29 April 2011

Patriotic Logic (or Lack Thereof)

When I am reading, I frequently go back and reread a passage. Most often I have missed something due to inattention or interruption, as when my wife whispers sweet nothings in my ear. Many times I go back because I find it difficult to understand a text. With some writers--William Faulkner, Jacques Derrida, Marcel Proust,--expectations of comprehension begin with the second reading. Occasionally, rereading a passage is necessary because I have some expertise in the subject, but the authors that I am reading most clearly do not. This last was my experience this morning while reading A Patriot's History of the United States (2004).
Several alternative policies had been attempted by the United States government in its dealings with the Indians. One emphasized the "nationhood" of the tribe, and sought to conduct foreign policy with the Indian tribes the way the United States would deal with a European power. Another, more frequent, process involved exchanging treaty promises and goods for Indian land in an attempt to keep the races separate.
Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot's History, 207
How are treaties an alternative to dealing with Indian nations in ways comparable to dealing with foreign powers? Perhaps the authors of A Patriot's History imagine some distinction here that they fail to explain, but it defies logic. Quite simply, they offer incomprehensible nonsense to confuse the fundamental relationship between Indian tribes and the United States. Consider, for example, President Reagan's recognition of a government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and Indian tribes (for some reason the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library links to the text on the Environmental Protection Agency's website). The four-page policy statement begins:
On January 24, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued an American Indian policy statement which reaffirmed the government-to-government relationship of Indian tribes with the United States.
Schweikart and Allen feel a need to put the word nationhood in quotes to generate some distance from what they fail to understand. Their favorite President's policy, however, explicitly states, "President Reagan’s policy supports: ... Specific acknowledgment of the governmental status of Indian tribes."

These days many of Reagan's most ideologically committed followers call themselves Constitutionalists. As they gain power, we can hope that they have read the Supremacy Clause:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.
U.S. Constitution, Article VI (emphasis added)
Does the supremacy clause apply to treaties with American Indian nations?

The U.S. Supreme Court thinks so. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), which A Patriot's History mentions on the next page, the U.S. Supreme Court found actions of the state of Georgia "repugnant to the Constitution" because these actions violated treaties with the Cherokee and laws of Congress. In discussing the first treaty the United States made with an Indian nation: the treaty with the Delawares, 1778, the Court noted, "[t]his treaty, in its language, and in its provisions, is formed, as near as may be, on the model of treaties between the Crowned heads of Europe" (31 U.S. 515, at 550). That Indian tribes had become dependent upon the U.S., does not diminish their sovereignty:
The very fact of repeated treaties with them recognizes it, and the settled doctrine of the law of nations is that a weaker power does not surrender its independence -- its right to self-government -- by associating with a stronger and taking its protection. A weak State, in order to provide for its safety, may place itself under the protection of one more powerful without stripping itself of the right of government and ceasing to be a State.
Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, at 560-561
A Patriot's History offers a view at odds with the Constitution, with the Supreme Court's interpretation of our Supreme Law, and even with the formal declaration of Indian policy by the patron saint of the Conservative Revolution. Schweikart and Allen seem quite alone in their reading of history.

11 April 2011

Misplaced Emphasis

The book table at Costco proves an irresistible lure, but the barbs there leave my jaw aching. Increasingly since the historic election of 2008, there have been stacks of right-wing diatribes by authors with little regard for accuracy of facts or analysis. But good books remain among the chaff. I'll be sorely tempted by Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1 (2011) on the next trip because I've found that the Kindle edition is not well suited for this sort of scholarly text and the price at Costco is $1.02 less than at Amazon. I nearly bought Life (2010) by Keith Richards, and may yet when the paperback comes out in a few months if they carry it. I've bought and read two books on the Battle of Little Big Horn--both were disappointing histories.

Off and on over the past week, I've been trying to labor through a book that I thought would be a quick and interesting read. I bought Richard Kluger, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek (2011) from Costco in February with plans to read it during spring break. Last Monday I started. The Forward appalled me for its abysmal failure to mention tribal sovereignty while pretending to lay out the critical historical framework at the heart of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. Reading further has been slogging through questionable factual assertions (I need to do some fact checking on several points) and episodes in misplaced emphasis.

This morning I came upon this sentence:
Scholars have estimated that by 1850, the aboriginal population in North America--besieged by the invaders' explosive weaponry, wondrous technology, contemptuous cruelty, and irresistible pathogens, as well as the Indians' own ever-deepening despair--was just one-tenth of what it had been when Columbus first ventured ashore. (57)
Kluger gets the demography correct, but fails to explain it well. Beginning with weapons and technology demonstrates that he has read neither my "Superior European Technology" nor Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2005)--another text that I found at Costco. He also reveals his failure to comprehend the significance of ecological damage, easily rectified for starters by reading William Cronon, Changes in the Land (1983). Most egregious is the way that he seems to put disease behind conscious imperialism and technology in his explanation of traumatic demographic change.

