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The fighting spirit of Unnacokasimon, a Seventeenth Century Nanticoke Indian chief, meets the fighting spirit of Twentieth Century Ho Chi Minh. And in the breaking waves of colliding spacetimes, a trial testing the steel of personified warrior grit is set into motion.
Such warrior spirit comes by way of a journey of consciousness. One often described as the Hero's Journey. All hero journeys begin alike: A baby's crying response of disorientation in exiting its mother's protective biosphere into the greater biosphere of Mother Earth. Facing the unknown, the baby vocalizes its fear and simultaneous defiance. He or she will “not go gentle into that good night.” (Dylan Thomas)
Every collective group of human beings is a tribe of a sort, whether a nuclear family, extended family, or nation. These tribes have their hero stories planted like seeds for imitation in a child's mind and heart. Such stories become trees anchoring a people to the land and sky of their being. Tales of bravery and unwavering devotion that transport them back and forth in time to preserve their way of life. An identifying selfhood of who they are now and into the future.
It was by such a ripening of child wonder into adult aspiration that I pushed on through childhood rites of passage to the grownup version and entered the crucible of Vietnam warfare and combat. Along the way from childhood innocence to post-combat citizen, I've learned a few things that have sustained me through the light and dark of life's adversities and personal demons.
As such, we all are on a time journey of our own making, a quest to be the highest expression of the ideal person we want to be – that shiny template of human ascendancy. Every tribe has its lineage of paragons who demonstrated those character traits prized by their people in their time on earth. In my Nanticoke heritage, the contributions of Chief Unnacokasimon to the tribe's survival and continuance in the Age of Discovery are noteworthy history.
It was a fateful day in 1608 when the British captain John Smith – while exploring the Chesapeake Bay – sailed onto the Kuskarawaok River, the self-same river known currently as the Nanticoke. Here he made First Contact (the meeting of two distinct cultures unaware of one another) with the ancestors of today's Nanticoke Indian Tribe. This brush with the Kuskarawaok, otherwise Nantaquak people, would prove to be a harbinger of change and uncertainty.
Nanticoke, translated from the original Algonquian Nantaquak, means People of the Tide Water, referring to the Eastern Shore area between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays. Prior to Smith's transmutative expedition, the Nanticoke maintained a lifestyle based on the rhythms of nature and the web of life.
Drawing sustenance from their riparian habitat, they subsisted on fish, crabs, shrimp, eels, clams, oysters, and the farmed harvest of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers. As hunters and gatherers, they foraged for nuts, berries, birds, eggs, and edible seasonal plants. During the winter, they hunted in the forests and meadows of the Eastern Shore for squirrels, turkeys, deer, opossums, rabbits, bear, partridges, ducks, and geese. It was a predictable pattern of seasons coming and going. But like Captain Smith's vessel, that “ship had sailed” and brought to the Eastern Shore decades of upheaval.
Land grabs and displacement by white settlers disrupted the tribe's seasonal way of life. The de facto invaders whittled down the forests and, consequently, the winter game. Their unconfined livestock plundered native farms and crops, precipitating extenuating thievery of their hogs and cattle by area tribes struggling to “bring home the bacon.”
Raids and threats of war and open warfare escalated hostilities between area tribes and colonists, boiling over with Maryland governor Thomas Greene ordering militia captain John Pike to attack and destroy the Nanticoke village and gardens in 1642 and 1647 as coercion to leave the area.
All of this took its toll over a 70-year span, leaving the Nanticoke and their Choptank relations the only native tribes still living on the Eastern Shore. This was the world in which Chief Unnacokasimon fought the good fight for his people.
In 1668, the Nanticoke chief signed the first of five treaties to establish peace between the proprietary government of the Province of Maryland and his people. The treaties, however, did not broker harmony, as English emigrants continued their seizing of tribal lands. Being “discovered” exacted tribute in stolen sovereignty.
To remedy this ongoing trespass, the tribe, under the tenure of Chief Unnacokasimon, petitioned the Maryland government in 1684 to grant them specific tracts of land. This resulted in a jointly defined reservation for the tribe's use, situated between Chicacoan Creek and the Nanticoke River in Maryland. Nonetheless, non-native people still encroached upon their lands leading up to the tribe purchasing a 3,000-acre tract of land in 1707 on Broad Creek in Somerset County, Maryland (now Sussex County, Delaware).
Nevertheless, the fortunes of change hoped for in songwriter Sam Cooke's balladeering lyricizing “It's been a long / A long time coming / But I know a change gonna come / Oh, yes it will” did not come to fruition. Therefore, in 1742 the Nanticoke crafted hushed plans for a war of independence against the Maryland colony. But a Choptank informer's loose lips alerted colonists, who countered with their own threat to take all of what Nanticoke land remained.
The die was cast. Beginning in 1744, a gradual exodus of the Nanticoke took place. Traveling north in dugout canoes to the Susquehanna River, some migrated to the Six Nations of the Iroquois into New York, Pennsylvania, and areas of Canada on the promise of land and protection. Others walked westward. A significant number, including my antecedents, moved eastward into Delaware and settled near the Indian River.
