Monday, April 29, 2013

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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1 comment :

  1. Cultural stereotyping is always a dangerous thing and clearly has a long history in our country (and even longer elsewhere). Sadly the consequences are never good.

    Thanks, Rich, for an interesting piece of knowledge about it.

    Molly Cook

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