On the Beaches

Richard White

  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel Richter
    Harvard, 317 pp, £17.95, January 2002, ISBN 0 674 00638 0

When I was a child in the mid-1950s, there was an American television programme called You Are There. The pretence was that a reporter, who in my mistaken memory was always Walter Cronkite, would be on hand as a historical event unfolded. No matter what the century, the reporters were from the 1950s, with notepads or microphone in hand. ‘General Washington, General Washington,’ Mr Cronkite would call to George Washington, who was about to step into a boat to cross the Delaware and capture the Hessians, ‘do you have a moment?’ And, of course, General Washington, although understandably preoccupied, would have a moment. And unlike actual generals and politicians, he would be thoughtful, truthful, eloquent and frank. He would share with the television audience what he was doing and what he was hoping to accomplish. Then at the end of each show a narrator would say: ‘What kind of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with the events that alter and illuminate our time. Everything is as it was, except … You are there.’ I loved this stuff. As a child, I didn’t know that it was written by blacklisted writers who saw their scripts as ripostes against the McCarthyism that had so nearly undone them. These were blows for freedom and cautionary tales about the evils of persecution. It worked with me.

I confess this to establish that part of me wants Daniel Richter to succeed when his Walter Cronkite surrogate rides along with the 16th-century Spanish commander de Soto in an early chapter of Facing East from Indian Country. Richter enlists Cronkite (in this case travelling incognito) because he faces a big problem with the premise that governs his book: that there were views from Indian Country of eastern North America which can be recovered by modern historians. Historians can, of course, construct a history of Indian/European colonial encounters, but the sources are overwhelmingly one-sided. There are European sources galore, and increasingly sophisticated archaeological reconstructions of American Indian material life, but few purely Indian sources. Although he is careful in stating it, Richter wants somehow to move beyond the sources that have survived. As he writes of an imagined 17th-century Wampanoag woman watching the Pilgrims land in Massachusetts, he wants to ‘try to look over her shoulder – to appreciate the conditions in which she lived, to reconstruct something of the way in which her people might have understood the world . . . to capture something of how the past might have looked if we could observe from Indian country’.

But what does looking over her shoulder involve when we have no report from her or any of her companions? For starters, it involves a Walter Cronkite surrogate. The time is ‘Sunday, 25 May 1539’. The place is Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Florida. In my mind, I can hear the narrator: ‘What kind of a day was it? A day like all days . . .’ ‘We barely see,’ Richter writes, ‘the sails of nine Spanish ships anchored three miles or so off the coast.’ And then ‘we’ follow de Soto. But Richter is afraid to go where Walter has gone before: Richter only observes. He doesn’t interject himself into the action. He tells us that ‘we are not sure if this is the first time these particular Florida natives have encountered horses.’ Walter would have asked about the horses. He would have stepped in as a Timucuan was about to spear a Spanish horse, and said: ‘Excuse me, sir, excuse me, sir, but is this your first experience with this animal?’ The Timucuan would have answered; the mystery would be cleared up. Richter doesn’t ask because Richter is a historian, and his historian’s heart really isn’t in the charade. He isn’t looking over Indian shoulders. ‘We’ are marching along with de Soto and know largely what the Spanish tell us. The Timucuans are silent. Having established the ‘You Are There’ moment, Richter drops it. The narrative proceeds in the most conventional fashion. De Soto marches; de Soto does things, usually horrible things. He is murderous and cruel, a real evildoer as my President would say. Indians respond, but their actions and motives come to us only through the Spanish.

The conceit of Facing East from Indian Country that we are looking west to east, at what Francis Jennings entitled The Invasion of America, is the weakest part of what is in many ways a very good book. Stripped of its pretences, this is much less an account of how Indians would have viewed the colonial experience than a synthesis of thirty years of new scholarship on relations between Europeans, their colonial descendants and Indians.

