Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The War of All Against All

Nuclear test, Bikini Atoll, 1946
I remember the Sixties.

They say, of course, that if you remember the Sixties, you were not really there.

Nevertheless, I think we all agree that something happened then. There was a tectonic shift in Western culture. There was some existential earthquake of major magnitude. Why?

There were many factors, no doubt; but let's not underrate The Bomb. In the Fifties and early Sixties, “The Bomb,” as we called it then, was new. We lived in constant fear of thermonuclear war, and “mutual assured destruction.” Eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell opined at the time that, all things considered, it was better right now to surrender to the Soviet Union than to run the risk of atomic war, whoever won. North American cities, on the model of London in the Blitz, set up systems of air raid sirens. Everyone built a bomb shelter in their back yard. Even Diefenbaker had his Diefenbunker.

Main conference room, Diefenbunker

Now we are all more sanguine, perhaps without good reason. But back then everything smelled of Armageddon. Add that recollections of the Second World War and its carnage were still fresh, Korea and Vietnam had quickly followed, and the First World War was still within living memory. It all left us with a general impression that civilization, technology, and the grand sweep of history were herding us lambs to the slaughter. More civilization simply led to bloodier and more frequent war year upon year, as nations got bigger and weapons more powerful, until, inevitably, the entire species was annihilated. Along with every other species. George Orwell's 1984, composed in 1948, accordingly forecast a future of constant war.

Orwell's imaginary world in 1984, showing areas of constant conflict among the three great powers.

So if civilization and progress were a dead end, what was our alternative?

Enter, stage left, a familiar dramatis persona, a stock character of stage, screen, and bodice-ripper: the Noble Savage. We began to imagine, as Europeans traditionally do whenever Europe is caught in war, that North American Indians, relatively untouched by civilization, were a contrasting model of peace, tolerance, and general human happiness. “Little Big Man,” the anti-Western released in 1970, outlined the basic narrative; although not in as extreme form as the notion of primal innocence later became. In that film, Indian war is shown as a sort of shadow play: victory consists in touching the enemy, then retreating unharmed. The poor, good-hearted Cheyennes in the movie are unable to comprehend the reality of modern war, and die like lemmings. At another point, the European protagonist, as a boy, lands a punch on the chin of an Indian antagonist. The native lad, nonplussed, just stands there, not knowing how to respond. He knew nothing of fisticuffs.

Right. Nice life, if there is not an angel with a flaming sword blocking your way.

Sadly, some of us have recently been rudely awakened from this Samoan vacation of the mind by the archaeological record. As Stephen Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and Lawrence Keeley (War Before Civilization) have outlined in recent books, if wars in the Twentieth century had generated the same mortality rates as the typical wars among hunter-gatherer societies, by 2000 there would have been two billion dead (Spengler (4 July 2006). "The fraud of primitive authenticity". Asia Times Online, citing Nicholas Wade). In the close encounters characteristic of tribal war, Keeley says, casualty rates run to 60%, against 1% among combatants in a current war. On average, tribal wars are 20 times more deadly than that trouble Hitler started. Nor were they as uncommon as modern war: The Economist estimates that two-thirds of hunter-gatherer societies worldwide are at war constantly, and 90% go to war at least once a year.

Apparently, Canadian Indians were a bit on the pacifist side. Keeley's data from North America suggest that, among our First Nations, only 87% enaged in war at least once a year. That's 3% less bellicose than the mean.

A notable excavation at Crow Creek, South Dakota, has uncovered the skeletons of 500 men, women, and children, all, by the marks on the bones, dead by violence, scalped, and mutilated, a century and a half before Columbus sailed. No polluting influence of European civilization here. This was 60% of the estimated population of that village. Mostly missing, interestingly, were the bones of young women. That might account for the other 40%--carried off for future considerations, probably of a largely sexual nature.

This actually should not come as a shock to anyone. It conforms well with the historical record, and the historical record has always been clear. When Columbus disembarked, he found the Indians of San Salvador on alert against raids from nearby islands. John Smith, kidnapped by the Powhatans, was briefed on the local situation: “Hee [the chief] described ... upon the same Sea, a mighty Nation called Pocoughtronack, a fierce Nation that did eate men, and warred with the people of Moyaoncer and Pataromerke, Nations upon the toppe of the heade of the Bay, under his territories: where the yeare before they had slain an hundred” (A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Hapned in Virginia, 1608). The Stadacona Indians at Quebec told Cartier on his first visit of a recent successful raid by their neighbours resulting in 200 deaths, out of a population of a couple of thousand. When Champlain came by eighty years later, of course, all the Stadaconans, and even any trace of their language, were gone. As Champlain and his arquebusiers landed, the local Indians promptly tried to recruit them in their ongoing war with the Iroquois.

