Sunday, January 28, 2018

Immigration: two things to remember!

In this time of Sturm und Drang over immigration:

First, there were brown people in North America before any white people of European stock arrived. They spoke hundreds of languages before Dutch, French, Spanish, German, and English arrived. They hunted, fished, foraged, and GREW hundreds of different foods and herbs—many of which were taken up by the Europeans and sent off to the rest of the world. America’s tomatoes would become Italy’s food; her tobacco would fuel economies in Europe and Asia and bring on its diseases; her cotton would clothe the world and her corn would feed it. Most importantly, for the future of North America and the United States, pieces of the wisdom of the Iroquois would find their way into our original written documents and the form of the government itself.

Secondly, we should remember that before California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were part of these United States, Mexicans, Mestizos of mixed European and American Indian blood—brown people, had lived in and developed economies, cities, and societies in those places. (And yes, that too was a displacement of indigenous brown people—but also a mixing.)

The mythology of a white, Eurocentric culture as foundational, and of brown culture as arriving later and being of immigrant origin is exactly that, mythology. Yes, there was forced immigration of black people from Africa—and their contributions to American culture are substantial and generally acknowledged. And there have been huge migrations of people of all colors from Europe and Asia—often, as with Irish brought as slaves, British Islanders and Europeans brought as indentured servants, and the Chinese brought to work on the railroads, their in-migrations were not quite voluntary. Even the “voluntary” immigrants, those fleeing hunger in Ireland, forced military service in Germany, the family land holdings and divisions in my grandfather’s Norway, and wars and oppression of one kind and another across the world, have not always made their migrations by choice.

So this mass of immigrants has helped create a nation, but the nation was not created in a vacuum, or by divine providence, or without damage to many. And it has been built and continues its growth on the substantial lands and cultures husbanded and developed over millennia by others. And those black and brown people—the ones here first and the later imports—have played and continue to play roles in the ongoing historical drama of the United States.

It is convenient to cherry pick history for an argument; it is more difficult—and truer to the nation we set out to be—to acknowledge all of that history.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Better Life Among the Indians

Mary Jemison was captured by Seneca Indians in 1758. Her parents and most of her siblings were killed, and for some time she tried to resist her captors and find a way back to place and family. But, eventually, she stayed, stayed to marry two Indian men, to have Indian children, and, living with Indians as an Indian in her 80s, to give an interview about her life to a white doctor named James Everett Seaver. Her “memoir,” first published in 1824, had been published in at least 30 editions by the time the author of the book I read, Lois Lenski, published her fictionalized account of Mary Jameson’s life in 1941.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, won the Newberry Award for children’s literature in 1942. I read the Harper Trophy edition, first published in 1995—my copy is the 17th printing! I imagine it is still in print.


Indian Captive. Parents and siblings murdered by the Indians. Children’s literature?

There are many ways to talk about Euro-American ambivalence towards Indians, but this is certainly one of them! Author Lenski, in her treatment of the subject, explains her research into Seneca Indian history and culture at several museums, includes drawings of tools, clothing, and places, and lauds Jemison for giving us the real story of pre-contact Indian life. Buckskin clothing is compared to the traders’ broadcloth, porcupine quills to beads, coiled pottery to brass cooking post, and guns to bows and arrows.

More importantly, she deals with the social life—the nature of capture and adoption in Indian culture, the friendships and kinships that sustained Indian life. While the early chapters and Mary’s fictional voice are harsh towards the Indians, by the end of the book she is defending Indian ways to an English officer. And, given the opportunity, refusing to go back to a white community.

In Lenski’s treatment, the English officer is a convenient foil—and a pivot point for the captive girl. She listens to him deal man to man with the Indians—he wants their support against the French, but then, when he encourages her to come with him, to leave the dirty savages and their heathen ways, he is totally disparaging of the people and family that she had become a part of.

There are several striking things in this story. First, it is based on a real—and one of the first—narratives of a white captive of Indians. Indians capturing—and sometimes killing—white settlers was not uncommon, and treaties, as the one alluded to in this book, often stipulated the return of white captives. And captives, as even Benjamin Franklin acknowledged, and as a myriad of stories from the 1700s to the late 1800s, often wanted to stay with their adoptive Indian families.

The book paints a sympathetic view of Indian life—the relationships with land and among tribal members are strong, the knowledge of natural resources is keen, and the importance of and comfort in tradition is comforting to readers.

