I believe I was in college when I first had someone tell me I shouldn’t use the word ‘Indian.’ I had certainly heard plenty of critical commentary about Christopher Columbus, and at least some of that commentary had included a remark or two on the absurdity of applying the word ‘Indian’ to the indigenous population of the Americas. Still, in the lily-white neighborhoods of my upbringing, this word became just another absurdity in a world that already had plenty of them. So, when my Navajo classmate, Wendy, expressed a clear preference for ‘Native American,’ this was new. What was new about it wasn’t the critique of the word ‘Indian’; it was the sense that the critique mattered.
I wish I could say that I responded appropriately, but I’m afraid I can’t.
There was whitesplaining; let’s just leave it at that.
Admittedly, the rest of this post could qualify as more of the same. I hope not, but we’ll see…
I’ve heard a couple of interesting theories about the origin of the term, ‘Indian,’ but I’m not sure that any of them have really nailed down the concept. Origins are not the only rubric by which we might assess the meaning of a term, and folk-etymologies are infamously inaccurate, so the whole question of where the word came from has to be taken with a grain of salt.
The notion that Columbus thought he was in India is an incorrect correction, at best. Columbus thought he was in the East Indies. That may sound like a fussy point to make, but folks ought not to point out one mistake only to land on another. Somewhere in his work, the historian of religion, Sam Gill, suggests that Europeans used term ‘Indian’ (or ‘indios’) as a kind of catch-all category for everyone who lived east of the Indus River. By this account, the problem with the term is not so much a clear factual error as a kind of vagueness, that and a kind of projection of the European imagination into new territory. It’s not at all unlike those associated with ‘orientalism’ in other historical contexts. Another interesting take comes from the noted activist, Russell Means. According to Means, the term originally meant “‘under God,’ thus making it an accurate observation of the spirituality of America’s indigenous peoples. At a time when many were switching from ‘Indian’ to ‘Native American,’ Means embraced ‘Indian,’ even insisted upon it. Of course, this may have had something to do with branding. Means was of course a long-time member of “The American Indian Movement (AIM),” which might have given him a little extra reason to hold onto the label. In the end, it seems that most of those seeing to refer to the indigenous peoples of North America with a degree of respect have shifted to ‘Native American,’ and along with them. Mileage always varies, but ‘Native American’ seems to be the norm at this point.
I am occasionally reminded that there is at least one problem with ‘Indian’ that “Native American’ does not solve, that is the vagueness of such a catch-all term. This vagueness facilitates a range of problematic thinking. For example, I lost track of the people who asked me if I lived in a teepee while I was living on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo people had never lived in teepees, but the imagination of the American public (and the world at large) often puts them in teepees for the same reason that it put so many peoples from the great plains in Monument Valley for so many classic westerns. To the public at large, an ‘Indian’ is an Indian, and because we can use the same word for so many peoples they think the word must tell us something about them. That the term is really little more than a default category for a broad range of people whose customs were poorly understood when the term was coined doesn’t seem to enter folks thinking, at least not without first giving them a verbal shove in the right direction. Still, to the degree that this is a problem with ‘Indian’ that problem is not much improved by saying ‘Native American.’
Since I began focusing my Native American studies in grad school, I have had a couple friends and family ask me what “Indians believed” about topics like God, reincarnation, or the afterlife in general. Today, I am sometimes asked what ‘Native Americans’ think about the same topics. I often find myself responding to these questions by asking which tribe? Others might ask them why they are asking these questions of a white guy? In any event, the problems with such questions are not much improved by the change in vocabulary. Whichever word we might use, the question assumes implications that just aren’t there.
I happened into an interesting illustration of the problem one day while surfing travel blogs. One of these had a lovely account of a couple’s visit to the National Monument at Little Bighorn Battlefield. Their account was thoughtful and respectful, and I do not mean to direct negative attention their way (and in any event, I can no longer find it, hence the lack of a link), but one thing about their post stuck out in my mind. They made a point to say that their tour guide had been a student at the nearby Little Bighorn College, a tribal college, so they had gotten “the Native American point of view” on the battle. (I believe I got the quote right, but in any event, that was certainly the gist of it.)
Why is that a problem?
When people address the significance of the Battle of Little Bighorn (or Greasy Grass) to Native Americans, they are usually thinking in terms of those who fought against Custer and his troops. That would be Cheyenne and Lakota for the most part, (though there were some Arapaho in the village too.) I can’t help but think, those who read the blog in question will naturally think the “Native American” perspective mentioned in the blog will reflect the point of view of those peoples, but Little Bighorn College is on the Crow Agency, and the student in question was very likely Crow. His ancestors probably didn’t fight Custer on that day. In fact, some of them were likely serving as Custer’s scouts. To the degree that his or her native identity may have shaped the story these bloggers heard, it is unlikely that it was shaped in the manner most readers would have imagined.
Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that a Crow’s perspective on the battle of Little Bighorn should weigh less than that of a Cheyenne or Lakota, not in the slightest. What I am suggesting is that the difference in this case matters. There is a difference between the perspective of someone whose ancestors fought against Custer and someone whose ancestors allied themselves with him. That difference is easily obscured when using terms like ‘Native American’ or ‘Indian.’
…which reminds me of one discussion I had about these issues with my own students at Diné College on the Navajo Nation many years ago. Fed up with my efforts to problematize every term available for the indigenous people at large, one of my own students just asked; “How about Diné?”
…which got us to the end of the lesson about 15 minutes early.
Don’t get me wrong; there are no magic solutions to any of these problems, but some words help us more than others. There are many contexts in which words like “Indian” or “Native American” are tough to avoid, but when you know which specific people you are talking about, it is almost always better to name the indigenous community in question.
The lower 48 can seem like a foreign country, not always, but often enough. It’s strange to think so. I mean, I lived down there for over 40 years, so why would it seem so strange to me now? Anyway, it often does.
This feeling came through particularly strong last semester when I agreed to accompany a minor to a chemistry conference in San Diego. I often find myself working on the margins of my own fields, but I have to admit this one was a little bit of a stretch. So, it was with particular joy that I suddenly found myself looking at a bit of Alaskan history.
Right there in San Diego.
I had just descended below deck aboard The Star of India, one of several ships at the Maritime Museum, and there it was, a whole display on the Alaskan fish packing industry, or at least the role The Star of Indian played in shipping the products of fishing out to other parts. I was already enjoying the museum, and I had long since warmed to my stay in San Diego when I saw this.
This was interesting.
There is something a little perverse about the trajectory that brings me here from the edge of civilization near to its centers only to find the ghosts of so many fish who’ve made that same trip themselves. Whether it’s a perverse irony or a perverse synchrony, I’m not sure, but either way these artifacts of an extractive industry shouldn’t really have surprised me. I enjoy living on the edge of nowhere, though I do so with the full benefits of the modern world to keep me warm and well connected to the rest of y’all, and of course, there is no real escape from the global economy. If places like Alaska are good for fishing, it goes without saying that when they are good enough, a fair portion of stories told about those fish will be told in other places.
Places like San Diego.
Anyway, you never know when a trip out will lead you to a little glimpse of home.
Originally named the Euterpe, this vessel was built in 1863. She hauled salmon out of Alaska from 1902 to 1923, being renamed The Star of India in 1906. As steamships came to dominate the industry, she was finally retired in 1926. Today, she is docked at the Maritime Museum, though she is still seaworthy. You can find a few videos of her out on the water.
Just a minor footnote to the story of the former guy. If you watch the footage of his July 4th celebration in the Black Hills, you may notice a catchy little tune that accompanies the first few moments of the fireworks (they begin at @around 4:52:45 on this video).
Wondering where you might have heard it before?
It’s not a coincidence.
The tune is called Gary Owen. It was the marching tune for Custer’s 7th cavalry. His band really did play this song as he attacked Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River.
I guess someone in the Trump camp must have thought to include that as a little extra message for the Native American community, and most especially for the protesters who thought Trump never should have brought his celebration there out to the Black Hills.
It’s actually kind of an apt metaphor for the Trump administration An invitation for all of us to wave flags and celebrate our national heritage.
…Even as they stick it to someone in that very same message.
Because, nothing at all is really any fun someone gets hurt
Some folks would put that on April 9th, 1865, when the battle of Appomattox Courthouse (Virginia) concluded with Lee’s surrender. (Presumably, the last shot would have been fired a little before the surrender, but at any rate, you can see why this moment might be a good candidate for the end of hostilities.) On the other hand, Lee’s surrender left a number of other Confederate forces in the field and still quite willing to fight. Some folks thought the last shot was fired a little later on, in Waynesville, North Carolina on May 6th, 1865. Of course the battle of Palmito Ranch (Texas) comes after that (May 12, 1865), which leads some to name that as the last battle of the civil war. Apparently, there was a small battle in Eufaula, Alabama, on May 19th of 1865 which certainly beats all of the above. If we are looking for an official end of the war, we could put it at May 5th when Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, officially disbanded the Confederate government or on May 10th when Davis was captured, putting to rest any hopes that he might somehow carry on after all. One might say that nothing after that counts. Just don’t tell that to Frank and Jesse James who seemed to view themselves as continuing the struggle well into what most would think a completely different story altogether. We could probably find a few other outlaws who might have told similar accounts of their actions. Sticking with official military forces, it’s worth noting that the last Confederate General to surrender was Stand Watie, who surrendered on June 23, 1865. Just how much fighting he and his men were doing in those last few days, I must confess I do not know. And then of course, there is the Confederate canon ball that exploded in Fort Macon, NC in the winter of 1942, putting an American soldier in the hospital for a couple days. Does that count? I’m gonna say ‘no’, but I do wonder what those who fired that shot might think to find out they scored a hit so many years afterwards. Clearly, there are a lot of candidates for the last shot of that war.