Jesuit chroniclers, often first at the frontier, and trained scientific observers, also noted this state of perpetual war. Father Jouvency, S.J., says of the Indians of New France generally, “They engage in war rashly and savagely, often with no cause, or upon a very slight pretext” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 267). “One tribe hardly ever has intercourse with another, either distant or near, except such as may arise in the prosecution of offensive or defensive warfare” (Jesuit Relations 2, p. 199). Of the Algonquins and Iroquois, the early Jesuits explain, “There has always been war between these two nations, as there has been between the Souriquois [Micmac] and Armouchiquois [modern identity unknown; possibly wiped out by the Micmac]” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 103).

There really was, in fairness to “Little Big Man,” a practice among some plains Indians (only) of “counting coup,” getting boasting rights by touching an enemy and retreating unharmed. However, this was in addition to, not instead of, war as we know it, with all the blood and gore and stuff. There is no question real Indians would understand the difference. “Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of 'total war' for conflicts between modern industrial nations,” Mark Van de Logt writes of these same tribes of the plains, “the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes” (Mark Van de Logt, War Party in Blue. Pawnee Scouts in the US Army. University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. p. 35). “To take one another's scalps had been for ages the absorbing and favourite recreation of all these Western tribes,” Francis Parkman concurs (Parkman, A Half Century of Conflict, vol. 2, p. 21, speaking of the Outagamies, Winnebagoes, Sacs, Sioux, and Illinois). Horace Greeley reports, from the Nineteenth century frontier, “[T]he Aarapaho chief, Left-Hand, assures me that his people were always at war with the Utes—at least, he has no recollection, no tradition, of a time when they were at peace.“ (Horace Greeley, “Lo! The Poor Indian!” An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859).

It is also true enough that Indians, as shown in “Little Big Man,” did not box. But a real Cheyenne would not have responded only with shocked inaction if struck with a right hook. Father Biard, in the Jesuit Relations, reports just such a circumstance: “they do not understand boxing at all. I have seen one of our little boys make a Savage, a foot taller than himself, fly before him; placing himself in the posture of a noble warrior, he placed his thumb over his fingers and said, 'Come on!'”

“However,” the good Jesuit immediately adds, “when the Savage was able to catch him up by the waist, he made him cry for mercy” (Jesuit Relations 3, p. 91).

No wonder Brazeau lost. Image courtesy Globe and Mail.

Nor was this non-stop aggressiveness simply a matter of young men needing to prove their mettle, while life went on more or less as always back home among the tents and longhouses. This, as Pinker, Keeley, and Van de Logt point out, was total war, in a sense the world wars of the Twentieth century really never were. “Noncombatants were legitimate targets,” Van de Logt notes. “Indeed, the taking of a scalp of a woman or a child was considered honourable because it signified that the scalp taker had dared to enter the very heart of the enemy's territory” (Mark Van de Logt, War Party in Blue. Pawnee Scouts in the US Army. University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. p. 35). The object of any war was, ultimately, total extermination of the enemy. They were, after all, not human.

The Indian way of war was familiar enough to early colonists. In the raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, during Queen Anne's War, in 1704, for example, one Joseph Bradley's wife was taken captive, and later gave birth to a child in captivity. The assembled Indians, mostly Abenaki, with a sprinkling of French, quickly killed the child by throwing hot coals in its mouth when it cried (Francis Parkman, A Half Century of Conflict, vol 1, p 91). They also killed Mercy Sheldon, age two, by dashing her brains out on the door-stone (ibid, p. 115). Mariah Carter, five years old, was killed because the Indians did not think her fit for the march of captives back to New France (p. 117). For that was their plan for prisoners: to bring them back to their villages along the St. Lawrence for either ransom or servitude. Later, on the long trek with their human booty, they killed a nursing baby (p. 123). Soon after, in a fit of drunkenness, they killed a negro serving man (p. 124). A Mrs. Williams, who had recently given birth, was tomahawked when she fainted along the way (p. 126). Next day, they killed another infant and a girl of eleven (p. 126). Another day, and they tomahawked another woman. The day following, they slaughtered four more. In this case, at least, woman and children were seemingly killed first, on the grounds that they were not strong enough to survive being taken as captives.

