February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
First there was the ice; two miles high, hundreds of miles wide, and many centuries deep. It came down from the darkness at the top of the world, and it hung down over the eaves, and our Michigan country lay along the line of the overhang. To be sure, all of the ice was now gone. It had melted, they said, ten thousand years ago; but they also pointed out that ten thousand years amounted to no more than a flick of the second hand on the geologic time clock. It was recent; this was the frontier, where you could stand in the present and look out into the past, and when you looked you now and then got an eerie sense that the world had not yet been completed. What had been might be again. There was a hint, at times, when the dead-winter wind blew at midnight, that the age of ice might someday return, sliding down the country like a felt eraser over a grade-school blackboard, rubbing out all of the sums and sentences that had been so carefully written down; leaving, barely legible, a mocking quod erat demonstrandum .
Now and then it was a little confusing. The contrast between the old and the new was too great. There was nothing for the mind to get hold of; what probably had been was hardly more real than what possibly might yet be. We lived less than three hundred miles from Detroit, which seemed to be a door looking into the future, showing unimaginable things; and three hundred miles in the other direction, off into the desolate north country, lay the bleak spine of the upper peninsula of Michigan, a reef of the oldest rocks on earth—Precambrian rocks laid down before there were any living creatures to be fossilized, rocks dead since the hour of creation. There was no way to comprehend that reef. The geologists said that it was two billion years old, or perhaps three billion—a measure of the age of the earth—and there is no way to digest any such figures. The mind cannot grasp a time span like that. The scientist’s book is as far beyond our comprehension as the book of Genesis, which simply asserts that the entire job was done in six days, with a seventh day for rest. Take it either way you please, you wind up with something you have to accept on faith.
In any case, the north country is very old. It is also very empty. Take a two-hundred-mile tape measure, long enough to span the lower peninsula of Michigan from east to west, and move it northward, broadside on; once you pass Lake Superior your tape strikes nothing at all except primitive wilderness, clusters of stubby firs, tamarack bogs, and barren tundra, with the leftover fragments of the old age of ice lying beyond. Take the tape on to the North Pole and go down the far side of the globe; you will be deep in Siberia before you strike anything more than a trading post or a mining camp or an outpost of national defense.
It was and is all empty, a land that could not be lived in except by a few undemanding Stone Age tribes, and across its emptiness lies the gray shadow of a profound unease. The ice age, if it comes back, will come from up here. And if that, after all, is a thin chance, a crippling wisdom has reached us in this century: The Enemy may some day come down from the north, aiming at Detroit and Chicago and everything they stand for, including ourselves, bringing fire instead of cold. That is why I can look out of the window in the room where I write and see unobtrusive white domes on the skyline—radar domes scanning the north country with unsleeping attention. To be sure, we do not give them a great deal of thought. Life in Michigan north of the industrial zone is easy and pleasant, with fish to be caught and clear lakes for swimming, lonely streams for canoes and the big lake itself for larger craft; here it is possible to escape from the steamy, overcrowded, overactive Middle West and get back to something we knew long ago, when it was good enough just to breathe the clean air and feel sunlight and wind on your shoulders. But the white domes are there, and it is not quite possible to forget what they stand for. This is the frontier, a place for looking before and after, where we try to think what we shall do with the future, only to discover that we are conditioned by what we have already done with the past. The frontier! Three quarters of a century have passed since we announced that America’s last frontier was gone forever. We were wrong. In spite of ourselves we have moved on into an undiscovered world. We shall always have a frontier, because we are not facing a finite North American continent whose menaces and surprises must someday all be tabulated; we are facing an infinite universe, and the last challenge has yet to be formulated. Possibly we shall encounter it tomorrow morning.
It may be that the Indians knew something.
One of the odd things about this Michigan frontier is that it contained a people who may have been the first metal users on earth; or if not the first, among the first, isolated here thousands of miles from anything that would later be described as civilization. In the land on and near the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out into the cold surf along the southern shore of Lake Superior, there lived a people who made things out of copper—axes, chisels, knives, spear points, ornaments of all kinds. They started doing this possibly seven thousand years ago—an immensely long time as human history is measured: before Abraham tended his flocks near Ur of the Chaldees, indeed before Ur so much as existed—and doing it they stood at the very threshold of technological development.
