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Richard W. Pointer


A Race Doomed to Recede and Disappear

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Simply acknowledging that this change occurred is more than many past students of the early Republic have managed. The essays in this volume, however, go a good deal further. For one thing, they show that there was no single path that all Natives traveled to arrive at their obscurity in white eyes. Nor was that destination so inevitable that Indian choices never mattered. Or to put it another way, Indians participated in their own history; they were important agents in shaping and responding to their circumstances, not the helpless victims of some preordained destiny.

Complexity and contingency consequently replace uniformity and predictability as major themes in these new accounts of Native Americans during the early Republic. As such, they sound a similar chord to what Ira Berlin has recently claimed regarding the history of slaves and slavery in North America during its first two centuries and to what Peter Charles Hoffer has argued for early American history in general. In the latter's words, "irony, contradiction, and contingency" were at the heart of the "unpredictable course" of events in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[3]

For Indians, few events were more contingent than America's War for Independence. As Colin Calloway rehearses the story in the book's prologue, Natives were determined to secure their own freedom during the American Revolution, but they were unsure which potential ally, if any, held the brightest promise of winning a victory advantageous to Indians. When forced to take sides, they split, not only between but within tribes. As a result, "the Revolution assumed the look of a civil war" for many Indian peoples. The losses they incurred only became compounded following the Treaty of Paris, for whether they had supported or opposed the colonial victors, Indians remained at war after 1783, now contesting with the influx of aggressive settlers who flooded westward in search of a better life. And if war and invasion were not enough, "economic dislocation, political factionalism and fragmentation, disruption of ancient traditions, hunger, disease, and betrayal into the hands of their enemies" soon beset Native American communities from New York to Georgia.

Yet not all was darkness, Calloway suggests, for "in the kaleidoscopic, 'all-change' world of the Revolutionary era, there were exceptions and variations. The upheaval generated by the Revolution offered opportunity as well as oppression." Seminoles, for example, seized the chance to break free of the Creek confederacy. Handsome Lake used it to generate spiritual revival among the Iroquois. Their examples and others point to an Indian resilience and resourcefulness usually overlooked. If Natives were susceptible to losing their worlds, they were also capable of reconstructing them.

Some of that rebuilding entailed rethinking who whites were and how to relate to them. For their part, many migrating whites were about the same business. The result, as a number of these essays make clear, was a complex range of cultural conceptions (or misconceptions) held by each of the other, conceptions that went a long way toward that shaping intercultural relations for the next two generations.

Among Euro-Americans, alongside Crevecoeur's fiction of the disappearing Indian arose the equally powerful myth of the resistant Indian: ally of the British in the Revolution (and therefore enemy of American liberty), obstacle to national expansion, and terror on the frontier. Like many potent myths, this one contained a measure of truth. After all, from the outset there were Indians who quite understandably resisted the incursions of Europeans with all the means at their disposal. But, also from the outset, there were others who formed alliances with the newcomers, while still others pulled back "out of range." As a comprehensive account of Indian identity, then, the notion of the resistant Indian was a self-serving fiction by which whites "justified massive dispossession of Native Americans."

Reginald Horsman's interpretation of post-Revolution relations places more emphasis on federal policymakers' embrace of Enlightenment ideals, including the notion of the meliorative savage, a Native capable of being saved by "civilization" if only he gave up his Indianness. Elise Marienstras finds both positive and negative images of Indians circulating within white popular culture in the early 1800s, each contributing in its own way to the formation of an American national identity that defined itself over against alien Indians.

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