“Oh, Wilbur”

From the standpoint of a Boomer like myself, few memories are more charming than the TV image of Mr. Ed dispensing wisdom from the Dutch door of his stable.  The target of his pert advice was the perpetually confused Wilbur Post, who frequently turned to his secret equine confidant in order to unravel the puzzles that beset a white middle-class professional in the 1960s.  Among them were the moods of his wife Carol–as I remember, she had them occasionally–relations with the neighbors, especially his boss, and even Mr Ed’s future in the event of Wilbur’s demise.  Tackling topics from the pitfalls awaiting the clueless husband to the challenge of estate planning, the show subtly insinuated that the patriarchy could be harmless, even lovable.  Alan Young, who portrayed Wilbur and later “Farmer Smurf,” among others, certainly lived a long and no doubt privileged life.  Mr Ed’s distinctive voice came from “Rocky” Lane, an actor less well known for his B-movie Westerns, who died soon after the series ended.  The eponymous star, or rather the palomino that played him, retired to Oklahoma and is interred in a quiet field outside Tahlequah, the town where the Cherokee Nation established a capital in 1839, at the end of the Trail of Tears.

mr ed

There, this week, Ed’s peaceful repose was disturbed.  In the wake of the “unrest” that has followed the killing of George Floyd, hostility towards the enduring symbols of white supremacy has blossomed into action around the globe.  The legacy of Christopher Columbus has come under renewed attack as the source of genocide against indigenous Americans, and monuments everywhere are in jeopardy.  In St. Paul, Minnesota, his statue was toppled with the tacit approval of the authorities.  While the likeness of the explorer presented to his namesake city in Ohio by Genoa in 1955 has so far escaped vandalism, armed “defenders of history” have vowed to protect the one in Philadelphia.  Closer to home, the events of the past two weeks have again focused attention on the pro-slavery cause of Southern secession, and its visible vestiges have been banned by organizations like NASCAR and the Marine Corps, although the names of military bases themselves have remained strangely unchanged.  In particular, the dubious ‘gifts’ from supporters of Southern heritage, whether to the nation’s Capitol or far-flung corners of the former Confederacy, continue to invite scrutiny.  Thus the Cherokee chief in Tahlequah, citing the spirit of “unity,” has ordered the removal and storage of the monument to a Confederate general that has graced the front lawn of the Indian capitol building since 1921.    

The ideological through-line here might seem clear enough, but as always, the story is more complicated.  The hero commemorated was not a white racist in arms but rather a willing ally of the slave-holding South, as the inscription makes plain:

General Stand Watie – only full blood Indian Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. This brave Cherokee with his heroic regiment rendered inestimable services to the Confederate Cause of Indian Territory.  Born in Georgia, December 12, 1806, died in Cherokee Nation, September 9, 1871
A tribute to his memory by the Oklahoma Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy
“Lest We Forget”

This monument and several others in Oklahoma had already aroused concern, notably at the time of the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia[1]  But they should be of interest to all of us, especially if our recollection of the history behind “Indian Territory” is at best one-dimensional.  The Civil War proved to be a pivotal event, not just because of how it affected the fortunes of Black Americans but because of how it shaped the future of native Americans.  In the conflict between the US and the Confederacy, it was not obvious where the allegiance of the Cherokee should lie–in fact, the tribe divided over it–and many of their members were slave-owners.  Indeed, plantation slavery was one of the practices that characterized the Indian nations known to early 19th-century whites as the “five civilized tribes.”  (Apparently having a constitution, a written language, and public education are no bar to keeping human property.)

Why not side with the rebels?  For men like Stand Watie, who became the last Confederate general to surrender in the War, it made eminent sense, especially given the history of US treatment of the Indians. [2] Yet after the War, the Union respected the sovereignty of the tribes to the extent of exempting them from the emancipatory 13th Amendment.  Instead, new treaties negotiated with the victors foreshadowed the fate of both the Indians and Black freedmen.  The settlement ignored the loyalty shown by some tribes, divided communal lands among private owners by allotment, (which in turn led to sale and theft), and created a territorial government, which opened most of the land to white settlement.  As it happens, the Oklahoma tribes have remembered the injunction not to forget, and the Supreme Court has taken a case that might validate their claim to legal jurisdiction over much of the State.  At the same time, in 1866, the tribes acknowledged the freedom of Black slaves but balked at granting them equal rights.  For African-Americans in this part of the country as elsewhere, the struggle for full citizenship entered a new phase, which for some lasted into the 21st century.

What is an old white guy to make of all this?  Of course, no one is likely to pull down Mr Ed’s monument, yet in some ways the ideal it represents–apart perhaps from talking with animals–has suffered as much damage as the dream of the Confederacy.  When the economy craters in recession, plenty of architects and other skilled workers have lost their white-collar jobs and possibly even the Studebaker Lark in the driveway.  Few spouses today are as consistently deferential, blonde, stay-at-home, or female as Carol Post.  California itself is no longer a suburban utopia.  Nothing on TV now is quite as comfortable as it was 50 years ago, or even 20.  It’s a harshly serious, profoundly political moment.  I confess I wonder how long it will last, and how I’ll weather it.  But I’m pretty sure I won’t be streaming “Mr. Ed”.  It might be all right except for the laugh track, a tool designed to modulate all emotion into a reassuring stream of gentle chuckles.  I’m not in the mood for that.  

Own work by Nikater, submitted to the public domain. Background map courtesy of Demis and Wilcomb E Washburn, Handbook of North American Indians Vol 4 History of Indian-White Relations. SmithsonTrails_of_Tears_en
Own work by Nikater, submitted to the public domain. Background map courtesy of Demis and Wilcomb E Washburn, Handbook of North American Indians Vol 4 History of Indian-White Relations.




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