It was fairly simple. They were primitive forest people who had stumbled into an area where there were lumps of pure copper waiting to be picked up and used—not copper ore but virgin copper, in shining big nuggets. To them a lump of copper was no doubt just another stone with pleasing characteristics. It could be hammered and ground into shape with less effort, and to far better effect, than the bits of taconite, flint, quartzite, and slate they had been using, and the tools and weapons made of it were far more effective than the stone implements they already had. As they went on using it, they began to learn things about copper. They found that most of it was embedded in hard quartz, and sooner or later they learned how to extract these lumps of pure metal so that they could take them home and make things out of them. (Dig away the earth and expose the ledge that contains these copper nuggets; build a hot fire on it, then pour cold water on the heated rock so that it cracks. Once it cracks, the copper can be gouged out with wooden spuds and stone hammers.) They also learned how to treat the copper so that it would not become brittle under all the hammering and grinding—heat it, plunge it in water, work on it some more, repeat the heat-and-water treatment; these Indians had evolved what metallurgists would later call annealing.
While they did all of this, the earth beneath their feet was still taking shape. The level of what would be known as the Great Lakes (still fresh from the glaciers in those days) rose and fell in centuries-long rhythm. Some of the copper-culture sites went two hundred feet under water, then emerged long after with their charred fire pits and abandoned stone hammers to draw the attention of prospectors, land lookers, and scientists. The land itself rose, ten feet or more in the course of a century, for generation after generation; there is a theory that the resilient earth was slowly springing back into shape once the overwhelming weight of the ice sheet was removed. As the earth rose, it cut off the old outlet of the Great Lakes at North Bay in Ontario. Now the current of the lakes moved down through Lake Eric and broke away across the Niagara escarpment. And while all of these changes were taking place, the Indians who made things out of copper continued to ply their trade. They had copper mines and coppersmiths and some sort of export trade in the finished product at a time when all the rest of the New World and most of the Old lived deep in the age of chipped flint and polished stone. Clearly, these people were right on the edge of entering the age of metals.
It was no great distance away from them. To the extraction of pure metal from conglomerate ores was only one more step; from smelting to casting was only one step beyond that; these steps taken, the Indians would have been well on their way, and what they could do with one metal could presently have been done with another. (Bear in mind that these people were living squarely on top of one of the richest deposits of iron ore on earth.) They had the mental capacity to figure out and to take these steps. No one who has examined the mathematics, the astronomy, and the intricate, labyrinthine structures of abstract thought that came later in Central America and Mexico can doubt that the American red man was qualified for any sort of advance he might care to make.
The trouble with that kind of advance is that there is no end to it. Development becomes compulsive. Once you take the first step you have committed yourself to take the last, someday, even if the last step goes straight off the edge of a precipice. The age of applied technology has one terrible aspect—each new technique has to be exploited to its absolute limit, until man becomes the victim of his own skills. The conquest of nature cannot end in a negotiated peace. Invent a simple device like the automobile to get you from here to there more quickly than you could go without it; before long you are in bondage to it, so that you build your cities and shape your countryside and reorder your entire life in the light of what will be good for the machine instead of what will be good for you. Detroit has shown us how that works.
Yet somehow these copper-country Indians never took that next step. With one foot on the threshold they paused, then turned away, guided by simple inertia or by an uncanny prescience, whichever you prefer. The use of copper declined, then finally ceased altogether, as the bits of virgin metal became harder to find. The Indians made certain inventions—birch-bark canoes, frail craft indeed for the stormy lakes, but so well conceived that when the white man arrived he went on using them for centuries and still duplicates the flawless pattern in aluminum; and snowshoes, ingenious devices of rawhide thongs strung on frames of birch and ash, enabling men to travel across country in the drifted wintertime. But with things like these the Indians stopped. They remained in the Stone Age, with its simplicities, its limited horizons, and its strange, chilling mythology, which lay between an uneasy belief in magic and a groping faith (half dark suspicion and half desperate hope) that there are unseen powers all about, to be fled from or to be appealed to depending on the whim of the moment. They took the world as they found it. In the north country they remained hunters and fishermen, now and then trading furs for corn with the tribes farther south; in the lower peninsula, where soil and climate were just a little more favorable, they took to part-time farming, and in winter the men went off on hunting expeditions, and in the spring they tapped the maple trees and made sugar. Life went on without very much change, and the pines and the hardwood forests lay across the lake country like a great cool twilight, lived in but not exactly used.
