From the moment of its opening in mid-March to its closing at the beginning of this month abuse descended heavily on the Smithsonian’s ‘West as America’ exhibition in Washington DC. At the heart of the row was something that will figure even more powerfully next year, in the various commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World: how much should Europe’s conquest of the Americas, as treated today in exhibitions and commemorations, reflect the experience of the people on the receiving end of the conquest?

The ‘West as America’ exhibition made a very decent attempt to suggest something which turned out to be highly controversial: namely, that the 19th-century artists on display tended to glorify the conquest in a manner that reflected little of the greed, exploitation and mass extermination that actually occurred. These attempts were swiftly denounced as another effusion of the spirit of Political Correctness, which, in the opinion of outraged journalists, academics and politicians including President Bush himself, is now contaminating the nation’s wellsprings of knowledge. None of this bodes well for the Quincentenary and any realistic assessment of what Columbus inaugurated for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Nothing in the exhibition aroused more ridicule than the commentary fixed to the wall next to Emanuel Leutze’s Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and his Troops. Newspaper columnists, bloodlust aroused by the denunciations of the show on the part of Daniel Boorstin and Simon Schama, among others, tossed the following about on their bayonets as the quintessence of Political Correctness:

In another passage Leutze raises (literally) the sacrifice issue again and turns it more conclusively against the Aztecs. Prescott describes in detail (in some of the most widely-read chapters of The Conquest of Mexico) the Aztec method of sacrifice and the numerous victims. No practice, he maintained, illustrated more widely the moral gap between the invading Europeans and resident natives, a judgment Leutze played on in the vignette in which the Aztec priest holds aloft a partially disembowelled child. Like much of Leutze’s Aztec world, however, the vignette was a distortion to prove a point. Aztec children were rarely sacrificed and only in times of drought. Young male adults were the usual victims.

Of course there is something comical in the earnest lilt of the last two sentences, but the ridicule of the columnists was more sinister, a foretaste of how they will try, as the saying goes, to take out pockets of resistance to celebrations of the anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World.

The rich Boston scientist, Amos Binney, who commissioned Leutze’s painting, probably knew and had certainly read his fellow Bostonian, William Prescott, whose Conquest of Mexico was published in 1843, and whose concern about the legitimacy of the Spanish conquest ‘lies between every line of his three volumes’, as William Truettner puts it in an essay in the catalogue to the ‘West as America’ show. ‘The Aztecs,’ Prescott wrote,

were emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard ... They ruled over their wide domains with a sword, instead of a sceptre. They did nothing to ameliorate the condition, or in any way promote the progress, of their vassals ... How can the interests to humanity be consulted, where man is levelled to the rank of the brutes that perish?

Leutze placed his painting on exhibition in 1848 and critics, recalling the passage from Prescott on which it was based, underlined the point. The struggle depicted by Leutze, wrote the reviewer for the Literary World, represented ‘the final struggle of the two races – the decisive death grapple of the savage and the civilised man ... with all its immense results’.

What Prescott, Leutze and the critics all had in mind was a struggle nearer home. In the 1840s the final surge of European settlers into California was taking place, and across the continent wars of displacement, deportation and extermination were already in train. As Leutze worked on his canvas, newspaper headlines proclaimed the discovery of gold in Sutter’s mill-race in the Sacramento Valley, auguring the destruction of the Californian Indians.

‘Do not go to the mines on any account,’ Hugo Reid, an early settler, wrote. ‘They are loaded to the muzzle with vagabonds from every quarter of the globe, scoundrels from nowhere, rascals from Oregon, pickpockets from New York, accomplished gentlemen from Europe, interlopers from Lima and Chile, Mexican thieves, gamblers of no particular spot, and assassins manufactured in Hell for the express purpose of converting highways and byways into theatres of blood.’ It didn’t take long for this scum to destroy or to enslave the Indians obstructing then hunt for gold. By 1853 Special Indian Agent Stevenson, reporting random killings of Indians, lamented to his superiors that ‘nothing but Indian evidence ... could be obtained to punish these villains, and as the Indian’s evidence is not allowed against any White man in this State, they could not be convicted.’ (Indians were defined in this exclusionary California statute of 1851 as ‘persons having one-fourth or more Indian blood’.)