Richter has put in a single volume the results of the ongoing restructuring of an older history of European advance and Indian retreat, of white modernity and Indian tradition. He is a ‘revisionist’, as the conservative guardians of the received and sacred past history of the United States call historians who add to, subtract from or reinterpret the received. They use ‘revisionist’ as an epithet, as if to name it were to discredit it, but Richter and the scholars he draws on are only doing what historians do: investigating, rethinking and re-evaluating the past in relation to the present. All the critical elements of the newer scholarship are present. Richter includes, first of all, the impact of new diseases, plants and animals on the continent and its inhabitants: the portmanteau biota of Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. This biological invasion dramatically reduced Indian populations and changed the physical environment. It created what James Merrell called ‘the Indian’s New World’, a world as changed and daunting for Indian peoples as it was for Europeans. For Richter, as for Merrell, Indians are as much a people of history as Europeans and Africans are; they find themselves in the middle of rapid and unprecedented changes and respond accordingly. The colonial encounter was not an encounter between modernity and tradition. Both the old European pretence that colonised peoples were peoples without history, which Eric Wolf ridiculed and demolished, and the current worship of traditional Indians that has replaced it have little place in this new history. Indian peoples found their social organisation, their material culture, their religious beliefs and their economic organisations disrupted and changed by colonisation. The tribal forms that today stand for tradition were very often products of the colonial encounter.

The encounter of Europeans and Indians, however, was not one-sided. Richter emphasises Indian agency. Although power relations were not equal, Europeans could not dictate. The outcomes were often negotiated and the terms of negotiation were a hybrid form – a middle ground – between European and Native American practices. The great theme of this Native American history, Richter argues, is, like African American history, ‘the triumph of the human spirit over adversity’.

The paradox is that it speaks in racial terms even as it argues that these were the product of the events that historians narrate and not the original mould in which they were cast. Initially, the encounters were not racialised; the various groups did not arrange themselves for battle along modern racial lines. Richter writes that Indians and whites ‘had to learn to hate each other – had even to learn that there were such clear-cut “racial” categories as “White” and “Indian”’. Race in North America was a product of the colonial encounter. In most of the conflicts various configurations of Indians and European colonists faced other configurations of Indians and European colonists.

Richter’s book is not so much a view from Indian Country as a hybrid history springing from hybrid sources – European recordings of Native American words and actions. He is a master at reading these sources, and at the centre of the book are some wonderful set-pieces. He takes hybrid documents – conversion narratives and treaty councils – and makes them the object of analyses that offer the clearest possible demonstration of what a good historian can do with sources that others might dismiss as flawed beyond redemption. The most extreme critics, often literary scholars, say that such sources are only exercises in ventriloquism and can only be mirrors of those who produced them, that they reflect the colonisers’ goals, ambitions, hopes and prejudices and not those of the Indians who are the ostensible subjects. Richter convincingly contends otherwise.

What is on display in colonial accounts is the conundrum of this book. The problem is not peculiar to North America. Greg Dening, writing about Polynesia, located the issue around actual and metaphorical islands and beaches. The islands – the interior of native cultures and society that Europeans only slowly penetrated – had a shadowy history, much of it unrecoverable. The beaches – the places where colonisers and natives met – had a history that was much more visible and recoverable. Historians have worked most effectively on the beaches – the hybrid world of trade, war, intermarriage, diplomacy, conversions and exchanges of all kinds that force people to try to explain themselves to others and to forge new ways of doing things. This, rather than the island of Indian country, is really Richter’s terrain, even if he grows impatient with the beach and wants to move into the interior.

Beaches appear when Europeans arrive, and European incursions drive Richter’s narrative. The repercussions that follow would be unremarkable if he didn’t open the book with a complaint that the ‘“master narrative” of early America remains essentially European focused’. Facing East from Indian Country doesn’t change that. His book does not, for instance, shift the focus to relations between Indian peoples themselves although we know that Indians remained far more entangled in relations with each other than with Europeans. Indian/Indian relations intrude little unless they are pre-Columbian, and thus a prelude to Richter’s concerns, or unless they help explain events that take place in an imperial context.

