Wednesday, September 26, 2012

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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Monday, September 17, 2012

The assimilationists



I’m again reading a book I read years ago—and again finding new meaning. Caroline Wasson Thomason was born in 1887 somewhere else, but grew up “Between the Sheeps” in Wallowa County. She married a teacher and lived for years in New York, where she wrote children’s plays and stories.  And she wrote a couple of novels, one that dealt with American blacks and civil rights, and one historical novel: In the Wallowas.  
My recollection was of a syrupy story involving settlers and their teenage children, but with accurate accounts of Chief Joseph’s last visit to the Wallowas and a famous runaway horse incident. I also vaguely remembered a love story that crossed racial lines, and the purple prose. I was right on that: “’My princess! My beautiful flower!’ Imna knelt beside the bed and took her in his arms. A spasm of pain flushed her lovely face, and he held her more closely.” 

The action begins in 1899, and includes Joseph’s visit that year as well as his last visit in 1900, final attempts to find a small piece of the homeland for his exiled band. Although the scenes were not as dramatic as I remembered, the message rang true. Even sympathetic whites, who acknowledged that Joseph and the Indians had been dealt a bad hand, knew that the people of the Wallowas were not going to agree to their return, and let them have the day. Joseph returned to the Colville Reservation in Washington and “died of a broken heart” there in 1904.
The “morg” at the Wallowa County Chieftain had the 1899 papers, which meshed with the novel’s account. Joseph came with a promise of Washington D.C. money in hand to purchase property, but the proposition was not treated seriously. The newspapers treated it with disdain and even some contempt—the Asotin paper wanted to extend the ban to keep Indians from coming back to hunt and gather.

Back to the novel. This time around, armed with months of reading Josephy and Charles Mann and others about treatment of the tribes, I was more interested in the portrayal of Indians generally. The author is sympathetic, but her Indian heroes are assimilated and “modern.” They drive cars and go to law school, and have wheat ranches in the Umatilla country. They speak highly of the Whitmans and the Spaldings, are good Presbyterians. They honor the old leaders and the old ways, love the fine bead work, the drumming and dancing, but these things are of the past; good Indians get on with white education, white laws, building big houses and even intermarrying with whites.
The other important thing that I noticed this time around was the publication date, 1954. This is the Eisenhower administration and “termination” time. Termination, by whatever name it has been called over the years—e.g. The Dawes Act—has always had curious mixed sponsorship: those who hated Indians, wanted their land, or just scoffed at their old superstitions and thought they should join the majority culture (Alvin said that Henry Luce at Time Magazine thought them “phonies” and just wanted them to get on with it), and those who sympathized with Indians but thought that the only way they could survive was to join the dominant culture. Alvin called this the “vanishing Indian” view of Edward Sheriff Curtis and others. The old Indians and their ways were to be put in museums and admired for their grandeur and maybe a little for previous contributions—maize and potatoes? –but they had to become assimilated, become white.

The idea that tribes and tribal values have had active roles in American history, and might have things to contribute still, has been held by few—and hammered at by Alvin Josephy over a 60 year career as historian and advocate.
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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nation of immigrants?


"Nation of immigrants"--the phrase and its variations get tossed about by both political parties (the recent Republican convention was filled with it) by historians, and everyday people trying to explain who we Americans are.
Some large number of us who live in the United States today are indeed immigrants, and most of the rest of us can trace ancestry to points in Asia, Europe, Africa, and, increasingly, Central and South America. On the East Coast, it is a badge of honor to trace European ancestry to the Mayflower, and I imagine the Daughters of the American Revolution, who require an ancestor involved in the War of Independence for membership, still exist (though I doubt they have the clout they had when they refused their Washington D.C. hall to the great African-American singer, Marian Anderson).
But as our friend Alvin Josephy reminded often, Europeans were met by real people living here. Columbus met, enslaved, and in some cases destroyed indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. The learned scribes in fifteenth century Spain did have to decide whether these were people with souls or some lesser form of life—they quickly opted for souls in need of conversion, and, as they had not brought European women along, the conquerors quickly developed relations with the indiginous people.

The Pilgrims who landed in the northeast of what we now call North America were met by people who grew corn, squash and beans, crops their ancestors had bred and transformed over centuries from Mesoamerican beginnings. In popular history, Indians—mis-named from the beginning, have been mis-understood as uniformly hunter gatherers, when in fact their languages, cultures, and economies were as diverse as were those of the Europeans of the time. And these crops and cultures were critical in many cases to the survival of the 15th and 16th century immigrants.

So we are a nation of immigrants, but must understand that our forebears did not land on a vacant planet, but on continents thriving with diverse human, animal, plant, and even bug and disease life. We should remember that some of these American things—tobacco and potatoes to name two—were quickly adopted by Europeans, and had substantial impacts on world history from there on out. And of course the horses, measles, small pox, and religions brought by the Europeans decimated their numbers and utterly transformed the cultures and economies of the original American peoples.
We learn from Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus that Africans far outnumbered Europeans in early immigrations (though their journeys were not by choice of course). This does—or should—change the mental image anyone talking about a nation of immigrants carries.

Finally, it seems to me ironic to some nth degree that the people most often now referred to as immigrants—Mexicans, Latinos, Central and South Americano—could, in any DNA competition, trace their New World ancestry centuries—no, millennia—beyond anything that we Euro-Americans can muster.

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