Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Race in America

I don’t know where I first heard or read that history books are often more about the time they are written in than the time they are written about. Several new books on Indians, and specifically the Nez Perce, support the idea.

O.O. Howard and Chief Joseph
I’m only 80 pages into the Vanderbilt professor Daniel Sharfstein’s just published Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War. The first pages take us from the Civil War to Howard’s tenure as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and responsibilities for the care of four million freed slaves. An early agonizing account follows General Howard, newly appointed head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, as he is dispatched to South Carolina by President Andrew Johnson; his task is to tell freed slaves who had been given “forty acres and a mule” by General Sherman that they must return the land to their former masters. This is a book about Reconstruction and race in America.

I’ll not argue about the horse and cart, whether a renewed interest in race helped propel Trump and his people into office, or whether Trump and his followers’ statements on race—and the opposition to them—have become the national conversation.  “Black Lives Matter” preceded this election cycle, and my thought is that the topic—race—has been welling for some time, that it emerged pronouncedly in the campaign, and that the authors and books dealing with race, which have always been there in some measure, are now moving through publishing channels at a fevered pitch.

Slavery and the Civil War have always been the starting points for discussion of race in America. What is different is that American Indians are now part of the discussion. General Howard of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Nez Perce War is a natural vehicle for Indians’ entry into the race conversation.

But his is not the only story that brings Indians into the discussion of race in America. Another recent book, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez, reminds us that Columbus sent Indian slaves back to Europe, and that enslavement of American Indians was practiced on a grand scale across the continents.

Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 recounts the decimation and brutality carried out against the Indians of California. And in In the Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, historian Peter Cozzens, who has written much on the Civil War and on Western tribes, ties the stories together.

The Nez Perce story has been used to tell stories of military competence—and incompetence, of Westward expansion and the inevitable white progress across the continent that begins with Lewis and Clark. It has revealed stories of heroism, and of government betrayal, eloquent speech and the storybook endings of former foes in battle talking in comfort and mutual admiration in their retirements. It’s as though generals Howard and Gibbons sought opportunity to sit with Chief Joseph and, somehow, make things right. (The looks on Joseph’s tired face tell you that they are not.)

Now the Nez Perce Story becomes part of the conversation about America’s racial struggles.

David Osborne’s The Coming follows the Nez Perce story through the life of Daytime Smoke, William Clark’s Nez Perce son. Daytime Smoke is a true character that we know little about—he probably died in captivity after the War—but Osborne uses the story to talk about a failure of Indian-White relations with tragic consequences.

I’ve not made it through William Vollmann’s The Dying Grass, a 1300 page volume of historical fiction with footnotes, but know that it is the fourth or fifth volume in a projected series of seven—Seven Dreams—focused on the European conquest of America.  

In other words, expect more. And, as a friend with academic creds told me, “it’s about time that Indians become part of this conversation.”

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1 comment :

  1. Good selections for reading. The Resendez book, the Other Slavery, I have reviewed myself and found that for the former Spanish colonies slavery was as he describes. Perhaps even a bit worse in some areas. I do not find slavery under American rule for the tribes on reservations. Perhaps a bit of indentured servitude, imprisonment on reservations, child labor in boarding school, even outright murder and theft of land, but not slavery under the Americans. In the areas taken over by Americans from the Spanish, like California, there were clear cases of slavery, with numerous reports of Spanish slavers selling Indian women and children to American settlers to help build their farms, prostitution etc. Pretty quickly the American federal agencies went after them and I assume halted their operations. I now have letters from California of the Indian Superintendent ordering the Army to go after the slavers and taking them into custody. I don't feel Resendez really got to the fine matter of the details of Slavery and makes quite a few generalized glosses of Slavery in the Americas which will be challenged by scholars in the future, in area studies. Each region of the Americans suffered its own problems, genocides, massacres, removals, reservations, boarding schools and yes in some areas slavery. But then this is all well known for those Spanish areas which were essentially frontier towns and had yet to come under American laws.

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