Reenacted hanging of Native American draws criticism

A bit of a fracas involving public history and memory developed over the weekend.  From Indian Country Today:

For approximately 10 years, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and local volunteers have created annual reenactments of historical court cases during their annual Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebration in June.

For the first time in the Society’s history, the celebration coordinators chose to reenact a public hanging, this time of Mamachtaga, a Delaware man convicted of murder in 1785.

According to Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society Executive Director, the June 25 and 26 Frontier Court reenactments went well and, in the interest of historical accuracy, included the moment when the first attempt to hang Mamachtaga failed because the rope broke and had to be repeated with a new rope.

A video of the public hanging was posted on Youtube on June 26, where it languished with little comment until Friday when several Native Americans began sharing the link on Facebook.…

Many people have also directly contacted both the Westmoreland County Historical Society as well as members of the volunteer group who participated in the public hanging reenactment to let them know of their opposition to such depictions. Both Hays and Scott Henry, local volunteers who help coordinate reenactors for the Frontier Court Reenactment Days, were caught off guard by the strong emotions than many callers expressed.

“There was nothing malicious intended. We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town,” said Henry. Clearly upset over the calls he’d received from those opposing the reenactment he said, “One caller accused us of perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing. This has all been blown out of proportion.”

Hays agreed that neither the reenactors nor the Historical Society intended any malice in the performance. She noted that one of the main purposes of the reenactment was to depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day. “Cruel punishments such as these led to creation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The reenactment helped give context to the need for the Amendment which prohibits the government’s use of excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments,” she explained.…

Kerry Holton, President of the federally recognized Delaware tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma was skeptical that the Lenape reenactor was actually a member of the Delaware tribe. “Although we speak Lenape, we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware,” he said. “I find it hard to believe.”

“I was quite disturbed by the video and frankly wished I hadn’t watched it,” Holton said. “When I started going through my newsfeed this morning, the video of the Chicago torture popped up and then shortly after I saw this video. I understand this is a reenactment, but there is some parallel there that is disturbing, that people think it is okay for our children to witness such violence.”

The Westmoreland County Historical Society also posted this statement on Facebook:

Hanna’s Town was the site of the first English Courts west of the Allegheny Mountains, and we present and annual reenactment of authentic court cases heard there between 1773 and 1786. The Trial of Mamachtaga in 1785, was one of several cases reenacted that day at Frontier Court. Each case, including the one in question, provided an analysis of the early-American judicial system, which was based on English Common Law, and a comparison to our Constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. We address the historic political climate and social attitudes as well. The video clip excludes the context of the reenactment and only shows the result of the verdict.

The reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga was not a depiction of a murder, nor was it a lynching. It was the portrayal of an actual trial and subsequent hanging by the court system that was carried out at Hanna’s Town. The defense attorney for Mamachtaga, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, left a detailed account of the trial and execution and provides the context of the event, which the video does not show. Another man, who was white, was also tried and hung that day, but the historical record does not provide a thorough narrative.

Mamachtaga did not deny killing two men near Pittsburgh, and he stated that he thought his trial was fair. He asked for the opportunity to prepare for his death including painting his face as a warrior, and it was granted. He also said that he did not want his people taking any revenge for him.

The account of the defense attorney, Hugh Breckenridge, can be accessed here: Link: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/…/text4/brackenridge.pdf

We don’t take concerns about the video lightly. We have talked to Native people who assist us with programming, and they continue to support our organization and educational activities. They know our true heart. To discuss this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way, please contact us via email at history@westmorelandhistory.org.

Finally, here’s the video itself: EDIT: Looks like the video’s been removed from YouTube.

Reenacting historical court cases is both instructive and a pretty well-established practice when it comes to living history interpretation, but staging an execution is a dicey matter indeed.  That’s especially true when racial or intercultural issues are involved.

Personally, I don’t really see how a mock hanging adds any educational value to a reenacted trial.  Nor do I see the connection between a mock hanging and the historical context of the Eighth Amendment.  If the idea is to demonstrate the range of corporal punishments meted out by eighteenth-century courts, there’s no shortage of “cruel and unusual” options to choose from: branding, ear cropping, flogging, etc.  Execution by hanging was not considered cruel and unusual punishment in the eighteenth century, nor for a long time thereafter.

I should stress that I’m not trying to slam the Westmoreland County Historical Society here.  I don’t doubt that it’s a professional public history organization that does fine work, and I’m sure there was no ill intention.  I just think the mock hanging was a bad idea.

Anyway, if you’re teaching a course on public history or historical memory, you might want to file this story away.  It would make for an interesting and provocative classroom case study.

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2 Comments

Filed under History and Memory, Reenacting

2 responses to “Reenacted hanging of Native American draws criticism

  1. April Payne

    My personal opinion is, while their intension might have been a good one, they should have reenacted the entire trial and not just the punishment. If it was a matter of how much time for the video, show it in clips, if need be, but show the trial. That is where I think they went wrong, or sideways on it. Sadly, in today’s atmosphere it was taken all wrong. Pity, that.

    • Michael Lynch

      I think they did reenact the trial. I don’t believe WCHS was responsible posting the YouTube video; what ended up on YouTube was up to whoever filmed it and uploaded it.

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