Then at last the men who could use this country began to appear: Frenchmen, who filtered in here about the time when the English were looking at Virginia and Massachusetts. They hoisted the fleur de lys on the ground overlooking the rapids of the St. Marys River, while the Sun King was advancing his realm toward bankruptcy by building the ruinous palace at Versailles, and they ventured along the shingle and sand of the endless beaches and into the shallow inlets that opened the way into the unknown back country. They were eternally inquisitive, looking for furs to ornament robes and make hats for courtiers, for waterways leading to China (they thought briefly they had found one when they got to Green Bay on the western side of Lake Michigan; then they thought it lay beyond the next height of land), and as a matter of fact they were looking for something they could not have defined, because this new world promised more than it had yet delivered.
The first of them apparently was a man known as Etienne Brulé, a lieutenant of Samuel de Champlain, and he got up to the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Marys River country before any European ever stepped on Plymouth Rock. He was looking for furs, for new country, for experiences he could not have had in Europe; he found what he sought, he paid for it, and probably it was all worth it. He lived with the Indians in nameless wigwam-towns along Lake Superior, and sometimes he got on well with his hosts and sometimes he waged a one-man war against them. No one is quite sure just what became of him; the legend is that he was killed in some campfire row, and that the Indians who killed him admired his daring so much that they cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to acquire some of his virtues. His story flickers out inconclusively, somewhere between the forest and the biggest of the lakes, and if he was the first European to lose himself and to die of it in the great north country, he was far from being the last. One of the things the New World offered to the questing European was a chance to go off into nowhere and disappear.
At times it seems as if the country itself resisted the European invasion more effectively than the Indians did, although the Indians were far from passive. Men disappeared in the long forests, and all anyone ever knew about them was that they were gone forever. There was Father René Menard, for instance, a priest who established a mission on Keweenaw Bay in the year 1660; he set out one winter’s day on a trip into the trackless interior, and that was the last of him, and whether he was killed by suspicious savages or simply by winter starvation is not known. There was also the ship Griffin , built a few years after Father Menard’s disappearance by the great French explorer La Salle, who put together and launched a stout little square-rigger and sailed all the way to Green Bay. He loaded her with furs, enough to finance an ambitious venture into the Mississippi country if he could just get the cargo back to Montreal, and sent her off toward the lower lakes. The Griffin never made it, and to this day no one knows what happened to her except that she sailed off into the storms and slipped over the edge of the world —first in a long succession of ships to be lost with all hands on the Great Lakes.
Whether or not they survived to tell about it, the French filtered more and more deeply into the back country; and if some of them had their troubles with the Indians, some of them got the Indians to help them. Father Marquette, the saintlike little Jesuit who went the length of Lake Michigan and down into the Illinois country for the greater glory of God, had Indian helpers, and when he fell mortally ill on his way back toward Michilimackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron, it was his Indian helpers who made his last moments easy, buried him on a sandy promontory, put up a cross to mark his grave, and then slipped away northward to bear news of his passing. Later on they returned to collect his bones and take them back to the straits for Christian burial. (The towns of Ludington and Frankfort today have heated argument about the site of his death. One marker identifies the place at the entrance to the Ludington harbor, and another marker makes similar identification at the entrance to the Frankfort harbor; and learned expositions support each claim.) Obviously, not all the Indians were hostile; in a noncommittal way, some of them were quite friendly.
These Michigan Indians after all were not quite like the tribes farther eat. They lacked the incredible, breathtaking ferocity of the Iroquois, for instance; and although as primitive men they carried their passions near the surface and were quite capable of putting captured enemies into the fire if the mood possessed them, they never quite made a hideous ritual out of it in the Iroquois manner, deriving ecstasies from the infliction of pain and going to fantastic lengths to prolong the victims’ suffering so that the general orgy that followed the final gasp might have maximum dimensions. They were tough enough, to be sure. The Chippewa actually muscled the Sioux tribes out of the western Lake Superior country, and under the Ottawa chief Pontiac various associated tribes nearly drove the British out of the whole Great Lakes area, destroying the forts at St. Joseph and Michilimackinac and laying a long siege to the fort at Detroit. Later on, when the Americans fought the British for possession of the lakes country, the Indians fought effectively on the British side, overwhelming the outpost at Chicago and slaughtering its garrison, and committing a famous massacre of prisoners along the river Raisin in southeastern Michigan. Anyone who fought these Indians knew that he had been in a war.
Yet the memory of terror, the ever-present dread of the sudden blow in the darkness—the blend of fear and hatred that led otherwise well-intentioned Christian men to believe that the God of love would be pleased if all Indians were exterminated outright—never quite became part of the Michigan heritage. The American settlers dispossessed the tribesman as completely here as anywhere else, but they did not slaughter him while they were doing it. They did not have to; they were not afraid of him, and if the red man was there to be trodden on, he did not have to be kicked first.
