I have not posted to this blog as much as I have in the past. I am on sabbatical, working on a history of the Onondaga Nation that I began long ago. I won’t finish it during the semester I have off–it is just too big a project–but I hope to make some substantial progress.
I have been working my way through the Jesuit Relations, the annual writings of the French priests who began ministering to the Haudenosaunee in the middle of the seventeenth century. The first Jesuits arrived at Onondaga, at the very center of the Iroquois League, in 1654. They remained even after many of the converts left for mission settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley. After most of the devoted left, Father Jean de Lamberville found himself facing the Onondagas’ “ill humor and savage whims,” as well as their outright rejection. “The chief fruit that I have gathered,” he wrote, “has been among the dying.” Mostly, he baptized dying children. “This is the most certain fruit we gather in this country,” he wrote, “where it is desirable that the children should die before obtaining the use of their reason.” It is a constant theme in Lamberville’s writings. “The Church of Onnontague,” he wrote, “has been blessedly diminished this year by the death of some Christians who have gone to increase the number of the blessed.” Because of his medical skills, Lamberville often was granted access to the sick. Few of these “escape who are not baptized before they die.”
Lamberville baptized thirty-nine Onondagas in 1671, “twenty of them entering, soon after, into the possession of glory.” Of the twenty-seven people he baptized in 1672, “They all died, with the exception of three.” In 1673, he baptized eight “aged persons,” all but one of whom died. In a letter to his superiors written in June 1676, Lamberville reported that he recently had baptized forty-five children, “forty of whom are before God.” He admired, he wrote, the ways God adopted “for the salvation of his elect,” as he presided over a church composed of dead children.
We are facing a national crisis in history education, as Republican lawmakers across the country rush to downplay the Holocaust, erase slavery, deny the diversity of this country’s many stories, and proscribe the teaching of ideas they find suspect. History can be difficult work at times, carried on in defiance of those frightened men and women who worry that a frank discussion of our nation’s sins may not lead to forgiveness. And at times, writing history can be emotionally exhausting.
THEY WERE JUST KIDS. That is something that leaps off the page when you look at their student files. Delia and Florence Edwards, two Onondaga sisters, arrived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in December of 1909 and May of 1910, respectively. Delia was fourteen years old, Florence 13.
They were not dragged to Carlisle. State officials did not forcefully remove them from their homes. Like many of the young people who came to Carlisle, a parent signed them up. The girls attended the Onondaga Nation School for a couple of years, and then the Mindenville School District in the Mohawk Valley before they came to Carlisle. By the time the girls arrived, Carlisle required all students to have had several years of prior schooling and fluency in English. David Russel Hill, an Onondaga chief, the leader of the Onondaga Indian Band, and an advocate for Indian education, wrote on both of the girls’ applications that they had “advanced beyond the required studies.” If they wished to continue their schooling, he suggested, Carlisle may have been the best and the only opportunity open to them.
RECENT MONTHS have witnessed the discovery of more than 1300 unmarked graves at the site of a number of Canadian residential schools. The discoveries, according to a story that ran in the Ottawa Citizen, are proof of what First Nations people have been saying for a long time: “That Canada’s Indian Residential Schools spent nearly a century overseeing shockingly high rates of death among their students, with the bodies of the dead routinely withheld from their families and home communities.” In part because of the outcry these discoveries sparked, the American Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced an initiative to “address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.” Haaland cautioned that the work would be difficult and time-consuming. Nothing, she said, will “undo the heartbreak and loss we feel.” Nonetheless, she said, “only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud of.”
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will investigate “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.” These schools, said Bryan Newland, the Principal Deputy Assistant for Indian Affairs, were intended to “culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.” “Hundreds of thousands” of Indian children, Newland said, were taken from their communities. The Interior Department will work to collect the relevant documents, locate possible burial sites, and try to set the record straight.”
This is a worthwhile project, one of the only times in American history where an agency of the federal government has pledged to take an honest look at its history, collect the evidence, and allow for a true accounting of this part of the nation’s past. It is stunning, really. Having spent much of my work time the last year or so reading through Carlisle student files, this will be complicated and in many ways difficult work. And it may force many people to reconsider what they know to be true about Indian boarding schools.
CARLISLE WAS ABOUT 250 MILES south of the Onondaga Nation Territory, so Delia and Florence traveled less far than most of the 10,000 students who attended the school between 1879, when it opened, and 1918, when it closed.
It is difficult to discern much about the girls’ lives before Carlisle. Their Onondaga mother had died from heart disease, and they were being raised by their Mohawk father on the Nation Territory. We know which schools they attended, and that they were Protestants, though the denomination is not clear.
A military officer named Richard Henry Pratt founded the school to “kill the Indians and save the man.” Speaking to a gathering of Baptist ministers in 1883, Pratt said that “in Indian Civilization, I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them until they are thoroughly soaked.” The best that Pratt could see in the thousands of young Native Americans who attended Carlisle was that with proper training they might be formed into something else, and he boasted of his ability to do just that.
Pratt was an energetic and effective promoter of the school. He produced before and after photographs of Carlisle students, the first depicting the child in their traditional dress, the second with their hair cut, their faces cleaned, and dressed in Carlisle’s school uniform. Pratt claimed that Carlisle took “savage” and “wild” Indians and transformed them into civilized individuals, ready for citizenship and productive employment in the American republic. His school, according to a newspaper article announcing its opening, “will endeavor to save the Indians from extermination by educating young Indians, who can grow up to be leaders of their people and direct them to civilization.” In reality, the largest numbers of students came from Iroquois communities, eastern Cherokees, and the Oneidas in Wisconsin. These young people spoke and wrote in English when they arrived, were members of Christian denominations, and familiar with farming.
Pratt needed to promote his efforts. Contrary to popular belief, policy-makers began to criticize off-reservation boarding schools as educational institutions. Early twentieth century commissioners of Indian Affairs and secretaries of the interior, for instance, much preferred reservation day schools, which were less expensive because they allowed children to return home at the end of the day, and because they better prepared the students for life in American society. Francis Leupp, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote in 1905 that “it is a great mistake to try, as man good persons of bad judgment have tried, to start the little ones in the path of civilization by snapping all the ties of affection between them and their parents, and teaching them to despise the aged and nonprogressive members of their families.” Pratt retired five years before the Edwards sisters arrived, at a time when boarding schools faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from reformers, political leaders, and of course Native peoples themselves, who viewed them as retrograde institutions, dated and of questionable value compared to the benefits of schools closer to home.
Students at Carlisle spent only some of their time on school grounds. Much of their time was spent on their various “Outing” placements, where they were sent to live with white families to learn a craft or a trade or, in the case of women, basic housewifery. If they were old enough, they attended schools near their patrons’ home. Delia attended Moorestown High School in New Jersey, and Florence attended Haddonfield High.
Delia’s patrons found her “headstrong and self-willed,” but capable of doing well when she tried. Another thought she was “a great child and tries to please.” Florence spent time in Jenkinstown and Kennet Square, Pennsylvania, and at a couple of sites in New Jersey. One of her patrons, in 1910, told the Carlisle field agent, whose job it was to check in on students, that “Florence is not satisfactory, she is not very strong, is at a critical period in her life.” The thirteen year old was “willing,” but just not capable, in the eyes of her patron, to provide enough help. “She is very untidy about her person & work.” A year later, however, a new patron in Beverley, New Jersey, reported that she was very fond of Florence, and found her “a good obedient child, a little slow, but tries and is improving.”
Florence may have struggled at times during her placements, but she took advantage of the opportunities Carlisle presented. She wrote for the student newspaper. She received a prize for one of her essays from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. She was an active member of Carlisle’s YWCA chapter, and at one meeting led the students in a lecture on “the heroes of the Bible.” She was also a member of the Mercers, where she practiced “Declamation.” IN 1914, she gave a reading in the auditorium of her essay, “Is it Worth While?” (The paper gave no sense of what “it” was). In January of 1915 she led the Protestant service at the school “and also gave a fine little talk.” She must have been a magnetic figure, filled with charisma. People liked her.
Both of the girls went home for the summer of 1915. By September they were back at school and both had moved on to their next placements. In October of 1915, the Carlisle Arrow ran a report of students staying in the school’s hospital. Florence “who came in from the county,” was one of them. She was “now up,” and, according to Agnes Owl, “was only lonesome for Carlisle.”
