Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Murder of Sawantaeny, the Law of Feud, Haudenosaunee Politics, and the Blindness of Racial Thinking

In February 1722, two British thugs named John and Edmund Cartlidge crossed the frontier of settlement into the woods of what is now central Pennsylvania. They went to the cabin of a mixed-blood Indian named Sawantaeny, hoping to trade for furs. But they got drunk, there was a fight, and John Cartlidge killed Sawantaeny. This random bit of violence threw the colonial authorities into a panic. Although Sawantaeny was a shady character he was theoretically a citizien of the Haudenosaunee or Five Nations, and they had visions of a wave of Iroquois warriors descending on frontier settlements for revenge. They tossed Cartlidge in prison and put him on trial for murder.

This is a famous event because it was copiously documented, giving us a rare glimpse of life in the frontier zones of eighteenth-century North America. Beyond the agreed borders and the named settlements there were numerous characters like Sawantaeny and the Cartlidges, people not claimed by any settled community who lived by their wits in the mostly empty spaces opened up by epidemic disease and endemic warfare. Many were some kind of mixed blood: Iroquois/Shawnee, Delaware/Miami, French/Huron, Finnish/German, and so on. They delighted in crossing every sort of boundary and defying every sort of convention. This includes some of the Indians; as we will see, they also had a lot of cultural baggage that some were eager to escape from.

History professor Nicole Eustace is fascinated by this event. She has written a whole book about it (Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America), which I own but have not been able to finish because it is long, boring, and annoying. But now she has an op-ed in the NY Times summarizing her argument in a form short enough for us to deal with. Eustace doesn't much care about the murder. What fascinates her is the actions taken by the Iroquois leadership, which she thinks opens up a different Indigenous model of how to handle violent crime:

At a meeting in Philadelphia to try to resolve the crisis, Native diplomats explained to William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania, that the Haudenosaunees expected Native practices to prevail in resolving the murder. One of those diplomats, Satcheechoe, a member of the Cayuga nation, presented the Haudenosaunees’ view. He demanded that the governor travel to Albany to join British and Haudenosaunee leaders there in working out a treaty between the two and to pay his respects in person to the Native representatives. Only a formal visit could satisfy Haudenosaunee protocols, which required the expression of formal condolences, participation in spiritual rituals of community renewal and the payment of trade goods as reparations.

Then Satcheechoe added a final explicit instruction to the governor: The Haudenosaunees, he said, “desire John Cartlidge may not die for this. They would not have him killed.” Governor Keith argued that “the laws of our great king” did not allow for setting a killer free, insisting that “such a man by our laws must die.” But Satcheechoe made the Native position clear: “One life is enough to be lost. There should not two die.”

In September of 1722, Governor Keith traveled to Albany to meet with the Haudenosaunees and delegations from the colonies of Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. Because all of the assembled were at peace with one another, Native leaders argued that it made no sense to pursue vengeance. Rather, a representative of the gathered members of what were then five confederated nations of Haudenosaunees explained, “we do in the name of all the Five Nations forgive the offense and desire you will likewise forgive it.” The Haudenosaunee representative asked that the Cartlidges “be released from prison and set at liberty.” Governor Keith responded that he would fulfill their request “in order to confirm the friendship that is so happily renewed and established by this treaty.”

All true.  

What’s distinctive about the Treaty of 1722 is the alternative approach it offered to creating a fair society, one in which people who commit crimes can later be reintegrated into the community — and one in which a crisis of violence can be resolved without inflicting further harm. The treaty provided a working model of restorative justice, demonstrating how communities of the victims and the perpetrators of a crime can come together to repair social relationships through economic, emotional and spiritual offerings. The story has applications today, demonstrating that criminal justice reforms that may sound radical now, as they are pursued by a wide range of community activists, researchers, educators, legislative reformers and progressive jurists, actually have a long American tradition.

Radical? I am not sure what the word means to Eustace, but I consider it the opposite of "traditional." And there is nothing more traditional in human life than the law of feuding. Which is what we are talking about here, the ancient tradition of weregild and blood money, paid by the killer or his kin to prevent violence from spiraling out of control. Governor Keith tried to keep the payments he made out of his official report (and the British press), which is indeed an interesting detail. Eustace thinks he did this because he didn't want to admit he had encountered a superior Native way of doing things. Actually he was covering his ass because in England feud was forbidden, and paying compensation for murder was explicitly illegal, because the English had all too much experience of how it worked. 

