Last night I appeared on WXXI-TV’s show “Need to Know” to share my thoughts about the Dakota Access Pipeline and what the future looks like in the face of an impending Trump presidency.
The Sierra Club has produced an excellent, brief, overview of the current state of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the efforts of the Water Protectors to halt its construction. This may be the best brief summary of the issue I have seen. You and your students will find this useful in arriving at an understanding of a movement that is both alike and unlike so much of Native American History: A protest movement, utilizing social media and networking to assemble a widespread, grass-roots protest movement, and yet another chapter in the long struggle of native peoples to protect not only their lands, but the land.
I remember many years ago at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting that the historian James Muldoon described Richard Hakluyt the Younger, who died four hundred years ago this past November, as the “Gene Roddenberry” of the Elizabethan age. It is an image I have used many times in my classes, even though few of my students know who I am talking about. Roddenberry wrote his teleplays for the “Star Trek” television series at the beginning of America’s space age. What would happen, so many of those scripts seemed to ask, when human beings began to encounter others? For Roddenberry, humans always prevailed despite their many idiosyncrasies, and demonstrated time and again their superiority over Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, and a host of others the crew of the Enterprise encountered as it boldly ventured where no man had gone before. But the contact changed them. A little bit. Sometimes. But not always.
Hakluyt, too, seemed to wonder what would happen when English people left the confines of their island to go boldly in search of new worlds. For his Principall Navigations, a collection of English travel accounts totaling more than 1.7 million words in all, Hakluyt selected many stories of English adventurers encountering native peoples in South and North America, in Africa, Muscovy, Persia, and elsewhere. Oxford University Press will begin publishing next year a 14-volume edition of Hakluyt’s epic work. I am co-editing one of those volumes, with my particular focus being those documents that tell the story of Sir Walter Ralegh’s efforts to plant a settlement on American shores between 1584 and 1590. I have a small piece of the larger work, but the list of documents I an editing includes so real big-ticket items.
I am just back from a conference in Oxford commemorating Hakluyt’s life and casting a critical eye on his life’s work. Many of the presenters at this “Hakluyt@400” conference are editors of one or another of the projected fourteen volumes. From the papers presented, it was stunningly clear how much there is yet to learn from the Principall Navigations, and the enormous range of topics Hakluyt’s work illuminates. I have been thinking a great deal about the papers I listened to in Oxford, and I wish I had spent more time there. I learned a lot.
I was one of the few presenters who chose to talk less about Hakluyt than about some of the works included within the Principall Navigations, and some of the work Hakluyt helped publish elsewhere. I was most hung up by an engraving I have looked at so many times over the years. In the 1590 edition of Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, at the end of De Bry’s engravings depicting “the true pictures and fashions of the people of that part of America now called Virginia,” there appears this image, showing the “Markes of sundrye of the Chief mene of Virginia.” From it, we learn that “the inhabitants of all that cuntrie for the most parte have marks rased on ther backs wherby yt may be knowen what Princes subjects they bee.” The mark of Wingina, “the cheefe lorde of Roanoke,” consisted of four vertical arrows, larger to smaller, left to right. Wingina’s sister’s husband’s followers, we are told, carried on their bodies a different mark. Two different marks belonged “unto diverse chefe lords in Secotam.” And Harriot associated three more marks with “certaine cheefe men of Pomeiooc, and Aquascogoc.” Clearly there were a lot of chief men on the Carolina Coast.
You can see these tattoos, these raised marks, as well in John White’s painting of the dancing Indians. It is hard to see in the version I inserted here, but go to the British Museum website, and you will see them. They are there, wearing the four arrows of Wingina. These tattoos, I would argue, as depicted by Harriot and White and DeBry, reflect an Algonquian political world, for lack of better terms, or social organization, at odds with what many historians of the region have described.
Another point: If you read much about early American history, you likely have stumbled across this map, also engraved by De Bry. You are likely familiar with this image, too, one of the many hand-colored versions of the De Bry map. We know little about the provenance of these maps, when they were colored, and by whom, but they are revealing to me nonetheless.
Maps like these, quite simply, served purposes larger than the transmittal of geographic knowledge. Claims were made, arguments asserted, about possession and control of the new world. Maps like these expressed sovereignty, and English aspirations toward dominion and civility. Cartographic knowledge, in this sense, was subordinated to larger strategic and geopolitical concerns: control, incorporation, and the assimilation of lands, peoples, and resources into an Anglo-American, new world empire.
But more than that, DeBry inscribed a political geography that would have made sense to his audience. He acted upon European assumptions about how native peoples ordered their lives, how their communities functioned, and how they governed themselves. If Algonquian weroances, or town leaders, could be likened to European kings, then the lands upon which their communities stood could be understood as kingdoms, political entities with boundaries that could be measured, allegiance that could be acquired, and territory that could be controlled. DeBry, and of course the colorists who took his effort a giant step further, depicted the territories of Indian kingdoms because that is what they expected to see.