Kluger sets up the reader to expect that he would comprehend the significance of ecological changes on the previous page:
Essential to this metamorphosis would be correcting the red race's attitude toward the land, which they shrank from actively cultivating but regarded as a hallowed preserve ... Such footloose practices were deemed unsuitable for a civilized society. Instead, the Indians needed to buckle down within far less expansive territory, where they would work the soil as the Scriptures directed (see Genesis 9:1) and make it flourish. (56)
The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek concerns peoples and events in the southern Puget Sound Basin, so the failure of a historical gloss to recognize the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash by everyone from the Pueblos of New Mexico to the Seneca of New York might be forgivable. The Neolithic Revolution emerged in Meso-America and southern China approximately the same time that it emerged in the Fertile Crescent. Even so, the U.S. Supreme Court encoded this common stereotype of Indian hunters and gatherers with respect to those indigenous to the Ohio River Valley in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) and with respect to the plantation owning Cherokee in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1832). As a description of Anglo-American attitudes, if not American Indian realities, Kluger's gloss serves its purpose.

Ten years ago I revealed my own understanding of the role of disease in the European conquest:
Epidemic disease was the decisive factor in the European conquest. Epidemics not only eliminated entire communities, but the resulting sociocultural disruption created conditions that made Native peoples more receptive to European trade items and religious ideas.
James Stripes, "Native Americans: An Overview," Encyclopedia of American Studies, vol. 3 (2001), 198.
One of my first entries for this blog, "Practicing Objectivity," quoted that tertiary source. This morning I am reminded how easily historians searching for a new writing topic without adequate grounding in the scholarship will easily miss the critical significance and fall into popularly believed errors--technology conferred minimal advantages to Europeans, and when it did it was swords and cannons more than personal firearms. Disease was the decisive factor, followed closely by assaults on the land. Technology ultimately assisted, but only after the initially tenuous foothold was well established. Then, the plow did more to facilitate conquest than did the gun.

08 April 2011

George Bancroft

In his History of the United States (1875), George Bancroft highlights the authority of the Second Continental Congress that began meeting in May 1775.
Whom did they represent? and what were their functions? They were committees from twelve colonies, deputed to consult on measures of conciliation, with no means of resistance to oppression beyond a voluntary agreement for the suspension of importations from Great Britain. They formed no confederacy; they were not an executive government; they were not even a legislative body. ... They had no treasury; and neither authority to lay a tax, nor to borrow money. They had been elected, in part at least, by tumultuary assemblies, or bodies which had no recognized legal existence.
Bancroft, History of the United States, 353-354
Bancroft's fidelity to primary sources was nearly pathological, according to Richard Vitzthum.
While some historians improve their work through revision, Bancroft did not. Revision tended to carry him further and further away from his evidence, a temptation that he, of all historians, would have been well advised to resist. When he revised, he did not go back and restudy his sources: thus his first editions reflect his fullest immersion in the evidence.
Richard C. Vitzthum, "Theme and Method in Bancroft's History of the United States," New England Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1968), 363, note 4.
But fidelity is perhaps the wrong word. The sources adorned more than they informed Bancroft's narratives.
The omnicompetent narrator of the History merely fits useful ideas and phrases from the sources into his own interpretive context. His disregard for the context in which they originally appeared is often complete. ...
[T]he History is based as often on secondary as on primary sources, belying Bancroft's claim here that he chiefly used primaries ... in saying he "derived" his narrative from source material, he means he has raised it to the level of philosophy.
Vitzthum, 372
Whether primary or secondary, Bancroft's citations are incomplete.
Bancroft to a large extent based his narrative on source material, both manuscript and printed, but ... did not scorn to employ secondary works which he considered reliable. ... The chief criticism of the historian's use of sources--which is one of technique--is that his style of citation is not sufficiently complete always to give the reader the information necessary for checking up or for himself locating the source.
Watt Stewart, "George Bancroft Historian of the American Republic," Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. 19, No. 1 (1932), 80.

05 April 2011

Unreasonable Expectations

Martin Cruz Smith writes mystery novels. Although he is reputedly of Pueblo and Yaqui ancestry, his inclusion among prolific Native American writers often seems overlooked. His The Indians Won (1970) anticipates an alternate history of the Cold War if the United States had failed to subdue the tribes of the Plains after the Custer debacle. But his subsequent writing did not foreground Indian themes.

Jorge Luis Borges challenges the expectations that come along in efforts to define national literature, or that of a racial group.
I wish to note another contradiction: the nationalists pretend to venerate the capacities of the Argentine mind but wish to limit the poetic exercise of that mind to a few humble local themes, as if we Argentines could only speak of neighborhoods and ranches and not of the universe.
"The Argentine Writer and Tradition," in Selected Non-Fictions, 424
Because what I know of Argentine literature is limited to Borges, this lecture stimulates my thinking about other literatures: American, American Indian, Pacific Northwest Regional, ...

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