Tag Archives: Native Americans

John Carter of Mars and the American frontier

Anybody who thinks the history of early America doesn’t continue to cast a long, dark shadow over modern culture should consider the pressing matter of Confederates on Mars.

Wikimedia Commons

I’m referring, of course, to the new movie John Carter, and to its source material, the century-old story A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Both the book and the film relate the adventures of an Army of Northern Virginia veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to the Red Planet, referred to by its inhabitants as “Barsoom.”  This fictional Mars is populated by tall, green-skinned, six-limbed aliens called Tharks, as well as a race of humans (or humanoids, I suppose) with copper-red skin whose cities are perpetually at war with each other.  Carter is taken captive by the Tharks, gets mixed up in Barsoomian politics, and falls in love with a scantily-clad humanoid princess named Dejah Thoris.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of A Princess of Mars and its sequels on science fiction.  I decided to read it for myself before seeing the film, and was surprised at how many of the scenarios, characters, and themes from later movies and books were right there in embryonic form within the pages of Burroughs’ story.  What also struck me was a remarkable degree of similarity between this seemingly outlandish tale of extraterrestrial swashbuckling and some very real accounts from the early American frontier.

Because Carter finds himself in a dangerous environment populated by “primitive” races, you could interpret A Princess of Mars as a frontier story, and many people have done so.  In particular, let me discuss a number of intriguing parallels between Carter’s fictional experiences and historical accounts left behind by Anglo-American colonists and settlers.

Take clothing, for example—or rather, the lack thereof.  One of the things colonists found most striking about Indians was their “nakedness,” interpreting their exposed bodies as signs of barbarity.  The inhabitants of Barsoom, both the Tharks and the red humanoids, also go largely unclothed, wearing only elaborate metal ornamentation, jewels, and the straps holding their weapons.  Carter describes a Thark leader as “heavily loaded with metal ornaments, gay-colored feathers and beautifully wrought leather trappings ingeniously set with precious stones.”  The metal ornamentation is an apparently ubiquitous feature of Barsoomian dress which the text mentions again and again, and it brings to mind the European gorgets and trade bracelets worn by Indians of the Eastern Woodlands.

A prominent Cherokee is depicted wearing a European gorget and other ornamental trappings in this eighteenth-century portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Thark weaponry also seems reminiscent of Native American weaponry of the colonial and Revolutionary frontier.  The green Martians carry rifles which fire bullets equipped with explosive “radium,” and they employ these firearms at long distances to deadly effect.  For close-quarters combat, they wield edged weapons.

Carter’s opinion of the Tharks reflects Anglo-Americans’ paradoxical attitudes toward their aboriginal neighbors.  On one hand, colonists considered the Indians barbaric.  On the other, they sometimes idealized the Native Americans as exemplars of primitive virtue, a notion summed up in the phrase “noble savage.”  In the same way, Carter finds the Tharks to be cruel and warlike, raising their children communally with no pity for the weak.  Like some historic Native American tribes, Tharks find a kind of collective catharsis in making a violent spectacle of their prisoners.  Whereas the Iroquois and other Indian societies vented tribal anger through the communal torture of captives, the Tharks punish troublesome prisoners by forcing them to do battle with monstrous creatures in a gladiatorial arena.  But Carter also notes the Tharks’ admirable qualities.  They possess what might be called a savage code of honor, and their leaders maintain their status by their prowess in combat.

This regard for prowess is how John Carter earns the respect and even admiration of the Tharks.  Martian gravity being distinct from that of his home planet, the former Confederate is capable of tremendous physical feats on Barsoom, turning him into a virtual superman.  In time, he becomes a member of Thark society.

Burroughs’ book is thus not merely a story of an encounter between cultures, but a story about an individual from one culture who finds himself immersed in a culture that is not his own.  For that reason, I think we can be more precise about its historical antecedents than calling it a “Western” or a frontier story.  I suggest that it’s a particular type of frontier story, one that really predates the “Western” as most of us are used to thinking about that term.  As one of the first great science fiction epics, A Princess of Mars is an early example of a relatively new genre, but it’s also a comparatively recent example of a very old genre, perhaps the oldest genuinely American genre there is—the captivity narrative.

Captivity narratives are accounts of people who fall into the hands of another culture, a culture which the captive considers less civilized than his or her own.  There are very early examples from Europe, but the genre really took off in the New World, where the proximity of aboriginal societies and the frequency of cross-cultural warfare increased the likelihood of cross-cultural captivity.  The most notable example is probably Mary Rowlandson’s account of her capture during King Philip’s War, one of the first American “best-sellers.”  Like the captivity memoirs of Rowlandson, Jonathan Dickinson, and other whites who were held by Indians for some period of time, A Princess of Mars takes an autobiographical form, since Burroughs employs the device of a “false document,” a manuscript written by Carter and left in the care of a relative, to tell the story from the protagonist’s own perspective.  The book thus takes the same form as non-fiction firsthand accounts of cross-cultural imprisonment, except that it’s a work of the imagination rather than memory.