Turned out it was much more serious. Florence had contracted tuberculosis, the dread disease that killed 194 out of every 100,000 Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lawrence Edwards, her father, began to hear that his daughter was ill. In November he wrote to the school’s superintendent, asking for information. He had heard nothing from Florence, but “others are telling me she is sick.” Two weeks later, on the sixth of December in 1915, the Superintendent wrote back. Florence was cured, but he told Mr. Edwards that he thought it advisable “to let your daughter…have a complete rest in order that she regain her physical strength.” He was sending her home to Onondaga.
Delia, it turned out, was sick as well. Mrs. Lippincott, one of her patrons, sent Delia to the hospital. She complained of abdominal pain. It was appendicitis, and she had surgery in November. She recovered well. While Florence journeyed home to rest, Delia returned to her patron. She wanted to go back to Carlisle. She wrote to her friend Lucy Lenoir, a Chippewa student. The letters are wonderful. Delia was a relentless kidder, always ready to affectionately tease her friend. And she was bored to tears at time doing housework for her patron. “I wish we could be there for the social which will be the last Saturday” of January. Earlier, she told Lucy, she had broken up with her boyfriend. “We certainly would make a hit on some swell guys,” she wrote. But getting back to Carlisle was more difficult than it should have been. The superintendent saw no reason for her to return to the school. Her patrons reported that her work was good, and that she was succeeding in her studies. Delia told Lucy that “I am so darn sick of country life I believe I’d die if I stay here much longer.” Maybe, she wrote, “I’ll play sick and see if I can’t go back to Carlisle.” She missed her friends. A short time later she wrote to Lucy again, saying “Dearie, I have no idea where I will be when you open this letter, but if I am not in my grave I will be at dear old Carlisle.”
Delia would not make it back to Carlisle until June. In May of 1916, Lawrence wrote to the superintendent. “My daughter Florence is very low now and I wish to have Delia come to her before anything happens.” Delia was summoned back to the school, where she arrived on the First of June. She returned home to the Nation Territory on June 6.
One month later, Florence died. “She had been ill for about ten months,” Delia wrote. “She certainly wanted to get well so she could return to Carlisle in the fall to graduate with her class next spring.” She told the superintendent that it was hard for her to lose a sister. “Father and I are trying our best to bear it,” she wrote, “but life is not ours so we will have to take things as they come.” Her sister had returned to Carlisle from her outing assignment with a fatal illness. The school’s records document the names of the children who died there. Still, Delia could not wait to return. Like many of the Onondagas who attended Carlisle, she missed the school when she was not there. She was nineteen years old. In the very same letter in which she expressed her grief at her sister’s death, she told the Superintendent that “I will try to return the latter part of September to Carlisle to continue my studies.” She wanted to “be placed with the graduating class as I certainly worked hard this winter with my studies at the Moorestown High School.” She wanted confirmation that she could return, so she asked the superintendent to “let me know if I can be entered in the ‘Fourth Year vocational’ class and I will return just as soon as I can before I get too far behind with my studies.” She hoped as well that the school would consider admitting her stepsister Elsie. Carlisle mattered to Delia.
She never returned to “dear old Carlisle.” She was told that she did not have “sufficient credits to enter the class which is to complete the course in another year.” She should return to Moorestown High School and then, at “the opening of the year you will be given the opportunity to take whatever work for which you are prepared.” Her last date of attendance was listed as May 31, 1916. It is not hard to believe that when Carlisle closed a short time later, she may have seen this as a loss for her people. As Onondaga chief Jesse Lyon asked, “Why was Carlisle closed? Nobody know,” he said. “Too good for Indian, maybe, but that is what Indian needs.”
THE STORY OF CARLISLE is not a simple one. As historians we know to be attuned to ambiguity and ambivalence. It is proper to view boarding schools as American institutions directed toward cultural genocide—the erasure of Native American culture, values, and beliefs. It attempted to play that role. But it did not always do succeed. Students were homesick, at times. Some ran away from the school, especially the boys. Some returned to their communities feeling as if they no longer belonged. Yet there were Onondagas who ran away from home to get to Carlisle. Some of those runaways were not heading home, but to visit girlfriends. It is proper then, to view Carlisle as well as a flawed institution which Native American students attended to receive an education and learn crafts and trades, or to play sports or to play music, opportunities that were often closed to them elsewhere. More than one thing can be true at a time. Carlisle took and it gave, but it neither destroyed nor erased, the Onondagas who attended it between 1879 and 1918. The Interior Department’s Boarding School Initiative will need to be attuned to the school’s ambivalent legacy.
The newspaper coverage may as well have said that Mrs. Smith had it coming.
Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by something that you read? Those of you who do historical research, I will wager, can answer this question easily in the affirmative. It happened to me again early last week. And like a deep scratch, I am feeling it days later.
I had been listening to as set of audio recordings housed at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. An Onondaga woman named Lucenda George sat down with the anthropologist Fred Lukoff in 1950 and told him about life on the Nation Territory, just a bit south of Syracuse, New York. Mrs. George spoke her native language but in several dozen of the recordings, she translated what she said into English, line by line, as Lukoff advanced the tape in small segments.
Mrs. George told stories about Onondaga clothing and food. She told Lukoff about working in factories in Syracuse during the first World War. She told him about a band of gypsies camped on the reservation, and about how she drove a taxi for a time in Syracuse. There was one about the young white woman who boarded with her who wanted to become a missionary. She spoke about locusts, an occasional delicacy the Onondagas fried in a pan with butter and salt. Don’t criticize, Mrs. George suggested, if you’ve ever eaten and enjoyed a lobster.
One of the stories was “About a Murder.” Mrs. George told the tale of an Onondaga man who had murdered his Onondaga wife. “It must be about two years ago that happened,” she said. “This man killed his wife with a knife. He kept pushing the knife in her throat until she died.” He was tried, and then he was acquitted. Then, according to Mrs. George, he left the Nation Territory, abandoned his three children, “and nobody knows where he is now.”
This story surprised me. I had spent a great deal of time reading through every newspaper story I could find about the Onondagas in the Syracuse newspapers and in other newspapers that covered central New York. I had not seen this. Perhaps I missed it. I went back to the papers, and I looked. It took me only a few minutes. On December 10, 1948, Edwin Smith murdered his Onondaga wife.
One source, a seventy-year old digitized copy of a reel-to-reel tape of a story told by Lucenda George, clicks into place with the newspaper coverage of a brutal crime. A fuller picture comes into view.
Edwin Smith had been struggling, that’s for sure. According to coverage in the Syracuse Post-Standard, several hours before Smith murdered his wife, he entered the grocery store in Nedrow, just off the Nation Territory, owned and operated by Justice of the Peace Darwin N. Camp. Smith had left the Onondaga County Penitentiary on the first of December after having served a sixty-day term for assault. Now, he told Camp, “I am in trouble again.”
That evening Smith took his wife to a dance. According to Mrs. George, people were drinking. Smith and his wife were drinking, too. “She got up on the table,” Mrs. George said, and “took all her clothes off, and there she stood without a stitch of clothing on her.” She started dancing. Mr. Smith was so embarrassed that he left, but there was a man outside who told him to go back inside, get his wife, and take her home. So he did. He told her to get dressed, and he took her home. He continued to drink when they got there. Then he stabbed her twenty-one times, the lethal blow severing her jugular vein. He called the police, told them he had killed his wife. His three children, ages 8, 6, and 4, were sleeping in the other room. He killed their mother “because he couldn’t stand it any longer,” Mrs. George said. “Everything just went black.”
The newspapers reported on Mrs. Smith’s infidelity. Mrs. George said that “when they first married she was a very good girl,” but after a while “she got mixed up with this bad company.” Smith’s defense attorney presented a case of temporary insanity. A psychologist testified that Smith suffered from a “disassociated personality” when he stabbed his wife to death, and that as a result, he “was not able to understand the nature of his act.” Testifying to Smith’s “peaceful and quiet nature” was the Thadodaho of the Six Nations George Thomas, along with Onondaga Nation treasurer Davis Greene, Chief Jesse Lyons, Elizabeth Powless, and the Methodist minister Livingston Crouse. They all accepted the argument that Mrs. Smith’s infidelity had produced in Mr. Smith so much pain and anguish that he could not justly be held responsible for his actions. It took the jury of nine men and three women less than four hours to reach its verdict at the beginning of March in 1949. Not guilty. “At the trial,” Mrs. George said, “the sentiment was all for him because of his wife’s terrible deed. I am speaking of the white people now. They were for him.” The jury accepted that a wife’s infidelity could drive a husband so crazy that he could get away with murder.
