Tag Archives: Native Americans

Agency doesn’t always look the way we want it to

I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history.  Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before.  One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.

She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks.  Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.

Nancy Ward’s grave, along with the graves of her son and brother, in Polk County, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites.  Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning.  When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts.  Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee.  As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home.  It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.

The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees.  My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up.  And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label.  What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?

But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple.  For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace.  In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.

More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency.  “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class.  When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter.  They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them.  Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance.  Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion.  Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.”  Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity.  An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.

But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all.  Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency.  Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too.  In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.

Why did she do it?  Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects.  Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults.  Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers.  I don’t know.  But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.

As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books.  But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so.  Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice.  Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath.  As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.

Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us.  Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them.  We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices.  The choices were ultimately theirs.

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Is the Stockbridge Massacre site a good place for a dog run?

No, it isn’t.  But they might put one there anyway.

The proximity of a proposed dog run in Van Cortlandt Park to the site of a Revolutionary War massacre has sparked criticism from a group of Bronx historians.

The dog run — set to be built in the park’s Northeast Forest section — will replace the current makeshift dog run that occupies a space approximately 50 feet to the north of a memorial commemorating the site of the Stockbridge Indian Massacre of 1778. Wording on the memorial states that during the battle, British troops killed 17 Stockbridge Native Americans allied with Revolutionary soldiers, though historians say that enlistment records and reports from those who fled put the number closer to 40.

Members of the Kingsbridge Historical Society (KHS) liken the placement to putting a dog run next to the Vietnam Memorial or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

As if this whole proposal wasn’t cringe-worthy enough already, let me add that the bodies of the men killed that day were scavenged by dogs before being buried in a common grave.  Yeah.  Really not the most appropriate place for a canine playground, is it?

On a side note, a Hessian officer who saw the bodies of the Stockbridge militiamen killed in the attack produced this image of their clothing and arms, giving us a firsthand glimpse of these Patriot-allied Indians.  Note that he’s carrying a bow and arrows as well as a musket.

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The “better angels” and the 1862 Dakota War

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

In 1862, as Lee carried the Civil War into Maryland and Lincoln prepared to turn the struggle for the Union into a battle of liberation, a bloody sideshow played out in Minnesota. Exasperated by broken promises and corruption among traders and federal agents, Dakota Indians launched attacks against settlers and the Lower Sioux Agency, setting off a conflict variously known as the Dakota War, the Sioux Uprising, Little Crow’s War, and a handful of other names. Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors by Gustav Niebuhr has joined a relatively short shelf of books devoted to the uprising.

The key player in Niebuhr’s account is Henry Whipple, a New York native who became Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop and an advocate for better treatment of the frontier’s original inhabitants, working to change a system in which Indians were victims of corrupt officials and unscrupulous traders.  

Whipple’s concern for the Indians was unusual for a nineteenth-century white American, and an especially unpopular position for any resident of Minnesota in 1862 after four Dakota hunters initiated the war by attacking white homesteads and killing five settlers. As often happened in Indian wars over the course of American history from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth, many whites reacted to the uprising by calling for the extirpation of the Dakota, assuming that all the Indians on the frontier had settlers’ blood on their hands. As Niebuhr shows, the conflict was never so simple, even from its very beginning. Individual Dakota intervened to save the lives of settlers, sometimes because of previous acquaintance and sometimes out of simple humanity. Some whites, too, urged their vengeance-hungry countrymen to differentiate among the Indians, some of whom had converted to Christianity (partly through the efforts of Whipple, who supported Indian missionary efforts) and taken up farming. Whipple was thus the most prominent of a small number of people caught up in a volatile situation who nevertheless refused to engage in the collective demonization of the other that was so prevalent in white-Indian warfare.

The bishop wasn’t unsympathetic to the plight of settlers in the uprising’s path—in fact, he helped organize relief for white refugees displaced by the attacks and tend to the wounded—but he considered the Indians’ poor treatment at the hands of the government the ultimate root of the problem. He had been lobbying authorities to reform Indian relations for some time before the revolt, having tried without success to bring President Buchanan’s attention to the problem. Most men would have considered the outbreak of the Dakota War a most inauspicious occasion to persuade Washington of the need for better treatment of Native Americans, but Whipple was undaunted, heading to Washington, D.C. again in 1862 to plead the Indians’ case with Abraham Lincoln.

