Royal Americans

There were once kings in America—at least according to the British. In an ironic twist of cultural misunderstanding, the English in the New World, not understanding Indian ways, assumed them into an English mold, modeled on still older, classical names and lines of royalty.  
Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoags, who shared resources, knowledge, and a legendary feast with the Pilgrims, had two sons, who were known to the settlers as Alexander and Philip. The old chief had ceded lands and compromised much with the settlers, who, by the time of his death outnumbered Indians almost two to one in “New England.”  The older son, Alexander, who ascended to leadership on Massasoit’s death, was outspoken at growing English prohibitions on his people—Indians were punished for hunting and fishing on the Sabbath, marrying without Christian sanction, etc.—and, after a year of leading his people, was imprisoned by his white neighbors. He was released on leaving his two sons as hostages, but on the journey back to his people died of “bitterness”—or of poisoning by the authorities, according to some of the Indians.
The younger son, Philip, became the leader of the Wampanoags. He was known by the Puritans as King Philip, and the futile war he fought to stem the tide of settlement is still called “King Philip’s War.” According to Alvin Josephy, it was the “most devastating war ever fought on New England soil. It cost the English six hundred lives, twelve hundred homes, and eight thousand cattle. The Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett nations lost three thousand lives… Indian power in southern New England no longer existed.” (500 Nations)
King Hendrick
But there was more of New England, and more royalty. In 1710, in order to secure friendship and assistance against the French, the British colonials sent four chiefs to England to meet Queen Anne.  In London they were dressed in court costume, with robes, sashes, and sabers, for portraits.  One of them, “King Hendrick,” who so impressed the English in London, was killed in 1755 while fighting for the British in what is now upper New York State.
I am continually stuck by the early images that Europeans had of American Indians. Paintings and drawings from the early work of John White through that of George Catlin, Paul Kane, Peter Rindisbacher and others found the indigenous Americans robust, proud, and strong. Their full or partial nakedness allowed the artists to portray muscle, strong masculinity and femininity—one can see the short step to Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s “noble savage.”  
On the other hand, in King Philip’s War whites introduced, according to Josephy, the concept of total warfare. Women, children, families, stock—all were slaughtered indiscriminately. And Philip’s severed head was on display for some 20 years after his death. In the southwest, Spanish colonists hanged and burned Indians for minor offences, often on religious grounds.
The point is that from the beginning of European exploration and settlement, attitudes towards Indians were confused and confusing. Indians were noble and they were savage. They were handsome and beautiful, and they were dark and evil. They were agriculturalists who introduced the Europeans to corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, etc. and they were ignorant hunter-gatherer primitives. They were reliable allies (of the British or the French in the early years) or enemies.
Josephy made a career out of sorting out the confusions, so I will not attempt to do so in a few words here. Enough to say that Indians were always more diverse and complicated than the whites initially thought, that first meetings were most often friendly but soon degenerated into something else, that Indians were thrust willy-nilly into old European differences, that differences among Indians were exploited by Europeans, and that European artists brought their own histories—and their own belief systems—into their depictions of Indians and the history that they were witnessing. Oh—and not unsurprisingly, Alvin Josephy was a close student of the resulting artwork.
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The romantic side of assimilation


Relationships between European immigrants and indigenous people in the Americas have been complicated from the beginning.  Columbus and his henchmen squeezed the Caribbeans of gold, enslaved them, annihilated some tribes, and took the case of indigenous people’s “humanity” back to the Old World, where churchmen determined that the Americans had souls and were in need of Christian conversion.

The northern Europeans, coming out of the little ice age, started to get well on American potatoes, and the ones who made it to “New England” shores, still often scrawny and unfit, found corn and squash and beans and big strong looking Indians—the Indians who had escaped the diseases which had decimated the coast before the arrival of actual settlers.

A few of these strong good looking Indians were brought back to Europe, and they and stories of the Iroquois Confederation –the “civilized tribes”—reached philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and others to fuel a vision of “noble savages” and feed the Enlightenment. (see John White painting circa 1590 at left).

Alvin J said many times in many ways that, from the beginning, white relationships with Indians took three basic roads—all evident in my sketchy history above: 1. Indians should be killed and their lands and resources taken over by superior Europeans;  2. Indians should be converted and assimilated, should be made white. Most who espoused this view were good people who saw Indians as children in need of white parenting, and believed they could catch up with whites if properly cared for.

The third vision, what Alvin sometimes called the “romantic” vision of Indians granted the Indians a glorious “noble” past. These were the Indians brought back to Europe and paraded before royalty. Benjamin Franklin observed that Indians got on well without policemen and jails, and that the Iroquois nations had fashioned a kind of union that had lasted for generations, while a dozen European colonies were having a tough time forming any union at all.  These Indians inspired philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau to name them “noble savages.”  In the end this narrative of indigenous America also led to assimilation; you were once noble and free and part of nature, but civilization has caught up with you and now you must join it—us.  You are, in terms popular in the nineteenth century and in the title of a 1904 Edward Curtis photo, a “vanishing race.” (curtis photo below)

I think this vision is buried somehow in the collective American genome. In this view, we conquered the Indians and their lands, and are now treating them well—as “equals” really. So we grant them a noble past. They were, among other things, hard adversaries, sometimes ruthless, but in any case tough. (How else could they have defeated Custer!) We don’t want to recount the actual relationships of Indians and whites in our textbooks—scholars and amateur historians can play in that field—but we can still name things after Indian heroes and put statues of them in public places. (Indian writer James Welch told me that the Battle at the Little Big Horn is one of the top two or three American historical subjects in books and films; following the history of these histories is another way of tracking Indian-white relations.) The “Trail of Tears” is a phrase that has entered the vocabulary, though I doubt very many of us can trace its actual history. Indians are still mostly absent from our history textbooks. And the fact that Indians and tribes are still with us and are doing things other than casinos—things like restoring lands and fish and game populations, fighting diabetes and poverty, trying to integrate old ways and new ways—is not part of the current American conversation.

One could argue that the romantics have carried the day—Indians were once interesting and even noble, as are their old chiefs and stories, but Indians today, if they have not already vanished, are largely invisible to most Americans.

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