Mrs. George said that Mr. Smith left the Nation after his acquittal. “This man who has gone away nobody knows where he is, whether he is alive or dead, [and] he has never written to ask if everybody is all right here.” It turns out that he went to Syracuse. His three children were raised in foster care. They went through a lot. A friend on the Nation Territory who knows its history well told me that the youngest child “grew up damaged” and has passed away.
You likely have noticed what is missing from this account. What about Mrs. Smith? Catherine? With all the support shown to Edwin, it is easy to lose track of her. Smith’s defense attorney argued that Mrs. Smith’s infidelity drove him temporarily insane. The chiefs and a Christian minister, in telling the jury that Edwin was a good guy, endorsed this view, even if the record clearly demonstrates his use of violence as a solution to his problems. The jury accepted as perfectly reasonable the argument that a wife’s infidelity can drive a man so insane that he might stab her twenty-one times. Everyone seemed to think that Mrs. Smith had it coming. Was she beaten, neglected, ignored, and tortured in her marriage? Her motives are completely absent, and that is heartbreaking.
And that is what I carry with me as I think about a murder that took place on an Indian reservation seventy-two years ago. The children—I find it hard to believe that all three of them slept through the slaughter—in one vicious night lost both of their parents. I can only imagine their pain, confusion, and anger. And that of Mrs. Smith–Catherine–as she attempted to fight off her killer. People on the Onondaga Nation said “they could hear her scream all the way down the road.”
This past Thursday, the Onondaga Nation issued a statement on the notorious statue of Christopher Columbus located in Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse. They did so at the invitation of a Syracuse Inter-Faith Commission, and as a contribution to the 23-member panel that will issue recommendations to the mayor about what to do by the end of the summer. The Onondaga Nation’s statement is worth your time and attention.
The Nation expressed their hope that “through diplomacy, discussion, and open minds, these discussions will lead to a positive solution for the future of Syracuse with inclusion for all people to live in peace as neighbors and brothers.” They looked forward to “an outcome that will encourage peace, understanding, and the united brotherhood exemplifying the foundation of cooperation, peace, and equality for the generations yet to come.” They reminded Syracusans that the city stood in the heart of what was once their homeland, the site of the central council fire of the Haudenosaunee, and that the Onondaga Nation “carries a great responsibility in the continued existence of our sovereign government.” The Nation’s “traditional teachings are morally dignified and highly principled in peace and democracy and our way of life means being ever thankful for the many gifts of our mother earth. We are,” the statement reads, “people culturally mandated to respectfully live as caretakers of Mother Earth and as equals to all beings within the natural realm.” Anyone who knows anything about the history of Syracuse knows that the City and its people have seldom lived up to these ideals.
The statement struck a conciliatory and diplomatic tone in addressing the City’s Italian-American community, which has raised money to keep the Columbus statue right where it is.
We fully understand the wishes of the Italian American community to honor their heritage, but it is burdensome for the people of Onondaga to see Christopher Columbus memorialized with a statue. Within our lands and hearts, finding equality and peace is difficult knowing the hardships our ancestors endured as a consequence of his campaign. Our own monuments, beautiful lakes, streams, rivers, and the earth itself, has suffered greatly as a direct result principle of the Doctrine of Discovery to which Columbus used to claim the lands in the name of the Spanish crown.
The power of the pen favors the writers of history. In truth, what was “discovered” on this continent we know as Turtle Island were well established independent nations of indigenous peoples. People living within their respected ways of life in accordance with their individual cultures. As indigenous people, we are taught of the exploits of Columbus while our own history was being unheard, misunderstood, and often erased.
The Onondagas thought it best that the statue be removed. The space it occupies might be repurposed to better ends.
At this crucial time in our joint history with the need for unity and compassion at hand, we ask ourselves is honoring the heritage of the Columbus righteous and just? Should we continue to ignore all the different peoples who suffered enumerable atrocities? We think not. We know we are not responsible for the transgressions of our ancestors, but it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. The Onondaga Nation does not wish anyone’s culture or heritage to be affronted in the manner ours have suffered; but to find a way to allow the space currently occupied by the Columbus statue to be reinvented and reenergized into a symbol of unity for all.
The statement concludes with a call to find a good mind, to come together and find a consensus and a solution “in which all the peoples who call Syracuse home may find a way to continue to honor each other’s heritage and cultures.”
There is a lot going on in this document. Columbus appears in it as both myth and symbol, as something more than a historical figure. I have written about this “mythical Columbus,” and the functions these myths serve, on this blog in the past. For Italian-Americans Columbus serves as a symbol of freedom and a hero whose experience shows that Italians are important in American history, and that Italians were present at the very creation of the American Nation. In reality, we know that Columbus was an aggressive slaver who never set foot in North America. For Native peoples, Columbus is made to stand in for all the burdens suffered by Indigenous peoples. To the Onondagas’ charge that Columbus was responsible for “the hardships our ancestors endured as a consequence of his campaign,” a historian might argue that Columbus never came close to the Longhouse. He did nothing to you, and neither to “the lakes, streams, rivers, and to the earth himself.” Those who followed him did loads of damage, but that is a longer and more complicated story. “The Doctrine of Discovery,” which according to the Onondaga Nation Statement “Columbus used to claim the lands in the name of the Spanish Crown,” was as much a justification for colonization drawn up centuries later than it was license for empire: Indigenous peoples paid no attention to papal bulls and colonial charters, and the European “Ceremonies of Possession,” as historian Patrica Seed called them, were performed for other Europeans, not native peoples. The work of colonization was brutal and violent, but the process in North America especially was a remarkably unintellectual process. The Doctrine of Discovery mattered little on the ground in the Americas, where Native peoples retained the power to ignore it. Indeed one can find many instances of Haudenosaunee orators dressing down Europeans and their pretentious claims to discovery and conquest.
But there is a problem with these arguments. One of the things that has struck me as I have worked on a history of the Onondaga Nation is the Nation’s willingness and ability to speak for Indigenous America writ large, and to have Native North America listen. The Onondagas always have carried more influence than their relatively small numbers would lead one to believe. And for the Onondagas and their allies, the problem with the Columbus statue in Syracuse is precisely the things he has come to symbolize for all Indigenous peoples: the well-documented and undeniable brutality of European colonization, and a campaign erasure, violence, and exploitation that has lasted centuries, from 1492 to the present. With its feet on the heads of Indigenous peoples with Plains Indian Headdresses, and with its friezes depicting Columbus as both hero and conqueror, the statue is a grotesque and graphic celebration of five hundred years’ of genocide, and an white-washing of the viciousness of the Columbian Encounter in the Caribbean.
The Onondagas would like to see the statue removed. They are not alone in this. But they spoke to the people of Syracuse as neighbors. They acknowledged the position of the city’s Italian-American community. But in terms similar to what has been done with the Skä۰noñh Great Law of Peace Center, which repurposed an old living-history museum representing the Jesuits called Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois, the Onondagas spoke of working together in a unified manner to give new meaning to the space occupied by the Columbus statue, to allow it to “be reinvented and reenergized into a symbol of unity for all.”
When the Onondagas filed their “land rights action” more than fifteen years ago, they stated their wish to “bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time.” At a time when groups like Upstate Citizens for Equality were ginning up white peoples’ fears of being dispossessed by Native Americans in Cayuga and Oneida territory, the Nation made clear that it wanted justice and an acknowledgment of their rights to the lands taken in violation of United States law, but that “we will not displace any of our neighbors—the Onondaga know all too well the pain of being forced to leave our homes and do not wish that on anyone.”