Or a story about a war.
Turns out it isn’t easy to wrap up a war!
I’m half-tempted to say the last shot of the civil war (so far) is the one that killed Ashli Babbitt on January 6th of this year, but that’s a whole other write-up.
So, what was the last shot of the civil war?
It really depends on what you choose to count as the last shot.
The key word there is ‘choose’.
Let me tell you about my favorite candidate for the last shot fired in the civil war!
It took place on June 22, 1865, in the Bering Sea. It would have been one of two warning shots fired by C.S.S. Shenandoah in the general direction of the Sophia Thornton, a whaling ship out to harvest bowheads in arctic waters. The shot had its intended effect, bringing the Sophia Thornton to a stop so this Confederate Commerce raider could loot and burn it to the waterline before they moved on to plunder other ships in the Yankee whaling fleet.
What makes this the last shot?
Well it is the last shot fired by troops acting under a flag of either belligerent in what they believe to be an action authorized by their own government in pursuit of the war. Why is that the important criteria? Well it just is, dammit! (Jesse and Frank can suck an egg.) I have spoken!
The Shenandoah would go on to plunder additional ships over the next couple days, but she didn’t need to fire any more warning shots. In time she would head south in hopes of launching an attack on San Francisco. One final capture along the way proved sufficient to furnish proof of the war’s end, thus bringing to a close this one last chapter of the Civil War.
.Almost the close anyway.
The Shenandoah made its way to England before surrendering, a trip which was certainly an ordeal in itself. And then of course there were the Alabama Claims, a lawsuit in which the Shenandoah figured rather prominently.
Maybe that’s when the story ends?
Or maybe not.
It’s damned hard to wrap up a war.
Or even a story about one chapter in a war.
What I love about this story is that it helps me connect the Civil War to the history of Alaska. It might seem like a footnote in the story of either Alaska or the Civil War, but it’s one of a few such footnotes that helps me connect the Civil War to students often prone to think of that war as a story for those that live in the lower 48. What I also love about this story is it keeps getting richer every time I come back to it.
Of course the story of the Shenandoah is not really just one story.
It’s a whole bunch of stories.
It’s a story about international relations. It’s a story of asymmetric warfare. It’s a story about whales and whalers. It’s a story about race and racism. It’s a story about law and violence, and the use of law as an instrument of violence. It’s probably a few other stories as well, but these are the themes this story usually takes takes on when I tell it.
First a few basic facts, which I probably should have mentioned way back in the first or second paragraph here, but anyway, you’re getting them now.
The Shenandoah began as a merchant vessel and troop transport, named the Sea King. She set sail from England in August of 1863 and finally surrendered to the British government in November of 1865. She first rendezvoused with another ship called the Lauren just off the coast of Madeira where she was outfitted with guns and other equipment necessary for work as a commerce raider. The Shenandoah was Captained by Lieutenant James Waddell, an officer in the Confederate Navy. Additional Confederate military provided the bulk of the ship’s officers, but the rest of her crew was initially unaware of the true purpose of their voyage. At Maderia, that crew was given the option to stay aboard and help on her actual mission (for a share of the loot), or to return home aboard the Lauren in the event that work in borderline piracy was not to their tastes. In time, the Shenandoah would flesh out her crew by adding sailors from the very ships she plundered. Apparently, it was not unusual for men to volunteer in such cases. Neither was it all that rare for the crew of a commerce raider to push the issue.
And by “push the issue” I might mean torture.
The Shenandoah carried 8 total canons of various sizes, not enough to make her a formidable warship, but enough to make resistance from a merchant vessel a losing proposition. She was equipped with a full set of masts with which to catch the winds as well as an auxiliary steam engine to get her moving when the winds weren’t so kind. She could make headway against the wind, but she could also take full advantage of favorable winds. Commerce raiders needed enough speed to catch their prey and outrun a full warship, and they needed just enough weaponry to defeat their civilian prey, or (more importantly) to convince their prey that surrender was the best course of action. By these standards, the Shenandoah was well suited to her task, at least when she finally got all the necessary materials.
Her first few captures, it seems, were secured through a bit of a bluff as her canons lacked the proper rope and tackle system to reload. Also, she didn’t really have enough crew. Once these problems were resolved, she was good to go!
