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Another bloated comment reply: Indigenous people, conquest, and violence

November 30, 2009

This started out as a comment reply, but I’ve brought it over into a short post. Both shiva–the author of the original comment–and I are referring to a post by Xiphias Gladius, The mythology of the day.

This is probably really choppy, so please bear with me!

I’m not sure what was going on in Massachusetts in that time period. There was the Little Ice Age, and years of a bad combination of cold and serious drought in Virginia (and probably also further up the coast). The climate change did apparently affect things nearby:

Native American tribes such as the Iroquois relocated their villages to escape the cold. These migrations stirred up political conflict among tribes, leading to the creation of nonaggresssion pacts like the famous League of the Iroquois, adopted in the 1500s.

(Actually, Barbara Mann and Jerry Fields very plausibly dated the Federation to 1142, but that would have been during a period of warming and droughts!) The French had already been poking around and destablizing things slightly to the north, as well.

My initial impulse was that the “the whole Patuxet region would be open, and SOMEONE would take it over” might be projection, but it’s hard to tell, given the context. If there were plenty of resources to go around, I wouldn’t expect a lot of squabbling; if there were a bunch of displaced people and poor food conditions, it’s hard to tell what would happen. I’m fairly sure that New England Algonquian speakers also had similar peacekeeping procedures going to what John Mohawk describes; a lot of non-Iroquoian nations did similar, including AFAICT Southern Algonquians. That’s how most federations got going.

After Contact and encroachment, things changed more than a little. Mercenaries egged on by British Divide and Conquer tactics became a problem (along with Jesuit-employed thugs further north). Some of the mercenaries where I’m from were Cherokee. Due to mutual-protection alliances and forced migrations, my maternal family became Tutelo/Cherokee instead of just Tutelo.

I have no trouble whatsoever believing that Massasoit liked the idea of having friendly Europeans nearby, in hopes that would keep others from bothering them, much like when some Pennsylvania Seneca speaking through Kaintwakon (Cornplanter) allowed Quakers to settle much later. “Cornplanter’s strategy was to use the Quakers as advocates in the halls of state and national power in Philadelphia (the capital of both Pennsylvania and the United States), as buffers against those elements of European-American society inclined to prey upon Indians, and as deterrents to scheming land speculators.” The Cherokee had better luck with Daniel Ross and his son John, among others. I would be amazed if the later-mentioned case of Mahanaim** were not similar.

Writing my last post, I totally forgot one entry in the “same people causing problems” file: John Smith and his “resource assessment”/slaving missions up the Eastern North American coast.

I still have to question some of xiphias’ take on the political situation in that area at the time. A lot of people just assume that territorial squabbling is universal, as is emphasis on a scarcity ethic. It’s not hard to see why, looking around these days, and looking at what especially people in North America get taught about this. Official History circa 1920 (search for CHAPTER IV) is still mostly what one gets to hear: the thuggish League Iroquois, Cherokee, and sometimes Shawnee spent so much time trying to Build Empire and killing everybody who got in their way that huge areas of land were uninhabited and free for the taking. Hey, even the Haudenosaunee, frequently still compared to Romans, conveniently disappeared–hilarious piece! Frequently it’s expressed in a way that casts this “savage”, truculent behavior as ultimately inexplicable.

I’ll go ahead and quote from that hideous old history book, History of Kentucky Edited by Judge Charles Kerr, pub. 1922:

When the English founded the settlement at Jamestown in 1607, that portion of the royal grant which was to become Kentucky was probably uninhabited, but remained at the disposition of the Lenape and the Mengwe as the result of the conquest they had made of the Alligwi or Tallegwi. If any tribes actually dwelt there, their presence was by per-mission of the conquerors, who had laid ruthless hands upon it 500′ years before. In the reconquest of the Ohio country by the Iroquois in 1650 to 1700, their campaigns had been largely or altogether on the north side of the Ohio River. The final battle, the bloody climax of the half-century struggle, was at the Falls of the Ohio and on the north bank of the stream, one evidence of which being the great quantities of human bones there when the whites first came into that region. This was almost an extermination, and it extended the Iroquoian empire south to the Tennessee…
That the Six Nations had good title to the country south of the Ohio River to the Tennessee River by right of conquest there can be no doubt. John Lederer set down in 1669 in his General and Brief Account of the North American Continent of the Indians inhabiting the western parts of Carolina and Virginia that, “The Indians now seated in these parts are none of those which the English removed from Virginia, but a people driven by an enemy from the Northwest, and invited to sit down here by an oracle about four hundred years since, as they pretend.”- These were the Cherokees…
Civil and Political History of Tennessee, John Haywood, p. 30. Haywood adds :
“The Six Nations claimed the soil by conquest, not as the aboriginal owners, and this is the traditionary account of their nation. Who were the aborigines, and whether
they were all destroyed or driven from their possessions, and when these events happened, are left unfixed. But in 1750 they rested upon tradition, which at that time had lost the circumstantial details which belong to recent transactions. Certain it is, the whole country which they claimed was depopulated, and still retained the vestiges of an ancient and very numerous population.”

