeper significance. They don’t see that these six characters represented real people.
So we’re reading about Native Americans for the next few weeks. We’ve learned that the Hopis are a subgroup of the Pueblo Indians, and my son is fascinated by the pueblos they built. We’ve read If You lived With the Sioux Indians and learned about some of the things they made from bison. We’re working our way around the continent with crafts from More Than Moccasins, and more books and films that are on hold at the library now.
My son said to me this week, “Wow. The Indians are really interesting. They’re like real people!”
Almost all my kids knew about Native Americans came from Little House on the Prairie, and I failed to realize it sooner. I’d dutifully pointed out the racist passages that that book contains as they were reading through it, we discussed them, and we kept reading.
When presented with a group of Shoshone Indians, though, and grandparents who suggested they might be “fierce,” I asked them, “Are they? Are these Indians ‘fierce?’”
My daughter quoted Ma’s objections to Indians and my objections to Ma’s racism.
“So what does that mean?” I asked.
“That means I don’t know,” she said.
We will be reading about the Shoshone next week and about Sacajawea and her baby, her joy over being reunited with her older brother, a relationship my two take very seriously and so will relate with deeply. When we do, then then they will weep. Because then they will know who they killed at Independence Rock.