But maybe the most important thing that I’ve learned with this book and a small amount of research, is that there has been and still is a vigorous interest in the “Indian experience.” I’ve only dipped into the literature, but one cannot help but contrast the tightly wound lives of white children—and especially of their mothers, from Colonial to modern times, with the relative freedom enjoyed by Indians. I see in my mind’s eye a prim colonial woman in her patriarchal nest, in church for hours each week, tending to food and childrearing and housekeeping for a dominant husband who makes decisions for family and community. I see a young American girl in the 1940s, constrained by family and convention, looking to a life of housekeeping and childrearing, listening to men who preach more of the same.

That this book, Indian Captive, has a 75 year history of publication as a “children’s book,” is telling. It tells me about the long oppression of white American women: property rights—about 1900 in most states; the vote—the 19th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920; participation in high school and college athletics, and more than a token chance at medical or law school—Title 9, passed in 1972.

My guess is that thousands—no millions—of American girls have listened to these stories, had these thoughts, read this book and others over the past 250 years, and dreamed of a better life among the Indians.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Early Assimilationists

Pocahontas--aka Lady Rebecca
I don’t know when it started—maybe with the very first meetings of Europeans and the Indians of North America. The Powhatan child, Pocahontas, at the Jamestown settlement, is certainly an early example of an Indian captured, converted, and assimilated by the English.

(A caveat: I am thinking of the English and other Northern Europeans’ colonization of North America, and not of the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, where other, often brutal, modes of assimilation were carried out.)

Although Pocahontas probably did not “save” Captain John Smith, she was familiar to the colonists at Jamestown, and in 1613 was captured and held by the English. In captivity she was instructed in Christianity and baptized “Lady Rebecca,” and apparently fell in love with one of her captors, John Rolfe. Wahunsonacock, her aging father, who had a complicated relationship with the colonists, at this point had them under siege, but in order to see his daughter again, he agreed to peace and her marriage to Rolfe. The couple, accompanied by a group of Powhatan, including Tomocomo, who the chief tasked with “counting the people,” went to England, where she was a sensation, a model of the “transformed savage.” Unfortunately and quite understandably, given the Indians lack of resistance to European diseases, she died of smallpox on the return voyage to America. Tomocomo apparently gave up counting the English.

It is probable that the numbers of Europeans and the lack of Indian resistance to their diseases were on the minds of many North American Indians as the foreigners came in larger and larger numbers, bringing guns, iron tools, livestock, culture, religion, and diseases with them. There were wars and there were treaties, and the ferocious forces of numbers, diseases, and a religious culture that considered itself divinely driven and the custodian of ultimate truth were relentless in displacing the indigenous Americans by killing, removal, or assimilation.

Alvin Josephy believed and stated often that the Indians had these three choices; he said also that the Europeans’ preferred choice was most often assimilation, making Indians white.

Why?

Killing all of the indigenous people would have been an extraordinary task—they were many peoples living in many different environments, and they knew the land as the invaders did not. And the newcomers needed their guidance: Where did the waters begin and end? What was on the other side of the mountain? How deep would the snow be?  But mostly the Europeans needed what the Indians had—land and the natural and agricultural resources that the land contained and supported.

Removal would become the preferred option under Andrew Jackson, and again in the major treaty period as the Euro-Americans moved across the continent. But in the early days, the new Euro-Americans needed the Indians in their places for reasons above.

Assimilation, the third choice, was that of reasonable men because they could use the information and sometimes the labor and military alliances with tribal people who were alive and in or near their native places.

There were Indian tribes and individuals who resisted, but resistance meant war—and then death, or removal, leaving traditional lands, or some kind of accommodation, or assimilation.  Back to the three alternatives.

For many of the newcomers there were moral arguments for assimilation. They had moral standards—promoted by a body of English common law and a religion that asked that people be treated fairly and honestly. I believe that the religious argument for assimilation—and conversion—was the primary motivation for most of the early critics of those who treated Indians unfairly, the driving force of early assimilationists.

In 1880, Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, a stinging critique of private and government actions against Indians. She wrote about the massacre at Sand Creek and the Nez Perce War, chronicling misdeed after misdeed, a “Century of Dishonor.”

H.B. Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, wrote the preface, calling it a “sad revelation of broken faith, of violated treaties, and of inhuman deeds of violence [that] will bring a flush of shame to the cheeks of those who love their country… Dark as the history is, there is a brighter side. No missions to the heathen have been more blessed than those among the Indians. Thousands who were once wild, painted savages, finding their greatest joy in deeds of war, are now the disciples of the Prince of Peace.”

Jackson herself, in an author’s note at the beginning of the volume, says that “The history of the missionary labors of the different churches among the Indians would make another volume. It is the one bright spot on the dark record.”

However misguided, and in order to understand all later attempts to “make Indians white,” we must acknowledge the moral ground on which the early assimilationists  stood.

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