Archive for Ponca Indians

Book Report – Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley

Posted in human perception with tags , , , , on November 16, 2016 by McKinley Pitts

Julia (most perfect wife) & I have been reading/listening to an interesting book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley, Copyright 2014.

Derek Sivers ( someone that you probably have never heard of but whom I follow especially because he has great book notes) thinks it is probably the best book he has read out of the 200 detailed on his site because Mindwise has actually helped him see through the eyes of others.

Epley opens with the Marcel Proust quote that sets the tone of the book: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another.”

And that is exactly a thing that I have wanted to better understand all of my life: how to see with the eyes of another. Reading Mindwise is giving me that seeing.

The essence of the book might be outlined by describing the human mental ability, our sixth sense, as a virtual super power, especially when compared to the mental abilities of other species on Earth. This apparently unique human skill, however, does have a problem. I/we display a confidence in that sixth sense that is much greater than can be justified by observation. In short, we think we are far more accurate in our perceptual accuracy than we are.

Consequently, Mindwise does a very serviceable job of improving our understanding of others and to delivering to us a healthy dose of humility, which King Solomon pointed out was the beginning of wisdom.

By way of example of one of the insights in the book, I’ll quote from the text that tells the story of a famous trial of the 1800’s where the humanization of the Ponca Indian, Standing Bear, was established in court. The background of the trial was that the Bureau of Indian affairs in 1875 decided to remove the Ponca to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma). They initially agreed to the terms of removal as presented to them by US Indian Agent AJ Carrier.

In late winter 1877, Standing Bear and ten Ponca chiefs, were taken to Indian Territory to view several tracts of land for possible resettlement. The chiefs were unhappy with what they were shown, and asked to return home. After some argument with their Bureau of Indian Affairs representative, Standing Bear and seven other chiefs started out to return home on foot.

By May of that year, the remainder of the tribe including Standing Bear were forcibly moved. By the time they arrived in Indian Territory it was too late to plant crops. Furthermore the government failed to provide them with promised farming implements. By spring of 1879, nearly a third of the tribe had died as a result of starvation, malaria, and other causes. Standing Bear’s son, Bear Shield, had also died and so he left to travel north with about 30 followers in order to fulfill his son’s wishes and bury his bones in the Ponca’s Niobrara River valley homeland.

From the book…

Desperate, Standing Bear decided to go home.

Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.

Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being.

The case lasted several days, during which the government lawyers attempted to portray the Poncas as savages, more like thoughtless animals or unfeeling objects than rational and emotional human beings. Perceiving the Poncas as mindless, after all, is what had made it possible for officials to treat them as property under the law rather than as persons. This perception was clear from the government attorney’s opening question: he asked Standing Bear how many people he had led on his march. “I just wanted to see if he could count,” the attorney explained.

After several days of testimony, the trial drew to a close. Judge Elmer Dundy knew that Standing Bear wanted to address the audience in his own words, as was customary in Ponca tradition, but direct statements at the end of a trial were not allowed under U.S. jurisprudence. Respecting Native American tradition and violating his own, Judge Dundy called the bailiff to his desk, whispered that “the court is now adjourned” to secretly end the official proceedings, and then allowed Standing Bear to rise and address the court.

So it had come down to this. At about ten p.m., at the end of a very long day, Standing Bear rose. Illiterate, uneducated, and with no time to prepare an address, he stood silent for a minute to survey the room. Finally, he spoke: “I see a great many of you here. I think a great many are my friends.” Then he tried to reveal that he was, in fact, much more than a mindless savage. He explained his tribe’s difficulties in the Indian Territory, stared that he had never tried to hurt a white person, and described how he had taken several U.S. soldiers into his own home over the years and nursed them back to health. Then, in a stunning moment that channeled Shylock’s monologue from Me Merchant of Venice, Standing Bear held out his hand. “This hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.”‘

Standing Bear was a man intelligent enough to lead his tribe along a six-hundred-mile journey in the dead of winter and back again, a man who felt love so deeply that he carried his son’s bones around his neck to fulfill a promise. Yet he found himself pleading with people from far-off places who had failed almost completely to see his mind and instead viewed him as a piece of mindless property. Facing those unable to recognize a sentient mind before their eyes, Standing Bear had been forced to show his to them.

Before the trial most viewed Indians as mindless savages. Standing Bear forced the US Government to view him as a man. Their perceptions of the Indian were changed whether they wanted then to to be or not.

This is but one illustrative story that opened my eyes much wider about the limits of my all too human perception. Read this and you will be a much better person. Great book!