Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Nathan Cook Meeker, Antihero, and the Last Indian Uprising

by Niki Turner

This weekend, the community where I live will reenact a massacre. Sounds strange, doesn't it?

One warm July weekend 13 years ago I walked out of my house in the evening to get something out of the car and heard the sound of Indian war whoops echoing through the valley. 

"What on earth?" I asked. 
"Just rehearsals for the pageant," I was told. The "massacre."
Or an "incident," depending on who you talk to. I know, it's SO politically incorrect, no matter how you look at it, but it has been going on for the last 73 years, and no one seems compelled to quit. Hey, to each their own. 
An etching that appeared in the December 6, 1879 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicts the aftermath of the "Meeker Massacre." Meeker grave at lower left; W.H. Post grave at lower right
The Meeker Massacre is widely regarded as the last Indian uprising in the United States. The Thornburg battle, a direct result of the massacre, took place just a few miles from my house (more on that in another post.) 
In 1879, Indian agent Nathan Meeker and the rest of the white male settlers (numbers vary from seven to 10) at the White River Agency in northwest Colorado were killed by Ute Indians. The women and children were captured and held hostage for weeks until Ute Chief  Ouray and his wife Chipeta were able to orchestrate their release. It's said that Meeker's daughter Josephine's arguments kept the hostages alive until their release.

One might think he was a hero (after all, there's more than one town named after him). But heroes have to have heroic characteristics. In my opinion, Nathan Meeker lacked those essential qualities.

Nathan Meeker, Indian agent
Don't misunderstand me, every great hero has flaws (except Jesus, of course). But as writers, as builders of heroes, we have to be careful to differentiate between a flawed hero and an antihero. A flawed hero can be loved, because his basic character, his motive for action, is essentially good. An antihero, on the other hand, may rise to a position of power and authority, but his motives are skewed.

As with most of the controversial treatment of Native Americans by the American government, there are conflicting variations of the history that led up to the attack on Meeker and the other white settlers. Meeker was appointed as Indian agent by his friend, Horace Greeley, to whom Meeker was indebted financially. His dream? To establish a perfect, Utopian community. He and Greeley had established Union Colony (present day Greeley, Colo.) in hopes of achieving that dream, but although the colony was a success, Meeker wasn't satisfied. He accepted the assignment of Indian agent in northwest Colorado, supposedly with the idea he could take the Indians there and create a perfect socio-political-economic community. 

The Indians weren't what he was expecting. 

First, they were hunter/gatherers, not farmers. The very idea of farming seemed foolish to them. The menfolk went on extended hunting excursions, harvesting the plentiful elk and deer in the area, and the womenfolk foraged and took care of the homestead. Staying at home and plowing the ground was a ludicrous idea, as far as the Utes were concerned. Meeker refused to back down. First, he moved the white settlement smack into the middle of the land the Utes used to pasture their beloved ponies. Second, and what some consider the last straw, he plowed up the ground where they gathered to race their ponies. 

The Ute warriors dragged Nathan Meeker through the streets of the Agency he was in charge of, poured sugar into his mouth (he spoke sweet words to them) and then drove a barrel stave down his throat (he speaks with two mouths.) No one who reads the story can deny the symbolism employed by the Utes in the death of Nathan Meeker. 

Some say Meeker was an outright liar who frequently made promises to the Indians and then failed to keep them. Others say he was a visionary and idealist, innocently caught in the crossfire between his dream of creating a Utopian society and a bunch of heathens who refused to change their ways. Some say he had a violent temper, and by words and actions provoked the Utes to reciprocate with uncharacteristic violence.
Others say he was merely misunderstood, a man of great dreams and ideals, if weak communication and diplomatic ability. 

Personally, I see a case of a man's vision taking him places where his character was not strong enough to keep him. A man so committed to his idealistic vision he forgot about the souls, the lives of the people to whom he was responsible. He valued his personal vision and goals above the human beings around him.

When we look back at history, whether we're examining pirates, Indian agents, Confederate generals or English royals, sometimes it's difficult to determine who was right and who was wrong. As writers, it's important to realize there were heroes and antiheroes on both sides of every conflict. Our job is to create heroes, not antiheroes.

What makes an antihero? I suppose it depends upon your definition of a hero. 
In my mind, a true hero is one who, above all else, values honesty and humanity. If it means he has to adapt, even compromise, for the sake of saving souls and remaining true to his word, he'll do so. He'll show mercy when an antihero will only mete out justice. As described in Psalm 15, 

He swears to his own hurt, 
and does not change; 
Ps 15:4 NAS

Sometimes holding fast to your own promises is painful. Sometimes it costs you something to keep your word. But the one who does, that one is a hero, and those men (and women) are few and far between, in fiction and in reality. 