But the De Bry map, despite its considerable value, it seems to me has distorted the view of historians and anthropologists who have attempted to make sense of how the Algonquian communities of “Virginia” lived their lives and the nature of their relationships with the first English settlers on North American shores. David Beers Quinn, perhaps the greatest historian of early English maritime expansion and a scholar to whom anyone interested in Roanoke owes an enormous debt, and whose work in so many ways was ahead of its time, described the towns standing along the waterways of this region as belonging to one of several tribes, like the “Roanoke Tribe” or the “Secotan Tribe.” Lee Miller, in a quirky volume addressed to a popular audience, saw the weroance Wingina, so central to the story of Roanoke, as “the king of the entire Secotan country,” and a close ally with both “the Weapemeoc and Choanoac” tribes that together controlled the coastal plain. James Horn, who helpfully pointed out that these native communities were made up of “loose groupings of semi-autonomous peoples rather than centralized political entities controlled by powerful rulers,” nonetheless argued that Wingina was “Chief” of the Secotans, whose territory stretched from the Albemarle Sound to the Pamlico River, a tract that included many towns and villages. Wingina spent his time at his capital town, Secotan, but according to Horn also at the fortified town of Pomeiooc, and at the unfortified town of Dasemunkepeuc. Karen Kupperman and Seth Mallios, on the other hand, more plausibly saw Roanoke and Secotan as separate polities with a history of enmity between them. These are all very good scholars. But there is little consensus, and not all them can be right. So when we talk about these entities—Secotan, Choanoac, Weapemeoc—what, really, are we saying?
Here is what I think. We have been too careless in applying foreign, anachronistic, and inappropriate concepts to the study of indigenous peoples whose lived experience might be gleaned from the pages of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations. The word “tribe,” after all, never appears in the Roanoke documents curated for us by Hakluyt, the word “chief” only as an adjective. The word “tribe,” indeed, was seldom used to describe native communities until the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The tribes etched by De Bry, in other words, seldom appear as meaningful entities in the surviving documentary record. By tracing the imagined course of these polities, by adding to and elaborating upon a map that reflected the biases and preconceptions of European observers, we risk imposing upon the region’s native peoples frameworks of social organization that I believe would have struck them as utterly foreign and wrong.
I am not alone, nor am I the first by any means to wrestle with these concepts. Anthropologists and archaeologists have long studied “tribes” and “tribalism,” and the formation and functions of “chiefdoms” of different levels of complexity and consolidation. Some have asked if the concept of a chiefdom is, indeed, a “sophisticated delusion” that keeps us from understanding what happened in early Native America.
Perhaps. Clearly some hierarchy and control and consolidation existed among Carolina Algonquians who greeted the colonists sent by Sir Walter Ralegh in the 1580s. Carolina Algonquian weroances may have occupied special houses. When Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe arrived at Roanoke Island in the summer of 1584 as the leaders of a reconnaissance voyage charged with scouting out the location for a future settlement, the women of the village carried the English voyagers into a house consisting of five rooms for bathing and a sumptuous feast. Weroances wore special attire, and signaled their status not only through body ornamentation and clothing, but also with posture and mannerisms. “In token of their authoritye, and honor,” Thomas Harriot wrote in one of the captions that accompanied De Bry’s engravings, weroances “wear a chain of great pearles, or copper beades, or smoothe bones abowt their necks, and a plate of copper hinge upon a string.” Weroances married multiple wives, we know, because John White completed a portrait of “one of the wyves of Wyngyno.” And if English accounts are correct, the preferred treatment they received extended into the afterlife. Harriot described in detail the treatment of the bodies of dead weroances and the elaborate ceremonialism accompanying their storage in “the Tombe of their Werowans or Cheiff Lordes.”
Carolina Algonquian weroances conducted diplomacy. It was the weroance Granganimeo who traveled from Roanoke Island to greet the small reconnaissance party Ralegh sent to “Virginia” in the summer of 1584. Weroances oversaw the conduct of trade in their communities as well, activities that could cover an extensive geographic range. And within their communities, weroances oversaw the distribution of goods acquired through trade. When Arthur Barlowe, one of the two leaders of that reconnaissance voyage, attempted to trade directly with Granganimeo’s followers, he received a sharp rebuke from the weroance, who explained “that all things ought to be delivered unto him, and the rest were but his servants and followers.”