Probably there were two reasons for this. To begin with, white settlement came mostly after the Indians’ power had been broken. There were very few whiteman’s towns or farms until Pontiac and the baleful chief Tecumseh had been beaten, and hardly any of the men who made productive clearings in the wilderness ever had to worry about people who might come at them out of the darkness with scalping knives and fire arrows. The long haunted years known to the settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia were not duplicated here.
Even more important was the fact that here the white man reduced the Indian to impotence simply by touching him. The newcomers corrupted him not by intent but just by living beside him. Indian society began to come unravelled not long after Etienne Brulé went to whatever fate he finally got, and it kept on unravelling until it fell completely apart. Exposure to the complexities of European civilization was too much for it. The red man had to adjust every aspect of his life to a scale of values he could neither understand nor control, and it was too much for him. He could not make the adjustment, and he could not conceivably keep from trying to make it.
This was so because the white men offered, for a price, material goods that the Indian wanted—things like knives and hatchets made of steel in place of implements of chipped stone; brass kettles in place of birch-bark buckets; needles and fishhooks and awls made of metal instead of splintered bone; woolen cloth for blankets and clothing instead of crudely dressed skins or mats woven of pounded bark fibers; guns and bullets and gunpowder to replace bows and arrows. Along with these riches, offering life a dimension primitive man had not dreamed of before, there were brandy and rum, strengthened by abominable additives until they almost reached the level of outright poison, which passed into common speech under the accurately descriptive name of firewater. No power on earth could keep the Indian from trying to get these things once he got acquainted with them, and he was willing to pay any price that might be demanded.
The demanded price, of course, consisted of furs. The Indian set out to get the furs, and that was what turned his life upside-down. He became a hired hand for the invaders, and so passed from his own society into theirs before he knew that anything was happening to him; he was the market for the factories of England and France, and at the same time he was the source of supply for an industry that reached from the uncombed trader at Michilimackinac to the richest shops in London and Paris, with a vast network of warehouses and middlemen and cargo vessels lying between. Stone Age man abruptly found himself part of an infinitely complex society, no single phase of which lay within the range of anything he could hope to comprehend. What men made or bought and sold on the far side of an ocean he had never seen laid down the conditions of his existence. Over many centuries he had adjusted himself to the mysterious wilderness where he lived, and suddenly the ways of life and the habits of mind that came out of that adjustment meant nothing at all. Without wanting anything of the kind to happen, he had become part of a culture that had no more than a temporary, marginal place for men like him, and there was no way on earth for him to get out of it.
For several generations the process was gradual, almost imperceptible, and it was fairly painless. The seasons came and went as they always had, the canoe brigades came and went with dripping paddles and red-sashed voyageurs, and the Indian went up the rivers and into the forests to exercise his skills, so on the surface nothing much had changed; yet there was some premonition of disaster, or men like Pontiac and Tecumseh could never have persuaded the tribes to take to the warpath. The warpath was followed, and it led to utter defeat, and shortly after this several things happened, the sum of them meaning outright catastrophe. The Michigan country became trapped out, so that the furs that were the price of life became harder and harder to get. At the same time the fashions that dictated the scope and speed of the fur trade began to change. At the moment when beaver and marten pelts became ruinously scarce they became worth less and less, and the Indian was pauperized through no fault of his own. When white men took the trouble to offer advice, they told the Indian that he must take up the white man’s way—that is, he must work for wages at whatever jobs might be available, or he must become a farmer and produce crops for a market that was erratic and as mysterious as the market for furs.
Not many jobs were available at that moment in the land of the Great Lakes, and there was little in the red man’s background to fit him for any of them. He could become a hanger-on around the docks of the new seaports, helping to load cordwood on steamboats, or he could do odd jobs here and there—for a storekeeper, perhaps, or a mill owner, or someone similar—but such work was scanty and seasonal, and there was nothing in the Indian’s frame of reference to give it any meaning. Farming was not much better. The Indian knew how to cultivate the garden plot that provided him with corn and beans and squash to supplement his diet of fish and game, but raising crops for the market was something else again. Most of the country he was supposed to farm was covered with trees, and when the trees were removed, this timber country offered some of the poorest farming land in North America, as a great many white farmers learned to their cost a little later.
