Chief Duck

Monday, 10 August 2015 00:00

     Just how long a shadow does an evil act cast in time, if any?  I am not sure of the answer.  Is it like what Faulkner said, that “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past?”  Or is the situation more neatly summed up by the epitaph on the gravestone of John Keats: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water?”  Such thoughts worry my mind like troubled mice as I look at the photograph of the statue of Chief Duck.
     The statue is easily missed as one cruises up Highway 51 north of Jackson, Mississippi—perhaps at the southern limits of what might be considered “Faulkner Country.”  The statue is located in the town of Duck Hill…nowadays a quiet, sleepy little place, home to some 732 residents in the 2010 census.  I don’t even recollect that there was a stoplight to slow one’s progress, heading up northward to bigger towns like Grenada.

     This downright eerie little statue depicts an Indian chief clutching a tomahawk next to his chest.  That would be Chief Duck.  According to legend, he was a Choctaw Indian who liked to hold War Councils (nowadays we call those committee meetings) up on the eponymous hill that looms over the town.  Chief Duck was famous for treating sick people for free, even the white ones, when he wasn’t having committee meetings, ahem, War Councils.  Maybe all that gets you a statue in these parts.
     Go up really close to that statue, and it kinda’ gives you the creeps.    The Chief’s eyes are frozen wide open, unblinking for all eternity.  It’s as if he’s staring hard at something terrible that we cannot see in this bucolic setting, whatever it might be.  And the Chief is hanging on to that tomahawk in a death grip, close by, like he’s never parting ways with it, eternally prepared to defend himself.  What’s going on?
     Maybe he’s staring at ghosts that we cannot see.  In 1937 two black men, Roosevelt Townes and Robert “Bootjack” McDaniels, were accused of murdering a white man.  Whether they did or not will never be known.  Instead of going to trial, a mob took them from police custody at the Grenada courthouse and transported them to Duck Hill.  “Confessions” were duly extracted with a blowtorch from both men while chained to a tree.  One was then shot and killed.  The other was burned to death.   Of course, the police were unable to recognize any of the individuals who abducted the men.
       The Nazis loved it.  German newspapers used a picture of one of the tortured bodies to trumpet the “humane” racial laws that they had enacted.  We all know where that lead.
     And so my question becomes, do the people of this town now bear the shame of this event (think Faulkner), or was it “writ on water?”  Should I as a Southerner feel a part of some collective guilt that this, and so many other heinous acts, were committed in this part of the country in that era of time?    Somebody (actually, a whole bunch of somebodies) committed an evil act, but were they evil people?  Were they ever tormented by what they did…especially on Sunday mornings, worshipping a God famous for saying “let he who has not sinned cast the first stone?”
     That quote from Jesus raises one of the main problems with finding fault in others, especially those in the past whose world we cannot pretend to comprehend—we are all flawed.  Is there anyone reading these words who hasn’t done anything that makes them cringe in shame inwardly whenever you recollect it?  A web search yields the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has identified 8,050 “saints, blessed, and venerables”  (give or take a few, as the exact number is apparently hard to determine).  Now initially that sounded like a lot of people who might be designated as “flawless,” but then I got to thinking (those damned mind mice)—another web search yielded a website (, where it was estimated that 300 billion people have lived since 1 A.D. (I picked this date since this is presumably the inception date of the Church).  A quick bit of math and presto, it seems that .000027% of the population in the last 2000 years had a good chance of a clear conscience.
      Unfortunately, we are not granted the power to undo what has been done in the past.  So, at the risk of sounding “preachy” (my wife’s term after she read this; that’s what good spouses can do for you-- keep you trimmed down to size), I suspect the best that we can do is try to figure out what the lessons were in the aftermath of our errors, and labor mightily not to make the same mistakes again.  Even so, it is always a struggle, for doing the right thing often means putting others needs before our own.  Unfortunately, this does not come naturally to us.  Our brains are wired such that we are animals first—the human being thing within us comes second, and must often be summoned with great effort. 
     Another complexity of all of this is that I believe it is likely remorse that inspires some of our best behavior.  So the above calculations about saints and the number of people with a clear conscience were vacuous, for I’m guessing even a number of these saints had a dark little corner of their minds, just chock-full of regret.
     And do not ask me what it is that I have done wrong, for I will likely never tell you.  Let us now make a pact together and promise each other not to ask of such things, even in a moment of intimacy.  We will be as thick as thieves in our shared conspiracy.  However, for each of us the regrets will be like barnacles crusted upon our souls, and we will take them with us to our graves.  Maybe that is one of the reasons that at some point in life, a person starts to feel old.  It is a lot to carry.
     All this I have seen in the stare of the Chief. 


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