The End of Dubois As We Know It?

Down the rabbit hole into a very sad parallel universe.

face masks

People ask: So how are things in Dubois?

Well, quiet and slow. The “snowbirds” are returning from either coast. But they are in 14-day quarantine, if they are following the Governor’s orders.

Some people, myself included, wear face masks in the post office and the supermarket. Others don’t. Is it my imagination, or do they avert their eyes when they see me wearing mine?

In the winter, it was easy to distance. Wearing gloves and staying home seemed logical. But the sight of this young angler on a recent warm spring day at Pete’s Pond made me wonder whether a sense of social isolation is becoming even more second nature to us than it always was.

young fisherman in parkWill our way of life return to the fond and familiar someday? When, if ever, will we come together for the rodeo, the square dance, Happy Hour, the buffalo barbecue?

Of course these questions are far more poignant to my friends back in New York City, where “hanging out” is a way of life. But we too used to enjoy congregating, and our tourist economy depends on it.

With no cases documented here, and almost no testing, we have no idea how many of us have been exposed to the virus and recovered or never got sick at all, and now have immunity. But out-of-state vehicles have begun to pass through. I always use sanitizer on my hands after pumping gas, now that I’m no longer wearing gloves all the time.

So here we are, like everyone else, waiting to exhale–an unfortunate metaphor, in this context.

Cover of book by Prince Maximilian von WiedMy husband and I continue to read to each other at home. One reads while the other cooks or wash dishes.

We have been working our way slowly through the three-volume account by Prince Maximilian von Wied of Germany of his journey to the American West in 1830s.

In the last passage we read, von Wied and his party were traveling north by boat along the Missouri River, in that place where today Nebraska faces across to Iowa.

It’s familiar territory to us, after so many trips back and forth to New York by car. I was startled to find that the passage suddenly brought me into familiar territory, in a completely different sense.

Prince Maximilian described an encounter with a chief of the Ponca tribe, which had recently been impelled to abandon their former villages and become migratory because of conflicts with other tribes. The Ponca “have suffered greatly from smallpox and from their enemies, but are said to have been brave warriors,” he added, in a poignant past tense. “Even now one sees many pockmarks among them.” 

In a companion book, the wonderful illustrations of Karl Bodmer who traveled with von Wied, we found his portraits of two Native chiefs, an Otoe (below, left) and a Ponca (right.) Together, his drawings and von Wied’s writings are among the most detailed accounts of early encounters between Europeans and Native Americans.Portraits of an Otoe and a Ponca chief

Those two pale-skinned men were hardly the first European to encounter Native Americans. By that time, the tribes had had contact with trappers and explorers for far more than a century.

The man at left, the Otoe chief, was part of a tribe already decimated by smallpox when he sat for his portrait. 

According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains published by the University of Nebraska, the combined Otoe-Missouria population had been reduced to fewer than 800 by the time they met Lewis and Clark in 1804, 30 years before Maximilian passed through.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs estimated that more than 17,000 “Indians died of smallpox in 1837 and 1838 … ” Beyond the deadly impact of  smallpox, other factors such as the decline in the bison population and the reduction in their freedom of movement by relocation to reservations doomed many Native populations to what today we would call “economic decline.”

Of course you know all this as well as I do. But perhaps it didn’t resonate last year. In my case, anyway, a pleasant moment of evening companionship unexpectedly drove me down a rabbit hole into a very sad parallel universe.

Long ago, it was our forebears. Soon, it could be our contemporaries who bring with them a mystifying and threatening dilemma, simply because they want to travel in this direction and explore the surroundings that we enjoy.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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About Me

Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

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