In his Destruction of the Californian Indians Robert Heizer reckons that between 1850 and 1863 some ten thousand Indians were indentured (made slaves, that is) or sold. In 1971 Heizer and Alan Almquist published three pages of Slave records from the Eureka courthouse in Humboldt county, Northern California, remarking that ‘the listing here of the names of these unfortunates is their only opportunity to voice, however belatedly and from the cold legal records, then protest against their inhuman treatment by some of California’s pioneers.’ At the time, too, there were testimonies by people of courage and compunction. In 1860 the New York Century, quoted soon thereafter by the San Francisco Bulletin, declared that ‘in the Atlantic and Western States, the Indians have suffered wrongs and cruelties at the hands of the stronger race. But history has no parallel to the recent atrocities perpetrated in California. Even the record of Spanish butcheries in Mexico and Peru has nothing so diabolical.’

Despite this frankness, the issue of what Columbus brought in his train is in many ways still too hot for civic institutions to handle. Denver and Seattle, both of which were to host the ‘West as America’ show, have withdrawn their invitations. Lynne Cheney, self-styled Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has become a heroine to the Hurrah-for-Columbus forces by denying a grant to 1492: Clash of Visions, a documentary depicting Columbus in unflattering terms. Cheney said the film dwelt too heavily on Spanish human-rights abuses in Mexico and Peru and paid insufficient attention to Aztec atrocities.

Forces intent on presenting a more rounded picture of Columbus’s heritage have also been active. For example, the native American Council of New York City for 1992 has plans for a ‘Voyage of Discovery to Europe’, in the form of a flotilla of scholars which aims to land in Spain early next summer, as well as a week-long Native American festival in New York. Another group called Columbus in Context already sponsors a monthly radio show on WBAI, a radio station in the Pacifica network in New York. The show, Rediscovering Columbus: Countdown to 1992, focuses on such topics as Columbus and the slave trade (he himself sold native Americans in Europe), Columbus and ecology, and parallels between the birth of what has been called the Five Hundred Year Reich in the New World and Bush’s New World Order.

In Gainesville, Florida, the editor of magazine called Indigenous Thought helped organise a protest against ‘First Encounters’, a Columbus-meets-the-Indians museum show featuring a near-life-size replica of the Santa Maria. Children would be invited to dress up as conquistadors, presumably squeaking ‘Land Ho!’ and ‘India At Last!’ The show is currently in New York and the only element that made it to Gainesville was the sound-track, mostly of barking dogs.

In the Bay Area two groups are at work: Bay Area Regional Indian Alliance and Resistance 500. Both groups are planning to celebrate 12 October 1992 as International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. The motion got as far as the Untied Nations, which, though it had already booked 1992 as ‘The Year of Technology’, did stipulate that the period from 12 October 1992 to 11 October 1993 carry a ‘Year of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples’ tag. In Washington DC the Morning Star Foundation, which sponsors the national ‘1992 Alliance’, is already celebrating the quincentenary of 1991, ‘the good old days in the old country’. A sunrise ceremony on the steps of the Capitol Mall is planned, along with a concert series and a scholarly panel to discuss the King of Spain’s ‘lost apology’ to native Americans.

Such efforts will struggle against the enormous ignorance of and indifference to the lot of native Americans today. Newspapers and magazines, which frequently stir themselves to long articles on new immigrant groups such as Lao and Khmer, have almost no interest in the original inhabitants, beyond the bingo games many tribal groups organise to make some money, since US Federal and State laws restricting gambling do not apply on their lands.

