"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cowboys and Indians

My sister and I used to play cowboys-and-Indians.  I was always the cowboy and she was the Indian.  She whooped around the back yard with feathers in her hair and war paint streaked on her face, and I chased her in full Western regalia – cowboy hat and boots, chaps, embroidered shirt with faux mother-of-pearl buttons – firing a six-shooter cap gun.  My game, my rules, so she had to be killed most of the time; but I let her brain me with her tomahawk, an old rubber reflex-tester that my father used to bang patients’ knees, and scalp me with her Bowie knife.  She grabbed my scalp – a bunch of scraggly plastic hair that she had hacked off three discarded dolls and woven to human size and streaked bloody with red paint – and howled through the trees with her trophy held high.

We loved watching cowboys and Indians on television.  My sister loved the Indians, especially the way they rode bareback and thundered across the plains skewering the cowboys with arrows and bashing their brains in at close range.  I wanted to be a cowboy, firing my rifle at full speed, no hands on the reins, picking off redskins left and right as I led my troops into battle and then stood victorious over a plain of dead warriors.

That was my image of Indians until recently when I began to learn about the Choctaws and Chickasaws of North Mississippi, the Creek Wars, the War of 1812, and the early slave trade in South Carolina.  The Choctaws and the Chickasaws were far from the naked savages of my childhood.  After decades of trading with the English and the French by the early 1800s these Indians ate off of fine China, dressed in European finery, traded profitably with the Europeans and the new Americans, and were powerful allies of the United States in the Battle of New Orleans.  There Andrew Jackson, with an army cobbled together with Tennessee militias, Indian warriors, freed slaves, and rural recruits defeated a powerful British Army.

The Creeks were ferocious fighters who had never submitted willingly – through treaties or alliances – with the Americans; who, unlike the more complaisant and settled Choctaws and Chickasaws, had listened with enthusiasm to the  Shawnee Tecumseh’s plans to create a trans-Indian alliance strong enough the throw the invaders out of Indian lands.  The Creeks’ violent northern faction, the Red Sticks, had massacred hundreds of white settlers at the battle of Fort Mims, and in part because of this desire to see the Americans chased out of Indian territory, they joined forces with the British.

The Creeks had dominated all of the South-East United States up until the 1600's when the Cherokee, and later the Europeans, forced them westward to Alabama and ultimately to what is now known as Oklahoma. The Creeks and other tribes displaced the earlier indigenous tribes of the Mississippian Culture (800-1500AD) – a culture which had many similarities with the highly-evolved civilizations of Mesoamerica but was being decimated by European diseases and internecine warfare.  The metropolis at Cahokia, for example, was characterized with Mayan-type tiered structures called ‘mounds’ a term which does not describe the architectural complexity and beauty of what were really pyramids.  There have been suggestions, largely based on the pyramidal structure of their architecture and on the clay votive sculptures, that the Mayans may have been in the Mississippi Valley.

In any case, the Mississippian Culture was highly evolved and characterized by the following attributes:

  1. The construction of large, truncated earthwork pyramid mounds, or platform mounds.
  2. Maize-based agriculture. In most places adoption of comparatively large-scale, intensive maize agriculture, which supported larger populations and craft specialization.
  3. Widespread trade networks extending as far west as the Rockies, north to the Great Lakes, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east to the Atlantic Ocean.
  4. The development of the chiefdom or complex chiefdom level of social complexity.
  5. The development of institutionalized social inequality.
  6. A centralization of control of combined political and religious power in the hands of few or one.  (Copied and edited from Wikipedia)

The Creeks and other Indian tribes were both slavers and enslaved in the colonial era in the Southeast before they moved west.  They and other Indian tribes had always practiced a form of slavery which was more like the feudal chattel system practiced in the earliest colonial era where enemy warriors, captured in reprisal raids, were considered  replacement labor and incorporated into village life.  The Creeks assisted European plantation owners in recapturing fugitive slaves; and in fact often kept African slaves themselves.

The Europeans and Americans originally captured and kept Indian slaves, but with the emergence of the lucrative and burgeoning African slave market, abandoned the practice.  Indians were not reliable slaves in any case.  They died in great numbers from European diseases, could easily escape into the bush and rejoin their tribes or join forces with slaves in rebellions and mutinies.  They were also not considered as physically strong and able as the Angolan slaves who quickly populated South Carolina in the early part of the 18th century.