Weroances, as well, on occasion asserted their authority over neighboring villages. Archaeologist David Sutton Phelps asserted that eight chiefdoms (he called them “localities”) existed in the coastal Carolina region. Each locality he defined as “a geographic space within which there is a single political system . . . with a capital site and other sites ruled by sub-chiefs, in which material and other culture is closely shared.” What did this mean on the ground? It was a bit nebulous still, but Phelps’ formulation led the archaeologist Clay Swindell, for instance, to conjecture that “within the Secotan polity,” there “existed the small sub-chief towns of Pomeiooc, Aquascogoc, and Roanoke, each possessing small farmstead sites, temporary or seasonal sites in their catchment domain.” While Swindell is undoubtedly correct that advisers and religious specialists—priests and shamans—upheld a leader’s authority in each locality, much of what he writes is supposition, and we are not by these means any closer to understanding how Algonquian peoples organized their lives.
So, a first example: Carolina Algonquians first encountered English colonists in the summer of 1584, when the English reconnaissance voyage under the command of Amadas and Barlowe arrived at the Wococon Inlet. After several days spent exploring lands along the Outer Banks, Barlowe wrote, “there came unto us divers boats, and in one of them the kings brother, Granganimeo, accompanied with fortie or fiftie men.”
Granganimeo served as a surrogate for his brother, he claimed, because Wingina, the king to whom Barlowe had referred, had been “sore wounded, in a Fight which he had with the King of the next Countrey.” Barlowe famously described the New World in Edenic terms, with native peoples living in the manner of a “golden age,” and much has been made of this quote, but what most caught his eye was a world that had been ravaged by “very cruell, and bloodie” wars and “civill dessentions, which have happened of late yeeres amongst them,” conflicts that left the people he encountered “marvelously wasted” and in places “the Countrey left desolate,” and Granganimeo’s people clamoring to trade for English swords and steel.
Barlowe learned of a “King” called Piemacum, who ruled “a country called Ponuike.” Piemacum had allied with two other kings, one whose lands lay to his west, the other to his south, “uppon the side of a goodly River, called Neus.” Two years before the English arrived, Barlowe learned, “there was a peace made between the King Piemacum and the Lorde of Sequotan.” Despite this peace, “there remaineth a mortall malice in the Sequotanes, for many injuries done uppon them by this Piemacum.” Piemacum, for instance, invited “divers men, and thirtie women, . . .to their towne to a feaste, and when they were altogether merrie, and praying before their idol . . . the captaine or Lorde of the Town came suddenly upon them and slewe them every one, reserving the women, and children: and these two have often times since perswaded us to surprise Piemacum his Towne.”
They, Their, Them. The unclear references in this passage are maddening. The “Captaine or Lorde of the Towne” is not clearly identified, and who, precisely, were the “these two” who attempted to persuade the English to attack Piemacum? Granganimeo and Wingina? It is not completely clear. Were “Wingina, King of Wingandacoa” and the “Lorde of Sequotan” the same person? Some people think so. What does seem clear is that the world into which the English intruded in the summer of 1584 was fragmented and rife with tensions. We cannot be certain who we are talking about when we use accounts like this, but what we do see is that “tribal” names, like Secotan, do little to bring any clarity to a convoluted situation where towns engage in conflict with one another, and alliance with the well-armed and equipped newcomers seemed to offer an antidote to the ills they experienced.
A Second Example: The English returned to Roanoke in the summer of 1585, led at sea by Richard Grenville. They arrived at Wococon, and sent word “to Wingina at Roanocke”. That’s where he was. Grenville, however, almost immediately decided to explore the coast of the Carolina mainland in search of a more suitable site for settlement. The expedition’s flagship, after all, had run aground trying to enter the sound. His forty men, traveling in two boats, arrived at “the Town of Pomeioke” on the 12th of July. The weroance (perhaps Piemacum) welcomed the English. But why Pomeiooc? Was it part of a larger polity that included Wingina? Was it a “Secotan” town? An autonomous village? Grenville clearly sought a site for settlement superior to Roanoke Island. That the Algonquians at Pomeiooc welcomed his party suggests that they believed a close relationship with the newcomers could benefit them.
We know nothing more than that they visited the town, that John White had the means to do the work necessary to prepare for his paintings of the town and some of its people. The next day, the English party moved on. They arrived at a village called “Aquascococke” on the 13th. Two days later they arrived at Secotan, where they “were well intertayned there of the Savages.” They stayed one night. Most of the party then began the return trip to Wococon where they arrived on 18 July. One boat, however, returned “to Aquascococke to demaund of a silver cup which one of the Savages had stolen from us.” The English made their demand, and not receiving the cup, “we burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne, all the people being fledde.”
