Tag Archives: Native Americans

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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The backwoods battles of the Revolutionary War

While Continentals, Redcoats, and militiamen were battling it out in the American Revolution, a related struggle played out on the frontiers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as settlers and Indians wrestled for control of the West.  This frontier war for land and independence doesn’t get as much scholarly attention as the conventional war to the eastward, which is why I was glad to see the release of Richard D. Blackmon’s Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier a couple of months ago. 

Blackmon demonstrates that colonial officials tasked with maintaining the Indians’ loyalty had long struggled with unscrupulous traders and land-hungry frontiersmen, and found their role even more difficult when those frontiersmen became rebellious colonists.  In the South, this responsibility fell on the shoulders of John Stuart, Superintendent for the Southern Department.  Both Stuart and his Whig opponents tried to secure the support (or at least the neutrality) of the southern tribes, which required supplying the Indians with the arms and powder on which they depended for hunting and persuading the tribes to expel agents working for the opposing side.

All-out war finally erupted on the frontier in the summer of 1776, after Stuart and his deputies failed to convince the Cherokees that a general assault on the settlements would only inflame white Whigs and Tories alike into reprisals.  The response from the Carolinas and Virginia was precisely what Stuart had feared.  Frontier militias rebounded from the attacks and marched into the Indian towns, burning crops and dwellings while engaging in battles with war parties.  These invasions of Cherokee country forced the tribe to trade land for peace, although a faction of warriors led by Dragging Canoe refused to lay down their arms and instead moved south to continue resistance against the settlements.

The Creeks, meanwhile, were divided over whether to join Britain’s war against the colonists, reluctant to take up arms without the support of British troops and supplies.  Pro-British Creeks did attack the Georgia frontier in 1778, although the Whigs kept part of the tribe neutral by supplying them with goods.  When British armies finally invaded the South, the Whigs faced the two-front war which they had long dreaded, but British military activity in that region was never as well-coordinated as advocates of a frontier strategy desired.

Ultimately, those Native Americans who cast their lot with England lost their military gamble, as British troops evacuated the southern posts they had been trying to maintain since the late 1770’s, leaving the Cherokees, Creeks, and other tribes at the mercy of an independent United States.  Although the war brought devastation and bloodshed to the frontiersmen (the Cumberland settlements in present-day Middle Tennessee and the Kentucky settlements proved especially vulnerable), it reduced residents of the devastated Indian communities to an especially precarious existence, and the final peace between the U.S. and England in 1783 proved to be a mere intermission in the contest for the West.

My only complaint about this book is a curious omission.  Blackmon’s description of the struggle between frontiersmen and Cherokees in 1776 is quite detailed, but it doesn’t really cover the summer attacks on the settlements in what is now northeastern Tennessee.  He does deal with the wrangling among Tennessee settlers, British officials, and Native Americans that preceded these attacks, as well as John Sevier’s later battles against the Chickamaugas, but readers interested in the early history of the Volunteer State may be disappointed that the siege of Ft. Caswell doesn’t get the same coverage as the Ring Fight, the defense of Boonesborough, and the Battle of the Bluffs.

That criticism aside, this book is a great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the American Revolution or the early frontier, utilizing both official documentation and eyewitness accounts of the major engagements.  Blackmon’s analyses of Andrew Williamson’s exploits and the negotiations at Ft. Patrick Henry are the best I’ve read.  Even if your knowledge of the war’s backwoods battles is extensive, it’s heplful to have a solid overview of the entire frontier war for the South in one volume, placed deftly in the context of the larger war as a whole.

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Has America neglected the Indian Holocaust?

One commentator seems to think so, and suggests that we might need a museum to remind us of it:

Americans are no strangers to willful denial of the past. American presidents have called for forgetting the past, not investigating wrongs of prior administrations, insisting that America is only and always the “good guy” on the planet. Indeed, this is a core ingredient of assertions that America is “exceptional.”

It is strange that there is a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate what the Nazis did in WWII, but no museum to acknowledge what a long series of United States governments did in the anti-Indian wars that are inextricable from American history. There is no American Indian Holocaust Museum, even though there are documented incidents in which mass killings, not just mass arrests, occurred across the continent over decades.…

If the U.S. wants to take the high ground in the 21st century as a bulwark against state atrocities, it will need the credibility that can only come from admitting one’s own faults, one’s complicity in the evils that one now wishes to prevent. In short, there must be an atonement for wrongdoings to give foundation to a commitment to do the right thing.