At best this is very strange mishmash of questionable legend–set 500 years in the past, rather than many thousands–and a sprinkle of post-Contact conflict, all resting upon really odd and unflattering assumptions. (“Oracle”?! As Kahentinetha Horn wrote, I’m “almost tempted to ask where the brown Baby Jesus in the cradle was.”) It purposely minimizes how long the people in question had been where they were, or even in existence, again by thousands upon thousands of years. It is also what largely passes for history, still; they were giving us similar tripe to read in school in the ’80s and early ’90s!

Only once during the whole time I was in compulsory schools was it ever mentioned that Siouan people ever lived in Virginia. This by a student teacher who called them “Sigh-ox” and sounded so generally confused that I thought she’d gotten things wrong. Western Virginia was still supposed to have been empty by Contact, conveniently razed by truculent New York Iroquoian people. Most of my family used to be Eastern Siouan speakers; Alan Briceland places Batts and Fallams’ Tutelo Town on the New River at Radford in 1671; others still live along the Big Sandy, formerly the “Toteroy River”. What really happened? “Under pressure from English settlers, they joined with the Saponi. In 1740, they left Virginia and migrated north to seek protection from the Iroquois, where they were adopted by the Cayuga tribe in New York.” (Compare to the Tuscarora, some of whom also joined the Tutelo.) A couple of Tutelo clans decided to stay and form closer alliances with Cherokee neighbors, even if it’s popular to treat Nations as monolithic entities who all did the same thing; catherding is more like it, still. In short, the real story points to a very different chain of events indeed, and one far less flattering to the colonists.

I’d recommend reading Barbara Mann’s Iroquoian Women, for a rather different interpretation of Haudensaunee “conquest” and “annihilation” –including of her own Ohio Erie (Western Seneca) people by the “thuggish” NY Seneca. “Utterly destroying” their cousins in this case apparently meant chasing them down the road after a multiple-day stickball game, with meal and rest breaks! This makes no sense at all, outside the cultural context. It’s easier to think of the Roman Empire. Not that it makes any more sense to have the Haudenosaunee as absentee landlords-by-conquest over ostensibly uninhabited lands!

I was interested to see that Lederer, at the time, readily admitted that the English “removed” Indians from Virginia–then, comprising the coastal fringe. Now we’re supposed to believe they just sort of mysteriously and conveniently disappeared. Oops, so did we people further west. To take a page from Kahentinetha Horn, “colonial reports about our death and disappearance are premature and should not be taken seriously”.

Very close to home, indeed*, the theme of belligerent Shawnee wandering around and killing people for no reason at all got concentrated in a truly hateful outdoor drama: The Long Way Home. (This article offers precious little context, either.) Thank goodness, that is no longer produced, but it ran for almost 30 years. The Shawnee were presented as violent, irrational baby-killing monsters. I am sticking another good example of this in the endnotes**, not to clutter things as much. The Mary Draper Ingles case, not surprisingly, gets a large section in that History of Kentucky, since those Shawnee took her there. It’s reported with just about as much neutrality as one would imagine.

Another warfare-related point to clarify, which explains rather a lot of the presented-as-inexplicable: just because the locals promised to deal peacefully with certain settlers, that does not mean that other Nations were bound by this agreement in any way. It doesn’t even mean that, should the settlers in question become sufficiently irksome and/or dangerous, the locals would not pass along word that it would be a shame if these people got run off and maybe the men killed if they’d shown violent enough behavior. (wink wink) In the Mahanaim case**, “The Delawares warned them, that they could not protect them there” should be interpreted as “Here’s fair warning: you have behaved so disrespectfully that we want you gone. If you don’t go away quickly, whatever happens is on you”. And some Mohawks eventually came a-calling. This is a rather extreme case of the same kind of subtlety not being recognized that some of us still run into.

Most of the time, the violent depictions are convenient BS, used to justify conquest in a “they were as bad as we are, if not much worse”*** way. It’s also understandable, given the political ideologies most of these folks have grown up with. Hint: that’s not pragmatism and anarchism. As Jack Forbes mentions many times, the wétiko psychosis depends upon people believing that human nature is bad, and that greed and conflict over possessions are only to be expected–and are, therefore, normalized. Everyone else must be as bad, or we’d have to admit that our own behavior qualifies as such.

Louis Proyect has done some interesting posts on this sort of thing, including this one on Violence and indigenous peoples. Hint: it’s not what a lot of people, including Jared Diamond, would like us to think.

Xiphias did not go all out with this theme, but it’s hard to avoid being raised on it in the U.S. If that’s most of what you’ve learned, that will influence how you interpret things. Overall, the original piece was refreshingly sympathetic, showing how difficult some choices must have been. The vast majority of this post is not directed at that post, but mentioned to provide some context–and to point out how many of the assumptions we’ve been taught in the U.S. and Canada are not based in fact.