Think about this. The English had sailed through “Secotan” territory, according to this map, and attacked and burned an Algonquian town. No one from Dasemunkepeuc or Roanoac, the two towns we can unambiguously connect to Wingina, lifted a finger to help the people of Aquascogoc or avenge this act of violence. Nor did anyone from Secotan, or Pomeiooc, so far as we can tell. No retaliation. No complaint. Whatever ties of kinship or subordination or alliance, if they existed at all (and there is no evidence that they did) were not sufficient to precipitate a response to the English attack. We cannot be certain whether, or to what extent, Aquascogoc was part of a larger whole. Once again, autonomous towns. After this act of violence the English, with few other options, settled on Roanoke Island because that is where Wingina and Granganimeo wanted them to settle.
A Third Example. Weapemeoc. The 1585 colony was placed under the command of Ralph Lane after the departure of Grenville, and a good part of his confused and confusing account of his year at Roanoke, published in Hakluyt, was devoted to “the conspiracie of Pemisapan,” the former Wingina, “with the Savages of the mayne to have cut us off.” Harriot, of course, spoke of the “natural inhabitants” of the region in his account, but for the most part he spoke in generalities. “Their townes are but small,” he wrote. Some had a dozen houses, some a score, and “the greatest that we have seene have been but of 30 houses.” Some of these towns had palisades; others did not. In places, Harriot continued, “one onely towne belongeth to the government of a Wiroans or chiefe Lorde; in other some two or three, in some sixe, eight, & more.” The greatest weroance the English encountered—most likely the Choanoac weroance Menatonon—“had but eighteen townes in his government, and able to make not above seven or eight hundred fighting men at most.” Harriot said nothing more about how they organized their lives, nor about the relationships between these towns. So we are stuck with Lane, who went into such great detail at least in part to justify his decision to abandon Roanoke Island, his post, in June of 1586.
I’ve told this story in great detail in my book about the Roanoke colonies. Here I want to focus on one small part of the story. In the spring of 1586, Lane and his men began a journey into the interior, ascending the Albemarle Sound in search of an Algonquian conspiracy against the colonists. Only later, according to Lane, would the English learn that it was Pemisapan—Wingina—who was plotting against them, and not Menatonon, the weroance at Choanoac. Lane mentioned that the six towns he saw on the north shore of the sound—Pyshokonnok, “the womens Towne,” Chipanum, Weopomiok, Mucamunge, and Mattaque, all were “under the jurisdiction of the king of Weopomiok, called Okisco.” Six towns, one king. (White, too, depicted a cluster of towns on the northern shore of the sound which together he identified as Weapemeoc—four towns, one king).
Later, after tensions between Algonquians and colonists, natives and newcomers, had reached a critical point, and as Lane became convinced that Wingina was conspiring with Indians throughout the region to attack and kill all the English, this very same Okisco traveled to Roanoke and submitted himself to the English crown. So said Lane. But Okisco at this point apparently represented only his town. “Weopomiok,” Lane reported, “was divided into two parts”– at least–which raises significant questions about what we mean when we say “Weapemeoc.” The Weapemeocs, ruled by “King” Okisco, appear in the records as little more than an assortment of villages over which the weroance may have wielded some amount practical authority at some point in time. Indeed, Okisco entered into Lane’s story only at the urging of Menatonon, the leader of Choanoac, to whom he apparently owed some sort of allegiance. Towns may have come together in assemblages, collections of villages which may to our eyes have resembled tribes, but these alignments were so fluid, contingent and episodic, that it is difficult to use them as meaningful units of historical analysis.
The “Secotan,” meanwhile, as a group factored in Lane’s story hardly at all. He mentioned the name “Secotan” only once, Pomeiooc and Aquascogoc appear not at all. Autonomous towns. When John White, the artist and governor, returned to Roanoke in 1587, the year after Lane’s men attacked Dasemunkepeuc and murdered Wingina, and after Wingina’s remaining followers avenged their leader by wiping out a small holding party left on the island by Grenville in 1586 shortly after Lane’s departure, he sent messengers to “the weroances of Pomeioke, Aquascogoc, Secota, and Dasamunguepunke,” all separate polities in his view, to accept the friendship of the English.
It did not work out for White, and it worked out even less well for the colonists he left behind. He left Roanoke Island later in the summer of 1587, sent home by the colonists he ostensibly led to obtain additional supplies. By the time he returned three years later, the colonists had vanished. Whether they relocated to Croatoan, or moved fifty miles into the interior; whether they settled in the vicinity of Choanoac, Weapemeoc, or Chesepioc, their fate was almost certainly decided by one or more of the region’s many native communities.
So what? Well, we can look at these maps, and we can talk about “kingdoms” or “nations,” or tribes, but in doing so, we are speaking of constructs that are difficult to find in the documents selected for us and published by Richard Hakluyt the Younger.