International relations: The first chapters of any book about the Shenandoah are inevitably chapters of political intrigue. The ship was born in England, but of course that was politically impossible. England was officially neutral in the American Civil War, and so they couldn’t possibly allow the Confederates to purchase a ship meant for war from one of their ports. This is why her first stop was made off the shores of Madeira. She had been purchased by Confederate agents, aided by the complicity of British officials, setting sail without weapons of war and barely escaping British waters ahead of Yankee diplomatic efforts to shut down the voyage.
The official neutrality of Britain in regards to the Shenandoah would plague her voyage as the Shenandoah had to look for neutral ports or hide her true purpose when stopping anywhere at any port under a British flag. (This problem nearly ended her voyage in Melbourne.)
Britain’s official neutrality and unofficial complicity of course played a role in the decision to surrender in London. Other options were considered, of course, but surrendering to the United States was pretty much out of the question. The legality of commerce raiding is questionable enough under any circumstances. It gets a lot more questionable when your side loses, and continuing the raids a couple months past the end of hostilities might be a good way to earn your way right into a hang-man’s noose. Under the circumstances, a neutral nation seemed like the best place to bring the voyage to a close.
Britain’s complicity in this story would be revisited in the Alabama Claims, an international dispute resolved in 1872. In this case, the American government sought damages from Britain for allowing construction and purchase of 5 Confederate warships in their own waters. The Alabama was the most important of these vessels, but the Shenandoah certainly played a role. The Alabama claims ended when Britain paid the U.S. 15.5 million to cover the damages caused by ships such as the Shenandoah, thus setting the stage for international arbitration and eventually to things such as the Hague, the League of Nations, and the World Court.
…all of which states’ rights activists in the modern world might well consider examples of that Goddamned globalism!
(and thus the struggle continues…)
Asymmetric Warfare: How do you defeat an enemy that has more troops, more weapons, more industry, and more of pretty much everything necessary to fight a war? Well, to make a long story short, you might want to fight dirty. At least, that seems to a common response. That’s at least part of the story here. The Union established clear dominance over the Confederacy early in the Civil War and used a blockade to cut off much needed supplies coming in from other nations. The Confederacy thus relied on blockade runners to get supplies for the war, and on commerce raiders which served two purposes; they could weaken the Union financially, and they could draw warships away from the blockade as they were diverted to pursuit of the raiders. The Shenandoah falls into this category as it was tasked with wrecking havoc on the Yankee whaling fleet, then concentrated in arctic waters. It was part of a strategy born of desperation, but it’s also part of a strategy that works. …to a degree at any rate. It certainly works better than direct engagement with superior naval forces.
Ironically, the United States had a chance to prevent this sort of thing shortly before the Civil War as different European nations had put together an international agreement discouraging such practices. Realizing that it’s own navy was little match for its European counterparts, the United States declined to join the agreement, thus preserving the option to use such tactics in the event of a war with Nation’s like Britain or France (see Chaffin, pages 15-16). The civil war thus brought an unexpected twist of fate insofar as the Union found itself then facing down a weaker enemy with every reason to take advantage of this very option.
Suffice to say this would not be the last time, the United States would play Goliath to someone else’s David on the international stage.
Whales and Whaling: Upon encountering the first of Shenandoah’s prey in northern waters, The Abigail, Captain Waddell is said to have told its captain that the Confederacy had entered into a treaty with the whales (Chaffin, 231). It’s a clever line, one of several exchanged between the two men, but it doesn’t seem so frivolous in retrospect. At least some sources (Barr, Dunham), credit the Shenandoah with helping to reduce the Yankee whaling fleet which had only been working northern waters in search of the Bowhead population for a couple decades. She caused enough damage to change the way that insurance companies weighed the risks of covering a whaling expedition (Dunham). This wasn’t the only development shifting the economics of whaling at the time, but a plausible case can be made that the Shenandoah played a role in slowing down the whaling fleet. Waddell might well have thought himself to be telling little more than an amusing joke, but the Shenandoah may well have contributed to the welfare of the Bowhead population.
For Waddell’s allies at least, the impact of the Shenandoah were to last for some time after the close of its voyage and the war in which its crew served.
Race and Racism: One of the more interesting details of this story, at least to me, is the fact that the Shenandoah carried at least four African-American crew members (Chaffin, 360). One might wonder why an African-American would serve aboard a Confederate ship (a commerce raider or otherwise), and some of the sources which mention them do little to help explain this. Chaffin, however makes it clear that some of these men were put under heavy pressure, shackled, triced and threatened by Waddell who made it a point to tell one of them at least that blacks were the cause of the war. Mistreatment of these men continued well after their enlistment onto the crew. That one of them, John Williams, would escape during the ship’s stay in Melbourne would of course come as no surprise.