Consider the relationship in these accounts between imprisonment and adoption.  While living among the Tharks, Carter earns the right to wear the metal and bear the prestige of the warriors he defeats in battle. When he dons their ornaments and straps, he becomes a full-fledged member of their society and even a prominent figure within it.  In the same way, Indian tribes in eastern North America adopted captives taken in war; indeed, the taking of captives to “replace” dead relatives was one of the purposes for which Native Americans engaged in warfare.

The relationship between Carter and the Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas is especially worth noting.  Tarkas is the first of the green aliens to appreciate Carter’s remarkable physical abilities.  The two become close, even though Tars Tarkas is the Earth man’s captor.  Their relationship is not unlike that between Daniel Boone and the Shawnee leader Blackfish, who seems to have adopted the frontiersman during Boone’s imprisonment at Chillicothe in 1778.

One important difference between Boone’s experience and Carter’s is the fact that Boone seized the first opportunity to escape, whereas Carter comes to embrace his newfound status.  A decisive factor in his transformation from John Carter of Virginia to John Carter of Mars is his immediate attraction to Dejah Thoris, the red princess of Helium, a character vividly described by Burroughs:

Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

She is sufficiently alien to be exotic and alluring, but unlike the Tharks, she is someone in whom Carter can recognize a common humanity.  Here is an example of the impulse to fantasize about the frontier as a venue for cross-cultural romantic escape, perhaps the same impulse that might have led John Smith to invent, exaggerate, or misinterpret the occasion on which Pocahontas reportedly intervened to save his life.

The first time Carter lays eyes on Dejah Thoris, she is a fellow captive of the Tharks, and the Virginia gentleman takes it upon himself to protect her.  Later, when she falls into the hands of a rival society, Carter undertakes a dramatic rescue.  By this point in the book, Carter is no longer a prisoner, but a Martian warrior engaged in rescuing a vulnerable female from danger, just as Daniel Boone led a raid to rescue his daughter from Indian captivity in a famous 1776 incident.  The native of Earth has transformed from a captive into a master of his dangerous new world, just as Boone became the archetype of the white man at home in the treacherous environment of the frontier.

The rescue of Jemima Boone and her fellow captives, by Millet via Wikimedia Commons

Carter’s decision to pledge his heart and his sword to Dejah Thoris marks a point at which his story and the early American captivity narratives part ways.  For Anglo-American captives who wrote down their stories for colonial audiences, an important theme was “redemption,” the experience of coming out of captivity.  John Carter, by contrast, is one of those captives who chooses to stay among his adoptive people and take up a new identity.  Unlike Mary Rowlandson, these “converted” captives did not leave behind such influential accounts of their passages across the cultural boundary.  They remained on the far side of that boundary, never again at home in the society in which they were born.  John Carter finds on Barsoom an escape from all the unpleasant aspects of American civilization; his frontier, like that of many Americans who wrote about their own, is a source of renewal.  Having fought as a soldier for a lost cause on Earth, and having gone west in search of fortune, he unexpectedly becomes a hero on another world.  Rather than looking for redemption from captivity and exile, he finds that his captivity and exile redeem him.

In introducing Carter’s “memoir,” Burroughs writes that after the hero of Mars returned to his home planet, he would stand outside at night, “with his arms stretched out to the heavens as though in appeal.”  Maybe the reason Burroughs could create a popular hero who dreamed of returning to the far side of the cultural frontier is because the actual, historical frontier of America was no longer a threat close at hand.  To early Anglo-American colonists, the Indians were nearby, numerous, and threatening.  But Burroughs wrote his story more than two decades after the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed and the Native Americans’ last great act of military resistance to white encroachment came to an end.  The real frontier had become a distant object of nostalgia, almost as distant as Mars must have seemed to John Carter when he was back on Earth, gazing at the night sky toward the faraway home of his Martian princess.

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History in the first person plural

The other day I was at UT’s McClung Museum, where there’s a fantastic exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.  The exhibit includes a film about the experiences of the Cherokee from prehistoric times down to the present day, with onscreen commentary from current members of the tribe.  Some of them use the first-person plural when talking about past events.  “What we decided to do when the whites came was such-and-such,” or, “One of our holy people said such-and-such,” and so on.  I’ve seen the film a number of times, and this use of the first person plural to discuss events that happened well over a century ago has always struck me.

Coincidentally, when I got home I ran across an interesting editorial called “No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong.” It’s worth reading in full, because it touches on some fundamental issues regarding historical interpretation and historical memory.