The point I am trying to make—and, again, other historians have made this point looking at other locations where native peoples and newcomers encountered one another, is that we can best understand early America if we look past the tribes and nations inscribed on American shores by De Bry and look instead to the towns, to the most immediate local level: not at Secotan, Weapemeoc, and Choanoac as polities that asserted control over territories and peoples, as nations, tribes, and kingdoms, but as towns. White’s map, in this sense, might be more appropriate, a map that defined towns but not kingdoms, which emphasized the built environment of Carolina Algonquians more than the imagined chiefdoms of De Bry.
If we cast aside the concept of “tribes,” we certainly can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the Algonquian world into which the English intruded beginning in 1584. But are there other implications? Have we too readily seen tribes, or imposed other European constructs, upon indigenous communities for whom they might not be appropriate or applicable?
Whether the fiercely autonomous communities of the Southwest upon whom Spanish authorities sought to impose new identities and definitions by congregating and collapsing them into more easily comprehensible “tribes”; or the Great Lakes Anishinaabe communities that French observers described as “nations” but that were, “in fact, extended family groups,” as Heidi Bohaker has argued, collections of kin, sharing “nindoodem” identity that transcended specific geographic spaces; or the towns of the Southeast that “might move or reconfigure themselves,” as Joseph Hall has pointed out, but that remained as the most meaningful center of Southeastern Indian life, historians have shown an increasing willingness to look to the local level to understand how native peoples organized their lives. Or think of the coast of southern New England, about which I have written. There we see towns that at one point are identified as belonging to the Pequot tribe, later to the Mohegans, or the Narragansetts, and later still the Niantics.
There is a large literature that examines the treatment of native peoples in Hakluyt and the pitfalls that come with an uncritical acceptance of his work as source material. Of course. But these remain texts of immense value, and by freeing ourselves from anachronistic concepts, we can come closer to a vision of England’s very early New World Empire that is not far from how Hakluyt himself saw it, one in which if English enterprises were to succeed, they would require the assistance of native peoples: to find wealth, to distill into the purged minds of the people the “swete and lively liquor of the Gospell,” and to “cut the combe” of the Spanish Antichrist, and in which these varied and autonomous towns possessed the power to determine the fate of these early colonizing ventures.
If we follow, then, the logic that informs the caption Harriot provided to De Bry’s engraving of the “Marckes of sundry of the Chief mene of Virginia,” then “Wingino, the cheefe lord of Roanoac,” and “Wingina his sisters husbande” and the “diverse chefe lords in Secotam,” and the “certaine chiefe men of Pomeiooc and Aquascogoc” were all distinct, all autonomous. The “tribes” are hard to find; towns remain at the center of things. Algonquian warriors, according to Harriot, and White, etched their loyalty to these village leaders into their bodies.
At the Hakluyt@400 Conference in Oxford, Mary Fuller of MIT noted with appreciation that a well-organized conference with well-selected presentations is a thing of beauty. The Principall Navigations is an immensely rich text, and as the papers presented at this conference showed, there is so much more that we can learn from the encounter between Europeans and others during this age of global encounters through a careful reading of Hakluyt’s gorgeous collection. I am still wrestling with these issues. If you are interested in what I have written here, and would like citations to back up what I have said, feel free to drop me a line.
Also useful on the Dakota Access Pipeline is the eyewitness account by Adrienne Keene from Native Appropriations. You can read her post here.
If you are reading this post, you probably already have been following the news from Standing Rock. You likely have been reading posts on Facebook and Twitter and watching video clips showing armed police officers, or state troopers, or private security guards and their gnarly dogs, roughing up protestors who have stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline. You have probably read reports of these same police forces, doing the pipeline company’s business, firing rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and locking them up in small pens. You have likely read about how they have attempted to suppress free speech by shutting down wireless service, because they do not want you and I to know what they are doing to disrupt the protests, and how they have now started using Facebook to compile information on those gathered to oppose the pipeline. You may have checked in on Facebook in solidarity with the protestors to defeat this effort.
Much of the information about the protests comes from participants in the protests. Some of it is polemical. It is likely that some of the reports are exaggerated. But watch the videos, and read what you can. You can draw your own conclusions.
This is an important story. My students, I know, want to know more about it. It is a protest, and a movement, of significance, and it is one on which we must inform ourselves. The mainstream media has begun to cover the protests, but the #NoDAPL movement still receives little coverage relative to the presidential election and the Democratic candidate’s email problems. Still, there are good sources of information out there. The Indian Country Today Media Network has provided solid coverage. Pechanga.Net is a great go-to source for updates from newspapers across the country, as is Indianz.com.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, according to the useful primer presented by the Seattle Times, will transport oil from North Dakota to a shipping center in Illinois. From there the oil will be sent to refineries in the Midwest and along the Gulf Coast. The pipeline, which is already nearly 60% complete, was originally slated to run closer to the town of Bismark, ND, but was rerouted to pass under the Missouri River just a short distance upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation’s northern border. Residents of Bismark did not want the pipeline to jeopardize their own water supply, so it was directed to the south. The pipeline does not run through the reservation, but it does threaten Standing Rock’s water supply. It runs through lands that had been guaranteed to the Lakota Sioux in the treaties held at Fort Laramie in 1851 and 1868. Lakota Sioux lived on these lands, knew these lands, and buried their dead there.