Feuding societies are violent societies. This is certainly true of the Iroquois; and also the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and all the other Native warrior societies I know anything about. They survived as societies because they had ways of dealing with violence, as Eustace lays out, but they all had high murder rates. Eustace seems to think that the chiefs were acting in the service of some Native ideal of justice and community. Maybe they were, but they were also acting to enhance their own power and prestige. They cared not a fig for a drunken renegade like Sewantaeny, a man of no family and no honor. When they saw that his death scared the British authorities, they took advantage of that fear to get something they wanted.

Why, I ask, did the Five Nations chiefs not want Cartlidge to be executed? Well, what would they have gotten for that? Nothing. Instead they manipulated the situation to get wagonloads of English presents and a conference in which three colonial governors journeyed to their land and sat on the ground with them to treat for peace. They emerged from this with their power and status dramatically enhanced, all for forgiving a murder they didn't care about. As a side line they signed away their nonexistent rights to land they had never owned in Kentucky and Tennessee, and promised to return runaway slaves to their English owners. (Which they never did, so far as I know, but they did promise to do it.)

In less modern societies, leaders need to be seen wielding power. How do you know that is the king? Well, he is dressed like a king and acting like a king, doing kingly things. How did the Iroquois know somebody was a chief? Because he dressed and acted like one. And to them the most chiefly thing was to sit in conferences with other important men, giving long speeches to which the other important men listened attentively, arriving at agreements that were solemnified with days-long rites and extravagant promises of friendship. And lavish gifts. Most English and French leaders hated this, although a few got to like it, and the fact that English leaders didn't really want to be there made it all even more sweet for the Haudenosaunee chiefs. 

It is also relevant that in 1722 Haudenosaunee power was declining because a series of epidemics had ravaged their population. They gave up trying to get a piece of the fur trade action in Kentucky because they no longer had the men to continue that war. So the boost the chiefs got from this treaty was especially valuable to them at a time when they had fewer soldiers than they used to.

The treaty meeting of 1722 was not a clash between Indigenous and European models of justice. It was a clash between two modes known around the world, one of feud, in which the family and friends of the victim claim the right of revenge and the leadership usually acts to reach settlement, and one in which all power of retribution has been claimed by the state. Both can work, although I don't know of any feuding society that ever achieved the extremely low rates of violence seen in Victorian Britain or 20th-century Japan.

This makes Nicole Eustace's bad take on the Treaty of Albany a symptom of one of our age's worst intellectual sins: racial thinking. She wants to assign all violence and other bad things to Whites, and all peace and virtue to the Indigenous. Actually there have been few societies in history more violent than the Haudenosaunee. They genocided the Mahicans, the Hurons, and the Erie; they waged warfare as far from home as Wisconsin and the lower Mississippi; they fought numerous battles with the Cherokee and Catawba over control of the deerskin trade in Kentucky and Tennessee, carrying out murderous raids as far away as South Carolina. Notice the language of the chiefs, which divides people into those we are at war with and those with whom we have peace. In war, brutal violence; in peace, negotiation and agreement. The Iroquois got along well with the British because the two peoples respected each other as mighty warriors who maintained a high standard of "civilized" manners at home. Governor Keith readily reached a deal with the Haudenosaunee chiefs because they were so much alike.

I also divide up the world, but I don't do it on the basis of race or culture. To me, the most important distinction is the one between the powerful and the powerless. I mistrust all kings, wherever they are, whatever their color. To me the most important thing ever said about politics is "power corrupts." I mistrust everyone with power: Egyptian pharoahs and Roman senators, Chinese mandarins and Japanese samurai, prosecutors and police, English governors and Haudenosaunee chiefs.

Some people wouldn't want their daughters to marry a black or an Indian; I wouldn't want my daughter to marry a governor or a chief.


David said...

This is very, very interesting and, if an ignorant non-specialist may say so without too much presumption, sounds basically right. It's certainly true that at one time or another, many, many societies, including European ones, have practiced the law of feud and especially the kind of non- or para-state go-between settlements that are apparent in this situation (with powerful but non-official brokers like local great men in Iceland, future saints in 13th- and 14th-century Italy, etc., etc.).

I can't be sure, but in my limited experience the original Castilian conquistadores may have been less irritated by this kind of thing than your later French and English were. This may be because 15th-century Castile was a pretty violent and anarchic place, and such practices were things they had grown up with. But a trawl through the Castilian sources with just these sorts of questions in mind would be fascinating.

FWIW, based on my experience so far, I rather like state-enforced order. I certainly appreciate not having to cultivate some local protector with presents or joining their religious following or asking them to be my child's godfather, or whatever. State systems are good for introverts.

Anonymous said...

How do you know that is the king?

To quote Monty Python, "He hasn't got shit all over him"