Memorial Day With Chief Joseph
A Conversation in First Calvary Cemetery in Queens
On Memorial Day, I decided to make a trip to the First Calvary Cemetery to visit the graves of those who gave their lives defending this nation because the founding charters promise all [wo]men the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They fought for a noble cause I thought as I made my way, on a beautiful day, to the Calvary cemetery in Queens.
The First Calvary cemetery opened in the late 1840’s [circa 1847 – 1848] and was located only a short ferry ride away from Manhattan, up Newtown Creek. A couple more cemeteries were opened as the 19th century wore on, as most of Queens was still rural farmlands and woodlands. Many of the burials of the first century of operation were of Catholic Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants - many of which were children who died because of poor living conditions and medical care. Many soldiers had been buried here as well, many of whom were from the Civil War era.
As I was viewing a collection of the tombstones, reflecting on the lives sacrificed in the war over slavery, as well as the more recent wars that pulled nearly the entire planet into battle, a figure in the distance caught my attention. They appeared to be making their way in my direction, in this lonely empty section of the cemetery. I pulled out of my musings, and began to focus on this emerging presence as they made their way up the hill.
As they came closer, I could see that it was an old man, of medium height, with long black and grey hair and a weathered, leathery, tan skin. He was wearing an old brown work shirt and khaki trousers and beaten leather shoes. No, they were mocassins.
I'm not sure why I thought of this, but his countenance resembled that of a legendary American Indian: Chief Joseph. Chief Joseph was a tribal leader of the Nez Perce tribe in the Wallowa Valley in northeast Oregon. Chief Joseph was born in 1840, only years before this cemetery was founded. He had actually visited New York City in 1897, to march alongside Buffalo Bill in a Wild West Parade.
The man slowly raised his right arm, palm open and fingers standing straight up like the Boy Scout salute, and in a deep full voice he said,
I stood a bit at attention, as I returned the greeting.
“Hi. How are you today?”
He spoke again, this time in a language I did not understand.
“Mumba goycha tay.”
I looked at him and shook my head back and forth indicating that I did not understand what he’d just said.
Click here to read the rest of our Memorial Day fiction in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
Memorial Day With Chief Joseph
A Conversation in First Calvary Cemetery in Queens
He gazed intently at me, studying my face, posture and clothing, taking some good measure of who he was speaking to. He then switched out of his native tongue and in English said.
"I come in peace."
"Me too." I replied.
I wondered who he was, why he was here in the cemetery this Memorial Day, and where this conversation was going.
"Do you have any family resting here?" He inquired.
"No. I don't have any close relatives are buried in this cemetery." I said.
He seemed a friendly, fatherly sort of man, with some measure of gravitas, but not all business.
I returned the question. "How about you? Do you have any family members buried here?"
"No." He replied. "Most of my family is buried in Oregon. But I come here, to this cemetery, on Memorial Day, to pay my respects to them, by paying respect to others, as I contemplate theirs and my mortality and purpose."
I thought about what he was saying. A pleasant feeling slowly came over me, like the fluffy clouds slowly floating in the sky above us.
"And you?" He asked.
"Yes, for me it's sort of the same thing. I come here to take in the stillness, quiet scenery and think about things."
Since he looked a bit like Chief Joseph and had family buried in Oregon, I had to ask. "Have you ever heard of Chief Joseph?"
His eyes lit up with surprise and curiosity. "Why do you ask that?"
I explained the tenuous connections of his appearance and that he was from Oregon and went on to tell him that my father had done his Masters thesis on Chief Joseph, and because of that I had taken an interest in the Chief.
"Yes, I have heard of him. He was great, great grandfather. In our language he is called Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it"
Now it was my turn to be surprised.
Because my Dad had written his paper on Chief Joseph, he would mention Chief Joseph from time to time. In exactly what context I don't remember, but probably while talking about my own academic papers or about standing one's moral ground. My Dad's repeated mentions of Chief Joseph eventually made the name stick, so as fate would have it, after Dad died, I grew more curious, and did a bit of research trying to better understand why my father had chosen Chief Joseph to be the topic of his thesis. So here I was [I thought] talking to the great, great grandson of the Chief of the Nez Perce tribe.
We shook hands, exchanged names and started off on a wide-ranging conversation about the causes of war, the high price paid by the lives sacrificed in waging war, and how the people who start the wars in order to profit from them, never seem to participate in the actual fighting.
Chief Joseph had opposed efforts within his tribe to start an uprising in spring of 1877 against the federal government in Oregon. Some of the tribal members wanted to fight because the federal government was increasingly encroaching on the Nez Perce lands, forcing the Nez Pierce off their lands in order to make room for the European settlers. General Howard, under orders, told Chief Joseph that if the Nez Perce remained on their lands, the U.S. would consider that a declearation of war. Thus Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were forced into war, and the entire tribe had to flee their homeland, while fighting the U.S. Cavalry.
The Nez Perce were vastly outnumbered and out resourced by General Howard's troops. The Chief and the Nez Perce earned the respect of General Howard by the way they handled themselves during a thousand plus mile flight, while waging battle with Howard's troops in the summer / fall of 1877. The Chief and the Nez Perce waged such a valiant and skillful campaign, while protecting their women and children, that they made their way into American newspapers, and ultimately into the history books as valiant fighters in one of the last American Indian Wars. Chief Joseph also came to be seen as a great humanitarian, because he made great efforts to avoid the war, even though he was skillfully in waging it.
We continued walking and talking through the graveyard, occasionally stopping to eye tombstones and read the epitaphs, discussing the things we had both come out here to think about.
Some time passed and the sun began setting in the west, and the tall buildings of NYC began casting their shadows in our direction. As we neared the cemetery gate, Chief Joseph's great, great grandson turned to me and said, "Lincoln got it right."
"What's that?" I asked.
The Chief [I had come to think of him as that] went on to say,
"Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address said, "... It is for us the living .. to be dedicated ... to the unfinished work [of those] who fought ... [who] so nobly advanced. It is ... for us ... here [to] take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave [their] last full measure of devotion - that we ... highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God ...and [the] government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth ...""
That seemed a good note upon which to end our conversation. We shook hands again, and bid farewell.
Memorial Day was almost over, but the work for which the brave men and women who have given their lives defending our nation, goes on. Our role in the Great American Experiment [democracy aka people governing themselves] is to be sure we're getting accurate information about those who wish to represent us, so that the best people will be hired for the decision making roles in our government, and so that they may exercise the power vested in them wisely, and in the interest of the greater good.
I hope you had a good Memorial Day weekend.