The bishop’s first impressions of Lincoln on the latter’s accession to office had not been favorable. And, as Niebuhr shows in a chapter devoted to Lincoln’s personal history of the Indians, the president wasn’t unaware of the misery marauding Native Americans could unleash. After all, an Indian had murdered Lincoln’s grandfather and namesake in Kentucky. As a young man, Lincoln himself had served in the Black Hawk War; while biographers tend to downplay this period in his life, emphasizing that he saw no combat, Niebuhr points out that Lincoln did witness firsthand some of the devastation of that war during his stint in the militia.

But Whipple had a few things working in his favor on his 1862 lobbying trip. The first was Lincoln’s personal tendency toward leniency and mercy. Thirty years before, while a volunteer against Black Hawk, he had intervened to stop vengeful whites from murdering an Indian captive. His tendency toward clemency and compassion remained evident during his presidency, when he routinely spared the lives of condemned soldiers and favored a moderate course in dealing with a conquered South. Like Whipple, Lincoln seemed to have a sort of innate immunity to the urge to dehumanize the other side which is so common in warfare, especially war between different races and cultures.

Second, as Niebuhr argues, there was a sense in which the timing of his visit actually worked in Whipple’s favor. The Dakota uprising coincided with a transformation in Lincoln’s thinking about the Civil War. As the Minnesota frontier erupted in violence, the president had determined that more extreme measures were necessary to preserve the Union and was preparing to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln considered slavery a national shame and a cancer in the body of the nation which had finally led to the rebellion; similarly, Whipple referred to mistreatment of the Indians as a great sin which led to the devastation of the Dakota uprising. Thus, for some months before Whipple’s visit, Lincoln’s concerns had been along some of the same lines as the bishop’s.

The timing of Whipple’s trip was fortunate in another way. Niebuhr argues that by bringing Lincoln’s attention to the poor treatment of the Dakota at the very time when the wounds from their uprising were still fresh, the bishop shaped the president’s thinking about the Minnesota revolt, framing it as a symptom of the government’s mistreatment of the Indians. As Niebuhr explains, “Whipple got access to the president before Lincoln heard any extended discussion about the war from anyone else in Minnesota. What the bishop managed to do was set the war within the context of federal government corruption and ineptitude. He created for Lincoln a lens through which to view the war.”

Lincoln proved more receptive to Whipple than his predecessor, giving him access to government records of Dakota relations to help bolster his case. But there was still the matter of Indians captured in the wake of the uprising. A military tribunal sentenced over 300 of them to hang for participation in the war. Despite warnings that failing to execute them all would inflame white opinion on the frontier, Lincoln spared the lives of nearly nine-tenths of the condemned. The result was still the largest public execution in United States history, as thirty-eight Dakota men went to the gallows on December 26, 1862. And it’s important to remember that Lincoln’s record on Indian affairs was not spotless. Biographer David Donald notes that the president remained largely ignorant about Native Americans; like most other nineteenth-century whites, he considered Indians less civilized and more prone to violence than Euro-Americans.

Still, Lincoln’s receptivity to Whipple’s pleas for reform and his intervention in the executions are notable examples of Lincoln’s leniency, his aptitude for mercy, and his basic humanity—the traits which have made him one of the most beloved figures in American history.

Niebuhr’s book should spark wider interest in this often overlooked aspect of Lincoln’s presidency and bring greater attention to Whipple’s crucial role as a mediator between the government and the Dakota. It’s an enlightening piece of historical research, but also a very inspiring book, a reminder that the forces which Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature” can work their magic even in the most violent and divisive of circumstances.

 

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The first reenactors of Little Bighorn

During my last stint in grad school I helped out with a conversational English program at a Knoxville church.  The students came from a variety of places, but East Asia was probably the most common point of origin.

During one class–I don’t remember how this happened–the topic of reenacting came up, and most of the students had no idea what we were talking about.  As I tried to explain what reenactors do, one guy from China was absolutely bumfuzzled by the whole concept.

“They shoot guns?” he asked.

“No bullets.  Just gunpowder.  They line up like they’re going to fight a battle and do what the soldiers would have done, but it’s just acting.”

“A game?”

“No, not a game.  They use it to teach people about history, but sometimes they just do it for fun.”

“And they wear old clothes?”

“They wear what people would’ve worn a long time ago.  The kinds of clothes their ancestors wore.”

He thought about all this for two or three seconds…and then he started laughing hysterically.

The notion that adults would put on historical clothing and pretend to shoot at each other for fun was absurd to him.  Most of the other students were just as perplexed.  They were looking at me like I’d just told them that some Americans liked to put on Mickey Mouse ears and fling salad dressing at each other.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve sort of assumed that reenacting was an essentially Western and white phenomenon, basically limited to the U.S. and Europe.  But a few days ago I ran across something in an unexpected source.