There’s much here that merits agreement. Nobody with an iota of humanity should dismiss or justify this country’s terrible record when it comes to its first inhabitants. At the same time, though, I think the author is overstating his case.

I’m not sure which sector of American society has been engaged in “willful denial” of the U.S. government’s slaughter and displacement of Indians.  Certainly not the academy; there are reams of solid studies documenting the terrible treatment of Indians, and any introductory course in American history worth its salt will devote substantial time to the topic.  The subject has also become a staple of popular history books by authors like Dee Brown and John Ehle and of film projects such as Dances with Wolves and the 2005 miniseries Into the West.  Nor can we charge the federal government with totally ignoring its ugly treatment of Native Americans in its selection of important places to conserve and commemorate: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Nez Perce National Historical Park, and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail all interpret chapters in the dreadful story of America’s persecution of Indians.

I don’t say any of this to minimize the horrors of the past; those horrors were very real, very numerous, and very grievous. But in the past few decades, they’ve been studied, written about, and commemorated to a much greater degree than is indicated in the piece quoted above. There’s probably no such thing as an “ideal” state of American historical consciousness when it comes to the Indian past, but we’re certainly at a much healthier point now than we were when my parents were kids, when Native Americans (if they figured in historical memory at all) were either the bad guys or stock characters in Westerns.

A museum devoted to Indian genocide, removal, and suffering is a compelling idea, but I’m not sure it’s the best approach to preserving and teaching Native American history. We need to understand the American Indian experience in its totality. It’s as much a story of adaptation and determined resistance as it is a story of victimization, and thankfully it’s a story that’s being told more often than it used to be.

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Jury-rigged arms race at Boonesborough

In the fall of 1778 a large force of Indians, most of them Shawnees, laid siege to Fort Boonesborough in central Kentucky. The fort held out, but the siege provides some pretty nifty examples of military ingenuity.

The original site at Fort Boonesborough State Park

Native American attempts to capture frontier garrisons were usually pretty straightforward affairs, with a party of warriors surrounding the walls and firing from cover along with attempts to fire the structure with torches or flaming arrows.  At Boonesborough, the Indians got creative.  The Kentucky River ran parallel to the fort’s rear wall and about sixty yards away from it.  The attackers decided to tunnel into the bluff along the stream and dig a mine toward the settlers, either to gain access to the interior or to set off a powder charge under the walls.  The defenders heard the digging and saw the river’s water turn muddy, and figuring out what was up, they set to work on a counter-mine.  The Indians’ tunnel collapsed before reaching the fort, but it was still a pretty interesting approach to frontier warfare.

The banks of the Kentucky River beside the site of the fort

The whites inside the fort developed a few tricks of their own, thanks to the ingenuity of Daniel Boone’s brother Squire, who built a makeshift cannon out of gum wood bound with iron wagon wheel strips.  The second shot blew the barrel apart, prompting derisive shouts from the attackers.  (One notable thing about participants’ recollections of the siege was the frequency of verbal insults traded between the two sides.)  Not the most effective of weapons, but the bang did cause a party of Indians to “skamper perdidiously,” as Daniel Trabue put it.

Another of Squire Boone’s inventions proved more effective during the siege when he managed to fashion squirt guns out of rifle barrels to douse the Indians’ torches.  I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how these things worked, but apparently some type of piston was involved.  This guy was like an eighteenth-century MacGyver.

So, who’s up for an experimental archaeology project?

Picture something along these lines, only with a nice maple stock.

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If Civil War heritage controversies are getting tiresome

…try a War of 1812 controversy on for size.  A Chicago alderman’s remarks about the 1812 Battle of Ft. Dearborn are stirring up quite a ruckus.

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Nancy Ward hits the stage

Through the magic of the Interwebs, I just found out that somebody has written a musical about Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.  The show’s on its premiere run in Hartwell, GA.

Ward (or Nanye-hi, if you prefer to use her Cherokee name) was one of those intercultural mediators that played such a prominent role on the early American frontier, which in her case consisted of what eventually became northeastern Tennessee.

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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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