Bury my heart…

In the fall of 1971, just months into my life in the Wallowas, my mind muddled with the Peace Corps and Washington D.C. lives I’d only recently left, I got a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in the mail from Barb, my old Peace Corps partner. Her note said she was working in a bookstore in Sun Valley, and thought the book was “great but terribly maddening.”

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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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Invisible Indians

I had been reading David McCullough’s book, John Adams, with great pleasure. My knowledge of colonial times and the birth of the nation is old and limited, so the exploration of the lives and careers of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and all of the lesser names and big ideas that led to a Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence, the Constitution and formation of a new nation was carrying me along like a good novel. The man can write!.

And then, on page 396, the first mention of Indians. Their absence in the first 395 pages had barely occurred to me.

Assessing the state of things on Adam’s return from Europe in 1789, McCullough tells us that the nation’s population has grown to four million, that the biggest city is Philadelphia, with 40,000, New York is growing quickly with 18,000, and Pittsburgh, the last western outpost, has but 500. (There are 700,000 slaves!)

As a result of the Paris Peace Treaty, the boundaries of the new nation ran to the Mississippi River, and now we come to Indians. According to McCullough, “Approximately half the territory of the United States in 1789 was still occupied by American Indians, most of whom lived west of the Appalachians, and though no one knew how many there were, they probably numbered 100,000.”

Where did he get the number? His old colleague, Alvin Josephy, had estimated 6-8 million Indians in North America back in 1968, 33 years before McCullough’s book was published. Maybe that stretch of “unknown” (by whites) land from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi held just a sliver of the millions; maybe more. But how did he know?

More importantly, how could he write a book about the foundation of the country with no attention to its original inhabitants? The index lists two references to “Indian wars,” but when you turn to the pages, you find him naming the French and Indian War, with no
discussion of its Indian participants.

And, although there are pages on the relationship between Franklin and Adams, including the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, there is nothing of Franklin’s time spent among the Iroquois. It is from another book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, that I learn that Franklin had proposed an “Albany Plan of Union” based on ideas from the Iroquois League, in 1754! “It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages” says Franklin, “should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

Franklin’s plan was rejected, but, according to Loewen, it was a “forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery.” We don’t know what—or whether—Adams thought about these things.

McCullough is not alone. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. failed to mention the removal of Indians from the American Southeast, the horrible and illegal—Jackson defied the Supreme Court—series of events we now know as “The Trail of Tears.” Historian Michael Phillips says that Schlesinger “couldn’t reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn’t happen.”

That was in 1945; McCullough’s book was published in 2001. In between, Alvin Josephy worked hard to tell us what did happen, to make Indians visible again. There is still work to be done.

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