I’ve been reading a biography of Barnum Brown, one of the twentieth century’s most famous fossil hunters and a longtime collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  (He’s the guy who found the type specimen of T. rex.)  Brown was a product of the frontier, born in Kansas in 1873. In 1889, he set out with his dad on a wagon trip across the West to find a new home for the family. On July 4 they arrived at the Little Bighorn in time to see the Crow Indians engaged in what Brown’s biographers term a “reenactment” of Custer’s defeat.

Here’s how Brown described it years later, as quoted in the biography:

Although this tribe had always been friendly to the whites, the Commandant was taking no chance, so he had two companies of the garrison under arms, and two Gatling guns trained on the battleground.

I well remember the occasion: squaws with papooses on their backs or in their laps sat all around the edge of the battlefield….

That’s pretty much all the book has to say about this event, but it’s a fascinating passage.  I’d never heard of any Native American tribe recreating a battle.

I poked around a little and found a similar reference in another book.  In her examination of memory and Little Bighorn, Debra Buchholtz says the Crow “were the first to reenact the fight in the immediate battlefield vicinity” on July 4, 1891 with Indians playing Custer’s men as well as the Native Americans.  That would have been two years to the day after Brown claimed he saw an Independence Day reenactment; maybe Brown had his dates wrong, or maybe this was some kind of annual event.

The Crow weren’t the only people reenacting the battle around that time.  Buffalo Bill Cody was staging portrayals of Little Bighorn for his traveling show.  Buchholtz also refers to a 1902 reenactment in Wyoming between Indians and a National Guard unit and another with both whites and Native Americans at the Crow Fair in 1909.  But it’s the notion of the all-Indian reenactments at the battleground, held only a little more than a decade after the real thing, that fascinates me.

What was the impetus behind it, and how did the participants’ motives for staging it compare to the motivations of modern-day reenactors?  What role did this reenactment play in Native American culture, and how different would it be from the role of reenacting in modern American culture?

By Michael Barera (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tennessee’s newest state park has a John Sevier connection

The Tennessean reports that “the state park at Rocky Fork will showcase the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians.”

A little more precision would be helpful here, since “the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians” is about as specific as “that time Lindsay Lohan ran into trouble with the law.”  I’m assuming it’s the Battle of Flint Creek (Jan. 1789), but I could be mistaken.

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If you ask me, the federal government should buy Wounded Knee

I didn’t even know that Wounded Knee was in private hands until this story popped up in the news.  The landowner has given the Oglala Sioux until May 1 to come up with the money before he puts it up for auction.  Unfortunately, the asking price is $3.9 million and the tribe is deeply in debt.  The current price seems high to me, but the guy claims he’s already had three offers.

There’s disagreement within the tribe as to what should be done with the site; some see opportunities for more tourist-related revenue, while others oppose any major development nearby.  Personally, I’d like to see the federal government step in and buy it with an eye toward eventual management by the National Park Service.  Supporters of tourism would get the visitor draw they’re after, while the NPS could preserve the site and interpret it in a tasteful, professional, and sensitive manner that would hopefully be agreeable to folks who aren’t keen on development.  Seems to me like a sensible solution, but that’s just my two cents.

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What’s offensive about tomahawks?

Last month a new Canadian basketball team announced that they’d be calling themselves the Ottawa TomaHawks (with a capital “h”).  The name wasn’t a reference to the weapon, but to a two-handed dunk.  Critics argued that the name demeaned Native Americans, and the franchise dropped it only a day after making the announcement.

I can understand why the word “tomahawk” might be considered offensive, since it connotes the old stereotype of Indians as warlike, murderous savages.  Still, tomahawks weren’t a strictly Indian instrument.  In fact, the tomahawk is a perfect symbol of the fusion of Old and New World elements that characterized colonial America.  Both the word and the weapon itself are of Indian origin, but the metal-headed tomahawks you see in pictures, movies, and museum displays weren’t available until European technology arrived in the Americas.  Both whites and Indians alike made use of them, and killing wasn’t the only thing they were doing with them, since metal-headed axes were common trade items. It’s a Native American instrument altered by Europeans and used by both Indians and whites as a weapon, tool, and commercial product.

When I see a tomahawk in a museum or at a reenactment, I don’t think about warlike Indians; I think about how two cultures encountered each other in the Americas, and how both changed in the process.

But if a substantial number of people of Indian descent found the team’s name offensive, then changing it was the right thing to do.  It’s not always about political correctness; sometimes it’s just a matter of basic consideration for the feelings of others.  Common decency shouldn’t have to be a political issue.

War club and tomahawk on display at Yale’s Peabody Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

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