This living history courses through my veins. It is imprinted in my DNA as a testament to resolve and resilience in the face of grave challenges. It is a living being within me that lived on in Vietnam and my return home.
As a baby boomer swaddled in the Ally victory tantara over World War II oppression and genocide, I wanted to reach the apotheosis of will and courage embodied in Marine Corps lore.
The vital force of ‘Chesty’ Puller, the legendary embodiment of Marine Semper Fidelis, drove me in an inevitable act of daring to enlist in the United States Marine Corps in November 1967. Five months and two weeks later, I entered the crucible of the Vietnam War. The lifeblood of Chesty and I went up against General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander of the People's Army of Vietnam.
Battle joined; the adrenaline-rushed instincts of combat mind got me and my brothers-in-arms through each day and month of jousting with enemy forces. Prolonged exposure to serial danger and deathly consequences of repetitive patrols, sweeps, and operations had armed us with a cognitive recall to anticipate danger, react to it, and live another day outsmarting lethal demise. Failing that, we would join the rest of the immortalized fallen listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
I lived to live another day, all the way to my rotation date (end of deployment). After thirteen months in the jungles, rice paddies, and hills of South Vietnam, I was on my way home: three days at Camp Butler (Okinawa), then on to Treasure Island U.S. Naval Station (San Francisco), and onward to my hometown, Washington, D.C.
Returning, I was a different person, and America was a different country from the one I had left. Stateside duty at Camp Lejeune (North Carolina) tasted like a strange brew of familiar and unfamiliar flavors. The daily regimen of domestic military bases seemed banal compared to their Nam counterparts, where literal ground force attacks, ambushes, incoming rockets, RPGs, booby traps and mines replaced alert and response drills.
War is always ultimately personal. The finality of premeditated killing strips away any dispassion from war. It is serious business with serious consequences, the ramifications of which the individual warrior bears. I was 22 years old, trying to deconflict the arguments between pro- war and anti-war activists to sift out my own truth. Compounding my readjustment challenge was managing combat-conditioned reflexes to external noises and movement stimuli.
Decades have passed since I crossed the Pacific, leap-frogged over the South China Sea, and touched down at Da Nang Air Base, and on to beating the bush as a Marine grunt. For some, their jousting with immortality ended there far from home.
We had been denied both the “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat” per the proviso of the Paris Peace Accords, designating the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam (January 1973).
President Nixon's ignominious “Peace with Honor” end to the war was laid squarely at our feet as the flashpoint of America's divisive culture war, which tossed us away as collateral damage left to our own devices.
In my private reminiscences, I questioned the good I had done myself and my country, as seen through the transcendental eyes of Chesty Puller. Chesty would be the final adjudicator of heroic worthiness for storytelling around winter fires as guiding posts for future generations.
To slay the dragon that stands between every person and their quest, they must jettison their fears, doubts, and feelings of inadequacy. They must claim their power and their future. The hero's journey on the surface may seem singular. But it is the journey of the one in the many that becomes the many in the one. The hero's tale acts as a force multiplier for reaching our potential.
Still, my fighting an unpopular war that never came to our shores seems inconsequential compared to my ancient forebears. Yet Nam's long shadow on American culture and politics is an order of magnitude equal to that of an event horizon from which we seemingly cannot escape. Like the dinosaurs, our unmistakable traces turn up in any discussion on foreign or domestic policy that has geopolitical significance.
Our ranks grow thinner with the passing of each year, but we are still here as a reminder of the cost of war and the elusiveness of peace. And in that perennial struggle to coexist, perhaps we have earned a place of distinction in the pursuit of the American Dream. Maybe somewhere in the ugliness of the death and carnage we gave and received is the path forward to a peaceful humanity.
Throughout the ages, humankind has been desperately divided by competing identity interests: tribal, racial, ethnic, religious, and national. Conflicts over land, resources, fortune and influence have damned peaceable cohabitation throughout history. It is because of our disability to recognize our oneness that we are divided between enemy and ally. War can foist itself into the breach when the need to control circumstances mutates into irreconcilable differences. At that point, “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die. And it is youth who must inherit the tribulation, the sorrow and the triumphs that are the aftermath of war.” [Herbert Hoover, June 1944]
And therein lies the Catch-22 that pervaded the anti-war and pro-war movements. “War hath no fury like a non-combatant.” [C. E. Montague] What both sides missed was our reality: “It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.” [Joseph Heller, author]
Where does that leave us Vietnam vets when all is said and done? I think we can let Chesty Puller, the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, speak for us from another military stalemate (Korean War). When the 1st Marine Division was surrounded and outnumbered eight-to-one by Chinese and North Korean forces. 1st Marine Regiment Commander Lieutenant general Lewis B. Puller declared the following: “All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of us, they're behind us... They can't get away this time. We're surrounded. That simplifies the problem!”
That's nothing new for the Nanticoke Indian Tribe.
AND WE ARE STILL HERE!
*Carl Hitchens, U.S. Marine Corps veteran. Through his writing, he strives to act as a voice of cultural/social critique and criticism. His published works include: Home (poetry), The Sun Rises (poetry), Our Planet (essay), Thinning of the Veils (poetry), Shades of Light (poetry), Sitting with Warrior (historical memoir), Breath of Fire (poetry).