In that piece, I couldn’t help but spot a bit of a misconception about political organization continuing, in examples such as “Tisquantum was a Patuxet Indian, and therefore a subject of the Wamponoag Confederacy,” and the references to the Pokanoket Nation as “Massasoit” (very similar to “Powhatan”). The Wampanoag did not have “subjects”. This is understandable mistake, given that empire is still the prevailing Western interpretation of a very different kind of system. I wrote about similar earlier:

The seemingly hierarchical setup elsewhere may very well have been down to faulty interpretation by European observers, who were expecting to see some kind of hierarchy. That’s the kind of social system they were used to living under, and later interpretations are based on what these primary sources thought they were looking at. This is how the man Powhatan (Wahunsunacock) got to be an emperor, accompanied by his many “wives”–i.e., the women’s council for whom he was serving as diplomatic speaker, as part of his job as sachem! Note that “Much of a sachem’s leadership depended on establishing consensus”. Barbara Mann goes pretty deeply into this kind of misinterpretation based on completely clashing worldviews, in her Iroquoian Women, which I keep pushing for good reason. 🙂 Here’s some discussion of “rank” in Mississippian societies: “The living Maya seems very much as a people not unlike what Wilma Mankiller describes of the Cherokee. The egalitarian, spiritual, and general cultural framework of the present day Maya does not fit well with a society that once was structured and hierarchical.” I still suspect that there were some people who got power hungry, with some limited success at trampling over others during the Mississippian period–and that some of them tried to use religion as a bludgeon, then as now.

In that vein, I ran across an interesting (if long and involved!) piece a few days ago, An Anarchist Study of the Iroquois.

From what I’ve learned, Eastern Woodland people didn’t have a lot of reason to fight over resources and territory until there was real scarcity, brought on by encroachment. (Nor did they have a lot of reason to wander off in long migrations, for no apparent reason.) When you’ve got a social system going that tries to make sure that there’s enough to go around– and strongly encourages people to work out their problems through lacrosse and similar stickball games if they can’t talk things out–fighting over crumbs is unlikely to be desirable nor necessary. That doesn’t mean they never fought about anything! The Wampanoag may well have been wrangling over resources, but it doesn’t really fit.


* Directly across the New River from some of my family’s previous land holdings, in fact. Some other holdings were where the (Contact-era layer of) the Trigg Site was excavated. They were given roughly two weeks to dig before the site was turned from cornfields into a public park. There are photos of some tools and jewelry from that site here.

** Dunkard’s Bottom was the (now-inundated) bit of rich river-bottom land where my grandfather was born. A few members of a German religious group were allowed to settle there “beyond all settlements” in 1745, on “a water which is running toward the Mississippi, called New River, beyond all Christian government. There they made their home among riffraff, the dregs of human society who spend their time murdering wild creatures. With such people they had communion instead of their Brethren whom they left.” (Quoted from the chronicles of the Cloisters, and indicating nicely the levels of respect involved from that side.) These folks promptly decided they owned 900+ acres, sold some of it along to other Dunkards, and “In 1756 they built a fort for protection against Indians.”

Some of the founders had already become so afraid of attack that they moved further inland, along the Monongahela in 1751, where “The local Delaware Indians gave them rich bottom land on the stream called Dunkard Creek.” How did they appreciate this? “In 1753, Samuel purchased 1180 acres, and the next year received a grant of 5000 acres (Samuel was a ‘doctor’).” It’s highly doubtful that this “purchase” was from the Lenape who let him use it. In 1757, Samuel and Israel Eckerlin got captured by some Mohawk, and eventually ended up in France. Gee, I wonder why they’d irk anyone.

Still on my family’s land:

In 1754 George HOOPAUGH, one of the Dunkard’s, said that the previous May 60 “Norward Indians” came to his house and burned it and the stable. Before that, the Indians had threatened him, burned his corn and killed his best dogs. In May of 1755 Henry ZINN was killed on the New River by the Indians. This was probably one of the reasons for the sudden and premature dispersal of the remaining Dunkard’s.

The reader’s sympathy is obviously supposed to be with the poor old Dunkards. (Notice how George Hoopaugh received multiple warnings to clear out, no doubt even before his corn got burned.) Even now, officially, they were the only residents there, with insane groups of Native people passing through to attack them, possibly on their way to annihilate the Catawba.

Incidentally, one of my great-great grandfathers was kinda renowned for burning people’s houses (while they were empty) if they moved too close without his permission and ignored warnings that they had no right to build there. (Surprisingly, he lived to 109 anyway!) That was in the late 19th Century. I certainly don’t condone that kind of behavior, but can understand the frustration that might make it look appealing.

*** I actually got to hear that one, word for word, from my (Indian Descendant-identifying) uncle, as part of a rant on how immigrants ought to learn to speak English. I wasn’t sure whether to start hollering, cry, or just go ahead and have the stroke that threatened. As it was, I opted for pained silence.

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