American Indian Persistence and Resurgenceby Karl Kroeber
This collection celebrates the resurgence of Native Americans within the cultural landscape of the United States. During the past quarter-century, the Native American population in the United States has seen an astonishing demographic growth reaching beyond all biological probability as increasing numbers of Americans desire to admit or to claim Native American… See more details below
This collection celebrates the resurgence of Native Americans within the cultural landscape of the United States. During the past quarter-century, the Native American population in the United States has seen an astonishing demographic growth reaching beyond all biological probability as increasing numbers of Americans desire to admit or to claim Native American ancestry. This volume illustrates a unique moment in history as Old World immigrants seek to realign themselves with self-assertive New Worlders.
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American Indian Persistence and Resurgence
A Boundary 2 Book
By Karl Kroeber
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Native American Resistance and Renewal
Official observances of the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's unexpected—and undesired—arrival in the New World were supposed to be described as part of a "jubilee." This rubric was devised in Washington to defuse the opposition of Native Americans to treating this quincentennial as a celebration. The compromise title is symptomatic of how the significance of "the view from the shore" is becoming recognized—albeit slowly and painfully—as a valuable perspective by both politicians and intellectuals.
More important than resistance to mindless festivities for an offtrack European explorer/exploiter is the astonishing increase in the Native American population during the past quarter century. The raw figures and percentages of growth compiled by the 1980 census (impressively surpassed by figures for 1990) soared well beyond biological probability. Increasing numbers of Americans desire to admit, or to claim, Native American ancestry. The implications of this cultural phenomenon dwarf those of the Indians' not inconsiderable demographic expansion, dramatizing a radical transformation in the attitude of Old World immigrants to native New Worlders. Many of the first Europeans in North America came to regard the native inhabitants with respect, and even admiration. But an eagerness of immigrants to align themselves genetically with American Indians is nowhere to be found in North America—until our moment in history. This volume seeks to illustrate something of the character of this moment, above all as it is reflected in our literary/intellectual culture. To this end, we have brought together a variety of diverse commentaries, including those of people making no claims to any kind of special red expertise. Thus, writer William Overstreet, through a review of James C. Faris's book, articulates central features of an intelligent "amateur's" responses both to the actual experience of persisting Indian ceremonialism and to the intellectual/ political controversies surrounding descriptions and assessments of these controversies by revisionary ethnologists. Jack Salzman's interview analogously offers a perspective on how Native American problems appear to the director of a major institute engaged in fostering interactivity between an Ivy League university and the many and highly divergent ethnic populations of New York City. This introduction, therefore, will do no more than sketch a few of the historical forces whose interactions have constituted the character of this particular moment to provide a contextual outline for the diversity of subjects and perspectives presented in the essays that follow.
The history of white-Indian relations may be divided Gallically, if crudely, into three phases. From about the middle of October 1492 to about the middle of the nineteenth century was a period predominantly of conquest and destruction of native peoples. The next century may be described as the ethnological period, for in it there were significant efforts to assure the survival, at least in the form of documentary records, of Indian cultures. Around the middle of this century began a resurgence, first in Native American populations, then in pride, self-awareness, and assertion of red cultures as distinctively different from those of white society. This resurgence has been steadily accelerating, and it seems inevitable that American Indians will play an increasingly important role in this country's life during the twenty-first century.
Little need be said about the more than three centuries of conquest except that it was, with a few minor exceptions, a process of destruction bordering on genocide, including the use of biological warfare—the deliberate infecting of Indians with diseases to which they were not immune. Hundreds of treaties were ceremoniously signed and then consciously violated by the federal government. This darkest chapter of American history needs to be recalled not merely on grounds of moral integrity but because it highlights the distinctiveness of the American Indian experience from that of all other "minorities" in the United States. Not only was no other group native to United States territory, but no other group was the object of genocidal warfare. Our popular histories are correct in recounting how the Indians, at first friendly and accommodating to European invaders, fought valiantly and skillfully, when driven to armed resistance, from the swamps of Massachusetts to the Sierras in California. It is worth remembering Solzhenitsyn's observation that losing a war is usually disastrous for a government but that such defeat may strengthen and ennoble a people.