There is a long history informing the Onondaga Nation statement. In its demonstration of the Nation’s leaders’ diplomatic skill, and the tactfulness with which the Nation’s leaders assert their will, and in its call for cooperatively defining and sharing space, it echoes themes that run throughout the long history of the Onondaga Nation, and especially in its relations to the non-Indigenous community of what has become over time Central New York. In the relationship between Syracuse and the Onondagas over many, many years, the Onondagas have often been been better neighbors to the City than the City has been to them. The City has expressed a willingness to listen, but acting on what it hears might be difficult. There are many who want the statue preserved. Let’s hope that the Mayor’s commission approaches its work with a good mind, and a desire to be good neighbors to the Onondaga Nation.
What stories will we tell about this pandemic spring, and how will this time of dislocation, isolation and, in places, overwhelming grief, shape the stories we historians tell about those pasts we choose to investigate? The answers to these questions are always more connected than we care to admit.
There are of course the daily stories of the blundering incompetence of our most craven President, who fiddled while the virus burned up much of what seemed familiar and comfortable. There are his brazen lies, his attempts to rewrite the past and erase his many denials of the magnitude of the health threat we all face, and his failure to deliver even a fraction of the testing kits he asserted would be ready by now. Beside the stories of this president’s cowardice and malfeasance, there are the stories of heroic health care workers, doing battle against the virus often without the equipment that might allow them to do their work with less risk. Of course there are the stories of those who have suffered and died, and those who grieve these deaths. There are many more of these stories yet to be written, I am afraid. Anyone with the eyes to see knows this to be true. These stories can overwhelm if we let them.
At home, I attempt to steal away moments here and there to work on the book project that has kept me busy for many years now. It may be my last book. Sometimes I feel that way when I consider the scope and scale of the project. The project gets bigger while my world, in a sense, becomes smaller. I work from home. I no longer encounter my students face-to-face, bump into colleagues, or visit libraries and archives. I keep my distance from others to keep myself safe. The world seems limited and constrained.
When I attempt to look at this project in all its breadth, I find myself distracted, restless and anxious. Working on a project this broad requires me to think of the future, to make plans and set goals. I feel strange doing that now. It is only when I step back and slow down, and when I take a look at the small stories, that I am able to focus and devote some energy to my research. I look at the smallest pieces of the puzzle, the most interesting pebbles on a beach of enormous expanse.
In January of 1907, Harrison Hill, a teenager from Onondaga shot and killed his brother-in-law Elijah Peters on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, located about halfway between Rochester and Buffalo in western New York. Hill had attended the Thomas Indian School on the Senecas’ Cattaraugus reservation beginning when he was eight years old. I have not been able to reconstruct all his movements. He left Thomas after four years. A half decade later he got himself into some kind of trouble, and ended up at the state industrial school in Rochester. The school’s records are housed at the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester, but the archives are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. All I know for sure is that once he got free or escaped or finished his term, he made his way to Tonawanda to live with his sister and her husband. His mother joined him there shortly thereafter.
It is not clear to me exactly what happened next. I am certain that after some sort of confrontation that involved Hill asking Peters for money, Peters asked Hill to leave his house. Some time later, Hill shot Peters as he exited the house, delivering to his brother-in-law the fatal wound.
In every account Hill is described as educated and stunningly good looking. But sullen, and angry, as well. After the shooting, he ran for it. Neither his sister nor his mother claimed to know where he had gone, but the police never believed them. They thought that he could be hiding in Syracuse, or on the Onondaga Nation territory, where he still had relatives. The police offered a reward for his capture, and two days later a sheriff captured him near the farm of a guy named Byron Gardner in Wyoming County. According to the report in the Buffalo Courier, Hill “was walking in the road when he met the officer, armed with a loaded revolver from which two cartridges had been fired, and the sheriff believes that had the prisoner known him he would have had difficulty capturing him.” Hill did not know that Peters had died. The Courier reporter wrote that
Hill is nineteen years of age, bright and intelligent looking, neat in appearance and speaks good English. He at one time attended the Carlisle Indian School and wore several pins on his coat, one of which was a fraternity pin from Carlisle. On arriving at the jail, he made a complete confession of the crime.
There is no evidence that Hill ever attended Carlisle. It is hard to say where he got these pins, but undoubtedly he had family members who had spent time in Pennsylvania. The description of Hill’s confession paints a vibrant, if incomplete picture, of a young man who found himself in a great deal of trouble:
He says that on the morning of the day of the shooting Peters turned him out of the house and he has a very quick temper it made him very mad and he determined to get revenge by shooting him. He says he went to Peters’ house in the evening and concealed himself behind a clump of bushes near the rear of the house and that when he saw Peters coming from the barn he took aim and fired the bullet. He says he fired but once and then ran, and after going to his room at Johnson’s and getting a package he walked that night to Oakfield and Batavia, and then to LeRoy and south to Pavilion. He says that Tuesday and Wednesday nights he slept in barns and finally reached Gardner’s farm where he found a job cutting wood. He stayed at Gardner’s Thursday night. When asked if he was sorry for what he had done he said he was not; that he did not care much. He takes his arrest cooly and does not appear to be at all concerned over his fate.”
Many Onondagas attended boarding school. Some went to Thomas, the state-run institution that remained open into the 1950s. Others went to the infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. A small number went to schools elsewhere—Lincoln, in Philadelphia, or the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and some others that I cannot think of. Some of them struggled when they came home. Some put their skills to use and did well for themselves. For many, attending Carlisle was a badge of honor—even Harrison Hill who never went there wore Carlisle pins on his jacket.
I do not know how Simeon George felt about his time at the boarding school He arrived at Carlisle in 1893. His student record is sparse, little more than a couple of information cards. He attended sporadically, going home at his parents’ request between each May and October. After May of 1896, he never returned to the school. As a 22-year old, he was too old to attend the school any longer.
I have not been able to find out much about George and his life at Onondaga. He doesn’t show up in the newspapers. I cannot travel to the Nation territory to talk to people there about him until the pandemic subsides.
What I do know for sure that is on April 21 1907, while Harrison Hill sat in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder, George was in his home on the reservation, eating supper. A knock at the door. George answered It was a sheriff’s deputy from Madison County, Michael Mooney.
Deputy Mooney told George to finish his supper, but to come outside when he was done. Mooney told him he would wait. George finished his meal quickly, and grabbed his coat. He placed a loaded revolver in his pocket. When the deputy put his hand on George’s shoulder, he pulled out the gun and fired, wounding Mooney in the shoulder. As Mooney fell, George fired again, hitting him in the back.
George ran into the house, leaving Deputy Mooney for dead. He told his nineteen-year-old wife Lydia Billings, who he had married ten months before, that he was going to kill himself. He ran from the house and headed toward an expanse of woods to the south. “It was believed at the reservation yesterday that George had carried out his threat,” the Syracuse Post Standard reported. That is what Lydia believed. She told police that one of George’s brothers had committed suicide four years earlier.
But where was his body? Police searched the woods for a couple of days. People from the community, I imagine, must have helped out. They found nothing. By the 26th, police began to suspect that George was alive, that his announcement of his intent to kill himself was an attempt to throw the police off his tail. Keep them busy, looking for his body, while he fled from the reservation. A mail carrier in East Hamilton, about 45 miles east of the reservation, reported seeing an Indian who matched George’s description going door-to-door begging for whatever the residents might spare.
The mail carrier, it turned out, had spotted someone who was neither George nor an Indian. On the 29th, as Detective Mooney slowly recovered from his wounds, officers found George’s body, a bullet wound in his head, his revolver by his side. They found him in the wounds a short distance from his house where he said he would go.
Whatever his own demons, whatever he had done, Simeon George was loved. His funeral took place at the reservation Wesleyan Methodist Church. 200 people attended, “the little church crowded to the doors.” The entire twenty-one members of the Onondaga Indian band performed in his honor. They performed a dirge entitled “Forest Home,” composed in 1898, and another piece called “Religioso.” His life, about which it is so difficult to learn much at all, mattered immensely to those people at Onondaga who knew him.
Harrison Hill’s trial began three weeks after George’s funeral at the United States District Court. His attorney argued that Hill shot Peters in self-defense and never intended to hurt him. Hill had gone to Peters’ house to ask for some money to help his brother, Moses Hill, who was incarcerated in the Onondaga County Jail on charges of grand larceny. Peters went after Hill, who fired the gun in an effort to frighten him. Hill took the stand in his own defense, and was “subjected to a sharp cross-examination on the part of the people, but in the main struck to the story given in his direct examination.”
