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“History isn’t just ‘their-story’”: consensus reality

April 19, 2010

Just a brief (for me) post, which kind of ties back in with the recent “Buried my heart at the Holocausts” one.

Looking for another archived article from the same site, I ran across a short but sweet one: Ben Griffin’s History isn’t just ‘their-story,’ & English Canada uneasy with Metis, mestizos, half-breeds.

Could this story have been titled: “Eighty Centuries of Man in Vancouver?”

This story could only have been about Mexico — and not Canada — because Mexico acknowledges its pre-Columbian history and calls it that. Mexico does not call the time before Columbus’ landfall pre-history. As a result, Mexico has history like Spain and Europe have history; there is no history/pre-history division…

This is why the National Geographic Society could not do a similiar article on a Canadian city because Canada is seen as a young country. Nor could they do such an article on a city in the United States because the US is 223 years old, from 1776 — another young country. History is given a starting point here and not there, and there it is long and here it is short.

He hits the nail right on the head. In Virginia, “history” begins in 1607*, with a brief window of almost-history in the 1580s (the multiple, self-sabotaging** attempts there are just not mentioned). It becomes “history” when English speakers show up; the Spanish don’t even count.

Anything that happened in “pre-history” is unimportant, and subject to (extra) ‘splainin’ and outright lying based in some bizarre consensus reality.

This also continues to be the prevailing view, AFAICT, living in the Mother Country: it’s a “young” whole continent, with very little history–and, therefore, devoid of the kind of grandeur you find in Europe.

To be fair, this is a familiar pattern, since one gets the impression that “history” began with the Romans in Britain. I still don’t understand the fascination/identification with invaders who brought civilization (in the strictest sense). Local information/ad boards peppered around the place are quick to inform us that we’re living at Durolitum, BTW. This kind of thing has stood out even more to me, with the slightly different twist, and made this pattern more obvious.

Griffin’s second part made some bells go off for me. In part, he observes:

Three of the four European people who colonized the New World have produced a mixed-race group of people with the earlier pre-Columbian Indians. The Spanish and Portuguese produced mestizos, the French, the Metis, but the fourth colonizers, the English did not mingle with Indigenous peoples in such a way as to create a significant number of mixed-race offspring. It is an exception. There is a joke among mestizos and Metis that asks, “When did we get here? About nine months after Europeans landed.” This is considered a historically correct statement.

Looking back almost 400 years to the early decades of the 17th century, when the first English villages were established on the East Coast, there is no discussion in the history books of a halfway-Metis or half-breed people being created. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay set up what were called “Praying towns,” for Indians. Indians were herded into these predecessors of reservations that were near the Puritan villages, but no new half-breed people resulted from this proximity. From the New England states south to the Carolinas, in all the English Thirteen Colonies over a vast and diverse area, there is surprising homegeneity across the board on this point.

About 159 years larer, by 1760, the word half-breed entered the English language, a mixed-race people were finally named. It was a reluctant word as it has now passed out of use by the media because it is seen to have negative connotations. Was this a case of ethnic cleansing perhaps? A word and a people were shunned and half-breeds have quietly vanished.

Back to the consensus reality, which is so absurd to my way of thinking that I hadn’t put together the pieces in quite this configuration before.

If this is the consensus version of reality, and you are the Important, Real People, it is both safe and nearly imperative to ignore and try to cover up the fact that some other Not Real People*** did extensively intermarry with the indigenous Not Real People, not feeling superior to them. Both groups and their offspring married other Even Darker Not Real People–no matter what laws were eventually made against all of this. The perceived need for such laws would indicate that somebody was doing it. As neatly summed up by Borderland visions: maroons and outlyers in early American history.****

At the time, plenty of snarky comments were made about savages who deserved one another, besides a lot of more overt hostility and violence. Later, it was easier just to brush these inconvenient facts under the rug, and pretend none of it ever happened*****. Griffin is right; “there is no discussion in the history books of a halfway-Metis or half-breed people being created.”

Anyone who says–or exists–otherwise must be lying. Especially when it’s in your interest to forget that their indigenous parents were ever in your way. Better to disappear the whole lot.

Métis seems to be a more useful designation in parts of Canada than in a lot of the U.S. I had been halfway inclined to apply the term to any kind of “half-breed” (urgh), but one of Mi’kmaq writer Daniel N. Paul’s columns helped change my thinking there. Writing about Acadiens identifying as Métis (I can’t offer any kind of opinion here):

Shortly after French settlement began, related to the aforementioned acceptance of each other, romance began to blossom between some members of the two communities. As time progressed, intermarriages occurred, resulting in many children of mixed blood.