It would be easy enough to miss this. Just a few more sailors. These ones happen to be black, nothing to see here! Of course one can find denials of (and justifications for) their mistreatment in the comments of the ship’s officers. In the end, however, the story of the Shenandoah contains at least enough information to remind us that, at its heart, the Civil War is about a regime of forced labor defined in racial terms. To be sure, other sailors were pressed into service aboard the Shenandoah, but the treatment given to black sailors pressed into service does appear to have been significantly more abusive than that of their white counterparts.
Which really should not be surprising in the least!
Ahem, …Tricing consisted of hanging a prisoner for a period of time by their hands (or even their thumbs), often stretching them sufficiently to prevent their feet from supporting their full weight. This was done in conjunction with shackling prisoners and simply keeping in them in the same pen that was used to house animals carried for food.
Law and Violence: One of the more fascinating things about this story is the relative lack of overt violence in the capture of ships. For an act of war, this was generally carried out without any direct attacks on anyone. The ships captured by the Shenandoah were simply convinced to stop with a warning shot or two, after which the Shenandoah would send over a boarding crew to bring back the Captain of the vessel they had captured along with the ship’s records. These would then be inspected to ensure that the ship did indeed belong to Yankees, or at least that its cargo was owned by Yankees, after which the captured vessel would be looted, it’s officers, passengers and crew stowed aboard the Shenandoah itself, and then it would be burned. Some of these prisoners were treated as guests; others as prisoners. And (as mentioned) some signed onto service aboard the Shenandoah.
Prisoners were released in port.
What fascinates me about this is the legalism of the process. The officers aboard the Shenandoah were quite concerned to ensure that their prizes were legal, so to speak, even if the legitimacy of the legality was hardly something they could take for granted. They did not wish to plunder a ship from a neutral party, though; that at least would be more trouble than it was worth. So, the process was uniform, almost bureaucratic. They even enjoyed the option to require a ship to turn itself in at the nearest neutral port, effectively holding it for ransom, but doing so on little more than a written promise made under great duress.
The real violence in this story occurred primarily in the relationships between officers and crew or prisoners. Their actual naval engagements may have been a tad emotional, but they were largely legalistic affairs.
So much for the life of pirates!
Of course the men of the Shenandoah were not pirates. They were commerce raiders operating under orders from the Confederate government. This would distinguish them from buccaneers (private ships granted letters of marque from a government) or pirates who operated on their own without license from any government. The legitimacy of commerce raiding and letters of marque was always dubious, and it was coming more and more into dispute by the outset of the Civil War. In the end, their penchant for dotting legal Is and crossing legal Ts left them without much of a case to make when they finally realized the war was over. Things might have been different had the Confederacy won the war, but then again, they might also have been different if the Union had captured the Shenandoah. As it stands, they spent the final leg of their voyage trying to evade Yankee warships and get back to England where they might at least fall under the control and ostensibly neutral party.
Well, that’s it. Are you still here? Bet you thought this would be over long ago, didn’t you?
Like I said; it’s tough to end a war.
Or a story about the end of a war.
I really did warn you.
John Baldwin, Last Flag Down. (A monograph on the voyage of the Shenandoah)
Brad Barr talk in 2017. (It’s an interesting talk in which Barr argues that the greatest significance of the Shenandoah’s voyage was its impact on the practice of whaling.)
Now this is a right wing message after my left wing heart!
Only it misses.
It’s a reference to Wounded Knee Massacre. which did in fact occur on December 29th, 1890. The rest of the account comes close to the truth.
Yet, the details of the story have been altered to suit the purposes of the gun rights lobby.
1: Referring to this as “the largest mass shooting in U.S. history” puts an odd spin on it. It is of course a mass shooting, in much the same sense that any other military operation (Whether it be a legitimate battle or an outright massacre) could be described as a “mass shooting.” Still, we don’t normally describe battles or even massacres carried out by the military as “mass shootings.” We use that phrase to describe the actions of people (usually civilians) acting on their own accord. Use of this phrasing is designed to bring this story in alignment with questions about civilian gun ownership rather than questions about military actions or the history of Indian-white relations. In effect, the author is inviting us to set aside the larger context of violence made possible, not only by government policy, but also a political economy hell-bent on predatory expansion and a U.S. population fully expecting to get everything Native Americans have in the end. Wounded Knee may be one of the worst of such stories, but none of these stories can be accurately compared to a seemingly random “mass shooting” carried out by civilians acting on their own.
I’m going to give the question as to whether or not this was “the largest” mass shooting a pass.
