Like many comfortable stories, the story of the Indians' destruction hides other stories that are less so. For starters, it leaves out that the destruction was and is actually worse than can be easily described. A well-informed person probably knows of the bigger and more famous massacres, but big and small massacres took place in many states over the years. Killing Indians was once the official policy of the state of California, which spent a million dollars reimbursing Indian-hunters for the ammunition they used. Helen Hunt Jackson's history of Indian-white relations, A Century of Dishonor, published in 1881, recounted episodes of killing and mistreatment which have long faded into the past. Its modern reader can weep at descriptions of massacres he has never heard of - does anyone besides those who live in the town of Gnadenhutten, Ohio, know of the slaughter in 1780 of the peaceful Indians at the Moravian mission there? Jackson's book could be revised and reissued today, with another hundred years added to the title. After the frontier gunfire died down, violence and untimely death found other means. The Indian was supposed to be heading off to join his ancestors in the Happy Hunting Ground, and the path he might take to get there (alcoholism? pneumonia? car wreck? the flu epidemic of 1918?) apparently did not need to be too closely explained. The violence continued, and continues today. Among the Navajo, the largest tribe in the United States, car accidents are the leading cause of death. Especially in Western towns that border big reservations, stabbings and fights and car wrecks are a depressingly regular part of life.
Also, the destruction story gives the flattering and wrong impression that European culture showed up in the Americas and simply mowed down whatever was in its way. In fact, the European arrivals were often hungry and stunned in their new settlements, and what they did to Indian culture was more than matched for years by what encounters with Indians did to theirs. Via the settlers, Indian crops previously unknown outside the Americas crossed the Atlantic and changed Europe. Indian farmers were the first to domesticate corn, peanuts, tomatoes, pumpkins, and many kinds of beans. Russia and Ireland grew no potatoes before travelers found the plant in Indian gardens in South America; throughout Europe, the introduction of the potato caused a rise in the standard of living and a population boom. Before Indians, no one in the world had ever smoked tobacco. No one in the Bible (or in any other pre-Columbian text, for that matter) ever has a cigarette, dips snuff, or smokes a pipe. The novelty of breathing in tobacco smoke or chewing the dried leaves caught on so fast in Europe that early colonists made fortunes growing tobacco; it was America's first cash crop. That the United States should now be so determined to stamp out all smoking seems historically revisionist and strange.
Surrounded as we are today by pavement, we assume that Indians have had to adapt to us. But for a long time much of the adapting went the other way. In the land of the free, Indians were the original "free"; early America was European culture reset in an Indian frame. Europeans who survived here became a mixture of identities in which the Indian part was what made them American and different than they had been before. Influence is harder to document than corn and beans, but as real. We know that Iroquois Indians attended meetings of the colonists in the years before the American Revolution and advised them to unite in a scheme for self-government based on the confederacy that ruled the six Iroquois nations; and that Benjamin Franklin said, at a gathering of delegates from the colonies in Albany in 1754, "It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies." His use of the term "ignorant savages" is thought to have been ironical; he admired the Iroquois plan, and it formed one of the models for the U.S. Constitution. We know, too, that Thomas Jefferson thought that American government should follow what he imagined to be the Indian way. He wrote: ". . . were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last ... It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones."
Copyright © 2000 by Ian Frazier
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