In short, the earliest Indian culture of the Alabama-Mississippi region was highly evolved; and although the tribal cultures to follow were less developed (more traditional hunter-gatherers and subsistence settlers), they were by no means the wild savages of cowboy-and-Indian lore.  Shortly after the arrival of the British and French in the Americas, they established trading links with various Indian tribes, including the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks.  These commercial relationships were valuable to both sides and enabled the Indians to become familiar enough with European culture to be able to conclude alliances, contracts, and treaties.  They of course were singularly unsuccessful in these negotiations.  All the Choctaws got from their strong alliance with Jackson and the Americans was to get pushed west of the Mississippi like every other Indian tribe. 

It often takes circumstance and location to take history out of the dusty archives of scholars; and it has been during my stay in Mississippi – the former lands of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks – that I have had the interest in studying the complex political, social, and economic dynamics of Indian-European-American relationships.

Better late than never.  While the distorted images of Native Americans, whether the savage scalpers of the Plains or the drunken Indians living on dirt-poor, windswept reservations in South Dakota, will remain, at least now I understand that the contact between Europeans and Indians was as complex as any such cultural encounter.  It was neither better-armed white colonists and settlers firing away at defenseless Indians, slaughtering with vengeance and impunity; nor stealthy Indians attacking out of the woods and raping, eviscerating, and beheading women and children – although both were true; but a complex relationship based on mutual dependency, aggression and self-protection, diplomacy and war no different from the politics of Europe.

History is history, and I take no sides.  I listen to the spewing of revisionist vitriol – the European devils infecting, enslaving, and slaughtering Native Americans in the name of greed and filthy lucre – but pay attention to the dispassionate historians who identify, decipher, and illuminate the inevitable give and take of political enterprise.  Who did what to whom is less important than why did they do it?  What was to be gained and lost?  What of the struggle is common to all struggles?

I listen to the same impassioned rhetoric about slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, but pay attention to the historians who analyze this historic clash of cultures – how radically different social, philosophical, and economic systems were at stake then and how the legacy of that period is still alive today.  It took visiting and staying in Mississippi to elicit my current deep interest in that period.  It was the battlefields, the cemeteries, the statues of Confederate soldiers in the town squares, the vast, beautiful, white cotton fields; the cannonballs embedded in the townhouses of Vicksburg, the persistent and continuing argument over states rights (the very issue that troubled Lincoln and moderated his policies towards the post-War South), and separate congregations of black and white (no different than Washington, DC) that made it imperative and inevitable that I study Southern history.  Someone once said that you cannot understand American history without understanding Southern history – a gross understatement at best.

As a historian speaking at the Annual Conference of the Mississippi Historical Society in Columbus recently noted, most people know at least something about the Civil War; and most know nothing about the War of 1812.  Had the British defeated Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, they might have won the war, and America would be a very different place today – it was that important.  The Creek Wars were critically important precursors to the larger war to follow, for they set forth the Indian-American-British alliances which were to characterize the conflict.  Southern history for me became a far more complex study than I had imagined.  To understand it you had to go back to the Mississippian Culture, to Desoto and the first Spanish explorers, to the Indian wars and alliances, to the mind-boggling switches in colonial power – the French, the British, the Spanish, the Americans all claimed parts of the Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida Coast and up the rivers northward – to the consolidation of the Union, to its dissolution, to its reunion, to its near re-dissolution during Reconstruction, the fraying and rending of the Union during Civil Rights, and the resurgent divisions occurring today. 

My sister and I still talk about cowboys-and-Indians in the backyard.  She has confided that she hated being the Indian all the time.  Even though she ran around the flowerbeds whooping and hollering, savagely hacked off my bloody scalp, and hung it on the clothesline, what she really wanted to do was to shoot the cap gun.  We both remember the television wild rides on the Plains, the ferocious Comanche or Apache warriors and the pounding hooves of the cavalry, and the heroic victory of the bluecoats.  My wife’s nephew has been working on the Pine Ridge Reservation for two years, trying to promote Permaculture to the Indians.  There is the never-ending movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins to something less offensive, but it has been complicated by the fact that many Indian tribes have expressed their pride in the Indian emblems of hundreds of sports teams, chosen because of bravery and ferocity. 

After my many years visiting the South and in particular Mississippi, my view of Indians has changed completely.  I should have known better, but then again there is only so much time and room on the mental hard drive to gather and store information; but I am just beginning.

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