2: The timeline is over-simplified. The army did not first disarm the Lakota camp and then begin shooting, as this meme describes. The shooting broke out during the process of disarming the warriors. Certainly, a lot of the weapons had already been confiscated, but some Lakota still had weapons, and others may have been able to retrieve confiscated weapons in the early moments of the battle. By some accounts, Wounded Knee actually consists of a close quarter battle at the site of disarmament even as the army opened up with Hotchkiss guns on the women and children in the larger camp. Soldiers then proceeded to hunt down fleeing Lakota (men, and women, and children) long after any semblance of fighting wasover. (It also appears that some of the army’s own casualties were likely due to friendly fire. Seriously, …this was a clusterfuck!) Wounded Knee was certainly an atrocity, but it was not an atrocity that begins clearly AFTER the Lakota have been disarmed.
This is of course the central distortion of the narrative. It makes it possible to treat the massacre as a story of armed shooters and unarmed targets (thus conjuring the image of a “mass shooting” in the sense we see so often today). The resulting account not only ignores the weapons still in possession of Lakota; it also ignores the larger military context which made refusal to give up the weapons implausible. Once again, this was a military operation. The notion that Lakota could have simply refused to turn over their guns (as the author urges Americans to refuse themselves) is highly unrealistic.
Hell, it’s outright stupid!
3: The author tells us that America’s founding fathers saw fit to ensure that American citizens would be armed so as to prevent this sort of thing which belies the relevance of this example to private gun ownership. Lakota were not U.S. Citizens at the time, and actual U.S. citizens (gun owners or not) were not exactly interested in helping them. It had not been long at all since the U.S. government had fought these people in war, and its leadership still regarded them as potential enemies. There is nothing about the private gun ownership of American citizens which was ever going to stop this massacre from happening, and given the dynamics of actual war, it is highly unlikely that the private ownership of guns will make a difference in the event that officials in the U.S. government decides to attack a segment of its own citizenry will make any difference. You might get to shoot back. Those you shoot back at will be better armed than you.
This really is just one of many memes distorting history on behalf of the gun rights agenda. What’s particularly irritating about this one is the use of an atrocity carried out against Native Americans by a political lobby not known for supporting Native American rights. It’s cynical. It’s deceitful. And it’s pathetic.
If there is a case to be made for the right to own a gun, this is not it.
So, I am sitting in the dentist chair for a deep cleaning, and the woman doing the procedure asks what I do? I tell her I teach.
“Oh really, what do you teach?”
I tell her its history. (It’s actually more complicated than that, but my jaw is sore, I’m stressed, and my whole mouth is numb, so this is more than I really want to say about this or anything else at that particular moment, really it is.)
My dental tech. (I don’t know her official title) then goes on to tell me that history has changed a lot lately. It’s one of those comments that could mean a few different things. Just too general to mean much to me, and I am still working on getting the ball back in her court, so I try to wrap it up with something equally vague and unworthy of follow-up commentary; “history is always changing.”
I know. That doesn’t mean anything either. What I really meant to say is; “Get on with it!”
I think she was waiting for the latest numbing shots to set in, so she added some commentary about how America used to be thought of as a good place, but now people thinks it’s awful, so they want to change history. She adds that some people should go back to their home country if they think America is so bad.
I didn’t respond at all this time, and she soon resumed her work.
Now before you imagine this woman in terms of redneck, xenophobic, white lady stereotypes, let me just add a couple important details. This woman was Asian. She had a very thick accent. I think likely that she is an immigrant. She probably finished her training as a dental tech. (or something like that) in a strange country speaking a strange language, and that HAD to be a Hell of a challenge. I will add to this that she did a good job and I am very happy with her work today. This woman is not an idiot, and I have no reason to believe her a bigot. She is an accomplished professional who has almost certainly experienced the difference between America and some other place in terms far more vivid than anything in my own background.
Still, muted as I was now by the sharp pointy things once again attacking the space between my teeth and gums, I couldn’t help but think about her words. I couldn’t help but start down the paths toward answering her, the ones I would have taken had I more time, less stress, and a functioning tongue.
And also if I was free of the pointy things.
I wanted to tell her that I teach at a tribal college and that my indigenous students have legitimate complaints about America, complaints that are not well answered by telling them to go home. (Indeed, some of those students might suggest a fitting answer would be for me to go home.) Of course, I would want to expand on this by suggesting that “go home” or “go somewhere else” doesn’t really answer any questions about injustice or oppression, even when such arguments are not made with perverse irony. Sure, there may be some folks with less to complain about than they imagine, but there are also plenty with legitimate grievances.
Whether or not this all adds up to America being a terrible place is another question. Being critical of America doesn’t necessarily entail such a sweeping condemnation, and in my experience, that sweeping condemnation has as much to do with the way some people hear the criticism as it does with the intent of the critics. Slavery, genocide, patriarchy, colonialism, and many other themes can be voiced with or without the rancor. For some these are causes to hate America; for others they are problems that ought to be addressed by anyone who really does love America.
