Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Thoughts on Native American Culture

Whipping Tree, Chickasaw Council House Museum

My Uncle Haskell was an attorney and judge in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and a charter member of the Chickasaw Historical Society Board. He explained to me once that for the Indians, especially the full bloods, the concept of land ownership was totally foreign.  

He said that to them, land was like water or air, to be used by each person as needed. Before the white man came, they used land for hunting and for farming, and when game was scarce or during droughts, they moved on. There were boundaries between tribes, which changed with time depending on the size and needs of each tribe, but there was no such thing as land ownership.

After tribal boundaries were imposed by the US government, the Indians set up constitutions which reflected their tribal custom, designating land as common to all. Tribal members could use what they needed, but after their death, the land was returned to the tribe. This caused trouble within the tribe as some took advantage of the law to profit by subletting land to white men. The real tragedy though came in 1903, when tribal governments were dissolved and individuals were issued allotments.

Many Indians were so opposed to the allotment process, that they refused to be included on the tribal rolls compiled by the government, thereby eliminating themselves and their families from receiving allotments, and also future benefits of tribal membership.

It was mainly full bloods, who held onto their traditions more strongly, those who deserved the benefits most, who were left out, and even for those who signed the rolls, the concept of land ownership was so difficult for them that they often signed over title to their allotments for a night on the town. As Uncle Haskell told me, “They didn’t think land was worth anything.” So it wasn’t just that the Indians were opposed to private land ownership of land, they couldn’t even understand the concept.

The tragedy that befell the Indians during the allotment process is described in detail by Angie Debo in her book, “And Still the Waters Run.”

I include this story as an illustration of the tremendous power of culture and tradition to mold the thinking of the members of a group.

The Indians also had no concept of wealth. Often the chief was the poorest person in the tribe because he shared what he had with others. Possessions were shared. Poor or disabled members were taken care of. Even now the Chickasaw have what they call “giveaways.” People take household appliances, clothes, linens, furniture, whatever they don’t need, and give it away to whomever needs it more.

Gifts were even exchanged between enemies as a symbol of good faith. The Europeans didn’t understand this. There is an example in the Roanoke Colony story. During the first exploratory mission the explorers notice that a cup was missing after a meeting with the Indians, and they retaliated by attacking the village and burning the Indians’ food stores. We have no explanation from the natives’ point of view, but I imagine that they would have expected the Europeans to share what they had.

Another difference in Indian culture I learned from my mother. She told me about the honesty and honor among the Chickasaw. In fact they did not even have jails, or at least not until quite late in their history. When a crime was committed, a date was set for the punishment and the guilty party was told to appear at a certain time and place for his or her punishment, usually lashes, and the guilty one always came to submit to his punishment, even if it was execution. The Chickasaws’ whipping tree has been preserved at their museum in Tishomingo, Oklahoma.

My mother explained that for the Indian the worst punishment wasn’t execution, but banishment from the tribe. An individual’s identity, his or her very existence depended on membership in the tribe.

In tribal society, the very concept of identity was dependent on tribal membership. A warrior’s name was given based on a characteristic or achievement, for instance “Running-deer” or “Ten-killer.” Also tribal members’ names might change from time to time depending on their position or rank. In an article recently published in the Chickasaw history journal, there is a discussion about whether or not the chief Tishominko was in attendance. In the article they say that “Tishumustubbee” is listed, and that in future documents listing Tishominko, Tishumustubbee is not mentioned.
Minko means chief.

Chickasaw society was, is matrilineal, which makes sense in a culture where the men are away much of the time hunting or at war, at risk of losing their lives. Lineage made a difference, and clan (family) membership was important. There were certain clans from which leaders were taken. Clans were thought to have characteristics, such as bravery, wisdom, or hunting ability.

At the same time tribal identity appears to have trumped lineage, or even race! The Chickasaws experienced intermarriage from an early time, especially with Scotch traders and missionaries and these men were adopted by the tribe. For this reason the Chickasaws were better able to negotiate with the government in their treaties. The mixed blood members understood English, and also they understood the the white man’s thinking, for instance on the issue of land ownership.