What Richter changes is the relationship between Europeans and Indian peoples: a changed relationship which yields a changed plot. His plot abandons notions of a European expansion into a largely empty continent (although at certain times and places, through the combination of disease and warfare, Europeans were actively emptying it). It also abandons the contradictory, but often allied, plot of immediately violent European expansion and determined Indian resistance. It abandons, too, notions of noble savages – too noble to live – losing the continent heroically and tragically to people they despise but could not cope with. Instead, the plot traces an initial accommodation that yields piecemeal to the replacement of Indians by non-Indians. The old frontier narrative of expansion eventually returns, but as the climax of the book and not its beginning.

With this new plot, Richter, like many other historians, is engaged in a backhanded and grudging rehabilitation of empire, at least when compared to the republics that followed. Despite the horrors they inflicted, the European empires in North America allowed Indians more room to manoeuvre, more room to adjust to change and more room to determine how they would live. Imperialists didn’t do this because they were embracing some early form of multiculturalism, they did so because Indian peoples remained a force – or forces – that could not be ignored. They were necessary to the defence of one empire against another, and negotiation with Indians often produced better results than violence against them. When force worked, no one – not the English, the French or the Spanish – was reluctant to use it, as Timucuans, Pequots, Wampanoags and Natchez could all have testified. Thousands of these peoples not only died: they often died cruelly and gruesomely. North America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was no place for the squeamish.

Force often didn’t work because Europeans needed Indians, sometimes as trading partners, more often as allies against other Europeans. The accommodation that resulted is not nearly so simple as acculturation or assimilation of Indians to European norms or mutual toleration and coexistence. Trade provides a nice example of the complexity that Richter has in mind. European manufactures had an immense impact on native North America, but their introduction did not involve a straightforward replacement of native material culture nor was it evidence of a ravenous and indiscriminate Indian appetite for European goods. Indians remained self-sufficient in terms of food and housing all through the colonial period. They did replace many of their tools and weapons with European manufactures, but sometimes this served only to increase their own manufactures. The acquisition of awls, needles and other European tools, Richter notes, produced a ‘vast efflorescence of traditional forms that sometimes . . . mutated into new – but indigenously rooted – patterns’.

Even as he describes the ways that Indian and European economies intersected, he insinuates that there was an early Indian dependence on Europeans and draws a sharp line between the basic practices of the two societies. In a book whose theme is initial accommodation, Richter wants to plant the seed of inevitable discord and Indian dependence. ‘To live as “Indians”,’ he remarks, ‘native people needed to trade with Europeans.’ At another point, he declares flatly that ‘European and Indian ways of using the land could no more share the same ecosystem than could matter and anti-matter share the same space.’

In both these statements the particular becomes the universal and what was true at one time is made true of all times. Eventually, most Indians needed access to European goods, but there were ways of acquiring these besides trade, as Richter well knows. There was warfare, and there were gift exchanges and redistribution within and between villages; there were the gifts that European Governments had to bestow to maintain alliances. For years the French would subsidise a fur ‘trade’ that brought them pelts they could only sell at a loss in order to maintain the alliances that secured their empire against the far more numerous Indian colonies to their south and east.

Indians and whites often did fail to share the same ecosystem, but this could be because their economies were so similar, not because they were so different. In the Ohio Valley, which hosted some of the bitterest and bloodiest fighting, the economies of back-country whites and Indians were strikingly similar. Both depended on maize agriculture supplemented by livestock raising and hunting (less for food than for trading furs and skins for distant manufacture). In their earliest stages, both societies depended on trading for technologies they couldn’t produce. During the American Revolution, George Rogers Clark, a man without any affection for Indians, admitted to them that they and the colonials shared a common situation. ‘The Big Knife are very much like the Red people they don’t know how to make Blanket powder and cloath &c they buy from the English . . . and live chiefly by making corn, Hunting and Trade as you . . . do.’ The competition over the same resources between very similar societies brought conflict.