Bottom line is that I think there is more to the criticisms my dental tech alluded to than this she might have imagined. I could be wrong. I mean, details matter, but absent a specific reference to a specific complaint, I think it rather likely that I would be inclined to support at least some of the complaints she was unhappy about.
I do think it rather likely that this woman picked up on some of the recent right wing response to critical race theory (CRT). To be honest, I was never that keen on CRT, but I must say, the right wing effort to quash it, ban it from the schools, and use it to scare the shit our of parents and political donors all over the country has certainly given me good reason to reconsider my take on the subject. The right wing makes a good case for critical race theory. I don’t think they mean to. But they sure do.
All that said, I can imagine at least one line of thought that works positively in favor of this woman’s narrative. As I said, I do think she is an immigrant. Given her allusions to going back home, it seems pretty clear that America has been a positive experience to her, one that likely brought her increased possibilities and genuine improvements in quality of life. Maybe not, of course. But, given her comments, this does seem likely. I can well imagine that someone with such an experience would find those critical of the United States quite objectionable. I can well imagine that their narratives might strike her as wrong-headed, even as deceitful and clear evidence of bad faith. I can well imagine that her own life story, had she the time to give it to me, might well have served as a great reminder that there are some good things about this country, and that those good things are not limited to the experiences of the dominant white majority.
So, what am I left with? A sense that this woman was unfairly dismissing the legitimate grievances of people who have been treated unfairly in this country. It’s not that I think this woman is wrong to love America; it is that I think she is wrong to dismiss who seem to think otherwise. As I see it, she is right to think of America as a wonderful place. I also think that others are right to think it a terrible place. It’s not even that I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
I think both of these takes are true at the same time.
This last December (2021) I spent a few days in the Rasmuson library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They had an interesting display on statehood just outside one of their public entrances. It’s 21 total posters. (Is that the right word?) Kind of a nice tight introduction to the subject. I took pictures to share with my own students.
Thought I’d share them here too.
One of the more interesting themes brought to the fore in this series would have to be the complaints about exploitation by outsiders. The word “colonialism” even makes an appearance. Of course there is something more than a little ironic about the appearance of these themes in the rhetoric of whites just a few generations into America’s own entrance into the region, but then again, there is probably something ironic in my own swing at this issue, sitting as I am in Inupiat territory a couple generations further into that process colonization.
Meta-Irony, the white liberals burden!
I have enhanced the clarity of most of these pictures a bit and tweaked the lighting where necessary to try and reduce the light glare in a few of them. My main goal was to make the writing as clear as possible. I think you can make most of the main text out if you embiggen the pictures.
One of the most profound moments in American history came in “the Revolution of 1800.” This phrase refers to the election of 1800 in which Democratic Republicans gained majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as winning the Presidency, effectively wresting control of both the executive and legislative branches of government from the Federalists who had retained it since the Constitution first went into effect. This may not sound like much of a revolution. After all, that is just what the Constitution tells us will happen when an election. They takes over the relevant seats of government, and if that means control government switches from one faction to the next, then so be it. That is how republican government works.
It is one thing to put that plan of action on paper, and it is quite another to put it into practice. The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is by no means a forgone conclusion, as many people from all over the world can tell you. Those voted out of office, do not always leave peacefully. Sometimes they never leave at all. Given the rancor between the newly formed parties, and the scale of conflict occurring during the Adams administration, it was by no means a forgone conclusion that the plan of the Constitution would be followed. Could those behind the alien and sedition acts really be expected to surrender power to those who had produced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions? The answer was by no means obvious.
What makes the revolution of 1800 significant is the fact that it took place without violence.
Oh there were plenty of efforts at manipulation to be sure. Lots of games in the counting of the votes. Still more games played in the effort to control the judiciary going forward. At the end of the day, however, the Federalists respected the outcome of the election, and they peacefully surrendered control of American government to the Democratic Republicans.
In my last post, I wrote about the notion of outer space as an extension of the western frontier in American popular culture. I mentioned in passing the connection to Native Americans and the dispossession of their lands. As a follow up, I thought I might comment on a little story connecting all three themes in one narrative.
“When NASA was preparing for the Apollo project, they did some astronaut training on a Navajo Indian reservation. One day, a Navajo elder and his son were herding sheep and came across the space crew. The old man, who only spoke Navajo, asked a question, which the son translated: “What are the guys in the big suits doing?” A member of the crew said they were practicing for their trip to the moon.
“The old man got really excited and asked if he could send a message to the moon with the astronauts. Recognizing a promotional opportunity for the spin-doctors, the NASA folks found a tape recorder. After the old man recorded his message, they asked the son to translate. He refused. So the NASA reps brought the tape to the reservation, where the rest of the tribe listened and laughed, but refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.
