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Know the West

In Large and Sunlit Land


Here, in large and sunlit land ...
I will lay my hand in my neighbor's hand
And together we will atone
For the set folly and the red breach
And the black waste of it all.

-Rudyard Kipling


On New Year's Eve 1987, in Niger, West Africa, I camped with friends at the foot of a crescent dune whose sloping arms of sand cradled our bivouac. We came in two Land Cruisers, aid workers all, to bring in the year drinking and dancing beneath icy moonless skies. At midnight we scrambled up the dune where wind whipped sand about our knees and stars fell on the horizon as if the desert were sucking in the sky. When we stumbled down to bed, ankle-deep with every step, I had this sense of fleeing the vastness. Yet I felt at home precisely because all that space - so much like the Southwest American desert near where I grew up - made me feel I could do what I wanted. The land was that big. 

In the morning, sheltered by the dune's shadow, I was sitting on a freezer chest, having coffee when I looked up. Atop the sand stood a man with his arms folded, silhouetted against bleached sky. We all saw him. A breeze tugged at his robe. He wore a turban and a sword hung from his waist. We couldn't see his face or the colors of his clothing. He was likely a Tuareg herder because of the sword and the diamond shape of the cloth around his head and because this was Tuareg territory. He was there. Then he was gone. 

We knew little of the Tuareg, but within three years they would rise against Niger and Mali, which aimed to contain their nomad ways inside political borders unknown before French rule over West Africa ended in 1960. In the last decades of the 19th century, while the U.S. Army and Indian tribes battled for the American West, the French fought the Tuareg across the Sahel and southern Sahara. Both conflicts unfolded on grassland, in forest, and on rocky desert hardpan, though the French didn't subdue the Tuareg until 1919, more than 20 years after Indian tribes surrendered their arms in North America. 

I have to be careful arguing that anything about the American West bears more than passing similarity to Africa, a continent whose 11 million square miles hold many hundreds of languages and ethnic groups. But I grew up in Colorado and I'm attracted to large, difficult terrain and stories of how people live on such terrain. My family arrived from Detroit in 1970 behind waves of the hopeful and ambitious who came West to reinvent themselves in a place big enough to make a new life possible. In that respect, Africa, where I've spent six years of my life, and my adopted West are not so different. They exist under endless skies. They are mostly dry - in places very wet - lovely, harsh, and patient lands that have been ravaged by impatient people doing what they wanted. 

Material for comparison fills colonial history. The novelist Frank Norris visited South Africa in 1895, where he found the terrain of the Karoo Plateau near Cape Town to be much like Utah and western Colorado. His reports lend visual context to "The Settler," Kipling's mournful poem of the Boer Wars, whose second stanza begins, "Here, in large and sunlit land ..." P.C. Wren set Beau Geste, his novel of colonial folly, in the Sahara, imagining a Foreign Legion outpost - "in the midst of a vast ocean" - like Henry Morton Stanley's 1867 description of Fort Harker in Kansas. "A simple square," he called it, "situated on a gentle eminence, whence there is a commanding view of the great naked prairie." 

Stanley's story is special. Welsh orphan, soldier, journalist and explorer, his bitter romance with big lands started here in the West and consumed him in Africa, far from the Tuareg. He spent most of 1867 observing the U.S. Army's pursuit of the Cheyenne and other tribes across the rolling, cracked table that is the Great Plains. Stanley was as awestruck by the land as any newcomer: "For centuries the painted Indian careered over the pathless plains after the American bison in the wild exuberance of freedom." He came to those words as a Civil War veteran - of both sides - who wandered west, working jobs from Kansas to California, including a stint as a miner in Colorado, until he tried journalism. Stanley the reporter traveled the Plains with the Army from Colorado to Nebraska, a period he later called his "apprenticeship to the longer and more difficult one I was to continue in Unknown Africa." 

Unknown Africa, where in 1877, on behalf of the Belgian King, Leopold II, Stanley began opening trading stations on the Congo River and making treaties to define the Congo Free State, a million square miles of tribal lands Leopold closed to the world and ruled with extraordinary brutality to extract fortunes in rubber and ivory. Those treaties - some 400 agreements cut with bolts of cloth and trinkets - make one of the biggest wholesale land thefts in history. 

