Saturday, October 21, 2017

African-Americans and Indians

Two weeks ago, friend Anne Richardson arranged a discussion of Daniel Sharfstein’s book on Chief Joseph and General Howard, Thunder in the Mountains, at Portland’s Black Hat Books.  And this week, on Thursday, 14 of us from Wallowa County spent the day with Director Bobbie Conner and her staff at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Reservation. The story of the gathering of tribal history of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla—indeed of all the related Plateau tribes—and the skill and pride with which it is displayed and used to teach new generations of Indians, is inspiring.

In the end, the two experiences help me understand what my mentor Alvin Josephy called the miracle of Indian survival, and something of the big and small differences between Euro-American treatment of African slaves and indigenous Americans.

Sharfstein teaches history and law at Vanderbilt University, and is steeped in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The short version of his book is that the load General Howard carried from his time managing the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington D.C. followed him West, and that he had tried to do for Indians what he had been unable to do for freed slaves: give them Christianity, education, and agricultural land.

Thwarted in his effort to give the freed slaves land as Reconstruction tumbled and pre-war landowners regained control of the South, knowing that his clients were mostly Christian, Howard had concentrated on education—most famously, of course, with Howard University. In the end, his eastern career was shrouded in stories of mismanagement and corruption, some of them true. But most importantly, Reconstruction and his early goals for the freed slaves were shattered by others, and he was sent West—to deal with Indians.

The assignment as Commander of the military Department of the Columbia in 1874 gave Howard a chance to skip back past Reconstruction to his Civil War experiences. He became a popular Portland speaker on the subject, and in the course of it was able to recover from personal debt incurred in the East. The new position also allowed Howard to revive old ideas of making new citizens of the country, this time Indians.

Although there had been missionaries in the territory for over 30 years, Christianity was not firmly seated with the Indians of the Northwest in the 1870s. And the efforts at educating them in the Euro-American tradition, primarily by those same missionaries, had been minimally successful. Ditto with agriculture: corn seeds and potatoes, cows, and sheep had come West with the fur trade, south from Canada with Spokan Garry, north from California with gold miners. But most of the bands of Plateau Indians—Cayuse, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Yakima, et al—were still making seasonal rounds, gathering the camas roots and huckleberries, fish, lamprey, deer, elk, pronghorn and buffalo that had sustained them for millennia.

Although Howard kept thinking he could make the Indian cultures and peoples in his Department of the Columbia fit into his boxes for religion, education, and agriculture/land-use, he couldn’t. The cultural differences and cognitive distances between Howard and the Indians in all three areas were huge—and ultimately insurmountable. In fact, Sharfstein shows that after the Nez Perce War, right up to and through the time that he met amicably with Joseph years later, O.O. Howard never really understood the Indian point of view, or the vast distances between it and his own.

And here is where it gets tricky. What has struck me since reading Sharfstein is the distance between the African experience with Euro-Americans and the Indian experience with Euro-Americans. Africans were forcibly stolen from many lands and cultures, brought to a new place, and, it seems to me, homogenized. Although bits and pieces of their previous languages and cultures clung on, the Africans of many tribes were thrown together, forced into new work, new language, and new religion, treated by the white culture as all the black same, until most of what they came from—except their color—was erased.

On the other hand, five or six hundred distinct North American Indian cultures were confronted by diverse Euro-American economic, religious, and military interests—by French, Dutch, Spanish and English Americans; Protestants and Catholics; corporate functionaries and free spirits. Alliances were made and battles were fought one by one by one. And for 500 years, attempts to consolidate and treat Indians as one, from war to removal to assimilation, have never completely taken hold.

Indians in this country have been enslaved, beaten, hung, and dehumanized, as have their African-American countrymen. There have been conscious and unconscious attempts at genocide; some tribes have been exterminated. Government programs moved Indians West, and moved them to smaller and smaller reservations. Assimilation—the most persistent treatment of Indians, has employed missionaries, agricultural training, land allotments, boarding schools, tribal “termination,” Indian relocation, and the banning of potlatches, languages, dances, and regalia, to make Indians white. But indigenous Americans, misnamed from the beginning, have remained Indians; more importantly, they have remained Modoc and Lakota, Delaware, Cherokee, Umatilla, Makah, Paiute, Shoshone, and Nez Perce.

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