The judge overseeing the trial, in his instructions to the jury, told them that Hill was entitled to a fair and impartial trial, “but that you must not be influenced by sympathy for his youth and must not consider it in your deliberations. There should be no prejudice against his race or color,” the judge said, “and nothing about his manner of testifying should influence you. You know,” he continued, “the nature of the Indian is stoical and any hesitations in answering questions should not militate against him.”
I have not had a chance to try to find the trial record. The jury believed Hill. He was acquitted on all charges. I do not know what happened to him after that. But I did find this story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle seventeen months later:
Robert Hill, 20 years old, an Onondaga Indian, was brought to jail last night by Railroad Detective Elliott. Hill was arrested on Thursday morning by Constable Charles Platt, of Gates, who arraigned him before Justice of the Peace Leddy on charges of burglary and larceny. Hill was caught after he had broken into a freight car in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburg yards in Lincoln Park. …..Hill is a bad Indian. Despite his years he has seen a good deal of the country. Some nine months ago he shot and killed his brother and law in an Indian settlement near Batavia. He was tried, but was acquitted. Next he was accused of having stabbed a brakeman in Salamanca. He got away, and at Wyoming took off his coat and flagged a train. He rode into Rochester where he was arrested by Detective Spillings and railroad Detective Elliott. He wasn’t held long, as it was impossible to prove that he had done the stabbing. Thursday morning Constable Platt found the red man industriously breaking open packages in a freight car in the Lincoln Park yards. When he started to place the Indian under arrest the latter drew a revolver. Platt didn’t wait for him to use it, but laid his flat on the Indian’s nose. The blow was so straight and so effective that Hill surrendered without further ceremony. Director Whaley caused Hill to be photographed yesterday. He thinks the Indian is wanted in some Western state.
The details do not match up completely, but you have to admit that there are some similarities between the story of Robert Hill, a 20-year old from Onondaga arrested in October of 1908, and Harrison Hill, a 19-year old arrested in 1907. It is a question I have not been able to investigate. Lydia Billings, Simeon George’s young wife, left the reservation after his suicide and found work at the Columbia Hotel in Niagara Falls as a domestic. When the upper floors of the hotel caught fire in January of 1909, she jumped from the fourth floor to save her life. According to the Buffalo Evening News, she “sustained a broken rib on the right side, a fracture of her right wrist and a fracture of the left ankle.” I have many more unanswered questions, but for now, the trail has grown cold.
There has been in our profession a flourishing “microhistorical turn” over the span of the past decade or so. I expect more of us will be drawn to these small stories if the suffering caused by the coronavirus continues and increases, as every informed person says it will.
The historical record left from these years will surely highlight the incompetence of the executive branch in the face of a global crisis and the grotesque self-dealing of the arrogant bunglers. We will have numbers and charts and data, telling the story of the pandemic’s spread, and the damage it did as it slashed its way around the world. What might not show up easily in the archives of the future will be the brutal but quiet reality that this pandemic will have been the most important event in the lives of millions of Americans. It was this virus that took from them their lives and their loved ones, or led them to lose their jobs, their homes, or their businesses. Dreams shatter. The cord breaks in the spring of 2020, and nothing for these many people will ever be the same again.
We historians look for the significance in the events that we write about. We do not simply recount the past. We identify and explain why it mattered. We might find significance in a battle, an election, and act of Congress or an act of God. Perhaps with this pandemic more of us will recognize that the events that make us who we are can be as small as a death in the family.
In Native American history, we have become more attuned to historical trauma as a force shaping indigenous communities. Often we tie this to a history of violence, dispossession and disease. In my own attempts to understand the history of the Onondagas, an indigenous community that would have disappeared long ago if their white neighbors had their way, I find immense meaning in these small stories, a way of knowing and seeing this history not often available in the conventional sources, conventionally read. If the coronavirus pandemic continues to inflict trauma as some people fear it might, these small stories will not only offer an essential means to view the history of this country during this ear, but an important means for speaking truth to power. There are those like this President and his craven supporters, for instance, who will attempt to distance themselves from the destruction their incompetence has wrought. These millions of small stories will stand as witness against them. Perhaps it is true what one of the very wise Geneseo students who accompanied me to Oxford last year had to say: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write.
This past weekend, I flew to Atlanta to participate in the conference hosted by the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era. It was, as I indicated in an earlier post, the first time I presented any of the research from my current project to an academic audience.
I was part of a round table discussion called “Indigenizing the American Revolution.” While some of the panelists presented rather straight-forward papers, my goal was to suggest some changes in thinking about how we approach the Revolution, and to provoke some discussion. What follows is a distillation of what I said.
I spend a lot of time talking about the American Revolution with students who know less about it than they should, or whose understanding of the Revolution is ensnared in so much myth and legend that, despite their considerable interest, and infectious enthusiasm, they sometimes have trouble separating fact from fiction. In New York schools, if they learn anything at all about native peoples and the Revolution, it is the long-since discredited “Iroquois Influence Thesis,” which like all things from the ‘80s, still has a few remaining adherents.
When I have a class in front of me, and I will be teaching the Revolution again in the fall for the first time in what seems like a long time, I begin by asking the students a number of questions: What was the Revolution? When was it? Where was it? Why was it a thing? And Who was it?
Let me be clear: I teach in western New York, in a picturesque village built over the burned remains of the Seneca town of Chenussio destroyed during the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779. The Groveland Ambuscade, the site of an actual battle involving Tories and Senecas attempting to pick off an advance party sent by Sullivan, sits near the campus, as do grisly and myth-encrusted sites associated with violence committed upon whites like the Boyd-Parker torture tree. There, the story goes, two of Sullivan’s scouts were tied with their own intestines by “savage” Senecas. The sites we commemorate in the vicinity of Geneseo, then, are sites of indigenous violence where white people play the starring role. Meanwhile, the sites of the burned Seneca towns are less well-known, their stories seldom told. As a result, even at a college that sits near the site of Chenussio, the answers students provide to my questions almost always do not include native peoples.
So to fix this problem, to indigenize the American Revolution, we need to construct from the surprisingly rich and abundant sources new narratives about the Revolution. Despite the fantastic work being done by so many of our colleagues, this won’t be easy to do, and those of us who work with educators and local historians can expect some push-back and resistance. We must, after all, ask them to redefine and replace in important ways a story that has become comforting and familiar for one that is unsettling and disturbing.
Still, if you will allow me, very briefly, I will try to provide some answers to these questions, inspired by this idea of indigenizing the American Revolution. These answers I base upon my current research project, a history of the Onondagas from the time when that young woman fell through a hole in the sky to land on Turtle’s back to something very closely approaching the present. It’s a big project, of which this is a small but important part.
For the Onondagas, there were no grand constitutional questions at stake in the Revolution. For them, it did not reduce to tidy dualisms like the questions of “home rule” or “who shall rule at home?” A conflict between Tories and British Regulars, American militiamen and Continental soldiers, that they hoped to avoid became for them a fight for survival, a nightmarish series of raids and counterraids that resulted in the burning of their town in the spring of 1779 by Goose Van Schaick, the death of Onondaga soldiers, and the rape and murder of Onondaga women and children. It marked the beginnings of a diaspora, the effects of which native peoples still feel today, and that the forces of colonialism have in very meaningful ways inscribed on the very geography of New York and two Canadian provinces.
When was it? Obviously that question becomes more complicated when we attempt to indigenize the Revolution. The Onondagas’ revolution does not fold easily into the time frames familiar to most historians. The Revolution unleashed upon the Onondagas’ territory hordes of land-hungry settlers, avaricious speculators, and government agents determined to gobble up and seize control of their estate, their lands, and the valuable Onondaga salt springs. The same people who encroached upon, speculated in, and obtained through fraudulent means the Onondagas’ lands were the same men who called for the burning of their town and the destruction of its people during the war. The Onondagas’ revolution continued long after the fighting stopped. Onondagas moved between the British post at Niagara, and then Buffalo Creek, Grand River, and Onondaga, and other places still, struggling to hold together their communities in the aftermath of revolution, warfare, disease and dispossession, and they continued that struggle long after the “Miracle at Philadelphia” or other conventional signposts that mark the end of the revolutionary era. Indigenizing the Revolution requires us to step outside from Anglo-Centric and nationalist chronologies.
