Oregon and slavery—and Indians

Greg Nokes ends his 2013 book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, with a quote from Alvin Josephy’s essay, “The Forked Tongue in U.S. History Books.” Alvin wrote it in the early 1970s, coming out of a conference at Stanford University examining California textbooks:

“The writing of history, done by the white intruders, conquerors and dispossessors, has been self-serving from the start—meeting the needs, generation after generation, of the people who were pouring in from Europe, first erecting colonies and then building a new nation. Little attempt was made to understand—and much less explain—the different and unfamiliar Indian cultures against which the newcomers rubbed. Because they were different, they were deemed inferior and dangerous.” Read The Article

Indians are still invisible!

In today’s Washington Post, long-time columnist Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter and consultant, labels President Trump a racist, and says that’s all you have to remember in the voting booth. He’s another of the staunch Republicans who is switching sides in this election, claiming older Republican and American values. But like so many principled Republicans and Democrats, he forgets and omits the long struggle of Native Americans with the waves of European immigrants in the first centuries of colonialism and nationhood. And like many of his journalism cohorts and academic mentors, he labels slavery our “original sin.”

 

“The struggle for racial equality is the defining American struggle. Much of our history has been spent dealing with the moral contradiction of America’s founding — how a bold experiment in liberty could also be a prison for millions of enslaved people. That hypocrisy and its ramifications have been our scandal. Our burden. Our sin.”  Michael Gerson, Washington Post, October Read The Article

Columbus Day: the rest of the story

 “Columbus Day” was first celebrated by Italian-Americans in San Francisco in 1869, and worked its way into a national holiday in 1937. Those of us who went to school in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and probably through the 1990s and are not of Italian heritage, remember a school holiday and sympathetic portrayals of the Italian explorer in our textbooks.

We were not told of Columbus’s introduction of slavery—the Indian slaves he sent back to Europe or the “Indios” he enslaved in the mining of gold and introduction of European agriculture in the Caribbean. We did learn that Columbus thought he had arrived in Asia and his subsequent “misnaming” of Indians—a tradition that continued! He named the Indians he first met “Caribs,” a word derived from one meaning human flesh-eaters, cannibals. Columbus thought he had met the ferocious man-eating savages described by Marco Polo. They skipped that in our textbooks and didn’t tell us that he and his cohorts were responsible Read The Article

Slavery is not our Original Sin

“No adverse impact visited on the 1492 voyage of “discovery” was more profound in its consequences         in every nook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened. It continues unabashedly on both continents today, and its impact has been felt long after the conquest of the continents was complete.”

Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, page 4.

There’s the sin, the hubris, the tragic flaw in our origins. 

It is popular—almost automatic in some circles—to say that slavery is America’s Original Sin. It is Read The Article

Reparations

Reparations—government payments or amends of some kind to the descendants of Black American slaves—are not a new idea, but the current Covid-19-BLM crisis has brought them back into conversation. I’ve been skeptical, wondering where Indians and Latinx would fit into it.  But being open minded…

Reading Coates and trying to make sense of the Reparation argument.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a powerful argument in his oft-cited “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Although White indentured servants were the earliest low-wage, no-wage North American laborers, they were still “legal subjects of the English crown,” and thus had certain protections. As the European slave trade, which had relied on eastern Europeans but increasingly, in the 16th century, became dependent on Africans, the Americas joined in. As Coates says, “they became early America’s indispensable working class—fit for maximum exploitation, capable of only minimal resistance.”

Although we—mainstream, mostly white, America—see the South and its tobacco, sugar, and cotton plantations Read The Article

Built on Broken Families

One of the earliest stories of white-Indian interaction in North America is that of Squanto, a Patuxet Indian taken captive by English explorer Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. Tisquantum—his real name—escaped and made his way back to Cape Cod through England. He had picked up English along the way, a skill that would prove valuable when the Mayflower landed and the newcomers needed help with agriculture and the ways of the new world. Unfortunately, Squanto, whose tribe had completely succumbed to diseases brought ashore by European fishermen, who was valued and praised by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, did not live long, just long enough to show the colony food caches, seeds, fertilizer and fields.

The violence in Squanto’s capture and demise was caused by slavery and disease, harbingers of continuing interrelationships between the misnamed Indians and the European newcomers from that day forward. A third tool of dismemberment of the native societies was Read The Article

From Nasty, Brutish, and Short to the Pope


I’ve not yet seen the Academy Award winning “12 Years a Slave,” but the clips and conversation about slavery and brutality are visceral. Writer John Ridley said in a radio interview that he hoped the film would promote continuing conversations about these difficult subjects. So here are some semi-random thoughts from my end:
By most of the historical markers that we have—journals, histories, memoirs, records chiseled on stone—slavery and brutality have been part of the human condition forever. Wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, human sacrifice, human trafficking, purges, and genocide are all over the historical record—and in today’s news bulletins. 
One hardly knows where to start! I just finished reading Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. He begins with the expansion of agriculture in Europe and the travels of the Norse into North America in the warming years—roughly 800-1200 A.D. And finds that even
Read The Article