The children of such unions were not rejected by either the French or Mi’kmaq communities. In fact, contrary to what some individuals from the Acadien community are claiming – they want to be considered Métis by the courts for the purpose of availing themselves of Mi’kmaq aboriginal hunting and fishing rights – the children of mixed marriages were readily accepted by both sides. If the preference of their parents was to become part of the Mi’kmaq community, or the Acadien, they were accepted as such by both.

This is supported by the fact that no separate settlement has ever existed in Nova Scotia in which people of mixed-blood ancestry had to live segregated and scorned by the Mi’kmaq and Acadiens. They were fully accepted by both communities as sisters and brothers.

That is pretty close to the situation where I’m from, with different groups involved. The one difference? Mostly, the Scottish/Irish/Welsh/Angolans and the Tutelo/Cherokee/Shawnee/Mingo etc. did not stay separate communities, to the extent that the Acadiens and the Mi’kmaq apparently did in Nova Scotia. (This did become complicated later by “anything but Black” attitudes as they developed in Virginia.) By Paul’s criteria, that does not describe a Métis community. If you continued to identify as Native, and never lived separately from other Natives, Métis isn’t the right description.

That does not mean that we ever stopped facing discrimination from other people, oh my no. Horrible hillbilly trash, anyone? Bear in mind that all of the groups of people involved were purposely living about as far from the Engish-settled coast as possible. It’s easier for me to see more of the motives behind this construction now.

Besides the number of examples offered on the Celtic Indians page I’ve linked to before, the life of Mohawk pine tree chief (35) John Norton (Teyoninhokovrawen) seems representative of the kind of fluidity and cooperation that we’re not supposed to believe ever happened. Note that while his father started out a Cherokee boy adopted by a Scottish soldier (after the British Army destroyed Keowee and other Lower Towns), John was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother. By both Cherokee and Mohawk standards, that made him Scottish, period. I was less than surprised to read elsewhere that the pattern there was similar to what happened further south: Scots, Irish, Germans, you name it, could and did take on Mohawk citizenship.

My, how things have changed in Mohawk country, under pressure:

The whole blood quantum debate is relatively new to us since we never measured who was and wasn’t part of our communities based on that criteria before the Indian Act.

Thanks to the Indian Act, it has become ingrained in the heads of many people that measuring one’s blood is the only way to determine who is Onkwe:honwe…

That is how we traditionally measured who was Kanien’kehá:ka – through content of character and how they helped the community.

And we see what happens when that very different pattern collides with one based in delusions of racial superiority, and denial.

A lot of the weird racist snarking I mentioned before makes one hell of a lot more sense in this context, based in entitlement to define other people. A person’s very existence can be viewed as a threat to the stories a lot of people continue to tell themselves about How Things Work, And Have Inevitably Worked, so it’s OK to outright tell people that they cannot, and do not, exist.

Edit: Fixed a couple of grammatical lapses.

* Actually, it skips straight from the Battle of Hastings and the Magna Carta to exploration and colonization. Not very subtle in what constitutes “history”.

** Try to start a small colony, very quickly start killing and alienating the local people who’d been friendly up to that point. Burn towns over minor disagreements, before even trying to talk to anyone about the situation. Send more colonists in, without even warning them that there have been problems. Rinse, repeat. Declare it a mystery when the final batch of unsupported colonists aren’t there anymore when you finally come back.

*** I’ve yet to read How the Irish Became White, but am tempted to pick it up at some point. It specifically applies to later immigration into northern cities, particularly New York and Boston, rather than the Plantation period which landed huge numbers in slavery in Virginia and Barbados, very relevant here.

**** Other than the “By the time most of the newcomers directly encountered Indians, they found only the shattered remains of the peoples and cultures that had been here.” fail, and the minimizing of Native slavery in the Southeast (and beyond).

***** This includes the fairly recent, “shocking” revelation that an awful lot of Jamestown colonists (mostly young men) married local women, since there were no English women at all. Not to mention the number who gave up the whole “let’s just starve and die from bad water quietly so we won’t look weak” thing for a bad game, and went to live with people who knew how to farm and treated them decently. Only recently are they having to admit this happened, to any large extent.

Benjamin Franklin was pointing it out at the time, in his efforts for social reform: ‘”No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” Such societies, wrote Franklin, provided their members with greater opportunities for happiness than European cultures.’ Not a popular view, still, and very tempting to sweep under the rug.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 6:46 pm

    Read anything by Peter Linebaugh?

    Specifically, The London Hanged and The Many-Headed Hydra?

    Fascinating stuff.

    Very similar topic.

  2. April 19, 2010 6:49 pm

    Also an interesting speculative (and dubious speculative history at that) is this:

    He contends that a people who live in Newfoundland who are pejoratively called Jakatars are actually descendants of the Pre-Celtic peoples of Scotland who intermarried with Basque, French, Mi’kmaq, and other European settlers.

    Interesting speculative history.

    You’ll look at the Norse Sagas very differently, whether this is true or not.