How those lands slipped from the Indians’ control is a worth noting. The 1851 Fort Laramie treaty was an agreement in which the United States attempted to secure peace between those Indian nations “residing south of the Missouri River, east of the Rocky Mountains, and north of the lines of Texas and New Mexico.” The many Indians who came to Fort Laramie to meet with American officials agreed “to abstain in future from all hostilities whatever against each other, to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.” The Indians who signed the treaty agreed to allow the United States to “establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories,” and in return, the United States agreed “to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States, after the ratification of this treaty.” The territories of the tribes were defined, chiefs with whom the United States would interact were to be designated, and an annuity paid by the United States for ten years. It was an attempt by the American government to sort out the players on the Plains, to control a region where its authority was still exceptionally weak.
The 1868 Fort Laramie treaty modified this agreement. It was a peace agreement between the United States and the Sioux. It was a critical component, along with the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, in achieving the American policy of Concentration. In so doing, it defined the boundaries of the “Great Sioux Reservation,” a tract mostly in today’s South Dakota west of the Missouri River where their possession would be undisturbed. The United States, however, never expected that native peoples would remain as they were, and the treaty included provisions directed towards fundamental change in how the Sioux lived upon the land. The treaty gave to the President of the United States the right to begin individualizing Indian landholdings, to move towards the policy that later would be called allotment.
Congress passed legislation in 1871 that formally ended treaty making. And, in 1888 and 1889, Congressional commissioners succeeded in breaking up the Great Sioux Reservation, depriving the Sioux near the Standing Rock Agency of the lands under which the Dakota Access Pipeline will now burrow. The state of North Dakota recites the sordid tale on its official website. The agreement to reduce the reservation was obtained through threats and duplicity. Congress, well before the notorious Lone Wolf decision of 1903, did not feel that it was bound by its own treaties, and viewed them as obstacles it must find ways to overcome.
If you have read the news reports, you will know that some of these lost lands are considered sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux, and that in the process of constructing the pipeline, graves have been dug up and desecrated. National political leaders, by and large, have been silent. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a deeply unsatisfying statement that recognized the protestors’ rights to free speech, while acknowledging as well the pipeline workers’ right to do their job. Because the protestors wanted to stop construction, Secretary Clinton’s campaign has encouraged the protests, only so long as they have no effect on the pipeline project. Hold up your signs, but get the hell out of the way, she seems to be saying.
Students of Native American history will know well that native peoples have long faced the combined power of corporate and state power. The railroads, mining companies, hydroelectric, the fossil fuel industry—all aided by state and federal authorities—have appropriated tribal lands and resources. It is an old story.
Perhaps something has changed in the country. During the presidential primaries, the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders drew upon a growing disaffection with increasing corporate wealth. Many Americans, even some of those who support Donald Trump, expressed a belief that their lives are not their own, that huge, multinational corporations call the shots. Native peoples could have told them about this long ago, of course.
I have no idea how long the protests will go. I do not know whether they will survive the brutal winter that will soon descend upon North Dakota. I do not know whether the protests at Standing Rock will call attention to other instances, going on right now, where corporate interests are seeking access to the resources in native communities, or threatening Indian lands and water supplies. These other struggles have not drawn nearly the attention of Standing Rock. Perhaps the #NoDAPL movement will force us to consider what sort of country we want to be: one in which corporations, shipping fossil fuels, are not more important than the right of native peoples to clean water and control of their lands. Perhaps we might all consider our own appetite for the products of extractive industry, and consume less, in the awareness that we are all at some level complicit in creating the demand for the fossil fuels that oil companies want to ship across and under Native Ground.
I like to show this map to my students. It is the Tryon map of the Six Nations, drawn five years before the colonists imperial officials hoped to control declared their independence. I ask my students, when they look at it, to forget all that they know about the subsequent history of the Empire State. Look at this map, drawn at one point in time. “Read it like a text. What do you see?”
It’s such an obvious question that there is usually a brief silence. So I ask them to look at the map and tell me, “what, on this map, is New York? Where on this map is New York?” We talk, and quickly it becomes apparent. You cannot miss it. New York, as a geographic entity, did not exist much past Schenectady, and much beyond the Hudson River Valley. Much of what we call the New York today was, in 1771, “The Land of the Six Nations,” Iroquoia.
