The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Pain Scale Treaties



Enraged at settler atrocities and encroachments, Tecumseh stamped his foot into the ground, trampling out the fault lines of the New Madrid Earthquake. Half the nation rattled to the percussions of his dismay. The very meanders of the rivers changed. Long blades were shearing Shawnee land to the bone; sharpened nibs dripping ink were negotiating these phantom obliterations on map velum.


The loam that applauded Tecumseh’s confederacy of resistance with such might grew still with the next generation’s forced removal. Even now, there are traces of that sorrow that blasted the trees into crippled crescents, warping them back into the soil along the margins of those paths of exile.


Perched on the shoulders of generational trauma sit these two theses: suffering begets cruelty begets suffering begets cruelty, and pain is empathy’s catalyst. When deep hurt sears, my fists and abdomen sickle inward. I compress my atoms in a futile attempt to minimize the target. When it abates, the curve of the earth returns discernably under my soles and my fingers unclench, probing and pinching the air for the velvet current of any trail home.


The last Shawnee speaker in my family was my great-grandfather. He was shipped away to boarding school as a young child, and his language slipped from story to sentence, sentence to fragment, fragment to adjective, leaving him with the sparsest scattering of nouns to pass down—a starvation harvest of syntax starved images.


I know the words for elk and water. There are other Shawnee nouns as dense as koans with metaphor and meaning, but they remain inscrutable to me.


Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Shawnee were forcibly evicted from their homelands to Indian Territory. In most cases, the removal took more than eighteen months. Primary source documents and the rare testimonials spared by history attest to the untenable conditions. Many Shawnee died on the removal road, particularly the society’s most fragile members: the young, elderly, and ill. Upon arrival many more died due to disease, inadequate food and shelter, and violence.


I have an ancestor who, in the aftermath of the Civil War’s upheavals, made an appeal to Congress in support of the Shawnee tribe. Articulate and intelligent, he was literate in Shawnee, English, and Latin, I am told. He was sent to Washington to advocate for the tribe in a famine winter. He spent months there, a dark shadow in the elegant Shawnee turban and clothes of his time, relegated to the chilly corners of the antechambers of antechambers.

A man of his generation would have been removed from Ohio alongside his parents and siblings in his boyhood. He would have been removed again with his own grandchildren. By the end of his life, he would have seen his nation reduced to a tenth.


Family legend claims that he waited in the capitol for a season and a half, but was met with no audience.


Historians surmise that at a peak in westward expansion, the 1830s through the 1840s, the frontier of European settlement moved at a rate of ten to forty miles a year. I used to wince at photocopies of old treaty papers—fragile shrouds from this voracious consumption.


The Shawnee, like so many of America’s Sovereign Indigenous Nations, signed many treaties with the Colonial and American Government:

1786’s Treaty with the Shawnee conducted at the mouth of the Great Miami River;

1795’s Treaty of Greeneville;

1803’s Treaty of Fort Wayne;

1805’s Treaty with the Wyandotte held at Fort Industry;

1808’s Treaty with the Chippewa conducted at Brownstown;

1814, 1815, 1817 and 1818’s Treaties with the Wyandotte;

1825’s Treaty with the Shawnee conducted in St. Louis;

1831’s Treaty with the Shawnee concluded at Wapaghkonnetta;

1831’s Treaty with the Seneca in Logan Country, Ohio;

1832’s Treaty with the Shawnee;

1832’s Treaty with the Shawnee made at Castor Hill in Missouri;

1832’s Treaty with the Seneca and Shawnee concluded at the Seneca agency, on the head waters of the Cowskin river;

1854’s Treaty with the Shawnee made in the city of Washington;

1865’s Agreement with The Cherokee and Other Tribes in The Indian Territory;

1867’s Treaty with the Seneca, Mixed Seneca and Shawnee, Quapaw, Etc.


The gore of the battlefield seeps into the ground and is lost; ink on velum is its approximation.


I am laid low on a bed of dried blood, but it has been graciously consumed by the hospital’s large, absorbent sheet guards and rendered into rusty shadows under the papery layers.


Any treaty is an artifact of unimaginable suffering.


Only twice do I attempt to articulate my discomfort in my own terms, once in a sham attempt at restrained stoicism, I say that it is hitting a raw nerve, then in hysterics, I whimper that I see the glint of the teeth and at once they are clamped down inside me. The third time I have learned to say that it is a seven and accept the quicksilver pulse of intravenous analgesic like a benediction.


I recognize that I have made a treaty with myself bartering the refinement of my language for rapidly delivered slivers of chemical mercy. All I need now are my hands to talk. When I hold up the numbers of the pain scale, I feel a shiver of what I have ceded with such terrified alacrity. I sign my mark in the air with my dominant hand.


A timber scribe is a small, sharp gouge designed for blazing trees. This tool, small enough to fit in a pocket, was once the first and most essential component of any surveyor’s gear.


Stick is an anachronism; the traditional bellow of the surveyor as the blaze is carved into the sight-trunk and the first chain is placed.


Stick: seven marks are carved into my torso and abdomen. I meander into the territory of illness and must learn to make its land my own; my body’s sovereignty evaporates.

Is it mercy or cruelty that compels the surgeon to sign her initials on the layer of skin above the first incision so that, as her scalpel begins to perforate my flesh, she is compelled to cut through her very name? A narrow conduit is surgically buried deep in my body. One end curls at the terminus of my trunk. Three inches of flexible plastic tubing droops like a tiny cannon from the side of my torso, just under my ribs—a portal that obliterates my skin’s compromised frontiers.


The myth of the America landmass as virgin soil is pervasive. I don’t see my former self as pure, but something integral is stripped from me just the same as I disaggregate into the numbers of disease. I am no longer a mystery. No dark stand of untouched timber is left in me. The exact equations of my survival are tallied—hourly, daily, weekly, monthly; mathematically.


I have one ancestor who surveyed in the American South just after the period of removal. I have another whose notation I once read in the Eastern Shawnee tribal library: “I don’t like those lines running so close to what’s mine.”


Stuck: the response to the surveyor’s call and the confirmation of the act of measurement.

Laura Da’ is a poet and teacher. A lifetime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Da’ studied creative writing at the University of Washington and The Institute of American Indian Arts. Da’ is Eastern Shawnee. She is the author of Tributaries, winner of the American Book Award, and Instruments of the True Measure, winner of the Washington State Book Award. Da’ lives near Seattle with her husband and son and is a writer in residence at Richard Hugo House. More from this author →