After arguing with Teddy Roosevelt about the extermination of native Americans, Kipling recorded Roosevelt’s bluff roars of denial shaking the cabinets of Indian artefacts in his office. In 1900, not long before Kipling bad this encounter with T.R., Alfred Kroeber, the founder of academic anthropology in California, began a series of encounters that lasted many years with the Yurok Indians along the Klamath River in Northern California. Decades later he recorded his opinion that the Yurok were an inwardly fearful people ... the men often seemed to me bitter and with-drawn.’ Kroeber mused that ‘for some unknown reason, the culture had simply gone hypochondriac.’

What Kroeber never mentioned was that between 1848, the start of the gold rush, and 1910, the Yurok population in that region was reduced from about two and a half thousand individuals to 610. Disease, starvation and murder had wiped out 75 per cent of the group. According to Thomas Buckley, in an interesting essay in the Fall 1989 issue of the American Indian Quarterly, Kroeber was once asked ‘why he had not attended to recent Yurok history and acculturation’. Kroeber replied that he ‘could not stand all the tears’ that these topics elicited from his Yurok informants. For their part, the Yurok say that Kroeber ‘lied’ about them and that ‘he got rich of us’ – a complaint identical to those I’ve heard native peoples in the Amazon make about anthropologists.

Kroeber, eager to dignify American anthropology in terms of ‘millenial sweeps and grand contours’, had little patience with the shorter chronological span encompassing the extermination of most of the tribal groups he was presuming to study. As he put it, ‘the billions of woes and gratifications, of peaceful citizens or bloody deaths’, were of no concern. He toured the desperate native Americans of California, writing tranquil enthnnologies, sometimes after only a couple of weeks with a group, all but ignoring the horrifying end of history that was happening at the very moment of the encounter.

Kroeber worked a lot from time to time around Eureka, locus of many dreadful massacres of the native population. Indeed Humboldt County, which includes Eureka, is justly called ‘A Deranged Frontier’ in When our worlds cried: Genocide in North-Western California, by Jack Norton, himself of Hupa-Cherokee ancestry. In January 1860, a volunteer company of settlers formed in southern Humboldt County because ‘the fishing season was over and many men were out of employment.’ After killing forty Indians along the south fork of the Eel River they applied to be mustered into service (and thus paid) by the Governor of the State. He refused. The company thereupon met and ‘resolved to kill every peaceable Indian man, woman and child in Humboldt County’ – a decision recorded in Chad Hoopes’s Lure of the Humboldt Bay Region. The Indian Island massacre outside Eureka duly followed on 23 February 1860.

An account of what happened appeared in the Northern Californian, probably written by Bret Harte. The story prompted the New York Century to the reflections quoted earlier. The reporter, observing the scene on Indian Island the next day, reported that

out of some sixty or seventy killed on the Island at least fifty or sixty were women and children... Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes ... Old women wrinkled and decrepit by weltering blood, their brains dashed out and enveloped in their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets.

Norton maintains in his book that over a hundred years later there still seemed to be a conscious effort to conceal the names of the perpetrators, though they were known and recorded in closed testimony by witnesses at the time. No one was ever brought to justice, though for a while afterwards Eureka was known nationally as Murderville.

Kroeber must have known this history and hundreds like it, but it never figured in his work, though he did have for company Ishi, ‘the last Indian’ of the Yahi tribe who’d lived along Mill and Deer Creeks, east of the Sacramento River in Northern California. Kroeber patted Ishi on the head and brooded on his millenial sweeps and contours. Meanwhile T.T. Waterman, one of Kroeber’s associates, recorded some of the things that actually happened to the Yahi. In April 1871, for example,

a party of whites ... pursued a band of Indians with dogs. They located them in a cave across a narrow gulch, and shot a number of them, finally entering the cave itself. Here they found a lot of dried meat, and some small children. The hero of the occasion, being a humane man, a person of fine sensibilities and delicacy of feeling, could not bear to kill these babies – at any rate, not with the heavy 56-calibre Spencer rifle he was carrying. ‘It tore them up too bad.’ So he shot them with his 38-calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. The names of several men who were in this party are in my notes.

