Zeppelin the Hindenburg on fire at the mooring mast of Lakehurst (United States of America) 6 May 1937. (archive photo)

T.W. Paterson column: From 1st Nations to the Hindenburg: more ‘old news’ in the news

“Oh, the humanity!”—Radio station reporter Herbert Morrison.

“Oh, the humanity!”—Radio station reporter Herbert Morrison.

I know, I know, I keep repeating myself, myself…

But those danged newspaper headlines just won’t let me be. Almost daily there’s something in the news that relates to something in the past and I just can’t resist putting those past events into contemporary context. Consider it an occupational hazard, if you will. So, once again, into my vault of recent newspaper clippings…

Beginning with last week’s headline in the Citizen: “Local First Nations in court over Richmond lands.” How many people realize that our local Cowichan Tribes once ruled over much of lower Vancouver Island, from south of Nanaimo to Greater Victoria, from all if not most of the Fraser River Delta to, tenuously, Washington State?

Which explains the background of a case now before the Supreme Court of B.C. Initiated in 2014 by the Cowichan Nation Alliance vs. Canada, B.C. and the City of Richmond, it’s a bid to recover approximately 1,900 acres of “traditional village and surrounding lands on the south shore of Lulu Island”. That land, today, includes the City of Richmond. The CNA is also seeking the right to fish the south arm of the Fraser River for food.

The CNA bases its claim upon the historical fact that the Cowichan people had a large village — Tl’uqtinus — at the time of contact with the first European arrivals. According to an 1824 Hudson’s Bay Co. account, the village consisted of more than 100 longhouses — big by contemporary standards. This was when the Cowichans annually fished and harvested plant foods throughout the Gulf Islands. Further documentation through 1859 confirms its importance as a village site.

Which is when things went off the rails, according to the CNA, with Col. Richard Moody, chief commissioner of lands for the colony of British Columbia, “surreptitiously [taking] part of the lands” (those on which Tl’uqtinus stood, and the immediate surrounding area).

More than a century and a half later, almost 800 acres of the lands in question are owned by the federal government, the Vancouver Port Authority and the City of Richmond and much of the remaining lands remain undeveloped.

We’ll have to watch this play out, probably over several years. To say the least, if the CNA succeeds in its suit, the result will be a ground-shaker.

Another current case involving indigenous precedent involves Washington’s Makah Tribe, the only American Indians with a treaty right to hunt whales. Twenty years ago, a Makah crew harpooned a grey whale from a hand-carved cedar canoe; then another crew, in a motor boat, dispatched it with a high-powered rifle.

There’s much more to this story but I leave it to readers to do their own online research. All historical/cultural/treaty precedent in the world won’t gain my personal sympathy for torturing one of the world’s noblest creatures with a harpoon. No more than I can accept Japan’s return to commercial whaling for so-called purposes of scientific research. Horse potatoes!

On a more positive note, the B.C. government is contributing $1 million to the establishment of a Chinese-Canadian museum in Vancouver, “with the goal of creating branches in other communities across the province”. For far too long the history of the Chinese in B.C. was that of discrimination and abuse. How ironic then that they’ve turned out to be, from the beginning, among our most industrious, honest and contributing citizens. Anything that will help to cast enlightenment upon the unnecessary hardships they endured in the past from an ignorant and racist white society (and, in particular, the lessons for the future that can be learned therefrom) gets my vote. Thankfully, things have improved dramatically. We’re still not the perfect society but we sure have come a long way in the past 50 years or so.

Venturing a little farther afield — all the way to New Hampshire — I note that the last survivor of the infamous Hindenburg disaster has died. Werner Gustav Doehner was among the 62 passengers and crew when the nitrogen-filled airship caught fire while coming in for a landing in Manchester Township, New Jersey, May 6, 1937. Just eight years old at the time, he lost his father and sister, and 34 others also died in the flash fire. I mention his passing because of news films and photos of the flaming, tail-dipping dirigible are among the most famous icons of the 20th century. Surely, no one can have failed to see them in books, magazines, on TV and online. Or have failed to hear Chicago radio station reporter Herbert Morrison’s anguished description of the Hindenburg’s last moments.

The drama began when it became apparent that the approaching airship was down by the stern. After several attempts to level off by dropping its water ballast failed, it lowered its landing lines for naval personnel to attach to the mooring mast.

Suddenly Morrison, who’s giving a routine word-by-word description for his radio audience, cries, “It’s burst into flames!” Then, to his engineer: “Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s [on] fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between it. This is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.

“Oh it’s… [unintelligible] it’s flames… Crashing, oh! oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’s flames, now, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here! I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

The aluminum-clad Hindenburg was consumed in less than a minute, only its twisted, blackened frame and engines left recognizable. The most amazing aspect of the tragedy was that anyone survived.

In this jaded age of post-9/11, 24/7 news, YouTube and Facebook’s live posts of breaking news, we’ve become conditioned to watching real-life disasters as they occur, from the comfort of our living rooms. Back in 1937, the fact that news cameras and reporters were there to record the event made the Hindenburg disaster, at least until the filmed air attack on Pearl Harbour four years later, the most identifiable news footage of the 20th century.

Even 82 years later, even though the films and photos are black and white, the drama is as graphic and as horrifying as ever, and Morrison’s tortured description of its horror continues to ring in our collective consciousness.

www.twpaterson.com

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