“Finally, NASA called in an official government translator. He reported that the moon message said: “Watch out for these guys; they’ve come to steal your land.”
It’s a great story, but if you’re like me, you have to spend a moment or two wondering whether or not it’s true. Turns out, the answer is ‘no.’ According to Snopes, the joke appears to have come from Johnny Carson. It was part of his monologue on July 22, 1969. Of course it is possible, that Carson’s writers picked it up from an earlier source. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence for that. In any event, there is no record of this with NASA or any of the other Federal Agencies that might have been involved at the time. So, the story is very unlikely to be true.
It’s damned telling that the Carson camp thought to put this joke together back during the days of the space race. They clearly got the connection between the western frontier and the space program. They even got the violence implicit in westward expansion. They got all of this in the service of a joke intended for a mainstream American audience.
These weren’t activists; they were comedy writers working on a relatively non-partisan show, and they decided that it would be funny to compare the Apolllo moon landings to the dispossession of Native Americans. Judging by the longevity of this gag, it would appear that they were right.
The thing is, this joke is only funny if people get the connection between exploration and colonization, if they know that someone planting a flag in ‘new’ territory has generally meant someone else gets screwed.
It’s almost as if awareness of systemic patterns of oppression isn’t limited to critical race theorists.
In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American history.” In it, Turner bucked the prevailing historical wisdom of the day to say that American history was in fact quite distinct from that of Europe, and that this was due to the existence of the frontier. The opportunity to move freely into unoccupied land, and the struggle with nature to carve civilization out of that land, that wilderness, gave America and Americans a unique character.
…according to Turner, at any rate.
Suffice to say, the Turner thesis caught on, not just in the historical professions, but also throughout American popular culture. One can hardly imagine western fiction without it, or even the lyrics of mainstream country music. So, when I say, according to Turner, I of course mean, “and a whole lot of other people right along with him.” The Turner thesis has become so ubiquitous it would be hard to find a single genre of artistic expression or a vein of American politics it has not influenced, or for that matter a person who doesn’t invoke its themes from time to time.
To say that all of this is problematic is putting it rather mildly, and countless books have been written exploring the many problems of the frontier thesis, just as countless books have been written applying it to various aspects of American history.
Needless to say, Native Americans have come up a few times, particularly in reference to that notion of free and unoccupied land so central to the frontier thesis. We’ll save that for another post.
…or maybe 10 other posts.
One of the most interesting problems with the frontier thesis has to do with the timing. See, most people would reckon that the frontier was basically closed by 1893, not too long before that, to be sure, but by most accounts, it was certainly closed by 1893. So, if that frontier is what makes America and Americans unique, then what do we make of everything that comes after its closure? If the frontier was the driving force in American history, then what is significant about America and Americans long after the became an ex frontier?
To raise the question in a more practical tone; if the original is already gone, then can we find another? What is the new frontier?
Yes, that question has been asked many times by many people.
Various answers have been offered.
What has me thinking about all this today is a recent visit to a museum, The Spirit of the West Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona. More specifically, I am thinking of one of the exhibits on the second floor of this museum. It is entitled, “From the Mountains to the Moon,” exploring the life work of the artist Paul Calle. The man was an amazing artist, and the exhibit carries a good deal of his work, much of which deals with themes quite closely connected to the frontier, but what specifically gives the exhibit its title is the contrast between his many paintings of mountain men, and his depiction of the Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, taking man’s first step onto the moon. This might seem a Hell of a leap, from Mountain Men to the moon, but of course, there are certain elements of continuity.
You can see these traces of continuity in at least two of the paintings in this exhibit, along with the narratives attached to them. The first of these is entitled “The Great Moment.” It is most remarkable for its presence in an exhibit otherwise filled with western Americana (and a few other things to be sure), but the mere presence of this great painting alongside so many depictions of mountain men, Indians, and western landscape creates an interesting juxtaposition. It is enough to get someone asking, how and why did this piece get here?
“This painting of my friend Neil Armstrong by my friend Paul Calle combines for me the best of two worlds. NASA’s technological achievements and an artist’s exquisite interpretation of it. It looks as beautiful today as it did forty years ago, and it will one hundred years from now.” – Michael Collins, Apollo 11, Command Module Pilot
So, how and why did that painting get here?
Well, the best explanation can be found alongside one of Calle’s more typical pieces.
“I have always liked the image of mountain man John Colter his moccassin clad foot first stepping on the newly fallen snow of the Yellowstone Valley to the Moon boot of Neil Armstrong stepping in the dust of the Moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. Two worlds apart, yet each of a new frontier. – Paul Calle