So there was little for the Indian to do except go to seed, which mostly he did with bewildered resignation. He had solved the problem of life in the wilderness, which is to say that he had worked out a culture that enabled him to keep his self-respect and put him in rough harmony with the world he lived in. Now life presented him with problems that were not only beyond solution but beyond his understanding.
At this point the white man stepped up the pace. What he proposed to conquer was not the Indian but the wilderness. He was attacking the earth itself, and his only real concern with the Indian was to keep him from being an obstacle. To be sure, by the second decade of the nineteenth century the Indian in the Michigan country was dying on the vine; but the Americans who had designs on the land had intricate laws concerning the land and its use, and these laws required the composition and registration of numerous pieces of paper. Land titles, in short, had to be cleared. The Indian had never heard of such things, but according to the white-man’s law the red man held the title to all of this land, and he had to be persuaded to surrender it. And in the years just before and shortly after 1820 Lewis Cass took care of that.
Cass was one of the notables of the early Middle West. He was governor of Michigan Territory in the days before statehood. Later he became a member of the United States Senate, still later he was an unsuccessful Presidential candidate against Zachary Taylor, and he served finally as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of James Buchanan, eyeing with stony disapproval the convolutions of Buchanan’s course at the time when the rising issue of slavery was being so clumsily evaded and resigning, at last, a few months before the Buchanan administration ingloriously ceased to be. One of Cass’s minor misfortunes was that the art of photography did not develop until he was well on in years; the portrait by which he is remembered was taken when he was old, and it shows an unhappy face with sagging cheeks and eye pouches and a twisted mouth, the eyes having the look of a man who finds the world gone out of alignment.
Anyway, in 1820 Cass led a small flotilla of canoes up from Detroit, cruising along the western shore of Lake Huron, going on up the St. Marys River as far as the rapids, portaging over the height of land to Lake Superior, following the dangerous south shore all the way to the western tip of the lake, going overland by difficult portages to the headwaters of the Mississippi, descending that stream to the outpost of Prairie du Chien, and coming back across what is now Wisconsin to Green Bay. After a brief pause there for reorganization, Cass went down Lake Michigan to Chicago, then an inconsiderable military station and trading post, from which point he made his way cross country to Detroit, while the flotilla went up along the east shore of the lake to Mackinac and came down Lake Huron by the same route it had used on the way out. All in all, Cass and his men had made quite a trip—four thousand miles or more, up and back, one of the great feats of exploration in American history, done competently and without fanfare under conditions of hardship and peril.
Hardship and peril in full measure, certainly. Travelling the Great Lakes by birch-bark canoe was risky business. The canoes that carried men and supplies were exceedingly frail and would inevitably be twisted into fragments if they were caught in rough water. Inasmuch as the lakes can be as vicious as the North Atlantic when the winds come up, this meant that the expedition had to stay close to the shore all the way, running into the beach and hauling the canoes up beyond reach of the surf whenever the breezes stiffened. To make a traverse across the mouth of an open place like Saginaw Bay, or to cruise along the pictured rocks in Lake Superior with no shelving beach anywhere near, was to risk the lives of every man in the party. Repeatedly they had to camp for two or three days at a time waiting for better weather. Every mile of the way Cass and his men had to carry the certain knowledge that in case of disaster there was no help anywhere within reach. They were on their own.
But there seem to have been compensations: chiefly, a sense of wonder, because this unstained new country spoke a compelling language of its own, which could neither be wholly understood nor in any way ignored. It spoke of darkness and remembered ice, of everlasting winter and a malignant frozen hostility; yet it suggested that terror might not be the last word after all. Here and there, in the configuration of the silent land rising above the blue water, the long bluffs crowned with green unbroken forest, there was the voice of a different spirit.
Go up along the eastern side of Lake Michigan, steer northeast when the land bends away at Point Betsie, and you come before long to Sleeping Bear Point—an incredible flat-topped sand dune rising five hundred feet above the level of the lake and going north for two miles or more. It looks out over the dark water and the islands that lie just offshore, and in the late afternoon the sunlight strikes it and the golden sand turns white, with a pink overlay when the light is just so, and little cloud shadows slide along its face, blue-gray as evening sets in. Sleeping Bear looks eternal, although it is not; this lake took its present shape no more than two or three thousand years ago, and Sleeping Bear is slowly drifting off to the east as the wind shifts its grains of sand, swirling them up one side and dropping them on the other; in a few centuries it will be very different, if indeed it is there at all. Yet if this is a reminder that this part of the earth is still being remodelled, it is’also a hint that the spirit back of the remodelling may be worth knowing. In the way this shining dune looks west toward the white storms and the blazing sunsets there is a profound serenity, an unworried affirmation that comes from seeing beyond time and mischance. A woman I know says that to look at the Sleeping Bear late in the day is to feel the same emotion that comes when you listen to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, and she is entirely right. The message is the same. The only trouble is that you have to compose a planet, or great music, to say it persuasively. Beethoven could do it because he was made in the image of God; which suggests that probably there is a God, after all.
