- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
“You’ll notice, at the back of the hall, quite a few Indians,” he said. “It would be helpful if somewhere in your speech you could say that you are fully aware of their problem and that you will do your best to solve it.”
The senator promised that he would do this. Then—moved by simple curiosity—he asked: “By the way: what is their problem?”
The local man looked at him wide-eyed.
“What’s their problem?” he repeated. “God damn it, they’re Indians !”
Yet the Indian was incidental. It was the land and its great riches that mattered. It passed into American hands just as the tools to exploit it were being perfected—the tools and the driving urge to use them—and the men who held the tools moved in as if they had to get the job finished before nightfall. They succeeded (at any rate, recognizable nightfall has not yet come), and in about a century the job was done. The trees had gone to build homes for half of America, the copper had gone to serve the new age of electricity, and if the iron lasted longer, it had been moved south by millions of tons, in a progress as inexorable as the Sleeping Bear’s ponderous drift to the eastward, to make railroads and machinery and skyscrapers and weapons; and the land was left bruised and scarred, with the radar domes to indicate that the age of applied technologies advances with an acceleration that is governed by geometrical progression.
So we live as the Indians of Lewis Cass’s time lived, between cultures, compelled to readjust ourselves to forces that will not wait for us. There is no twentiethcentury culture; the twentieth century is simply a confused and terrifying time of transition, and the noise of things collapsing is so great that we are taking the prodigious step from the nineteenth century to the twentyfirst without a moment of calm in which we can see where we are going. Between nineteenth century and twenty-first there is a gulf as vast as the one the Stone Age Indians had to cross. What’s our problem? We’re Indians.