Early in Chickasaw history the Natchez Indian Tribe was decimated by the Spanish and the remnants were adopted by the Chickasaws.

Slavery was commonly practiced by many Indian tribes including the Chickasaws. Captives from raids on other tribes or survivors of battles were often made slaves, or servants, but with time many became members of the tribe. This applied not just to Native Americans though. Black runaway slaves were adopted by the Seminoles in Florida.  In fact, there were some tribes that were predominantly black.   

In the west, the Plains tribes frequently raided white settlements, taking hostages for slaves or ransom, but often adopting them into the tribe, and it was not uncommon for these hostages to refuse to return to their families when they were discovered. In other words, the Indians determined tribal membership not by family membership, but by performance and loyalty.

Thinking about my last article about the Lumbee tribe, I think that the Indians would have accepted the Lumbee as just another tribe, in spite of their genetic heterogeneity.

The tribal culture, the Indians’ concepts of ownership, and tribal identity, served them well possibly for millennia, but they are totally foreign to our way of thinking. I make two conclusions from these observations. First, the tribal culture works. There’s plenty of room for compassion, loyalty, generosity. The members of the group each have a place, they produce what they need, and they have security and support from their community.

The second, and perhaps the more interesting conclusion to me is that, not only is the tribal system efficient, it requires a totally different way of thinking. Its members are not just convinced. They are conditioned to think in a way that supports their system, and their conditioning is so strong that they have difficulty surviving in a different culture.

It makes you wonder, how are we conditioned by our culture? Does this conditioning prevent us from understanding or judging other cultures? Can we see the flaws in our own culture? Would our conditioning prevent us from adapting to another culture?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Lumbee

Henry Berry Lowrie

The Lumbee are the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi, numbering 35000 registered members and another 30000 who claim membership, according to Andrew Lawler, in his book, "The Secret Token." See posts: The Lost Colony, Nov. 11, 2018, and Virginia Dare, Nov. 21, 2018. In this fascinating book Lawler tells the story of the Roanoke Colony, the first British colony in the new world, and how its mysterious disappearance has fostered spooky stories of alien abduction, demon possession and fantasies justifying white supremacy.

Lawler devotes one chapter of his book to the Lumbee Indian tribe, who have incorporated into their traditions a completely different twist to the Roanoke story. According to the Lumbee, the Roanoke settlers didn’t disappear at all. Rather, they were rescued by the Croatoan Indians, the ancestors of the Lumbee. Today Virginia Dare is referred to as the Lumbee’s mother, and Lumbee sons are named Manteo in honor of the Croatoan warrior who returned to England with the first Roanoke party and then came back with the settlers to intercede for them with his people.

This tradition has served the Lumbee well over the years. During the Civil War a male member of the tribe was executed for refusing to dig a trench alongside African-American slaves, and after the war his son led a rebellion against the Ku Klux Klan and it’s persecution of people of color. The man, Henry Berry Lowrie, was never caught. In fact, he once robbed a bank of the reward money collected for his capture.

During the period of Indian Removal, the notorious Trail of Tears, the Lumbee were left in place, probably because white settlers didn’t covet their swampy land.

Later, in the 1880’s, a North Carolina legislator, Hamilton McMillan, wrote a book based on the tradition that the Lumbee had rescued the Roanoke settlers. In his book,
McMillan noted that many of the Lumbee had names similar to those of the settlers, for instance Berry, the name of the leader of the rebellion. He also cited a story of uncertain origin, of an Indian tribe found during the colonial period who spoke English. He then pointed out similarities of the dialects of contemporaneous Lumbee to “Old Saxon English.” As a result of McMillan’s theories, legislation was passed giving the Lumbee recognition as a tribe, voting rights, and better schools. He also made Democrats of them, insuring his tenure in the state legislature.

The Lumbee have a river named for them, the Lumber River, and a branch of the University of N. Carolina is located in the town of Pembroke, in the heart of Lumbee country. While recognized in N. Carolina, the Lumbee are not recognized by the federal government, not surprising since recognition would involve providing special benefits to tribal members.  