The men of the Cass expedition, of course, were no mystics, but hardheads who had gone out to count and measure, and to those tasks they devoted themselves. Even so, young Henry Rowe Schoolcraft seems to have been a little touched. Schoolcraft went along as a mineralogist, tapping stones with a hammer and collecting fragments for the Secretary of War, and when he wrote his famous narrative telling what had been seen and done, he was wholly matter-of-fact; too much so, for he had an epic to write, and he composed a War Department report. Yet he seems to have been smitten, somewhere along the way, by a deep feeling for the Indians who lived in this land, and later on he became an Indian agent, established himself at Sault Ste. Marie, and spent most of his time collecting Indian legends and the wordof-mouth tales that passed for Indian history. He got a great tangle of them, and the poet Longfellow eventually read what Schoolcraft wrote down and out of it made the poem Hiawatha . This may have been no favor for generations of schoolchildren, who had to read it when they would have preferred to be doing something else, but in a way it was one of the by-products of the odyssey of Lewis Cass.
The men Cass led never lost sight of the fact that their trip into this unknown country would eventually be the means of its transformation. Sooner or later these men in their canoes were going to pull many men after them, and they were well aware of it. The wilderness was to be conquered; this particular bit of earth, craggy and hungry as it might seem, was about to be feshaped, and when the budding scientists in the party made their notes about soils and rocks and plants and temperatures, they were thinking of people who someday would come here to make homes. These later-comers would need to know how to use this country.
That was where the emphasis lay. This country was going to be used; and if this was the case, it was above all things necessary to know about the Indians. Were the British authorities in western Canada in fact inciting them to resist the venturesome Americans—present at that time mostly as fur traders—and if so, how could this be stopped? How many military posts, situated precisely where, would be needed to control the red man and thwart the scheming Briton? Finally, how could the red man be induced to surrender the title to his homeland?
That the Indian’s way of life was doomed had been recognized from the very start. President James Monroe had spoken on the subject in a recent message to Congress.
“Independent savage communities,” he said, “cannot long exist within the limits of a civilized population.… To civilize them, and even to prevent their extinction, it seems to be indispensable that their independence as communities should cease and that the control of the United States over them should be complete and undisputed.”
The Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, who took a much more relaxed view of the proper scope of the authority of the federal government in 1820 than he could take a few years later, had given Cass instructions stressing the importance of working on the Indians so that they would give up their lands to the whites. Calhoun pointed out that speedy settlement of the lower peninsula of Michigan was both inevitable and desirable, and he emphasized the obvious: “This can best be effected by an entire extinguishment of the Indian title.”
Entire extinguishment was attained without great delay. Cass had already persuaded the Indians to give up their claim to land around Saginaw Bay. On this trip westward he got title to land on the American side of the St. Marys rapids, and Fort Brady was before long built at Sault Ste. Marie; gifts, oratory, and a subtle reminder that the Americans held all of the high cards seemed to be all that was needed, and in the years that followed Cass’s great trip more cessions of title were painlessly negotiated. By 1840, or thereabouts, the Indians had given away the entire state of Michigan. Their independence as communities had ceased, as President Monroe said it should; the Indian’s fate was settled, and the wilderness was doomed, windy pine woods, veins of copperbearing quartz, mountains of iron ore, and all.
As far as the Indian was concerned, the process was relatively humane. A few red men were transplanted bodily to new reservations in the unsettled West, but mostly the Michigan Indians stayed where they were, groping helplessly to grasp the white-man’s way, losing their old culture, and finding the new culture hard to assimilate. There were schools and missions here and there to help them, and annual payments from the federal government, and by and large the business was done without the brutality observed in so many other parts of America. After all, these had mostly been friendly Indians.
To be sure, they paid a price. There is a story, probably apocryphal but significant nonetheless, about a United States senator who was running for re-election a few years ago. According to this story, the senator got to a small north-country town one evening, and just before he was led into a hall to make a campaign speech, the local party chairman gave him a briefing about issues that were on people’s minds locally.
“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.