The main issue is that parks don’t give Native Americans as much interpretive “airtime” as they do whites.  I’m sure that’s generally true, but with mitigating circumstances.  For one thing, history is inherently and inescapably weighted toward people and events that left a paper trail.  It’s much easier to document the comparatively few years during which the U.S. Army battled its way across the West than it is to document the many centuries during which Native Americans had the continent to themselves.

The Cherokee Female Seminary in Oklahoma, with the class of 1875 posed in front. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Second, things are changing.  If you visit NPS sites that have recently undergone interpretive overhauls, I think you’ll find that Native Americans aren’t all that underrepresented.  To take an example from my neck of the woods, the visitor center exhibit at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, updated not too many years ago, includes substantial sections on the Native experience along the Wilderness Road, both before and after European involvement.  Sites with older exhibits and signage aren’t likely to be as inclusive, but you can’t change a park overnight.  Each park doesn’t have its own onsite exhibit fabrication team.  If I’m not mistaken, there’s one department responsible for fabricating and installing historic exhibit galleries for the enite park system.  They’ll get to you when they can get to you.

Anyway, what really jumped out at me what this section:

Changes in interpretation have also been significant at Nez Perce National Historical Park, which includes more than 30 sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. After having built closer relations with the Nez Perce nation over the past 20 years, the NPS is ready to let the tribe tell its own story here. The new park brochure about the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana gives the tribe this voice. It opens with a greeting in the Nez Perce language and then speaks in a Native voice: “Far from our beautiful homeland, upon this quiet terrain of our Earth Mother, the spirits now forever bear silent witness to our people’s painful and tragic encounter with manifest destiny.” The tribe, and not the NPS, appears as your host at this site.

Done right, this approach avoids one of the biggest risks of national park interpretation—having the arrogance to tell someone else’s story your way.

The phrase “telling someone else’s story your way” seems along the same lines as the frequent use of “we” in the McClung Museum’s film.  There’s a definite sense in which some parts of history can become “our story,” especially when it’s the history of one’s own ethnic group, country, region, class, or whatever.  That’s the sort of history that one “owns.”

But there’s an equally important sense in which it’s all “someone else’s story.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re not the people of the past, and any belief that we can speak for them based on experiences we have in the present is usually a conceit.  We neglect the fundamental “otherness” of the past at our peril.  Sure, we all have our vested interests in the stories of particular groups, and concerns that these stories get told properly are legitimate.  But the fact of my membership in a group doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to have a particularly accurate appreciation of the reality behind those stories.

One has identities that coincide with those of people who lived in the past, but one also has an identity as a citizen of the twenty-first century.  This latter identity comes with a lot of baggage, and we’re unconscious of much of it simply because we’re so accustomed to it.  Anytime one invokes the historical “we,” there’s a risk of presuming that one can understand people of the past without any residue from our modern-day identities getting in the way.  The result is that we can easily misread both ourselves and our predecessors.

Let me stress that I’m not trying to imply that modern-day Native Americans aren’t “real” Indians, or that it’s none of their business how the NPS interprets Native history, or that an Irish-American has no business taking pride in Irish history, or anything along those lines.  I’m simply pointing out that our presence in the here and now puts limitations on our abilities to intuitively “read” the past.

History in the first person plural seems to be a more common practice among groups who have suffered misfortune, stereotyping, neglect, or defeat, which is perfectly understandable.  Native Americans have, of course, suffered more than most other historical groups.  It’s not surprising that all this cumulative experience would become an important touchstone for their collective identity, regardless of temporal boundaries.

The same thing happens among people who identify strongly with the Confederacy.  We did this, we experienced that, we were in the right, as if Sherman marched through Georgia last week and personally burned a row of condominiums.  Come to think of it, I once heard the exact same language used in a gathering of northerners.  For work-related purposes I once had to attend a dinner organized by descendants of Union soldiers. The keynote speaker referred to Grant’s assumption of overall command by saying, “Their winning team had been used to beating up on our losing team, but now they were finally going to have to face up to our winning team.” As the only southerner in the room, I couldn’t help but think this was a little comical.

None of this would be a big deal, except that this first person plural approach to history puts us at serious risk of presentism.  I think we all need a usable past, but our primary need is for a past that’s accurate.  There’s a healthy sympathy that we can bring to our attempts to understand historical figures, the kind that opens us up, makes us willing to accept them for what they were, and helps us to see their world as they saw it.  And then there’s an unhealthy kind of sympathy, which comes from an assumption that we’re basically the same as they were, making it impossible to get ourselves out of the way and appreciate the past on its own terms.

It’s never occurred to me to use the first-person plural when referring to events that happened more than a century and a half ago…but, of course, it wasn’t my ancestors that got dispossessed of everything they had and then sent packing to Oklahoma, was it?  Knowledge like that is probably going to make history more personal.