Indian women were apparently hardier, or more desirable as captives. When an assembled force of their enemies overwhelmed the Outagamies outside Detroit, according to Parkman, “The women and children were divided among the victorious hordes, and adopted or enslaved. To the men, no quarter was given. 'Our Indians amused themselves,' writes Dubuisson [the commander of the French forces], 'with shooting four or five of them every day.'” (Parkman, A Half Century of Conflict, volume 1, p. 497).

Iroquois expansion during the Beaver Wars.

You want to accuse Sir John A. of “cultural genocide”? This was real genocide, of real people. All Indian wars were genocidal. You may have heard of “the last of the Mohicans”? Blotted out by the Mohawk. Recall too the Stadaconans who greeted Cartier. Gone, as noted, eighty years later. The Dorset people, “skraelings,” who fought off the Vikings? Gone a few hundred years later; only archeological evidence remains. The Pocumtuc, prior residents of the Deerfield of which we have recently been speaking? Wiped out by the Mohawks in the early 1660s. The Yellowknives from the region of Great Slave Lake and the Coppermine River, the largest tribe in the great Northwest when Samuel Hearne passed through in 1774? Obliterated by the nearby Dogrib Indians soon after, in the early nineteenth century (Keeley, pp. 67-9).

In the “Beaver Wars,” the Iroquois Confederacy exterminated the Wenro by 1638, the Hurons by 1649, the Neutrals by 1651, the Eries by 1656, and the Susquehannock by 1677. They drove the remnants of the Shawnee west beyond the Mississippi River.

“Before French or English influence had been felt in the interior of the continent,” writes Parkman, “a great part of North America was the frequent witness of scenes ... of horror. In the first half of the seventeenth century the whole country from Lake Superior to the Tennessee, and from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, was ravaged by wars of extermination, in which tribes, large and powerful by Indian standards, perished, dwindled into feeble remnants, or were absorbed by other tribes and vanished from sight” (Parkman, ibid., pp. 498-9).

In 1638, Jesuit missionaries were present to see the remnants of the Wenro Indians straggle in to Huronia, their own villages and most of their people having been wiped out by the Iroquois: “Notwithstanding the help that could be given them [by the Hurons], the fatigue and inconveniences of such a voyage —of more than eighty leagues, made by over six hundred persons, of whom the majority were women and little children —were so great that many died on the way, and nearly all were sick when they arrived, or immediately afterwards” (Fr. LeJeune, Jesuit Relations 17, p. 25). Eleven years later, Jesuits were present when the same fate befell the Hurons themselves. “[N]otwithstanding the many alms that we gave, ... we could not prevent hundreds and hundreds of them from dying in the winter by hunger. In the summer, many had rather postponed death than prolonged life, by living either in the woods on a few bitter roots and wild fruits; or on the rocks, on some little fish ... It was a frightful thing to see, instead of men, dying skeletons, walking more like shadows of the dead than like bodies of the living; and feeding themselves on that which nature has most in abomination, — exhuming the corpses (which we buried with our own hands, the relatives of the dead often lacking the strength to do so), in order to nourish themselves therewith, and eat the leavings of foxes and dogs” (Jesuit Relations, vol. 40, p. 47).

Long before the Noble Savage strutted his hour upon the stage, there was another Indian familiar to Europeans, based more closely on actual encounters. Horace Greeley, the author of the adage “Go West, young man,” himself went west, and wrote of his discovery of the untrammeled Indian, “I have learned to appreciate better than hitherto, and to make more allowance for, the dislike, aversion, contempt, wherewith Indians are usually regarded by their white neighbors, and have been since the days of the Puritans. It needs but little familiarity with the actual, palpable aborigines to convince any one that the poetic Indian—the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow—is only visible to the poet’s eye” (Horace Greeley, Lo! The Poor Indian!” An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859).

