Our national founding documents talk about all men being created “equal,” and many see the history of the country as a gradual expansion of “all men” to include black men—14th Amendment, 1868; women—19th Amendment, 1920; and, in 1924, when they were finally given citizenship in the country that had swallowed up their native lands, Indians.
In junior high in the 1950s we read secreted copies of Battle Cry on the bus—there were four-letter words—and watched movies of war heroics. I remember real war hero Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back,” actors William Holden and Alec Guinness in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” I watched my first war movie, “God is My Co-Pilot,” with my dad. It was in black and white, and flying “the hump” from India over the Himalaya to China and the Flying Tigers was what my Uncle Sid did during the war.Read Rich’s Post →
|American Progress, by John Gast 1872|
Manifest Destiny was an idea long before it had a name, and what it was really about was not the “white man’s burden,” but an Anglo-American one, the idea that the arrow of civilization and mantle of world leadership had passed from the British Empire to the emerging Anglo-American Empire. The accession of Mexican lands and the Philippines, adventures in Central America, and most importantly for our own national history, the Westward Expansion that displaced Indians and seized tribal lands across the continent, were all part of a grand idea that Anglo-American civilization was destined to lead the entire world.
From the founding of the United States forward, Anglo-Americans were in political control: immigrants from other European places grouped themselves in Eastern city neighborhoods and on Midwestern farms—Greeks, Irish, Scandinavians, Bohemians, Slavs and Jews from Central Europe and more. German immigrants—the largest share of all immigrants between 1850 and 1900—built factories and Midwestern cities. They were white, but not Anglo-white, and while the Irish and Italians ran their neighborhoods and Germans made beer, Anglos ran national politics. Thirty-eight of our Presidents trace ancestry to the British Isles, Eisenhower was the first German-American, Kennedy the first Catholic.
The West was historically a sparsely populated region whose natural resources and agricultural possibilities dazzled and attracted people from the “United States” and countries around the world. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Indian workers dealt early in tallow and hides. The Chinese came to build railroads and work in mines, and Filipinos and other Asians came to Hawaii to work in fields, and then hopped to the Mainland. In other words, from territorial days and Mexican, Russian, and British claims forward, the West was more colorful than the East, but not as politically powerful.
European westward settlement proceeded over decades; twentieth century wars transformed the country in months. Especially World War II, a bi-coastal war that brought tens of thousands of young American men from across the country to camps in California and Washington on their way to war. Men, and women too, moved to shipyards on the West coast, and thousands came to Los Alamos and Hanford to work on the atomic bomb. In 1994, historian Richard White told an Oregon Fishtrap audience examining change in the West that “prior to WW II the West was a hard-scrabble place looking for population, capital, and an industrial base. WW II gave the West all three.”
African-Americans came too, but the military was strictly segregated (until 1948), as were shipyards and Hanford workers barracks. So while Anglo-Americans and Italian-Americans, Scandinavians and even Jews served together, lived and mixed together in war and at home, blacks were firmly separated.
At that same Fishtrap conference, historian Alvin Josephy, who had been a Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific, said that WW II didn’t unite the country—the G.I. Bill did. What we didn’t talk about, and what seems clear to me now, is that WW II and the G.I. Bill that followed united “white America,” and laid the ground for what is dividing us now.
African-Americans, who’d traveled north and west to work in urban factories since the early 1900s, found no place in the emerging post-WW II suburbs, where William Levitt, his followers, and the GI Bill used federal money to build tract homes for the mixed ethnic bag of white WW II veterans. Federal money supported suburban infrastructure while it ignored deteriorating urban infrastructure in city cores which were becoming increasingly black; and federal policy winked or ignored redlining as suburbs stayed white.
But WW II showed blacks other worlds too, and soon baseball and the military were integrated, a Civil Rights Bill was passed, and the reign of Anglo presidents finally gave way to the Irish, to a poor white Southerner, and, finally, to an African-American.
Today, the old ethnic and “tribal” identities are jumbled and waiting for DNA counts to tell us who we are—or were. Families are split across the country. There are more and more boxes on government forms—and the easy response from far too many is to scream “White!”