What I have called the ethnological phase of Indian post-Columbus experience began to emerge in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when Washington Irving wrote sympathetically of King Phillip in his war with the New England colonists in the seventeenth century; when Henry School-craft, after composing an epic poem on the Creek wars, began something like scientific research into Indian lifeways; when artists such as Bodmer, Caitlin, and Charles Bird King painted Indians and scenes of Indian life; and, above all, when James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels were enthusiastically received throughout Europe, as well as in America. Cooper's work spawned literally thousands of stories—right down to the film Dances with Wolves, an almost exact replica of the Cooper paradigm, especially its underlying nostalgia: the red man, like the wilderness, is inevitably being extinguished by the inexorable advance of Western civilization.
Cooper is an often inept writer, pretentious but bumbling, in his plots, uncouth in his sentence structure, horrendously improbable in his dialogue but at times astounding in his imaginative prescience. He became the most influential proponent of the myth of the noble savage. Indeed, Mark Twain's condemnations of him may have been motivated less by revulsion at Cooper's literary offenses than by disgust with his admiration for Native Americans, since Twain's contempt for Indians seems to have been unbounded. But Cooper's romanticizing of Indians was entangled with enough realistic criticism of white Americans to dramatize some parts of the essential tragedy of the Indians' victimization and that victimization's countereffects upon the Indians' destroyers.
Cooper's novels are both aesthetically and factually preferable to many nineteenth-century literary representations of Native Americans, for example, Longfellow's popular midcentury poem The Song of Hiawatha (which sold nearly 40,000 copies the year it was published, 1855). Longfellow reveals the absurdly sinister underside of his nostalgia when, in the final episode, he has his Ojibwa hero, burdened with an Iroquois name, order his people to welcome the black-robed fathers who arrive from across the ocean as bringers of truth and the good life. Whereupon Hiawatha hops into his canoe and paddles himself off into the sunset. Although Cooper's cultural importance should not be underestimated, nor his literary innovations disregarded, it may be that, in the long run, all such self-conscious American literary efforts (such as Lydia Child's Hobomok , analyzed by Priscilla Wald in this volume) to assimilate red peoples into white literature will need to be evaluated against the first appearances of works in English by Native American writers—an idea that twenty years ago could not gain a formal hearing in the Modern Language Association convention. (I speak from personal experience.)
In 1854, John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee, became the first American Indian to publish a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murietta, the Celebrated Bandit. This blood-and-thunder potboiler will never supersede Madame Bovary as an object of stylistic analysis. Its literary interest, in fact, lies in its journalistic character. Ridge wrote the novel to take advantage of the celebrity of its protagonist, a Robin Hood figure who never existed, though a man who claimed to have killed him earned a substantial reward, proving that one should never underestimate the value of myth. For California readers, some of the interest in the "bandit Murietta" may have centered on the bounty hunter who reported shooting him—and who certainly did shoot some Mexicans. At any rate, Ridge exploits every hyperbolic resource of language to render his protagonist Byronically attractive, even providing him a consort as faithful as she is beautiful.
The chief attraction of the book appears to have been the bandit himself. Murietta was a Mexican who, like many of his countrymen, had come to California to mine gold. Some were successful, and, when California became one of the "united" states, these "foreigners" were brutally and illegally dispossessed of their property, an aspect of the "gold rush" that tends to slip out of our history books but that Ridge brings to the fore. The Californians' treatment of the Mexicans parallels the Georgians' treatment of the Cherokee, whose expulsion was in part precipitated by a discovery of gold in their territory. I hesitate, however, to praise Ridge for subversively encoding a condemnation of the Americans' treatment of Indians. For one thing, his novel includes a passage of scathing ridicule of California Indians that sounds like Twainian racism. To me, Murietta seems more interesting in that it illuminates a complicated sociohistorical situation in which the theme of a foreign Robin Hood could be seized on as a way to make money from American readers by a Cherokee, ambitious to succeed as a California journalist. One aspect of the confusing circumstances is highlighted by the volume of Ridge's Poems, the first such collection by an American Indian to be published in this country. These are, with a couple of slight exceptions, typically Victorian romanticizings in rhyme, sweet sentimentalizations that include such conventionalities as reference to a Cherokee girl's "white hand."