Frontidspiece to Hobbes's Leviathan, one of the most famous bits of book illustration ever.
Thomas Hobbes, the original author of the idea of a “social contract,” grew to young adulthood in the days that England, his homeland, was starting its first settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Far from endorsing the Noble Savage image, Hobbes argued that man in a state of nature lived a life that was, now proverbially, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The state of nature was, as indeed Darwin later saw it, a “war of all against all.” Government, then, was man's great effort to escape this hellish condition, and so to protect his rights to life, limb, and liberty against some stronger neighbour. To Hobbes, even the most authoritarian, undemocratic, autocratic, oppressive government was more desirable than this awful possibility of a state of nature. “Hereby it is manifest,” he writes in Leviathan, “that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man” (Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13).

Where did Hobbes get such a misanthropic idea? Such a dark and sinister view of human nature?

As it happens, Hobbes is explicit:

“It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before” (ibid.).

Hobbes, in short, was informed by contemporary reports from the American colonies.

This state of eternal war explains, to Hobbes' thinking, why Indian society had remained so materially undeveloped.

“In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (ibid.)

If innate conservatism were not already a central feature of Indian cultures, this alone would be enough to ensure they did not develop. It does not, of course, explain why Indian cultures since this condition ceased have still not produced very much.

Interestingly, then, the Indians of America are ultimately responsible for our current system of government: not just, as has often been said, for parts of the US Constitution, but for parliamentary democracy, for the idea of popular sovereignty, and for the doctrine of human rights. Hobbes's defense of absolute monarchy has long fallen out of favour; we have guillotines for that. But his essential insight of the social contract was built upon by John Locke, and liberal democracy was the result. Government is a pact we make to protect our rights. As part of that pact, we retain essential sovereignty, and have a right to always be consulted.

But Indian society was not the model: it was the counter example.

Living a life that was nasty, brutish, and short cannot have been nearly as much fun as it looks in the movies. But do not blame the Indians. They were its greatest victims. In said state of nature, each group faced a problem. Without some overarching authority to enforce it, laying down the tomahawk and seeking to live in peace with one's neighbours simply left one open to conquest, enslavement, and bloody murder. Everyone was a tiger with another tiger by the tail.

Enter, happily, the British and then Canadian government with their treaties. For the “white” authorities, these were all about land, about clearly, decently, and honourably “extinguishing aboriginal title.” The Indians, with no concept of land ownership, probably did not attach so much importance to this. Especially since they were still allowed to hunt. Whatever… For them, the treaties were about learning to assimilate, learning a new and better way to forge a living. But they were also, perhaps even more so, seen by the Indians as general peace treaties. Not so much peace treaties with the Canadian government: treaties of peace among the Indian tribes, with the federal government, and the redoubtable Mounties, reassuringly there to preserve it. Cree chief Sweetgrass sent an appeal for a treaty to Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris in 1871. He cites the need to learn farming, but also writes, “We made a peace this winter with the Blackfeet. Our young men are foolish, it may not last long. We want you to come and see us and to speak with us” (Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the NorthWest Territories [1880; reprint, Saskatoon, Fifth House, 1991], pp 170-171). The Blackfeet, his antagonists, sent a similar message, calling for a treaty while complaining, inter alia, that “the Half-breeds [M├ętis] and Cree Indians in large Camps are hunting Buffalo, both summer and Winter in the very centre of our lands” (Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council. The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7 [Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995], pp. 276-277).

A common rap against Locke's theories, and by extension against the philosophal underpinnings of liberal democracy and human rights, is that the original “social contract” is entirely a theoretical construct; that at no actual moment in history did any group of people actually, literally enter into any such contract, delegating some of their rights and powers for the sake of forming a government. It follows, then, if so, that governments are not legitimate. There was no deal.

But in fact, we have just such a historical example: the Indians of Canada, signing the numbered treaties.

Perhaps the greatest peril of the current, wildly romantic notion of a Noble native Savage living in an Edenic garden, is that Indians themselves now get most of their notions of “traditional Indian culture” from the popular media. Such misinformation encourages the Indian young in particular to try to return to a purely imaginary state. Such efforts cannot end well: even if it were possible to return to a state of innocence after knowledge, to crawl back up into your mother's womb and suck your thumb forever--before Jamestown, in all likelihood, is only Jonestown. Many modern Indians are left undermining the wisdom of their wisest ancestors.

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