Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Indians, Freedom, Community, Etc.

David Brooks has been pondering an old question we inherited from our colonial ancestors:
In 18th-century America, colonial society and Native American society sat side by side. The former was buddingly commercial; the latter was communal and tribal. As time went by, the settlers from Europe noticed something: No Indians were defecting to join colonial society, but many whites were defecting to live in the Native American one.

This struck them as strange. Colonial society was richer and more advanced. And yet people were voting with their feet the other way.

The colonials occasionally tried to welcome Native American children into their midst, but they couldn’t persuade them to stay. Benjamin Franklin observed the phenomenon in 1753, writing, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”

During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. After a while, they had plenty of chances to escape and return, and yet they did not. In fact, when they were “rescued,” they fled and hid from their rescuers.
Brooks leaps immediate from this 250-year-old observation to the contemporary world, writing that this history
raises the possibility that our culture is built on some fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled.
I think there is something to this, but before I get into that I want to make a few caveats. First, it is not true that no Indians copied the white man's ways. There were Cherokee, Creeks and others in the "civilized tribes" who built log cabins, farmed with plows, wore clothes no matter the temperature, developed alphabets, published newspapers, even owned African slaves. Plus all of those free, anti-colonial Indians rapidly took on some of the white man's best gadgets, especially guns, metal knives and hatchets, iron cauldrons, and strike-a-lights for starting fires. These things made their lives easier. (Just try to light a fire by spinning a stick in a hole some time.) Even more important, the Indians we are talking about lived in a world depopulated by waves of European diseases. Our evidence suggests that back in 1500 or so some Indians lived as what amounted to the serfs of mound-building warlords, their bones weakened by the lack of protein in their mostly corn diets. So part of what we are talking about is not an Indian world so much as one in which there is a lot of freedom because 90 percent of the people have recently died.

Second, our society is not the same as that of eighteenth-century Massachusetts. We have discarded some parts of it that may have loomed large for runaways: gloomy, repressive Calvinism, uncomfortable wool clothes even in the summer, a dismal bread and meat diet, a strict legal code developed for crowded, European societies enforced with draconian punishments by magistrates who equated the old law with civilization, whether it made any sense in America or not. Many of the runaways were indentured servants who labored in effective slavery, under masters who beat them casually and sometimes employed dirty tricks to keep them serving past their seven-year terms.

And, most people did not run away to join the Indians.

But all of that being said, the records make it clear that many Europeans much preferred life among the wild Indians to life in the colonies.

Why? Brooks places the stress on community: Indians lived in tight-knit villages or bands where life was lived as a group, and Brooks is convinced that this is both what the runaways were looking for and what we miss. I am not so sure. For one thing a 17th-century New England village was a much tighter community than anything we know in 21st-century America, especially for religious believers. For another, Indian life in the vast, nearly empty woods of a de-populated North America was less communal than he lets on. One of his sources says that Indians may never have been alone, which is poppycock. Our accounts speak of lone Indians all the time. Indian were sometimes alone when they hunted, gathered, collected mussels, or just walked in the woods. Religious rites like those we now call the vision quest were common, requiring young men to spend weeks alone in the forest. One of the wonders of Indian life to Europeans, recounted dozens of times, was the sight of a young Indian woman giving birth alone in the forest. (Nobody really knows what to make of these stories; it may have been the female equivalent of the vision question initiation for boys.)

I would emphasize other things about Indian society, and I would start with work. Indians were always mocking Europeans for how hard they worked, demanding to know what they got for their ten hours a day of toil. Indians worked hard at certain seasons of the year, for example at corn planting time and when the fish were running in the rivers. At other times, especially in the winter, they lay around doing next to nothing for weeks at a time. When Indians did work hard – Brooks may be right here – it was often a communal activity. Fish runs and corn harvests were festive occasions in which the whole village worked together. When women worked in the gardens or ground grain, they did it in groups, their babies strapped to their chests and their children around them. When my sons and their friends take jobs, this means leaving their friends behind to spend hours a day with strangers, and this is one of the main reasons they don't want to work. If they could all work together, they would like that much better. So I would say that one of the big attractions of Indian society was that 1) they didn't work very hard, and 2) the work they did was integrated with the rest of their lives.

So, yes, Indians were less materialistic than we are, and enjoyed life in small communities. As Brooks complains, the richer we get, the more we wall ourselves off from other people in big houses with big yards, and I agree that this is self-defeating. But to me what drives all of these social changes is our economy and the technology that underpins it, the whole world of machines and offices and careers and jobs. How to get away from that is a very daunting question indeed.

1 comment:

David said...

It is an interesting question how one would fit Appalachian people into this discussion. Historically, they showed a combination of both tremendous affinity and interbreeding with almost genocidal hatred of Indians. Like the Indians in your description, Appalachians spurned the ideal of hard, self-improving work. But at the same time, they were in many ways hyper-individualists, with one claiming, according to David Hackett Fisher, that life was getting too crowded when there was another family living within 5 miles.

I suppose the upshot is, what matters is how a society does their community living. One gets the impression that Appalachians avoided one another because living together among them required too much vigilance over status, too much brawling, too much avenging of slights. Indians seem to have avoided that unpleasantness, while still maintaining their own vengeance and status codes.