I'm not sure what motivated Stanley in his travels, but I have an idea. He wanted contrast, something to challenge what he already knew. "The heart of Africa is infinitely preferable to the heart of the world's greatest city," he wrote in 1876. And the American West, he added, "invited thousands from the East of America to be relieved of the grasp of tyrannous custom." 

Yet in Africa tyranny was all he offered. 

Niger straddles the blurry line where the Sahara fades into the Sahel (which means "shore" in Arabic), a savanna and ecological border region between desert north and tropical south, stretching from Senegal on the west coast to the Horn of Africa in the east. The Sahel alone is so big it's difficult to see how nationality matters, just as when standing on a mountaintop in Idaho or walking the Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona I can't see the point of state lines across land so indifferent. When lightning falls on the West from spring to fall, mountains and deserts burn, flames moving over thousands and sometimes millions of acres. Still, I've never forgotten that man on the dune because even in all that space I realized I was on someone's land without permission. Whoever he was - Tuareg, Fulani, or Arab - the man had authority like a border guard. We'd crossed a line and he made his point from a certain angle, at a certain height. We took the hint, packed up, and drove away, aware of a time when Tuareg bands on camelback snuffed out French exploring parties. 

After two decades of traveling between Africa and the American West, the regions blend in my head with images of great and beautiful places ruled by Europeans with an overarching sense of entitlement: I think of the Continental Army's slaughter of unarmed Seneca Indians in the Susquehanna Campaign of 1779 to rob the British of an ally; the Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado in 1864; and the forced march of the Navajo to New Mexico a year earlier, causing the deaths of hundreds. These were known events when Henry Stanley began reporting on the West, the edge of the "American Frontier," what historian Frederick Jackson Turner called "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." 

Turner published those words 30 years after soldiers attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village on Sand Creek, killing around 200 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, and five years before the French Central African Mission. In 1899, not far south of our New Year's camp in Niger, this expedition of African conscripts under French officers pillaged its way east through territory where no one resisted to begin with. A land that vast and dry makes people crazy, gives them the notion that the land by itself swallows misdeeds whole so the world will never know. The French killed thousands of Hausa villagers to frighten the Tuareg farther north. They stuffed the dead down village wells. But the Tuareg fought on, appearing out of the desert with sudden terror and vanishing. 

George Custer waged an equally destructive war against the Plains tribes in 1867. Stanley was there. He called Custer an officer of "a certain impetuosity and undoubted courage" who was "precisely the gentleman" to stop Indians from "butchering, murdering, and torturing of the frontier settlers." In a report from Colorado in June, he recommended the government "set apart a sufficient territory, drive all the tribes within its limits, surround it with garrisons that none may leave it ..." Stanley followed the story through October to witness the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty with five Plains tribes. Then The New York Herald sent him to Africa. 

The Tuareg for their part never really gave up. Fighting continues today, mainly in Niger where Tuareg groups want control over uranium mining on traditional grazing lands. I wonder what the man on the dune thought as he looked upon foreigners who'd shattered a desert night with rock 'n' roll from speakers powered on spare car batteries. After he left I felt a familiar unease. In junior high school we studied Kit Carson's campaign against the Navajo. On school trips to the desert we re-enacted battles using tennis balls for ammunition. We played both sides. I liked being a soldier, taking what I wanted. After all, it was only a tennis ball war. 

One day near Lake Powell, our school bus stopped at a souvenir stand that sold turquoise jewelry. I looked across a table at a boy my age. We weren't all that different from each other in T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, except that he was Navajo, with black hair and dark skin, and I'd been playing war at the expense of his people. He smiled and we exchanged words I don't recall. I didn't know what to say and went back to the bus. The land wasn't that big any more. 


Peter Chilson's new book, Disturbance-Loving Species, is a short fiction collection about Africa published by Mariner Books. He teaches writing and literature at Washington State University.