When I was in the bookstore, I sold many copies of The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, AKA Little Tree. It was the story of a child raised by Cherokee grandparents to the wonders of the natural world and Indian ways of living. The book was published in the same year that I opened the bookstore, 1976, and soon gained a devoted following—I remember people reading it and then buying multiple copies to give to friends. Carter had already written and published The Rebel Outlaw, Josey Wales, and worked that title—and Clint Eastwood’s “Josey Wells” movie—into an appearance on Barbara Walter’s celebrity TV program.Read Rich’s Post →
Category: Indian assimilation
MLK and the Indians
I remember Alvin Josephy saying many times that the white liberals who had joined the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King did not understand the Indian situation. To paraphrase him, “As the Civil Rights movement gained strength and won some victories, white liberals thought they could just transfer ideas and tactics over to Indian affairs. But there was a fundamental difference. Indians didn’t want their ‘civil’ rights, but their ‘sovereignty,’ the treaty rights and at least some of the land that had been stolen from them.”
Another constant theme of Alvin’s: “From the beginning Indians had three choices: become white—assimilation; move, across the Mississippi, further west, to reservations—removal; or extermination.” From the beginning, Euro-Americans who wanted to treat Indians fairly often thought the best way to do so was to assimilate them. Their assumption was that Indians had lost the continent, white civilization was on the march, and Indians were obliged to join the parade. Alvin’s boss at Time Magazine, Henry Luce, thought Indians who resisted this maxim were “phonies,” and should just get on with adapting. Alice Fletcher, the famous “measuring woman” among the Nez Perce who had actually written some of the Dawes, or Allotment, Act, had in mind to make every Indian a Jeffersonian farmer. She appreciated Indian cultures—some of the ethnographic work she did among the Omaha and other Plains tribes on Indian songs and dances is still available in Dover Books. But the Indian solution, in her mind, was assimilation. The culture would go to textbooks and museums.
After the last blog on Mildred Bailey and “passing as white,” a friend suggested that it sounded accurate on the one hand, but on the other, why is it that so many Americans claim Indian roots? There are jokes about the number of people with Cherokee great-grandmothers, but when, he asked, have you heard someone obviously “white” claim a slave ancestor from Sierra Leone.
What’s with this contradiction of widespread pride in Indian ancestry—and white America’s disregard for and continuing practice of forgetting Indian history and consciously eradicating Indian culture?
I can’t site a page in a Josephy book or remember a specific conversation, but I know that he believed that, from the earliest days of white settlement, relations with Indians were dominated by a triad of white attitudes toward them: romanticize, kill, or assimilate.
We now know that diseases often preceded actual contact and that millions of indigenous Americans died before they saw a white face. We also know, though it is less frequently mentioned, that Europe, and especially northern Europe, was in the final throes of the little ice age when those first ships sailed to the North America. Famine was fact, and the people who traveled were a scrawny lot (I read somewhere that Napoleon’s army was made up of men who barely topped five foot, unlike Charlemagne‘s much earlier army of six footers.) And their first sightings of Indians must have been awe-inspiring. Think of the early paintings of the “red men,” and of the Indians who were brought to Europe to parade in front of kings, queens, and philosophers.
These able-bodied Indians appeared to be living well without the trappings of European civilization, without large houses, police forces, and only the barest of manufactured goods. “Noble savages,” Rousseau called them. At least some of the early colonists, Benjamin Franklin among them, read and were influenced by the Europeans and found confirmation of their views in personal experience.
I don’t remember which general declared that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and there is not time or space to chronicle the attempts by do-good white Americans to assimilate Indians. The Dawes Act, Indian Reorganization Act, and Eisenhower’s termination policy can serve as brief reminders
But is it too much to say that Josephy’s original triad is with us still? That White America is still conflicted about Indians, and that we carry with us these old attitudes—all of them. At Fishtrap, we hosted the Makah filmmaker Sandy Osawa, and watched her documentaries on musician Jim Pepper and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. We listened to Horace Axtell describe a language and sounds related directly the world around us.
And now that powwow’s are mainstream, we are stirred by jingle dancers and Indian elders with eagle feathers. I remember selling a book of Indian sayings in my bookstore days: To Touch the Earth.
Maybe that is what the Cherokee great grandmother is all about….
check out Sandy Osawa and Maria Tallchief here: http://indiancountrynews.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2006&Itemid=80