The Limits of Looking: Landmarks in Iowa History and the White Gaze

By Katie Prout

As the AV and Film Preservationist for ISU’s Special Collections and University’s Archives, I often come across visual and aural content I am tasked to preserve that is beautiful, interesting, and insightful. But sometimes content is the opposite of all those things. So when I came across Herb Hake’s episode Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre, a kinescope 16mm black-and-white print, I felt compelled to provide a rebuttal of its narrative. To that end, I am very excited to introduce Katie Prout as my guest blogger. Katie is a writer and graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. She’s currently working on a book about addiction, inheritance, and ghosts. You can read more about her take on Spirit Lake at LitHub. -Rosie Rowe

“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see.” This is the opening line of Jamaica Kincaid’s searing book-length essay A Small Place, and this is what echoed in my head as I watched and then re watched “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre.” Kincaid’s book, an anti-tourist travelogue and history of her native Antigua, reverts the gaze of power by putting the white tourist, the white colonizer, under her critical lens. You think you can know a people just by looking? Fine. Let me take a look at you.

The people doing the looking in “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre” are the tourists in this scenario, though perhaps they wouldn’t see themselves that way, and it’s through their gaze that we, the viewers, are invited to look at an event known as the Spirit Lake Massacre. This short film is one of a series produced by WOI-TV and Iowa State Teachers’ College designed to be a supplemental educational tool for teaching Iowa history in public schools. This film, then, is the official narrative, The Facts of What Happened not to be questioned. It’s easy to imagine children bent over their desks, tongues in the corners of their mouths as they strain to recall what they learned from “Landmarks” for their teacher’s test. The facts, loosely, are this: The winter 1857 was a time of starvation in northwestern Iowa, both for the white settlers who were homesteading beyond federally determined borders and for the native peoples who had first called that land home. That March, members of the Wahpekute Dakota raided the settlers for food, possibly also for revenge for loved ones who died by the hands of white settlers and soldiers—those of Inkpaduta (the man leading the raid) not the least among them. At the three day’s end, over thirty settlers were dead; four white women were kidnapped and held for ransom. Among those four was a girl; a thirteen year-old named Abbie Gardner.

This much is true. It’s also true that tourism has long figured into the economy of  Iowa; indeed, the Gardner family cabin—the essential heart of the Spirit Lake Massacre, the state’s last indigenous-settler conflict in Iowa—later became the state’s first tourist attraction. But is this the truth the film is directing us to see? What does the camera’s lens hide, and what does it really reveal?

From the beginning, “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre” is, knowingly or not, is concerned with who is looking at who and the limits of what can be known through that gaze. The viewer watches the tv (or in my case, the laptop screen). After the opening credits, the camera shows us a white man looking through another camera in turn. We watch him watch nothing. This man is teacher and historian Herb Hake, one of the show’s two co-hosts, and he’s pretending to do that time-honored tourist tick—take photos of a historic site. After a beat, Hake straightens up and winds his camera as he smiles sheepishly into ours. “Well boys and girls, it’s another beautiful day to take pictures, isn’t it?” Dressed in a jacket and cap, as though he’s greeting us from the Iowan outdoors, the host in fact stands on a studio stage. Behind him, a not-quite life-sized backdrop of the Gardner Cabin gleams, shiny with shellacked light. “Today, we’re going to take pictures of this Gardner cabin. You see it here in the background,” Hake says, gesturing to the blown-up photograph behind him. The studio lights invoke sunlight, the photograph of the cabin is a facsimile of the real thing, and the cabin itself is a stand-in for Abbie Gardner, the only survivor of the family who once called the cabin home, and from whose memoir much of the information shared on “Landmarks in Iowa History: Spirit Lake Massacre” is obtained. “As the announcer said, we are in the Great Lakes region today.” As Hake speaks, the gaze of the camera stays narrow enough to hide the stage wiring from our view, but not so narrow that we can’t see co-host Irving Hart’s elbow waiting in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Specific locations in the Great Lakes region are named to further assist the construction of our belief.

With this, the viewer enters the white imagination, but that imagination is presented as fact. Hake-as-host is grave and charming, a kind of history-loving Mr. Rogers, but the imaginative play presented before us is no game. When dealing with the magic of television, how are we to understand the reality of the warfare described? What are the young students, for whom this film was originally intended, to take away? The film goes on to present more facsimiles, reproductions, artifacts that are similar and or closely related to the real thing, but that thing they are not. In “Landmarks,” the viewer is caught in the strange place of being asked to believe but also to do the work of creating a thing to believe in. We’re to take as fact what we see, but what we see is itself a stand-in, a reproduction, a retelling of the real thing.

Here’s why this matters. In an era of fake news, the more difficult work is in looking at an incident of violence not as an isolated aberration, but as a complex response to a chain of events that stretches back and forth in time. This film was made in the 1950s, but historians should know that in any decade. The hosts of “Landmarks,” describe the violence perpetrated by the Wahpekute against the settlers in detail, with words like “ruthless,” and “dragged,” but they don’t explain that the federal government was terribly late on annuity payments to the tribe, payments that might’ve been able to keep the tribes from having to choose between raids and starvation. Hake describes Inkpaduta a “big, ugly-looking Indian,” inviting the viewer to imagine all kinds of racist caricatures, but he doesn’t explain that this “ugliness” comes from horrific smallpox scars, a European disease sometimes deliberately introduced to indigenous populations by colonizers as a method of biowarfare. The camera eventually shows us a picture of a memorial near the Gardner cabin, constructed in memory of the settlers who died; the memory of the Wahpekute is represented to the arrow-shaped stone at the top of the memorial, reducing them to nothing more than weapons, objects of death.

Towards the end of the film, the camera lingers on a picture Hake tacks up to an easel. The picture is of one of the cabin’s inside walls. On this wall, an oil painting hangs, depicting burning cabins, teepees, and cold snow. Again, we have our gaze directed to another reproduction, but this one was created by a survivor who was there. Remember Your History, Gardner admonished. She painted these words on the bottom of a painting much like this one, one of a series of scenes from the memories that haunted her. This film brought to my mind Kincaid’s A Small Place, but Gardner, a very different woman, also wrote down her observations of a land and its history; first as a settler, then as a captive of the people who her kind forcibly replaced:

“In [writing this memoir], I hope to benefit myself, pay a lasting tribute to the memory of those whose lives were consecrated to civilization, and save from oblivion the historical matter within these pages.”

History, as is so often said, is written by the victors, and it seems that educational television programming is too.  While Gardner was absolutely a victim, it is her written testimony of the conflict that has been preserved and saved, and it is this version that is preserved and uplifted by “Landmarks.” Nowhere in her above sentence, quoted from the beginning pages of her memoir, is there mention of the lives of the Wahpekute; their version of history is not the “historical matter” Gardner is concerned with saving from oblivion. Working to recognize indigenous experiences and perspectives alongside those of white settlers would undoubtedly lead to another kind of conflict; an ideological one, with educators and historians striving to understand who shares what responsibility in violence, and why, and what can be done to repair that violence rather than replicate it again. This kind of history would create programming less easily reduced to symbols, more uncomfortable for some viewers to look at, but perhaps it would show us something more true.

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