Can you think of an "antihero" in fiction or in history? Who comes to mind? 

Is there, in your opinion, one essential characteristic of a true hero/heroine? 



  1. Meeker sounds like a good villain for a mystery. I'm not sure what the difference is between a villain and an anti-hero, except maybe genre. But he, like most good villains, considers himself the hero of the story.

    He also reminds me of Paul, before his Damascus road conversion. Doing great harm while thinking he is doing good.

    Interesting post, Niki!

  2. To me that is exactly the difference between a villain and an antihero... the villain knows he's a wretch, the antihero thinks he's a good guy. Interesting comparison with pre-Damascus road Paul!

    I review the story every year because we run multiple articles about the pageant in the newspaper. And every year I wonder why on earth they chose to name the town after the man...

  3. Niki, I can't think of an anti-hero at the moment. Maybe I'm too sleepy. Must nap. Soon.

    However, one essential characteristic of a true hero/heroine is having an honor code. There's a difference between not liking cats and kicking a cat. There's a difference between cutting off Granny because you're in a hurry to get to the potty before your bladder explodes and with stealing money from Granny's wallet.

    With honor comes remorse.

    I can tolerate a hero/heroine doing something selfish, wrong, sinful, etc., if eventually he/she exhibits some remorse over the behavior.

    I read a book recently where the hero repented, but as a reader, I struggled believing his repentance because his remorse . . . umm, it was as if he was guilty that he got caught, not guilty over what he committed. Now that I think about him, I'd probably describe him as an antihero, although I certainly don't believe that's what the author intended.

    But it goes back to having that moral honor code. Sure the hero did nice things for others, but at the heart of who he was was his attitude of "I want what I want and I will do anything I want to obtain it." Even after he came to faith in Christ, his attitude was still "me-focused."

    That reminds me of a heroine in a book I read a few years ago. Even after her salvation experience, her behavior never focused from "it's all about me and getting what I want."

    I think she would do nice things for people . . . until the situation arose where doing that nice thing means at a great cost to herself. In that instance, she would choose self. Same with that hero.

    So Niki's verse is very fitting to my standards for an essential characteristic of a true hero/heroine.

    He swears to his own hurt and does not change.

    That is honor.

    Another word for honor is "Christ-like."

    Now I'm off to my nap.

  4. My the first words of this post scared me! re-enact a massacre?

    I believe a hero must be willing to put others before themself. For me that is the one thing that always pops out at me about a hero when I'm reading a book. Same goes for heroines;)

  5. Oh wow, Niki. I enjoy your history posts--I always learn something.

    I like what the others have said about heroes having honor codes. Doing what's right despite the cost. Villains don't value or respect the difficult choices by heroes which honor God or others but don't lead to gain.

    I'm jealous of Gina's nap. It's a hot day and I feel snoozy!

    Thanks, Niki.

  6. Gina, that's it in a nutshell, isn't it? Men and women of honor. Even if they were once dishonorable, they can become honorable.
    I'm a bit more than halfway through Book 6 in the Outlander series and Jamie Fraser is the epitome of the honorable man, IMO.

  7. Good addition, Faye! That's true, too! Self-sacrifice for the sake of love AND honor is a definite must in heroes and heroines!

    LOL. I was a little scared that first time I heard Indian war whoops and drums echoing through the valley!

    Thanks for visiting!

  8. Thanks Susie!
    I think that means my head is full of strange and trivial facts... *grin*

    I like what you said about villains not understanding the choices heroes make for the sake of honor. Here's another thought... perhaps the antihero simply justifies his (or her) choices. Like situation ethics, ya know?

  9. Now, why did you have to bring up Jamie Fraser?

    My thought for hero/heroine "must" is unselfishness when it counts.

    I'm still trying to picture how one reenacts a massacre, but I will do the 'puts sugar in her mouth' part.

    Mr. Meeker looks like a nice man...or is he just trying to look that way? Hmmmm.

    Waving at Anita Mae if she can take time from her busy social life in the Big Apple to check in with 'the little people'.

  10. Sorry Debra! Got Jamie on the brain!

  11. Cool post, Niki. I love a hero with courage and compassion as well as honor. Those are all great hero qualities.

    I wonder if Captain Jack would be an anti-hero if we use the definition of situational ethics? Or Robin Hood? If not anti-heroes, they've certainly managed to get a lot of us rooting for them.

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