The origins of the tribe are vague. The word Lumbee comes from a Siouan word meaning “dark water.” They are located in an area that was originally swampy and remote, which became a refuge for escaped slaves, poor whites, and mixed blood people of color. It was a place where they could survive by hunting and fishing, and where they could escape persecution.

Efforts to link the Lumbee to the colonists have frustrated historians and archeologists, since there are few written records, and no archaeological trace of the colonists. Tribal members are suspicious and reluctant to participate in DNA studies, partly because of fears that it might jeopardize their continuing efforts to obtain federal recognition, but limited studies have been done and they are surprising. They show a high percentage Northern European and African ancestry, but no Native American!

Lawler quotes an Episcopal priest who claims Lumbee ancestry. “I am Proudly Lumbee,” he said , “but recognize that it is an identity constructed by my ancestors to secure a better deal for themselves in the Jim Crow South.”

I think he has every right to be proud.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Virginia Dare

Virginia Dare

Of all the people associated with the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Sir Walter Raleigh: adviser to Queen Elizabeth and sponsor of the colony, John White: governor of Roanoke colony and artist whose paintings were reproduced, published and circulated throughout Europe, shaping early attitudes toward the New World; Thomas Harriot: Oxford trained naturalist, mathematician and astronomer, who learned Algonquin to communicate with native Americans, invented navigation methods used into the twentieth century, plotted the most accurate maps of the North American coast made for two centuries, and cataloged the flora and fauna of the new world; none have inspired more interest and imagination than Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the new world.

Virginia, daughter of Eleanor and Ananias Dare and granddaughter of John White, was born on August 18th, 1587, on Roanoke Island off the east coast of what would later be North Carolina. She was baptized the next week, and shortly afterwards her grandfather left for England, never to see her again. All we know of her is the fact of her birth, recorded briefly in White’s journal.

The birth of little Virginia remained an obscure historical footnote until 1834, when George Bancroft, a Harvard historian, wrote a book about the lost colony, highlighting Virginia Dare as the first English child born in the new world. The book was a best seller, unusual for a history, but the country was going through some changes at the time that created a fertile environment for her story. Land hungry pioneers had successfully pressured Congress into passing legislation to remove Indian Tribes from the southeast, freeing up the fertile Mississippi valley for settlement. After the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, oppressive laws were being passed to keep down blacks, both enslaved and free. Americans of English and Scottish descent were searching for ways to justify their oppression of people of color.

About that time several books and magazine articles were written portraying Virginia Dare as a symbol of the purity and virtue of the white race. In an article in the Women’s Home Companion published in 1837, Eliza Cushing described the massacre of the Roanoke Colony by bloodthirsty savages, and the rescue of the infant Virginia by the loyal Manteo*, who protects her through her childhood. As an adult she is rescued from marrying a vicious savage with “uncontrolled passions” by a Spaniard who happens by. They then return to Spain with the Spaniard, where they raise Manteo’s son and cause him to forget his savage past. The story not only supports the superiority of the white race over the Indian "savages," it also supports the practice pursued into the twentieth century of separating Indian children from their parents and from their cultures, in order to “civilize” them.

Over the next almost two centuries many variations of the racist fantasy have been told.
Another story by Mary Mason in 1862 describes the virtuous Virginia Dare being transformed into a white doe by an evil Indian shaman. When she is later killed by a white hunter, she thanks him for freeing her from her curse and for supplanting the evil red man on the continent, supporting the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The Civil War only reinforced the Popularity of the Virginia Dare legend, as southern whites struggled to maintain political control of the South.

Around the turn of the 19th century, Sallie Southall Cotton wrote an epic poem about the Virginia Dare legend in which she transforms Dare into a Jesus like figure, comparing Roanoke to Bethlehem and even having Dare transform water into wine in her death scene. Cotton traveled around the country reciting her poem, and in 1896 formed the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association which raised money and bought Fort Raleigh, the site of the Roanoke Colony, where Virginia Dare's birthday has been celebrated ever since. Cotton also advocated scientific motherhood, advocating laws banning the mixing of the races in order to maintain the purity of the white race, an idea which was also popular in Nazi Germany.

