Despite the best efforts of today’s Native Americans, the historical “Disappearing Indians” myth lingers on
It didn’t take a “melting pot” of settlers from other parts of the world to create diversity in North America. The native peoples who lived here already represented an enormous variety of cultures, and they had something in common that would help them survive centuries of misfortune without losing that culture.
So why has some curious history-book mythology insisted for hundreds of years now that Indian people are headed into “extinction” — much to the surprise of those whose culture continues to thrive? That’s the question scholars and other native people from across the country traveled to University of New Hampshire to investigate in the spring of 1998.
The ability of Indian peoples to adapt, preserve, and renew a way of life that makes them unique as a people testifies to remarkable strengths that underlie their culture, said history professor Frank McCann. The UNH faculty member, a key organizer of this conference, encouraged presenters to challenge a “history” of Native Americans he called “incomplete and biased.”
They Did Not Disappear
The Indian people of the New England woodlands, among the first to encounter European colonists, did not disappear. They did undergo a kind of “dark ages” after contact with settlers, which included displacement from their homelands and devastation from new diseases the visitors brought. But New England native peoples have maintained their culture to this day.
Conference presenters Colin Calloway of Dartmouth College, Thomas Doughton of the University of Massachusetts, and Jean O’Brien-Kehoe of the University of Minnesota each addressed the myth of the “disappearing Indian” that has remained a part of New England’s history.
“The double wrong suffered by native people at the hands of those who came to colonize America,” said Jean OBrien-Kehoe, quoting one 19th-century historian, “is that they were ‘driven from the soil by the sword of the conqueror, then darkly slain by the pen of the historian.'” The concept of a “doomed race” on its way to extinction took hold as early as the 1600s, and Indians were more or less invisible in history books by the 1800s. Such “history,” which completely ignored the reality of Indian life, helped absolve and justify the process of colonization, she said.
Several factors contributed to Indians’ invisibility in history books, where “they figured mainly in stories of violent uprisings that kept things interesting for the colonists,” said Colin Calloway. “Once the frontier passed them by or encompassed their lands, they no longer seemed to count.”
This was because Indian people came to be defined by the culture moving in around them, O’Brien-Kehoe said. “No culture is expected to remain static, but Indian culture was. Fixed in the past, the Indian, in order to be a ‘real’ Indian, was expected to pursue a narrow cultural repertoire that featured undiluted bloodlines, unbroken homelands, and an unchanging culture based in the same crafts and activities that their ancestors had pursued centuries before,” she described.
When native people adapted in order to survive, they were seen as “not Indian enough,” or not Indian at all, Calloway said. Intermarriage, which was common, usually “cancelled out” the Indian heritage of a parent. From that point on, Indian background was just ignored or never mentioned. “One of the reasons colonists were so concerned about the ‘purity’ of Indians’ blood is that they were so concerned about the purity of their own,” O’Brien-Kehoe said.
Even the U.S. Census reports that tracked Indian populations were racially biased, said Thomas Doughton. In one 19th-century Worcester-County family in Massachusetts, for example, members of the same family on the same day were classified as ‘mulatto, white, Negro or Indian,’ identification based entirely on the color of their skin, he said.
A Different Sense of Place
A major difference between Indian and European cultures was the way they viewed the concept of place and people’s relationship to the land. Indian peoples saw land as sacred trust — an equal part of creation to which every person was related, Doughton described. Place was the root of native culture and spirituality, with every feature of the land known and named, like a member of the family.
Europeans saw place as property, something to be acquired, subdued and used, Doughton said. Although networks of Indian community life ranged over great distances, and could include a dozen or more sites in one area, whites saw Indian communities only as “disconnected enclaves that had no relationship to each other” because Indian culture claimed no ownership of land.
