Lecture 1: readings by and about Native Americans

When I planned the syllabus I wanted to make this week’s reading on the light side, to give you more time to develop your Confluences paper and produce your Prospectus while still enjoying Spring break. Well, Corvid-19 had its own response to human planning. At any rate, that means what I plan to do in terms of this week’s “lectures” is to talk a bit about the various readings today and hope that you’ll watch the talk, and then be available by email and the class Facebook page to answer questions (email or Facebook) or engage in some discussion (Facebook).

The week before Spring Break we looked at readings that expressed the views of colonial settlers and, later, white Americans towards the peoples they found on these shores and the encounters that had transpired. Some of these sentiments are also part of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” you’ll recall. The ideas that Native Americans could be helpful neighbors or exploitable trade partners—but were nevertheless alien, untrustworthy creatures worshipping devilish gods and living debased lives and thus in need of conversion (or elimination, depending on circumstances)—these ideas inform a number of writings, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s letters informing the King and Queen of Spain that the native people he encountered in the Caribbean islands could be taught Christianity, persuaded to reveal the sources of their wealth, and snatched up to become slaves for Europeans.

The determined hatred that is the lens for Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration originates not only in the horror of the attack she and her family suffered during King Phillip’s War of desperation, but also in her implacable belief that non-Christians were incapable of goodness and mercy. After seeing her relatives and friends killed and her home burned in the space of two horrific hours, and being herself captured and held for months, this minister’s wife can be excused at least her initial attitude; she does become sufficiently accustomed to her captors to admit they are capable of kindness, but that’s nearly at the end of her book…a book that was a huge best-seller for some time, no doubt contributing to her living expenses but also to the continuous rise of anti-Indian sentiment and actions that became more emphatic in popular literature and fueled more wars on Native tribes in the latter 1800s (which our course does not include).

Still, we have also had the refreshing views of Benjamin Franklin, in “Remarks Concerning the Savages,” which begins with the astute if ironic observation “savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”

We also have the sympathetic myth-making of Philip Freneau’s poem “The Indian Burying Ground,” which offers a beautiful and haunting vision of an afterlife where social community and nature-linked life belong to the Indian for all eternity.

This week’s readings, representing the views of the same Native Americans, show that continuing clash of world views and values, although in the Iroquois Creation Myth, Pontiac’s Speech at Detroit, and Occam’s “Short Narrative” of his life we see the growing influence of Christian teachings as natives sought to understand white settlers—the Establishment, eventually—and accommodate Christian mythology into Native American ways of thought. Occam’s later experience with his “mentor” Reverend Eleazar Wheelock threw cold water on his trust in whites but not on his dedication to teaching English and reading to Indian children.

Benjamin Franklin has shown us in “Remarks Concerning the Savages” why reaching an understanding between white colonists and Native Americans was difficult, especially in circumstances where the Whites were in control and their mythology dominant even when it didn’t quite match their behavior. Red Jacket in his 1809 speech to the U.S. Senate attempted to explain with logic, examples, and clarity how hard his people had tried to understand Christian beliefs and behavior and why, ultimately, they had to reject them, concluding eloquently that “We do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” As our editor points out, it was essentially a separatist speech, suggesting that two nations side by side could get along but forcing Native Americans into a larger nation and expecting them to conform to the dominant beliefs and laws was a bad idea. Red Jacket’s traditional and courteous “Brother:” that begins each paragraph of his statement yields in 1811 or so to Tecumseh’s speech to the Osages, beginning “Brothers: We all belong to one family: we are all children of the Great Spirit,” but going on to argue for taking that family to war, on the basis that “nothing will pacify [the white man] but the destruction of all the red men,” and calling for a united resistance that will “stain the earth red with their blood,” with the help of the Great Spirit.

Our editor tells us that eloquence was highly valued in Native American tribes, being the traditional measure of effectiveness in an argument, and argument being the method of resolving disputes. Argument was the responsibility of males in the tribe. (The traditional role of women, by the way, was to listen to these disputes and remember the issues, the eloquent arguments, and the resolution: kind of a combination Court Stenographer and Tribal Memory, a role of great respect and, in pre-literary cultures especially, critical importance.)

These opportunities to hear the voices of Native Americans have been provided to us by historical and cultural historians, tribal memory, documents preserved in government and tribal archives, and, as we see this couple of weeks with Jefferson and Ben Franklin, transmission in letters and other documents by “white” political figures recording true encounters with “red” men they had learned to respect and admire. And don’t forget Roger Williams’ belief that the best way to understand and interact with Native Americans was to learn to talk with them in their own languages.

I’d like to hear your thoughts and questions.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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