It is helpful to keep this in mind, because a large part of the imperial project, the core of what many scholars now call settler colonialism, was the erasure of native peoples from the American landscape, either through assimilation or annihilation. The settlers will expand, and the Indians disappear, their disappearance itself legitimizing the settlers’ claim to the land. Indians are always part of the past, always in the process of disappearing, of being swept into the dustbin of history. They are erased, the settler state’s claims to sovereignty legitimatized, and the concerns of native peoples today more easily dismissed.
If you are a student, try this exercise. Ask some of your classmates to define an Indian or Native American. Have them tell you what comes to mind when you mention the word “Indian” or the phrase “Native American.” Play with them a word association game. In New York State, where I live, occasionally a student will mention gaming or smoke shops, but by and large the images they will conjure will be drawn from the past. It is something that many of us are taught from a very young age. Find “three pictures of American Indian needs” in the assignment here. The dutiful child will highlight the wigwam, the bison, the blanket weaver. Now “find the three pictures of needs for people today.” Erasure. Indians as part of the past.
So when you dress up in an “Indian Costume,” it certainly is in bad taste. It is crude and offensive. Like Leilani Downing, a model, in her costume here from 2014. “I just got massacred by a cowboy. Note Fur is FAKE!!!” she wrote. What the hell? It is nice that no animals were harmed in the making of that costume but, really, what was she thinking? It is offensive, to be sure, to wear these costumes. But more than that, when you dress up in a costume rooted in stereotypes that are themselves rooted in the past, you are aiding the colonial project, aiding in the erasure of native peoples in the present, aiding in their consignment to the past.
And if they are part of the past, it becomes easier to dismiss the legitimate claims of native peoples as being out of time and place and, as a consequence, irrelevant. Just this week (and it is only Wednesday!) we have seen millions of baseball fans cheering for a team with a terribly offensive racist logo, read about a police killing of a young Native American woman in Washington State who was several months pregnant when she was shot, and watched heavily armed troopers, backed by a concentration of corporate and state power in North Dakota, attempt to shut down peaceful protests against an oil pipeline burrowing under sacred lands. These stories, to say the least, are not front-page news.
You should have a good time on Halloween. Soon enough, you will be freezing your asses off, trooping around the neighborhood, holding a flashlight, as your kids go door-to-door collecting candy. Soon enough you will be silently judging your neighbors for the quality of the candy they distribute. This night is for you. Have a blast. But be thoughtful, and careful. You can be creative. You can be funny. You can be iconoclastic. Hell, you can push against the limits of what is acceptable. But please keep in mind that though your costume might seem innocent, and that you may really have loved Disney’s “Pocahontas” when you were a kid, that these are manifestations of a much larger, and pernicious, dynamic. They depict native peoples as part of the past, and thus contribute to making it more difficult for many Americans to recognize the importance of native peoples’ calls for justice today.
When I teach Native American history, I frequently find myself describing the consequences of the policies and events we cover for children. Boarding schools, for instance, but also the many times when children die—when children were killed. I include these harrowing stories not to shock complacent students, but to try to get the kids in the class to understand more deeply the consequences of the policies, decisions, and events they have read about upon the most vulnerable people in a community, people with whom they are perhaps well-equipped to identify.
So I tell the students about George Percy. That weak and cowardly aristocrat who settled at Jamestown led a raid by an English party against the Paspahegh Indians, whose town stood a short distance upriver from that sickly fortified settlement. Percy’s soldiers took the “Queen of Paspahegh” and her children hostage but his men began to grumble. He gave in to them, threw the children overboard, and allowed his men to entertain themselves by “shooting out their brains in the water.” I tell them of the Paxton Boys’ massacre of peaceful Conestoga Indians in December 1763. The Paxton men killed fourteen of them: men, women, and a couple of children, no more than three years old. The Paxton Boys split their skulls with tomahawks, and took their scalps as trophies. This was intimate violence, acts committed at close range. To children. To babies. In order to help my students make sense of the Ghost Dance, I tell the students about the movement that occurred on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation. Among the Kiowa ghost dancers were a lot of parents, and they danced on the snowy ground hoping to see, once again, the children who had died, innocents slaughtered by measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia. Grief lay at the broken heart of the Ghost Dance movement. And of course that grief continues. Harold Napoleon, in Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being described Alaska Native communities immersed still in a grief caused by what he called “the Great Death.”
A short time ago I published a biography of Eleazer Williams, a Mohawk missionary to the Oneidas. I spent a lot of time with Williams. He struck me as a man with few principles, or as a liar, a hustler, or a confidence man. But Williams was also a man profoundly damaged by the death of his second child.