Another way in which Indians “disappeared” from the land is that Europeans either denied evidence of their existence, or absorbed it into Colonial culture. “In most accounts, townships and settlements seem to appear out of nowhere, out of a wilderness,” Doughton said. The reality is that such towns were usually built on the site of existing Indian communities where a thriving network of trade, hunting, and agriculture already existed. “This often awakened a sense of insecurity rather than curiosity,” Doughton said, “and settlers quickly replaced any traces of Indian existence with their own way of life.”
“History shows Indians selling whites the land then exiting stage left,” or making periodic ‘last stands,’ after which they all mysteriously disappeared,” Calloway said. “Though they remained on the same lands where their forebears were buried, Indian people were usually perceived as visitors, always on their way to somewhere else.”
Another reason Indian populations weren’t seen is that for native peoples, survival often meant not calling attention to yourself as an Indian, Calloway said. “The Abenaki of New England survived by keeping their heads down, avoiding conflict — at first living far from cities and other populated areas.” One of the most chilling examples of the kind of persecution Indians sought to avoid occurred when the State of Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931. Of the more than 200 Vermont people sterilized in years that followed, a large portion were of Indian heritage, said Calloway.
The Roots of Real Democracy
Few native societies illustrate cultural endurance as completely as the Iroquois Confederacy located in western New York State. And perhaps none has given a richer legacy to the United States government.
The Constitution of the Haudenosaunee, which long ago united six Indian nations in this part of the Northeast, was the model to which America’s founding fathers turned when they sought a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. It was, in all likelihood, Europeans’ first encounter with a truly democratic society.
Members of the Tonanwanda Band of Senecas, one of these six nations, provided the UNH conference’s most visible evidence of the power of native culture to sustain itself. The men offered singing at the start of each session, opened each day’s activities with prayer in the Seneca language, and shared the history of the Seneca’s traditional Longhouse teachings. The singers were a reminder that native culture has endured precisely because it does not separate the material aspects of life from the spiritual ones.
The unity of the Six Nations and its survival into the 21st century grows out of elements that are found in most native cultures, says Raymond DeMallie of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University. He identified three elements that have sustained Indian culture and identity into the 20th century: A structure for human society; maintaining native language; and the presence of a value system.
“Native American definitions of society allow you, wherever you go, to know how you will relate to others,” he described. “These social structures also provide for the needs of others,” he said, “as in the example of the male singers of the Tonawanda Band with us here today, who are responsible for providing wood for widows in the winter. This arrangement brings into relation two very different groups of people, while also filling a resource need in the community.”
“Also, the more that language exists in native culture, the more real and present the culture itself seems to be,” DeMallie said. “The essence of culture is really carried in stories,” he said, and where these can be told in traditional language, that essence is richer.
Values, the spiritual underpinnings of any culture, are perhaps the true reason it endures, he said. “Unlike traditions, which are often misinterpreted as something handed down unchanged, real values are something that evolve as needs demand, and in this regard, the best values are tradition-oriented, rather than tradition-bound. Native values always represent a model in which the people never stop learning, a way of life that is dynamic, never static.”
The prayer offered by Seneca elder Norman Hill Sr. to conclude the conference embodied the values of reverence, gratitude — and humor — that have kept native culture alive. After reciting in Seneca, Hill translated the words as, among other things, “giving thanks to the Creator for the good hearts and good thoughts of the people, for the many gifts of Mother Earth, for the ideas we have shared here together — and for the strong buttocks required for long conference sessions.”
Copyright © 2000 by Phyllis Edgerly Ring. All rights reserved.
Despite its “invisibility”, Ms. Ring’s children’s Abenaki heritage has drawn the family close to Native culture in New England, where they can sometimes be found on the Pow-Wow circuit. She has published in Yankee, Hope, Bay Area Parent, Myria, and New Hampshire Home, and is currently working on a book for parents about gender equality in families. She also helps plan local Conversations on Race in collaboration with Green Acre Bahá’í School in Eliot, Maine.
Phyllis’ works published here on the grail include: The Long Good-Bye, Aunt Sarah: Woman of the Dawnland, Following The Threads in The Fabric of Freedom, When West Meets East: A Chicken in China. You can also visit her website.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)