And geographically, too, when we consider “where” was the Revolution. The Revolution, after all, did not occur solely in the Urban Crucible, or simply break into the backcountry, or follow the marches of Redcoats and Continentals. No, the Revolution occurred as well in the settled towns and villages of what imperial map-makers, even on the eve of the Revolution, knew to be Iroquoia, the “Land of the Six Nations.” That geographic entity that today we call “New York” took shape through a process of Revolution, and New York quite simply could not have become the “Empire State” without a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession unleashed by Revolution. Transforming indigenous land into American states was a critical part of America’s “revolution settlement,” and the Onondagas paid enormously the price of American freedom in 1788, 1793, and 1795, to name just their eighteenth-century cessions, all of which can justly be considered rife with fraud
Viewed in this manner, the cast of characters expands dramatically. If we give to Onondaga, this Native American capital city, the same level of analysis historians like Robert Gross have given to Concord, or Benjamin Carp gave to the seaports, we naturally begin to see the Revolution as something other than a constitutional struggle, a military conflict, or the story of the creation of the American Republic. The Revolution came to different communities in different ways, and Native American communities deserve the level of treatment non-native communities have received. That is what I will attempt to do in my book. As in Gross’s Concord, the Revolution at this local level becomes something larger and smaller at the same time, something greater and lesser. It includes the story of a war fought from the Niagara to the Catskills, of families that fled to the cold fields and mass graves outside British Niagara, and on to Buffalo Creek, who only returned to Onondaga proper after 1838 and perhaps the most corrupt Indian treaty in the history of the United States. It included Onondaga refugees and Onondagas who stayed behind, Onondagas who fought to avenge the destruction of their town, the capital of Iroquoia, and those shattered by the weight of total war. When we indigenize the Revolution, the patriots remain in the story. Of course, but they look less like men of principle and more like schemers who will say and do anything to get their hands on Iroquois land.
That leaves us with “Who.” Who shall we include in the story of the Revolution? Haudenosaunee leaders like Joseph Brant obviously dominate those narratives that examine the Iroquois experience during the Revolution. Stories of Native American elites can serve as a reversal of the all-too-common “Founders Chic” genre. No Onondaga, however, left even a fraction of the documents Brant, or Red Jacket, Cornplanter, Good Peter or other well-known figures left behind. But the stories are still there, scattered across the archives and collections. Ordinary Onondagas, like the ordinary people of Concord who watched British imperial policy, who watched British soldiers search their town, and who marched own to meet them at that famous bridge, literally made history with the decisions they made during these challenging years. The documents exist. We can know the names of those Onondagas who remained at Onondaga after Van Schaick’s raid, and we know the names of many of those who fled to Fort Niagara, and then went on to Buffalo Creek and Grand River, both locations that saw rekindled Iroquois League council fires. At a fine level of detail, and with the patience that archival work requires, we can reconstruct the lives of some of the people who spent time in these communities, men and women whose lives were shaped and altered by Revolution, and whose stories ought ot be as central to that history of those whose stories have been told many times before.
Last fall I gave a number of talks
on the Onondagas’ experience as students at the Carlisle Indian School in
Pennsylvania. This weekend, I will
participate in a roundtable discussion at the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era
in Atlanta where I will share some of my thoughts on the Onondagas’ experiences
during the American Revolution. I have been working on a history of the
Onondagas for a number of years, and have a ton of reading left to do. Still,
these are big moments in the evolution of this project: the first time I share
some of this research with an audience, the first time I expose what I have
been doing for potential criticism. I feel a bit like I have just set out on a
I watch my friends on Facebook and Twitter
post their daily word counts. They
participate in the “Grafton
Challenge,” or work to stay in “Club 500,” as in five hundred words
a day. I admire them for this in that
they find the time to write every day, something that is truly harder than it
looks, and requires great discipline and an empty house. I am reminded that I
need to get moving, too, but there is just so much to read and so much else to
I have time, I think. I am one of the tiny percentage of people
with a Ph.D who was lucky enough to find a tenure-track job, and I have had
tenure for fifteen years. But because of that good luck, I feel pressure to
produce. Hundreds of people would kill
to have my job, and that imposes an obligation to do good work in the classroom
and in terms of publication. If I cannot produce I should get out of the way
for those who can. Still, I have not
sought out an advance contract from a publisher, though I am certain I could
get one. I face no externally-imposed deadline. I am free to work at my own
pace without intererence.
My friends write about the pressures
associated with being a tenure-track professor, especially those still
relatively new to the job. I have not
heard the line, “Publish or Perish,” for quite some time, but the fact remains
that new faculty members are required to teach, serve on committees, and
conduct research. Advising students seems to require more time than ever.
Answering some of the 100 emails I get every day, too requires a commitment, as
does scrounging for the money necessary to get to the archives to do
research. Yes, we are lucky to have
these jobs, and we are in an infinitely better spot than the growing legion of
adjuncts teaching at colleges across the country, but these realities do not
make the pressure any less real.
And the burdens are greater for some
historians than they are for others. Because of the class system in American
college life, some historians do their work at institutions where they may
teach one or two classes a semester, with graduate students to do their
grading, and an adequate supply of travel funding to allow them to do their
research and attend conferences. Others
may teach three, four, or five courses a semester, have no help with grading,
little money to allow them to travel to archives, and pay out of their own
pockets to attend conferences. For the
latter, the burdens of this job are even greater. I have taught at both types
of institutions, and there is no question that it is easier to produce at the
former than the latter.
Some are pushing back against
tis. There is talk of a “slow
scholarship” movement, based on the premise that allowing scholars
more time to get their work done will result in scholarship that is more
valuable. If at times this argument can appear self-serving, there is no
question that there can be pressures associated with this line of work.
Research and writing is important.
It is through this process that new knowledge is created. It keeps scholars
fresh, and up-to-date. For most of us, it is enjoyable. It is fun. But the
obstacles one must overcome to do this work are not distributed at all evenly
across the profession. We need to talk
more about this. A book written by a historian with a four-four teaching load
(that is, four classes a semester) is in some ways more impressive than a book
written over the same span of time by a historian with half as many courses to
teach, with graduate assistants, and travel money.
I have it easy. My colleagues approved my request for eight
hundred dollars in funding to cover the costs of flying to Atlanta to
participate in the CRE conference. With five kids, a working spouse, a
mortgage, I could not afford to go without this assistance. My research and
teaching fields coincide, so I can keep up on the scholarship while I keep my classes
current. Working in a collegial department is an important advantage, I know,
because I spent the first four years of my career teaching at
have been thinking about this project for twenty years, long before I ever
began working on it. For several years I worked as a historical consultant for
the Onondaga Nation on the Onondaga Lake cleanup project. The legal work subsidized my scholarship,
allowing me to spend time travelling to archives and collecting copies of the
documents I might someday need in order to write. The funding allowed me to
hire some talented Geneseo students to spin microfilm reels, back before so
many newspapers had been digitized, collecting every relevant article on the
Onondagas. I could not have considered this project without the financial
support provided by this extra work, and I am still drawing upon these
materials. But it was extra work: on top of my teaching, committee work, and
personal obligations. Even with this assistance, I was only able to throw
myself into it full time in 2017, after I completed some other projects. Since
then I have slowly worked my way through the massive amount of material I had
collected. And now, a couple of years
later, this work is beginning to bear its first fruits, even though I still
have a couple of years’ worth of research still to do before I can begin my
writing process. Presenting this material is a big step, and I look forward to
seeing how the audience and my colleagues receive it. But I also appreciate how lucky I am to have
a chance to do this work, and how few of us actually ever get that opportunity.
In the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans,” filmmaker Michael Mann found inspiration in the famous but dreadful novel by James Fenimore Cooper. As did the folks who made “The Iroquois Trail,” forty years before, Mann and his crew took what they wanted from the source material in an effort to construct an adventurous story that spoke to a large white audience. The film one one hand sheds some light on the broad cultural influence of the Onondaga Nation and Americans’ changing attitudes toward Native American peoples in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It also demonstrates how limited that change really was.