So do you guys think the “we” approach to history is appropriate?  If so, under what circumstances?  Sound off in the comments section.

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Glenn Beck’s Excellent Pseudohistorical Adventure Continues

There was a time when I thought that Glenn Beck’s history lessons couldn’t get any weirder than his invocation of the Washington prophecy.

That was before August 18, when he left the shallows of pseudohistory behind him and plunged headfirst into the deep end.

First, he pointed out that American history didn’t start with Columbus.  Indians had their own civilizations, some of them quite impressive by any contemporary standard.  No argument there, although Beck did his customary routine of arguing that he was imparting some type of arcane, forgotten knowledge.  (Ever read any history books published in the last thirty years, Glenn?)

Then he cited the theory, tossed around in some circles during the colonial and Revolutionary eras, that Indians were descended from prominent Old World civilizations.  That’s when I started to wonder where he was headed.

That’s when things took a sharp turn toward the bizarre.  Beck pointed out some superficial similarities between ancient Native American earthen structures and Egyptian pyramids, and started arguing that Hebrew artifacts have turned up in Native American archaeological sites.  The scholarly community, he claimed, had engaged in a cover-up to hide this from the public.

I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what was coming next, and I was right.  Beck spoke three little words which descended like a credibility-shattering sledgehammer: Bat Creek Stone.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bat Creek Stone, you’re not alone.  It’s a deservedly obscure artifact, an unimpressive slice of rock less than six inches long with an inscription that looks like this:

From Wikimedia Commons

It first turned up during a Smithsonian excavation of some East Tennessee Indian mounds back in 1889.  For about eighty years, nobody gave it a second thought.  Then along came Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University, who claimed that the inscription was actually an ancient form of Hebrew.

Now, Gordon was hardly an impartial observer when it came to this sort of thing.  He was a firm believer in the notion that there was substantial contact between the Old and New Worlds well before the time of Columbus.  The possibility of an ancient Hebrew inscription in a Tennessee Indian mound offered possible corroboration for his pet theory, the sort of corroboration which is quite scarce indeed.

As you can imagine, archaeologists, linguists, and ethnographers were unconvinced.  Eminent Hebrew paleographers have dismissed the inscription, arguing that most of the characters could not possibly correspond to Paleo-Hebrew letters of the period in question and bear only a superficial similarity to ancient Hebrew script.  Frauds of this sort were common in nineteenth-century America, and in fact the Bat Creek Stone’s inscription is similar to a speculative reconstruction of some ancient Hebrew writing that appared in a late nineteenth-century Masonic publication.  Two of the stone’s critics have made a case that the leader of the Smithsonian’s original excavation may have forged the stone and planted it in an attempt to boost his troubled career.  (You can read their analysis here.)  It’s worth noting that the stone’s most prominent modern-day proponent is actually an economist, who lacks any professional qualifications in paleography, archaeology, or ethnology.

In short, the Bat Creek Stone probably belongs in the realm of Bigfoot and the Mothman, not serious scholarly inquiry.

I was only aware of the stone because for several years it’s been residing at one of my favorite haunts.  It’s on indefinite loan to the University of Tennessee’s fantastic McClung Museum, where its display label quite rightly explains why it’s a dubious artifact.

Beck, by contrast, never mentioned that anyone doubted the Hebrew inscription at all, let alone that it’s pretty universally discounted by experts in every relevant field.  He simply stated that the inscription was in Hebrew.  Case closed.

It took me, an ordinary schmuck with no expertise in this sort of thing, a few seconds to find a slew of evidence debunking the Bat Creek Stone with a simple search engine.  Just typing its name into Google is sufficient to demonstrate that it’s a troubled artifact.  Yet Beck never gave any indication whatsoever that its status was in any doubt.  This omission bothers me much more than his belief in the inscription’s authenticity.

I don’t expect Glenn Beck to be an expert in early American ethnography, archaeology, or paleography.  I do, however, expect him to employ the most basic kind of fact-checking before he assumes the responsibility of educating millions of Americans in history.

Did anybody from Beck’s show even bother to Google the darn thing?  Who in the world is he paying to be his fact-checker, and does he have any inkling how badly he needs to fire them?

Maybe the notion of an ancient Hebrew inscription in America excited him because of his own religious convictions.  That’s fine, but since the scholarly community discounts the inscription, he has the responsibility to at least acknowledge that a controversy exists.  He didn’t, and his presentation was therefore inaccurate and misleading.

Beck omitted critical information, whether out of simple ignorance that it existed or a dishonest attempt to cover it up.  Neither possibility is reassuring, and I think the American people would be much better off if he would stop trying to educate them about their own history.  Physician, heal thyself.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory, Tennessee History