Richter’s statements of essentialised difference and quick dependence are particularly distracting because they cut against the dynamic of difference, accommodation and conflict that he usually pursues so ably. He doesn’t focus on those Indians who assimilated and disappeared, as Americans would later long for Indian peoples to do. Nor does he focus on those who resisted and died, people who get the bulk of popular historical attention. He concentrates instead on those who made a messier transit through the period. He reads, for instance, the story of Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan who married John Rolfe and moved to London, not as a story of an Indian who sought to become an Englishwoman but as a complicated narrative of negotiation. He portrays Kateri Tekakwitha – the so-called Lily of the Mohawks, now a candidate for canonisation by the Catholic Church – not as a woman who forsook her native values for Christian values, but as one who found that she could, paradoxically, best fulfil the cultural values she inherited among a set of women who considered themselves Indian and Catholic. Even Metacom (or King Philip, as the New England colonists called him), who waged one of the bloodiest wars in New England’s colonial history, was a man who struggled to adapt. He ‘rebelled on behalf of co-operation’, when it was clear that the English and not he were abandoning a policy of accommodation.

The accommodation that Richter describes was not a result of equality. European and colonial officials did not regard Indian polities as their equals, and Indian leaders did not regard the playing field as even. Instead, accommodation came from native attempts to mobilise European imperial power for their own purposes. They wanted it to serve their ends as much as the Europeans wanted Indian allies to serve imperial ends. It was a dangerous dance, and it became more and more difficult to maintain as ‘Indian and Euro-American – and particularly British-American – histories moved along parallel paths in a single, ever more consolidated, transatlantic imperial world.’

Indians survived as independent actors in the 17th and 18th centuries because of their ability to play empires off against each other, to demand gifts and to counter the logic of economic markets. Richter makes this case not by surveying all of ‘Indian Country’, but by concentrating on those sections of the beach that he knows best. His previous work was on the Iroquois, and Iroquoia and the Iroquois who settled in the Canadian mission reserves, particularly at Kahnawake, get a disproportionate amount of attention. They, along with the peoples who later formed the Creek Confederation in the South-East, and to a lesser extent, the Cherokees, dominate the narrative. Similarly, Richter foreshadows eventual British success by paying far more attention to the British than to their imperial rivals.

The defeat of the French in the Seven Years War ended the old balance of power that had made accommodation possible. Indians found their position diminished, and although Pontiac’s Rebellion forced the British to imitate the French, the reality was, in Richter’s words, ‘a novel advancing frontier line – Reds defending the West, Whites pushing relentlessly across it from the East’. Those sectors of the imperial society – governors, soldiers, missionaries, traders and interpreters – whose interests were linked to accommodation declined in power. The goals of most British colonials, and later of most Americans, became antithetical to the old accommodation: they wanted Indian land and resources.

Paralleling the narrowed political options of Indians was the increasing racialisation of difference. On both sides of the divide, people began to understand their conflict in racial terms; they began to mark differences as inherent and ineradicable. Ironically, in emphasising their differences, Indian prophets and nativists and white Indian haters both deployed variations of a single racial language. They put different twists on similar stories.

Independence offered a fleeting opportunity for Indians to renew the old play-off between empires and restore a world of accommodation, but it failed. Racialisation had proceeded too far; British support of Indians proved too weak and undependable, and American officials could not control their own populations. The Americans made promises they didn’t keep. Indians split between nativists and accommodationists, but neither could achieve success. In wars and by treaties, which Richter compares to ethnic cleansing, the Americans wiped Indians from much of what had been Indian country.

The book ends with William Appess, a tragic and compelling figure from the old hybrid world. His father was Euro-Indian and his mother, he claimed, Pequot, although she may have been an African American slave. He converted to Methodism in his teens and became a preacher for the splinter ‘Methodist Protestant’ group in 1829. He played an important part in the Mashpee revolt, and later wrote A Eulogy on King Philip. He was a Christian writing as an Indian about an Indian who warred against white Christians. The master of white sources, he deployed them for his own ends. He stood for exactly the kind of complicated Indian and hybrid worlds that Americans would try to erase from their history. They are back.