Over the 400 years since the disappearance of the Roanoke settlers, Virginia Dare has been used as justification for segregation, lynchings, disenfranchisement of black Americans, limitation of immigration, and other manefestations of prejudice against people of color, in a disgraceful perversion of history. Even now there is a web site vdare.com which advocates limiting the immigration of non-europeans.

Information for this article was taken from "The Secret Token," by Andrew Lawler.

* Manteo was a Croatoan Indian who was taken to England by the first English exploration party, and became an ally of the colonists. Another indian, Wantese, also went to England, but returned to America to lead the resistance against the settlers.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Image result for roanoke colony

John White Searching for Roanoke Colony

I recently visited North Carolina, the site of the first English settlement in North America, the so called “Lost” Colony of Roanoke. While I was there, I picked up a book about the Roanoke Colony, “The Secret Token,” by Andrew Lawler, and learned some things I didn’t know about American history, about humans’ will to survive, and about their ability to bend history to serve their interests and imagination.

The Roanoke Colony was a project of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was seeking gold, a shortcut to India, or some other way to make himself richer, and in 1585 he was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony in North America. After an initial party explored the area, three shiploads of colonists were sent in 1587. They settled on the island of Roanoke, just inside the barrier islands known as the outer banks, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The colony’s governor, John White, returned to England for supplies later that year, leaving behind his daughter Eleanor, his son in law Ananias Dare, and their new born baby, Virginia. Soon after he returned to London, the Spanish Armada attacked the English coast, and every available ship was used for defense, preventing him from returning until three years later, in 1590. When he finally made it back to the site, all he found was the word, “Croatoan,” carved on a tree.

Ever since then, the fate of the 115 Roanoke colonists has remained a mystery. The carving suggests that they moved near the Croatoan Indian tribe, which was located on what is now Hatteras Island, but no archaeological evidence has been found to substantiate that theory. Over the last 400 years, archaeological digs have been done in other locations where the colonists might have gone. Genetic studies have even been done on descendants of the local Indian tribes looking for DNA from the colonists without conclusive results. The fate of the Roanoke colony does have some historic importance since it was the first English settlement in the new world, predating the Jamestown colony by 20 years, and John White’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first English child born here.

Through the years there have been many theories about what happened to the Roanoke colonists. They most likely were either taken in or killed by the local Indian tribes or starved to death like the Jamestown settlers almost did twenty years later. After some initial misunderstandings, the Indians had been helpful to the colonists, thinking that an alliance with them might give them an advantage over the neighboring tribes. Spanish colonists and  African slaves had been adopted by tribes further south in similar situations. There was a drought about that time, so no one, not even the Indians, were getting enough to eat, so the starvation theory also makes sense. Actually, when the Jamestown settlers arrived, Chief Powhatan told them that his warriors had killed the Roanoke settlers, although historians think that he was referring to a group from the earlier exploring party stranded on the outer banks in 1585.

Since there’s no good evidence to support any of the more realistic possibilities, many legends and other supernatural explanations have been invented over the years to fill the void.   

The word Croatoan has been found in the journals of Amelia Ehrhart and Black Bart the pirate after their mysterious disappearances. Edgar Allen Poe, famous for writing spooky stories, is said to have whispered the word “Croatoan” on his death bed. One legend tells of the colonists being stricken by a terrible disease that drove them to cannibalism. In a variation of the story, the colonists were possessed by evil spirits which the Indians banished by carving the word Croatoan on the tree. In the movie, The Lost Colony, The Legend of Roanoke, released in 2007, the island is haunted by the souls of Viking explorers, who take revenge on the helpless settlers. The current season of the TV series American Horror Story has been devoted to the spirits of the Roanoke colonists. Some have even claimed that the colonists were carried away by aliens. 

While some of the speculation over the disappearance of the Lost Colonists of Roanoke has been entertaining, some of it has been taken seriously, and may have even had an effect on the course of history.More about that in my next post………