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Richard W. Pointer


A Race Doomed to Recede and Disappear

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That whites were not the only ones operating according to fictions about the other becomes clear in Richard White's analysis of Indian-U.S. diplomacy in the late eighteenth century. Natives had long been inventing their own stories about European newcomers, especially in the Old Northwest, where the fictions employed on both sides of the cultural divide had helped create a "middle ground" that allowed for mostly peaceful and productive relations in the colonial era. American independence brought new circumstances, but images of whites remained a critical part of the thinking of Indian leaders. Their disagreements in the 1780s and 1790s over whether to see Americans as benevolent (George Washington in the imagery of the day) or malevolent (proverbial Big Knives) contributed to the diversity of Native responses to U.S. policies in the early Republic.

That perceptions of reality were often more important than reality itself in shaping Indian-white exchanges in the Revolutionary era and beyond should not be surprising. After all, if that was the case, it only parallels what was true for other American relationships at the time. For example, some historians since the 1960s have argued that belief in a British plot against American liberty in the 1760s and 1770s, whether there was in fact one or not, was sufficient to push many colonists toward rebellion. But we may be surprised at just how wide the gap between perception and reality was among peoples with more dramatic cultural differences.

Theda Perdue, for example, looks at eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Euro-American traveler and trader accounts of Native women and finds a "remarkably uniform assessment" that got some descriptive detail right but usually misread female economic, familial, and sexual activities in ways that left whites feeling disturbed and threatened. From today's perspective, it is clear that these observers were too quick to presume that the same acts meant the same thing in all cultures and too slow to catch on to the possibility that Indian peoples might have their own definitions and rules regulating their social behavior.

Perhaps there was no more important an instance of misinterpretation than the Euro-American claim that agriculture was not a vital part of Native economies, and never would be until men replaced women as the principal agricultural laborers in Indian societies. Proponents of Jeffersonian agrarianism in the early nineteenth century consequently pushed for Native males to give up the hunt and take up the plow. Native women, in turn, were to give up the hoe and take up the household. Nothing less than major elements of the new nation's "civilizing" policy toward Native Americans in the early Republic were based upon such perceptions. As a result, the realities of Native women's lives were altered in fundamental ways.

Why was cultural misperception so prevalent in Indian-white relations? It's tempting to lay the blame both on ignorance and on a willful desire to misunderstand for the sake of legitimating one's own actions. No doubt those factors played a part. But Daniel H. Usner, Jr., finds a more complex part of the answer in the lens eighteenth-century Euro-Americans used to view Indian lifestyles. He, too, is specifically interested in why Jeffersonians couldn't "see" that eastern woodland Indians farmed. Whites' apparent blindness stemmed from embracing a theory of human behavior which asserted that "how a society utilized natural resources determined the rates of growth in population and of movement up a ladder of evolution." With such a model in mind, Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s attributed the impressive natural increase of the colonial population to Europeans' agrarian ways. Meanwhile, Native depopulation was interpreted as the natural fruit of their lives as hunters. A half-century later, Jeffersonians, operating under the same assumptions, eagerly tried to get Indians on board with their vision of national commercial agricultural expansion. Indian survival, they claimed, depended on a fundamental shift in the Natives' livelihood.

Yet the demand that Indians farm like whites came at the same moment that whites were also demanding more access to Indian lands. No wonder Indian peoples like the Iroquois felt squeezed, and no wonder they resisted some if not all of the Jeffersonians' reform agenda. Operating from "an understanding of livelihood sharply different from the Jeffersonian model of economic life," the Iroquois in western New York made their own decisions about what to keep and what to change in their economic activities. The result was a set of choices that in Usner's mind "contributed in the long run to [Iroquois] endurance through the nineteenth century and to the present."

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