The Yahi are long gone. So is Kroeber. The unresolved history is still with us, as witness the storm over the ‘West as America’ exhibition and the impending battles for the true memory of Columbus. The frenzies that led to the Indian Island massacre are still with us too. The perpetrators, remember, were out of work because the fishing season was over. This spring, like last spring, the Chippewa in northern Wisconsin exercise their right to spear whitefish in their lakes, confronted by rednecks with signs lettered ‘Save a Whitefish, Spear a Squaw.’

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Vol. 13 No. 17 · 12 September 1991

Were the Native Americans and their culture thoroughly good, and the Europeans thoroughly evil, or vice versa? As this question is unanswerable, it provides much work for journalists. Does Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce make a better hero than Abraham Lincoln, and a blood-soaked Aztec priest a better villain than Cortez? Who is more ethical: the carefree Pamunkey brave, living an idle existence as his wife does the work, so he can indulge in raids and a little recreational torture, or the Mississippi planter who treats his slaves well, but still uses their production to indulge in drinking, horse-racing and faro? Is there a moral calculus that we can use to ascribe blame to either side? Alexander Cockburn (LRB, 11 July) and others seem to have the tar-pots and gold leaf ready, waiting for whim or fashion to dictate which entire side of the portrait gallery should be gilded and which smeared. What’s needed here is a taste for complexity, which seems hard to acquire, and the ability to write about it, which seems to have been damned as equivocation.

Nick Blanton
Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991

Nick Blanton (Letters, 12 September) pleads for a ‘taste of complexity’. He plainly objects to the attitude of Alexander Cockburn, Harold Pinter and others that it is impossible to celebrate the creation of the United States on account of the massacre of its native population. Rather than paint a picture of saintly victims and vicious oppressors, Blanton seeks complexity in a more balanced apportionment of moral qualities. I would like to suggest something slightly different: namely, that it is only in the honest attempt to write a national epic that we can accommodate the different and competing individual experiences which must jostle for our attention as we try to appreciate the development of American society.

Pinter’s agit-prop historiography never attempts to consider what is worth celebrating in the creation of modern America. Happily, other writers have more of a taste for ambiguity. An obvious example is the frontier. One view examines only the elimination of the native population. Another, that of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, by its opening lament for the loss of the wild conditions of 1880s Wyoming and Idaho, shows us the potential for self-realisation in taming the huge expanses of the West. We do not need to be told that there were victims to this process. Huck Finn does not head West, but he is a symbolic figure for the manner in which he cuts loose in order to realise himself. Yet he has a passenger. The further South Huck travels in search of personal freedom the further he takes another victim, Nigger Jim, into slavery.

Under the aegis of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells encouraged the production of a mass of realist literature describing the new America of the closing years of the 19th century. There may not be a lot about native America in these books, but there is plenty about the victims of the American dream. Howells’s own character Dryfoos is marketed as the great representative of the rough diamond individualism which is building America. He is also shown to have broken strikes by the violent intervention of Pinkertons, and it is in a similar act of strike-breaking that he loses a son and that we see the death of an ageing socialist lauded for his sacrifice in the struggle to preserve the Union, but condemned for his collectivist beliefs.

Native Americans, slaves and working people of all sorts were victims of the creation of modern American society. Some had America forced on them, others, like the Lithuanian immigrants of Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards, were, at least initially, complicit with the ideology. I would like to say that I regard what was created as something magnificent. Some of us are too blind, others too evasive, to confront all that is so worth celebrating about the United States. Anyone reading America’s numerous national epics, just as anyone reading Virgil’s Aeneid, has to conclude that it is impossible to create something great without taking victims. Those of us coming to terms with the society which we have inherited require a taste for complexity and an aversion for the simplistic and knee-jerk oppositionism of Pinter and friends.

Matthew Leigh
St Hugh’s College, Oxford

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