Sunday, November 28, 2004

On Native Ground


I suggested in a previous blog that whites in their relationships with Indians were like those South American tribes who first killed their foes and then ate their hearts to acquire the warrior virtues those foes possessed.

In North America, the warrior virtues were only the first useful thing whites took from the Indians. Once the Indians had been decimated by war, disease, and alcohol, once they had been removed as impediments to the exploitation of the continent, it was then possible to transform them, at least in the national imagination, into “Native Americans.”

The renaming, the recasting, of the Indian as Native American was part of the process of cultural cannibalization by whites. As Native Americans, Indians possessed other virtues worth appropriating, besides being warriors. Indians were cruel, uncivilized killers, which is how they are described in the Declaration of Independence: Native Americans, by contrast, are in harmony with themselves, with the environment, and with the Great Spirit. In the most extreme transformation of the Indian into Native American, he is turned by the media into a redeeming spiritual figure. He walks these polluted hills.

In a famous ad sponsored by the American Ad Council, which first televised it more than thirty years ago, a Native American sheds tears over the pollution of the environment, by people, of course, not by corporations. That particular ad, incidentally, first appeared on Earth Day, 1971, but the “Native American,” who became famous as “the crying Indian,” was bogus: he was Espera DiCorti, a Hollywood actor who was born in Louisiana of Italian immigrant parents but made a career in Hollywood and TV by claiming to be an Indian from Oklahoma. He made an early film appearance as an Indian in the 1919 silent, “Back to God’s Country.”

Indian captivity narratives were a favorite literary genre in the colonial period of American history, back when Native Americans were still Indians. Tales of white women held prisoner by savages were best sellers. The Indians of Lower Shawnee Town, located roughly where Portsmouth now is, held a white woman captive back in 1775. A stirring mural of that piece of local history would make tourists stop their cars, but it would be out of keeping with the politically correct, Portsmouth-Chamber-of-Commerce view of Portsmouth’s past that is depicted on the Floodwall. Better to commemorate Jim Thorpe playing the white man’s game than redskins menacing a white woman.

The natives of Lower Shawnee Town, in the mural above, are shown in peaceful pursuits, in the period prior to the arrival of the whites. Absent is any suggestion they valued freedom enough to die for it. Possibly because they were among the most nomadic of the native peoples, the Shawnee refused to be confined to one place, especially to a reservation. You would not guess from the Shawnee Floodwall mural that such people would produce such a defiant leader as Tecumseh, who said the following in 1810 to the Osage tribe of the Ohio River Valley: “Brothers: Who are the white people that we should fear them? They cannot run fast, and are good marks to shoot at; they are only men; our fathers have killed many of them; we are not squaws, and we will stain the earth red with their blood.” The Shawnee were among the most defiant of the native peoples, and they made their last stand in Ohio. That heroic resistance is no where commemorated on the Portsmouth Floodwall.

On land that they took in the vicinity of Lower Shawnee Town, the whites eventually built a university, which they named, along with a nearby state forest, Shawnee. What white Americans did on the North American continent they are now doing half way around the world. Through the military and the mass media, the most effective weapon of cultural transformation, we are imposing our political, cultural, and religious values on darker-skinned people, whether they like it or not. Who knows whether in a hundred years, in an another ironic convolution of history, after we have killed the Tecumsehs and subdued the rest, we might not idolize and name universities and forests after those who fought suicidally rather than submit to us.