    • urocyon permalink
      April 20, 2010 12:37 pm

      Thanks for the pointers–more additions to the reading list. 🙂 Peter Linebaugh’s work does sound interesting.

      Speculative history is frequently fun and thought-provoking, at the very least. It’s hard to believe that there was not a decent bit of back-and-forth exchange over the millenia, given how humans tend to behave. By this point, we’ll never know exactly what happened and when, but it is interesting to speculate about some of the possibilities.

      I’ve been meaning to read some of Mowat’s other stuff, as interesting as you’ve made it sound. 🙂

  3. October 5, 2010 4:57 pm

    My own family’s history, as told to me, is of half-breeds being explicitly rejected by both white and Lakota societies. My family became Urbans, I am told, because there was no refuge for us in either segment of South Dakotan society. Which stems from many, many things, much of which I’m still untangling. But the stuff that Deloria had to say about who is “really” white is something Daniel Heath Justice described as a characteristically Lakotan/Dakotan perspective, and one that grows out of, among other things, U.S. policies about half-bloods and the legal privileges we were permitted during the period that the Lakota were colonized. To say that I am “really” white is something that has some truth in it, especially taken from his perspective, even while it is not a true statement.

    (Which is not, not to excuse Deloria and the crap things he and other Lakotas have said about Eastern Indians. Lakota history is not universal, and to attempt to extrapolate from it to other peoples is to make the pan-Indianism fallacy. Just because we are all treated as if we are one and the same, as if we had fully comparable histories, does not mean that we have to acquiesce to that and start back-stabbing each other in our rush to assert the primacy of one history over another.)

    ..which is the long way of affirming via my own history that yes, here too, there has been a distinct and concerted push from the U.S. to make the European-Indian half-breeds go away.

    (BTW, the installed spellchecker is insisting to me that “Lakota” is not a word. Consensus reality, indeed!)

    • October 5, 2010 6:32 pm

      …hahahaha! I should have read Slow Runners before I replied. Because she’s got this pretty much covered, but in a lot more detail. 🙂

      *continuing about my business of clicking and reading*

      • urocyon permalink
        October 6, 2010 2:49 pm

        Looking at the preview, there are even more pages missing than the last time. If you’re interested in what’s missing, let me know.

    • October 8, 2010 4:45 am

      Can I say how delighted I am that you two have found each other? 🙂

      • October 8, 2010 5:06 am


      • urocyon permalink
        October 12, 2010 2:14 pm

        Ha! You can play, too. *g*

    • urocyon permalink
      October 12, 2010 2:32 pm

      Sorry for the late reply, but I’ve been down with what I’m still not sure is some strange kind of flu, or mono.

      Interesting. Not surprisingly, similar happened elsewhere: ‘among the Cherokee, a traditionally matriarchal society, the British decreased the power of women by “educating” Cherokee males in European ways, encouraging marriage to non-Native women, and privileging mixed-blood male offspring in nation-to-nation negotiations.’# And a number of Euro-American men married Native women, specifically to get hold of land under the legal setup at the time; the situation was similar among other “Civilized” nations, and a lot of Non-Treaty ones. I didn’t mean to make things sound overly idyllic, but that “civilizing” pattern didn’t work out quite the same in the mountains, partly because it’s just not suited to plantation agriculture. I tend not to think about this as much, coming from a more Melungeon-type background.

      Something relevant I ran across in another piece:

      Basically, the families that did not have a single member of full blood degree were more likely to own slaves and read English, and less likely to read and write Cherokee. The families that had some but not 100% full blood families were likely to own slaves and understand English and Cherokee, though less likely to read Cherokee. The completely full blooded families were less likely to own slaves and read English, and more likely to read Cherokee. This information is strong evidence that the cultural norms of the antebellum South strongly affected those Cherokee who had interracial origins.

      Those assimilated folks–some specific families–were exactly the ones who got Removed (with a lot of others caught up in it). Not only did they look like a big threat, they had a lot of rich land and perceived-as-valuable possessions to grab. Again, that didn’t hold true in all areas, especially ones chock-full of abolitionists anyway–though there are always going to be a few jerks who grab at perceived power. :/ I’d be amazed if there hadn’t been a lot of hard feelings involved. I get frustrated at the “they’re just as bad” perceptions that everyone was thinking this kind of behavior was OK.

      • urocyon permalink
        October 12, 2010 2:41 pm

        Oh yeah, I didn’t mean to single out Deloria; he was just reinforcing some too-popular themes.

        To say that I am “really” white is something that has some truth in it, especially taken from his perspective, even while it is not a true statement.

        *nods* For a variety of reasons, it fits me as well on the surface. But, being based on a whole bundle of faulty assumptions, it doesn’t really fit. Sometimes I wish these things were as simple as “either-or”. *wry smile*

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