Revolution In Indian Country


More than any other single document, Seattle’s twelve-hundred-word “testament” lends support to the increasingly common belief that to “real” Indians any disruption or commercialization of the earth’s natural order is a kind of sacrilege and that the most moral, the most truly “Indian” relationship with the land is a kind of poetic passivity. Having been translated into dozens of languages and widely reproduced in school texts, the “testament” has attained a prophetic stature among environmentalists: In 1993 Greenpeace used it as the introduction to a scarifying report on toxic dumping, calling it “the most beautiful and profound statement on the environment ever made.” Unfortunately, like much literature that purports to reveal the real nature of the Indians, the “testament” is basically a fiction. Seattle was indeed a historical figure, a slave-owning chief of the Duwamishes who sold land to the United States in the mid-1850s and welcomed the protection of the federal government against his local enemies. However, the “testament,” as it is known to most Americans, was created from notes allegedly made thirty years after the fact by a white doctor who claimed to have been present when Seattle spoke, and which then were extravagantly embroidered by a well-meaning Texas scriptwriter by the name of Ted Perry as narration for a 1972 film on the environment, produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. How is it, I wondered, that Americans have so readily embraced such a spurious text, not only as a sacred screed of the ecology movement but also as a central document of “traditional” Native American culture?

THE SINGLE resource that the Campo Indians possess is wasteland. The dump would give them financial independence for the first time.

Increasingly it became clear to me that to be able to describe the realities of modern Indian life and politics, I would have to strip away the myths that whites have spun around Native Americans ever since Columbus arbitrarily divided the peoples he encountered into noble Arawaks and savage Caribs, conflating European fantasies with presumed native reality and initiating a tradition that would eventually include Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, as well as a vivid popular literature stretching from The Last of the Mohicans to Dances With Wolves . Untamable savage, child of nature, steward of the earth, the white man’s ultimate victim: each age has imagined its own mythic version of what the historian Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., termed the “white man’s Indian.”

Typically the Denver Post could declare, not long ago, in an editorial attacking the University of Arizona for a plan to build an observatory atop an allegedly sacred mountain: “At stake is the very survival of American Indian cultures. If these sacred places are destroyed, then the rituals unique to those places no longer will be performed and many tribes simply may cease to exist as distinct peoples.” Such logic implies both that only Native Americans who profess to live like pre-Columbians are true Indians and that Indians are essentially hopeless and helpless and on the brink of extinction. Apparently it never occurred to the paper’s editorialist that the religion of the great majority of Indians is not in fact some mystical form of traditionalism but a thriving Christianity.

IN KEEPING WITH OUR ESSENTIALLY mythic approach to the history of Indians and whites, Americans were generally taught until a generation or so ago to view their national story as a soaring arc of unbroken successes, in which the defeat of the Indians reflected the inevitable and indeed spiritual triumph of civilization over barbarism. More recently, but not so differently, numerous revisionist works like Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy and Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building have tended to portray the settlement of North America as a prolonged story of unredeemed tragedy and failure, in which the destruction of the Indians stands as proof of a fundamental ruthlessness at the heart of American civilization. Such beliefs have steadily percolated into the wider culture—to be embodied in New Age Westerns like Dances With Wolves and popular books like the best-selling Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World , which purports to show how practically every aspect of modern life from potatoes to democracy derives from the generosity of American Indians—and into the consciences of journalists, clergy, and others who shape public opinion.

On the whole the complex and intricate relationship between whites and Indians has been presented as one of irreconcilable conflict between conqueror and victim, corruption and innocence, Euro-American “materialism” and native “spirituality.” The real story, of course, is an often contradictory one, disfigured by periods of harsh discrimination and occasional acts of genocide but also marked by considerable Indian pragmatism and adaptability as well as by the persistent, if sometimes shortsighted, idealism of whites determined to protect Indians from annihilation and find some place for them in mainstream America.