Maybe in New York City, long a landing place for new immigrants, and here on the West Coast, where soldiers have long settled down with war brides and wars have deposited millions of Asian refugees, where opportunism and intermarriage have stirred the pot harder, a new multi-cultural identity is growing. But here and everywhere there are too many pockets of Supremacists, people who want the white back they thought they always had, people who lost their own anchors of place and “ethnic identity” sometime around 1944.
# # #
In this election year, African Americans and Latinos are getting a lot of attention. Immigrants too. We are a “nation of them.” Oops—Indians were here when the first European immigrants arrived, and are still. (But their voting numbers are small, and they are spread out over 500 reservations and scores of cities across the country.)
Indians don’t even speak the same language—or didn’t. Most of them speak English now, except for French speaking Metis who are mostly in Canada, and Spanish speaking Indians across South and Central America and Mexico. And the Mayan language speakers and others which are still strong enough to hold their own with Spanish and Portuguese south of our border. Linguists say there were some 2500 mutually unintelligible languages when the first Europeans arrived.
Or, you might want to count the Norse in Newfoundland as first new arrivals, or maybe some stray kon tiki boat from the Pacific that brought Islanders or Africans to the New World. But that is all pretty much academic in seeing what actually happened to the New World when the Old World got here. It was Columbus who started the rush from Spain—and Portugal and England, who misnamed the inhabitants “Indians,” shipped them back to Europe as slaves, worked them to death in gold mines on Hispanola as part of grants of land and labor known as encomiendas, and killed them off with diseases. Columbus brought horses and pigs and cows too, and sent back more than gold. Now you can study the “Columbian Exchange” to follow all that followed his New World adventure.
Eventually, Africans were brought to the Caribbean to work sugar cane and other crops, and as the English started settling further north, African slavery proper began. But what Columbus started with Indians had a good 100-year run before African American Slavery began its 250-year run up to the Civil War.
Indians—indigenous people—were here everywhere when Spanish and Portuguese, English and Dutch, indentured servants from everywhere and African slaves put in to American ports. There were—or had been—large concentrations of them, cities in fact, in Mexico and Peru, Central America and the Mississippi Valley, but there were also hundreds, no thousands of small groups spread from the tip of South America to the Arctic. Their 1492 numbers were reduced drastically and rapidly by overworking, disease, and murder, but they have survived, and it has been years of exploration, colonization, wars, treaties, settlements, missionizing, boarding school education, and who knows what else to bring us to the present as re Indians.
Indians are complicated! First, they were, as one historian said, “here to meet the boats.” This—the Americas, all of it—was their land! Secondly, they were and probably still are as diverse in backgrounds, languages, and cultures as Europe or Asia or Africa was in 1492. Third, their subjugation to European culture, laws, and people, has been conducted in so many ways: the aforementioned diseases, wars, work, treaties, laws, etc. And finally, they are still spread out across the entire region just as they were when first found. There were no slave markets like Richmond or New Orleans, and the country was never divided north-south by their presence as it was to and through the Civil War into Civil Rights.
Alvin Josephy once said that white liberals who had fought for black Civil Rights in the ‘60s thought they had done that job and would move on to the Indians; the Indians told them they didn’t want Civil Rights, but their Treaty Rights!
See how complicated Indians are. Which might be the reason that our Presidential candidates are not courting the Indian Vote.
And here we have to leave the colonial and mestizo cultures south of the US border; and acknowledge that the people called Latinos on both sides of the border have their own complications, but they share language, and for most political purposes we Norte Americanos can thus lump them all together! The Latino vote. “Illegals.” “Immigrants” (well, maybe not “New Mexicans” or old California families, or….).
Good news: According to a recent piece in the New York Times re American Indians, “President Obama campaigned hard in 2008 for the votes of American Indians. He vowed that his administration would pay special attention to their grievances about federal mismanagement and the government’s recurring neglect of treaty obligations. ‘Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans — the first Americans,’” Obama said.
“Mr. Obama was given credit by tribal leaders for creating a White House council to maintain lines of communication with them; establishing a buyback program to help tribes regain scattered lands; expanding the jurisdiction of tribal courts; and including tribal women under the protection of the Violence Against Women law in 2013. Reaching out to Indian nations has been ‘one of the hallmarks of this administration,’” according to Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation.
By all accounts, Obama has been the best President for Indians since Richard M. Nixon. Talk about complicated!