In Mann’s “Mohicans,” as in Cooper’s novel, native people are either noble or ignoble, all uniquely in touch with their surroundings and with nature, but all tragic, all doomed. They appear, they do things, but clearly they will all disappear. Cooper’s novel and Mann’s film both reflect long-held notions of the “Vanishing American.” In the original novel, Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, along with his companions Chingachgook and Uncas escort the daughters of the British colonel Munro, Alice and Cora, through the war-scarred wilderness as they avoid the vengeful Huron Magua. Cora, the daughter of Munro and an African slave, draws the attention of both Uncas and Magua, but Alice, whose name means “Light,” does not. Cora, darker of skin and hair, is pursued by Cooper’s “dusky” characters, and makes statements more sympathetic to native peoples than do other characters in the novel. She dies in a Huron attack, but Alice does not.
Mann did not address Cora’s race, and it is hair-haired Alice who draws the attention of the Indians in his version of the story. In Manning’s hands, “Mohicans” is a love story, with Cora and Hawkeye (renamed in this film Nathaniel Poe because, well, Natty Bumppo is a stupid name) occupying center stage. Alice, rather than fall into savage hands, flings herself over a cliff and dies.
“Last of the Mohicans” came out during my third year of graduate school in 1992. It was the sort of film that grad students in Early American history loved to criticize and laugh at. Indeed, I always remembered the film most for its famous goofs and careless film-maker’s blunders. The English leave Fort William Henry after its surrender to the French: Where will they go? Why they will march towards the two large buses visible in the shot. How will they get there? The director with the blue baseball cap and the bullhorn will tell them where to go. Danger awaits, however, as Magua’s warriors prepare to spring the trap, the right-handed warriors on one side, the left on the other.
Mann’s film appeared two years after Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” set a new standard for Native American involvement in movies about native peoples. It also appeared a month before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The Columbian Quincentenary provoked scholars and activists alike to look once again at the catastrophic consequences of European discovery. Popular books like Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise and David Stannard’s American Holocaust appeared, as well as special editions of scholarly journals like the William and Mary Quarterly examining the legacies of the “Columbian Encounter.” Publishers produced books for young readers providing more sympathetic treatment of native subjects.
Americans’ attitudes toward native peoples had changed, it seemed, and manifestations of this appeared all over: from the growing interest among early American historians in Native American history, for instance, to a large number of films and documentaries. Anthropologists and historians began to tell each other, even if they did not always act on their own advice, that they ought to talk to the Native American descendants of those about whom they wrote and whose histories and cultures they researched. In 1987, under the influence of a small group of scholars in Native American Studies, the United States Senate passed a resolution acknowledging Native American contributions to American democracy, even if historians roundly criticized the “Iroquois Influence” thesis. There seemed to be an increasing amount of interest in native peoples.
Filmmakers like Michael Mann were of course not immune to these changes. For his film to succeed, he needed the support and participation of native peoples. Otherwise, it would be viewed as neither authentic nor acceptable.
Mann shot the film in North Carolina, a far-cry from the story’s setting in northern New York, largely on land surrounding the opulent Biltmore estate. Large numbers of Cherokees served as extras. Mann brought in actors from across Native America. And because Onondaga remained in many ways a “Capital City” in Native America, and its leaders spoke with such authority on so many issues, Mann sought their advice and their assistance. According to a story that appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard on August 15, 1992, “more than a dozen Onondagas, including two chiefs and a clan mother, appear in this Hollywood version of Jame Fenimore Cooper’s tale of the upstate frontier.” Thadodaho Leon Shenandoah appeared in the film, as did Clan Mother Alice Papineau. Dennis Banks, the great American Indian Movement leader who spent time as a fugitive at Onondaga, also appeared in the film. The shooting took place over several weeks. Onondagas received eighty dollars a day, plus room, board, and transportation. It was tiring. When the shooting ended, “sound technicians returned to Onondaga to tape voices of Indian men and women and the laughter of children.” Leon Shenandoah told the paper that “the movie’s waterfall sounds echo the falls that spill over Hemlock Creek on the reservation.” Yet despite the hard work, those Onondagas involved in the movie looked forward to seeing the finished product.
“All the more wonder, then,” the Post-Standard reported six weeks later, “why 20th Century Fox paid little attention to upstate New York and its Iroquois nations when debuting ‘The Last of the Mohicans” in Syracuse. The film’s producers invited nearly 400 people to a special screening at the Fayetteville Mall but only fifteen were Onondagas, “most of whom scored tickets late in the day.” According to the story, “Lynn LaRocca, the Syracuse representative of several Hollywood studios, including 20th Century Fox, said the studio sought a low-key opening but did not ignore the movie’s upstate ties.” LaRocca told reporters that she mailed complementary tickets to Leon Shenandoah, but he “was out of town and unable to pick them up at an off-reservation post office box.” Though some were able to get their hands on tickets, most in the community would have to wait to see the movie and pay the price of admission.
Those Onondagas who did see the film at its premiere had positive things to say. Vincent Johnson “praised the film’s insightful depiction of Colonial America, one that showed Indians and early colonists sharing similar problems with the European powers.” He told the reporter that “It’s nice to see Real Native Americans in a movie.”
Michael Mann and the film’s producers needed Indians in the film. They needed cooperation and assistance for reasons tied solely to the movie’s bottom line. But they really did not want any interference or trouble. Show up. Do what we ask you to do. Let us make our movie. Collect your paychecks and then disappear. The inattention the producers paid to the Onondagas at the movie’s premier shows clearly the limits of their respect. They liked Indians best when they allowed them to create a fictionalized representation of the American past, a movie that became even more than Cooper’s novel, a story of white people falling in love.
A long time ago I used to assign Fergus Bordewich’s Killing the White Man’s Indian to students in my Native American survey course. It was the first book we read. Bordewich argued that both native peoples and white people embraced certain standards and definitions of who Indians were and what they ought to be that were extremely limiting. One part of this was to cast native peoples as part of the past. Mann and his crew wanted native peoples to play parts in his film, to accept their role in the story he wanted to tell quietly and without complaint. In this sense, Mann was not unlike many, many historians who have done the same thing. Indians existed, in Turner’s language, at the “outer edge of the wave,” and the “meeting point of savagery and civilization.” If they showed up anywhere else, in any other manner, they were a problem that could be cast aside, ignored, forgotten.
One of the things about doing newspaper research, I find, is how easily it can lead to distraction. I am at a point in my research where I am still formulating questions, where I still have so much to learn. I am not looking for any one thing. Rather, I am trying to collect as much information as I can about the Onondagas and their history. In this sense, nothing I find is irrelevant, and everything I read might be significant, even if I do not know now what I might eventually do with that information.
In 1950, Bernard and Edward Small produced a film called “The Iroquois Trail.” To generate publicity, the producers staged a screening in Syracuse, the “hometown of Hiawatha,” they said. I would never have known about this film had I not read the Syracuse papers looking for information about the Onondagas.
So armed with Wi-Fi, Youtube, and an hour-and-a-half workout at the gym, I watched “The Iroquois Trail.” It was bad. Like, “what was wrong with these people?” bad.
Based loosely upon James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans,” a novel I loathe from the very pit of my soul, “The Iroquois Trail” contains elements that Cooper’s readers would have recognized as kinda-sorta similar to the novel. Instead of Natty Bumpo, the film focuses upon Nat Cutler. Played by George Montgomery, Cutler is a fast-talking, witty frontiersman with a stupid, coonskin cap, a desire to avenge his murdered kid brother, and a determination to prevent the British from marching into a military blunder. Instead of Chingachgook, Cutler’s sidekick is the redundantly-named “Chief Sagamore,” loyal and committed until the end. Ogana, their nemesis, serves the same function as did Magua in Cooper’s novel, a malevolent double-crosser who hates the English and lusts after “Yankee scalps and a white woman for his tepee,” thus preserving Cooper’s interest in transgressive interracial sex. And everyone contends for the British fort commander’s daughter. The struggle between France and Great Britain for control of the Hudson-Champlain waterway during the Great War for Empire serves as the setting. But less than a distillation of Cooper, “The Iroquois Trail” seems more like a summary written by a school kid who did not understand the original.