These verses (unlike the exuberant brutalities in Murietta) seem inappropriate for an author whose father, grandfather, and cousin were victims of savage murders that he long dreamed of avenging—some of that bloodcurdling biography being related in the preface to his innocuous poems. In different ways, both Ridge's poetry and his novel urge us to attend to the intricacy of how acculturative forces have worked among Native Americans, an intricacy that seems (at least to someone of my limited knowledge) to distinguish the Native American experience from that of most other "minorities" struggling with dominant white culture in the United States. Central to this peculiar play of forces, I believe, is that the Indians so consciously resisted and literally fought; though physically defeated, therefore, they were able to retain a more than merely defensive commitment to their values, even while adapting shrewdly in other ways to Anglo-white society. In materially poor and relatively small societies, any individual's existence as an embodiment of a specific culture is continuously experienced with extraordinary force. So far as the culture is a vigorous one, a firm, yet flexible, system of vital processes (as many Native American ones, in fact, were and are), new ideas and practices can be translated and structured into traditional attitudes without extreme stress and without creating too much fear or guilt in individuals engaged in this acculturative activity. George Sword's more subtle, complicated, and more significant accomplishments within this boundary situation are examined in Elaine Jahner's essay in this collection.
Something of this intricate interplaying may be suggested by a summary of Ridge's familial-tribal background. His grandfather, Major Ridge (the title bestowed by General Andrew Jackson for his service in fighting against the Creek), was a full-blooded Cherokee who did not speak English. He sent his son John to a school in Cornwall, Connecticut, where he was a successful student and wooer of Miss Sara Northrop. Her mother was amenable to their relationship, but his father objected to it—he had expectations of a local Cherokee for a daughter-in-law. There were even more violent objections to the match in the Connecticut community. John's will prevailed, however, and he married Sara in Connecticut and brought her back to Georgia as his wife. His son, John Rollin, was born in 1827 in the large house of his father's plantation, which included slaves and a schoolhouse with an imported white teacher.
In the 1830s, the Cherokee were forcibly and, according to Supreme Court Justice John Marshall's famous decision, illegally "removed" from their prosperous farms in Georgia. John Ridge, like his father, had vigorously resisted this usurpation and believed that President Jackson would not permit it. When this hope proved illusory, and the Cherokee became increasingly subject to harassment without any legal redress, he decided it would be best to accept the unfair judgment and relocate to Indian Territory. Although he finally persuaded his father to accept this view, a majority of his people, led by John Ross, another distinguished Cherokee, continued to resist for some time. At Honey Creek, in Indian Territory (close to present-day Southwest City, Missouri), to which the Ridges traveled, John built a new house and school, and employed the same teacher whom he had employed in Georgia. In 1839, a group of Cherokee associated with the Ross party who had been forced to emigrate to Indian Territory decided to satisfy the Cherokee blood-law, which prescribed death for anyone ceding tribal land. The plotters determined to assassinate the Ridge family, who were, besides being political rivals to John Ross, convenient scapegoats for the newcomers' difficulties in the territory, especially with older Cherokee settlers. On the night of June 22, 1839, four men dragged John Ridge from his bed and stabbed him to death, while others assassinated Major Ridge and a cousin the same day. John Rollin never forgot the scene of his father's body "with blood oozing through his winding sheet, and falling drop by drop on the floor. By his side sat my mother, with hands clasped in speechless agony.... And bending over him was his own afflicted mother, with her long, white hair flung loose over her shoulders and bosom, crying to the Great Spirit to sustain her in that dreadful hour."
John Rollin's mother took her surviving children out of the Cherokee Nation into Arkansas. There, John Rollin received a good education, and, in 1847, he married a white woman. Two years later, within Cherokee territory through the instigation of the Ross faction, he was deliberately provoked so that he could be murdered, but he succeeded in killing the agent provocateur and escaped back to Arkansas. Although he was ready to stand trial for this killing, his family persuaded him not to risk putting himself in the power of his enemies. He joined a party of gold-seekers and moved to California, where he worked as a miner, a trader, an auditor, and a county recorder. Here, he also began to make money, finally, as a writer, though he was slow to give up the idea of returning to the Cherokee Nation to avenge his father's and grandfather's murders.
In the early 1850s, John Rollin became editor of the Grass Valley Journal and thought he might have realized a handsome sum from the Joaquin Murietta, had not its publisher failed. Ridge did achieve something of a literary reputation in California, and his success as an editor enabled him to establish a good home for his family in the Sacramento Valley. At this time, he conceived the idea of setting up, with a surviving cousin in Arkansas, a periodical devoted to Indian concerns. Ridge's idea was that the journal
would be a medium not only of defending Indian rights, and of making their oppressors tremble, but of preserving the memories of the distinguished men of the race.... Men, governments, will be afraid to trample upon the rights of defenseless Indian tribes, where there is a power to hold up their deeds to execration.
Excerpted from American Indian Persistence and Resurgence by Karl Kroeber. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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