It is difficult to know where to start in listing the problems with the film. The producers filmed it around Big Bear Lake, and any Californian would recognize that at the outset. Northern New York does not look like that. Only a few Indian actors appeared in the film and, save for Monte Blue, who played Sagamore and claimed some Native American descent on his father’s side, only in small and uncredited parts. Ogana, the villain, was played by Sheldon Leonard, a Jewish-American actor from New York City best known for playing tough guys and for a small role in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The Indian-speak of the native characters is grating, the deployment of Native American stereotypes so heavy-handed. The dialogue is terrible, the characters’ motivations muddled, and the entire production lazy. I was relieved that it was not nearly as long as I expected.
The film itself was entirely predictable, completely uninteresting, poorly acted, unevenly paced, and carelessly written. Still, its promotion in Syracuse did interest me. The Strand Theatre teamed up with Boy Scouts of America to promote the film and public safety. “Traffic signal standards will be posted with caution signs keyed to the city’s historic locale on the old Iroquois trail, which crossed the state from Albany to Niagara,” the Syracuse Post-Standard reported on 12 July 1950. When the film finally premiered later that month, the young audience was “constantly vocal in tribute to the red-blooded adventure story,” and “in a hissing mood against Ogana, the proud Huron chief (well-played by shaved-head Sheldon Leonard) who used every deceit known, playing France against English and colonials.” The audience, the Post-Standard reporter indicated, was “delighted” by the movie.
And in all of this–a film set in New York during the Great War for Empire, a publicity campaign that capitalized on the city’s ties to the history of the Haudenosaunee–no mention was made of the actual Onondagas, whose reservation boundary was just a few minutes away from the theater. It was during these years that Iroquois people gathered at the New York State Fair grounds in Syracuse at the Indian Village dressed in Plains Indians clothing because white people needed to see that in order to recognize them as authentic. Movies like “The Iroquois Trail” taught audiences that native peoples were part of the past, that they were either noble or ignoble, but in all cases part of the past. The filmmakers and the promoters appropriated a story and a piece of history and marketed it as relevant to the history of people who lived in Central New York. But they felt no need to visit real native peoples, to speak with them, and learn their histories. There is no word in the paper if any Onondagas traveled in to town to catch the movie before it disappeared.
I recently finished reading Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives. It’s a beautiful little book, written originally in French, translated into English by Thomas Scott-Railton.
Farge’s journey into the archives brought her into contact with the denizens of 18th century Paris, ordinary men and women who entered the historical record only because they found themselves dragged before authorities as accusers and victims, witnesses or perpetrators. They came to advocate for their cause, to protect or recover their property, to seek redress, or vengeance, or, at times, to save their lives. Farge describes the people of Paris, but her experiences in the archives and the lessons she drew from the people she encountered there—men and women who appear fleetingly and incompletely in the judicial records–are wise and wonderful enough to be useful to all students of the past, whatever field they study. I can imagine using Farge’s book the next time I teach the freshman writing seminar.
The allure of the archives, Farge writes, “is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime. There is an obscure beauty in so many existences, barely illuminated by words, in confrontations with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era.”
Farge describes the rituals and mechanics of archival work, and she describes archival etiquette, at least for an era before digital cameras became commonplace. But the book’s beauty lies in its account of Farge’s interactions with the archives’ inhabitants, the ordinary French men and women who show up in bits and pieces in the surviving records. “The incompleteness of the archive,” she writes, paradoxically “coexists right alongside the abundance of documents.” Tell me about it. Historians write down quotations from these documents, and “the proper usage of documents is similar to the inlaying of precious stones: a quotations only truly takes on meaning and significance if it fills a role that nothing else could.” Historical scholarship is a discipline and a craft and, for Farge, it is a reflective process. Those working in the archives must remain conscious of what they are doing, and the consequences that may result from their carelessness. We hold these forgotten lives in our hands. That is a privilege that comes with great responsibility.
History is never the simple repetition of archival content, but a pulling away from it, in which we never stop asking how and why these words came to wash ashore on the manuscript page. One must put the archive aside for a while, in order to better think on one’s own terms, and later draw everything together. If you have a taste for the archives, you feel a need for these alternating tasks of exclusion and reintegration of documents and writing, as you add your own style to the thoughts that emerge.
Still, so many people you meet in the archives, so many stories. “What can be done with these countless individuals, their tenuous plans, their many disjointed movements?” She likens these images to silhouettes on a wall or the shifting images one sees when gazing into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and then disappearing, passing quickly out of your field of view before you get a clear sense of what you are looking at.
I get it. My colleagues who write about Native American history will sympathize. In so many archives, in so many collections of documents, in parish registers, burial records, transcripts of diplomatic encounters, bits of correspondence scattered here and there, receipts, school records, and even newspapers, thousands of lives, thousands of individuals, will appear fleetingly, saying little or nothing at all, words recorded by people with limited understanding of the peoples whose stories they tell.
These lives are difficult to reconstruct, I know, as I work through the many thousands of pages of documents I have collected to write my Onondaga book. It is difficult and demanding work. We work to recover larger pictures from scattered or broken fragments. But as I look small, I look large, too. We wrestle with the challenge of understanding the relationship between these individuals and the larger societal forms to which they belonged as native peoples.
It is easy to write the history of native peoples as objects acted upon by non-native actors. Writing that sort of history, however, privileges the forces of colonialism and the voices speaking in behalf of that process.
Farge has given me a lot to think about as I continue to read my sources and work on my history of the Onondaga Nation.
The Onondagas, as a community, experienced warfare, disease, and dispossession. They endured efforts to break up their reservation, to individualize them and destroy their national identity, and to transform them into something else. They confronted the State of New York’s efforts to extend its laws over their lands and the decisions of nearby business interests that destroyed Onondaga Creek. Telling these stories requires detailed examination of the many thousands of pages of documents and an enormous amount of reading, but the work itself is not particularly difficult. The views of white policy makers and power brokers are uncovered with relative ease. The challenging part is reconstructing the lives of the thousands of individuals who cross the pages in the sources I read, and who interacted with these larger forces.
History: It’s the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. To tell these stories of continuity and change, to give them real meaning, requires a close examination of the small pieces, the individual pebbles on the beach. Boarding schools were terrible, we are told, instruments of cultural-genocide marching under the guise of benevolence. Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle School, and I read his propaganda and his reports, all the paper detritus of his campaign to “kill the Indian and save the man.” The best he could see in the thousands of young Native Americans who came to Carlisle was that they might be formed into something else. Pratt’s words are difficult to read, knowing that his blundering arrogance shattered so many lives and caused so much grief.
But I also need to look at the young men and women who clearly wanted to go to Carlisle because it offered them an opportunity to acquire a trade, to improve themselves. The records exist. We can see the Carlisle students who ran away from their “outing system” placements because they were homesick or were needed at home or because they hated their overseers, or fell in love with a fellow student working at a place not far away. It requires telling the stories of those Onondagas who missed the school once they left, who pestered the school’s administrators to send them copies of the student newspaper, and who attended Carlisle games when the team was close enough for them to make the trip. We must consider of the stories of those who were sent home because they were sick or rebellious or because they drank too much. It requires placing one set of difficult readings against another and against yet another still, cobbling the pieces together into some sort of sensible whole.
Sometimes, the people who appear in these records have children and grandchildren still living. As historians, drawn in by the allure of the archives, we are voyeurs and witnesses, and we will uncover stories that if shared carelessly can produce grief and pain and sadness. If we view our trips into the archive like a raid or a treasure hunt–and I will admit to feeling this way during my 5:00am drives down the Thruway from Rochester to Albany–we risk becoming exploitative, engaging in a sort of colonial enterprise. These documents are not ours, and the stories we fashion from the lives we see in bits and pieces do not belong to us alone. As we share these stories, and shape our careers as historians on the backs of the people about whom we write, we must remember our obligations, and the seriousness of our enterprise.
Many of my friends are historians, and many of us, I believe, identify closely with the work that we do and the subjects that we teach. It is part of what makes us what and who we are. We think about our work a lot, maybe too much for those with whom we share our lives. We can obsess and lose sleep as we think about the questions that can only be answered by a sojourn in the archives. We must be honest: as historians, we are nothing without these stories. Arlette Farge’s book reminded me of these obligations, and the deep and alluring connections that exist between the people we write about and the stories we tell, what we do and how we see ourselves.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History