He wrote a letter to his wife in 1838. She was a Metís woman, living still along the Fox River in Wisconsin. At this point, Williams had been living apart from her for the better part of a decade. He was always traveling—Buffalo, Oneida, Albany, New York, Washington, and only occasionally back to Green Bay. This was the only letter of any length that he wrote to his wife that has survived, and in this one he began with small matters—of how the water and ice on the Fox River had done damage to the crops, he had heard. He chastised her for not having planted the potatoes on higher ground. But he also urged her to think about matters religious. Beware the shallow things. Please, he wrote to his “Dear Mary,” “Nothing in this life would make me more happy than to find that you are serving God, and living in humility, as one who is devoted to Christ and preparing for Heaven.” Focus on the important things. “Let no longer the world and its vanities be upon the upper most in your mind or thoughts—forsake them and give yourself to God and Jesus Christ who had redeemed you by his most precious blood.”
What, I wondered, was going on here? He was writing, it seemed, to a woman who had lost her faith—in religion, in him, and, I suspect, a lot of things. As I read the letter, it became clear to me why that might have been. Williams had never lacked for words, but in this letter his desperation is palpable. He would pray for her, he said. We must be a good example, he said, for the “only child we have.” I knew that Williams and his wife had a son, who would have been a teenager. “How happy it would be, should we as a family, finally by the mercy of God, to meet all, with our departed beloved Anne, in Heaven, where, we shall all be happy without end and sing praises to God for all eternity.”
Who was Anne? He had never mentioned her before. This is the only time she appeared in Williams’s papers. A dead child, presumably. It took a lot of digging. After some time in the archives, I found her. She had died in 1830, eight years before this letter. Hers was the first baptism recorded at Holy Apostles, the church Williams founded for relocated New York Indians in Wisconsin, and the first burial in the churchyard. It was in 1830 that Williams largely left home. Mary buried the child, who died when she was not quite eighteen months old, without his help.
This death haunted Williams. In the late 1840s he began to tell a story about an encounter he had with the French Prince de Joinville aboard a great lakes steamboat in 1841. In this story, Williams told Joinville as they approached Green Bay that he and his wife had an infant daughter. Joinville offered to serve as godparent. When they arrived at Green Bay, Williams learned that the baby had died several days earlier. Joinville was sympathetic, but Williams never went home. He hung out with the French prince for a couple of days. And here’s the thing: This story—Joinville, the baby—it was all a lie. It did not happen. Williams was a liar. That was easy to prove. But why this lie, about this baby?
If you study early American history, you learn how frequent the death of children actually was. Many families buried children, and I can imagine that the consequences were as emotionally devastating for many of them as it was for Eleazer Williams and his wife. New England children studying their catechisms in the early nineteenth century were warned to consider that
I, in the burial place may see
Graves shorter far than I;
From Death’s arrest no age is free,
Young children too may die . . .
My God, may such an awful sight
Awakening be to me!
O that by early grace I might
For death prepared be.”
The death of children was common.
As a historian, I find these stories sometimes difficult. I have never shared these thoughts with my friends and colleagues who teach history, but I imagine that they, too, can be overwhelmed by this history of grief, of people gone too soon. It’s heavy. My own children are all healthy. Despite my own flaws, they are fine people, better than me in so many ways. I am fortunate. But not everyone is. In a chilling article that appeared in the October issue of The Atlantic, Roger Rosenblatt reflected upon the viciousness and inhumanity he had witnessed or learned about over his long career as a war reporter. Rosenblatt told the story of Khu, a 15-year old boy who fled the war in Vietnam for Hong Kong. His parents had died, and he had nothing. They ran out of food on the ship he boarded. The captain assigned one man to knock Khu out, and then slit his throat, so that the others on board could eat him. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, and they let him go, but they did kill another man and they ate him. Khu, Roseblatt, and his translator looked out at the lights in Hong Kong Harbor. Khu said that the lights and the boats were beautiful. That is what he was thinking. Rosenblatt asked him what else was beautiful. Khu said everything is beautiful. Sometimes even when it’s not.
I have thought of these stories today. I read Jayson Greene’s searing essay in The New York Times, entitled “Children Don’t Always Live.” Greene told the story of his daughter’s sudden, tragic death, his struggle with grief, and his continuing sadness even as he and his wife welcomed a new child, a boy who always will have a dead sister. Speaking to his young son, Greene mustered “up every drop of bravery I can: ‘It is a beautiful world,’ I tell him, willing myself to believe it. We are here to share it.”
I get that. I try to persuade my students to be hopeful and, because they are young and bright and have not seen much yet, it is not a difficult sell. Still, we cannot teach about the past without considering the pain, the grief, and the sadness that people—native and non-native alike—felt. If we want to reach our students, we need to help them feel the weight of the past, to experience those moments of brutality, violence and sadness, and those occasional moments of courage, humanity and grace. Connection, right? Reaching across the span of time, across the vast distances, in an attempt to come close to understanding the world as others experienced it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a piece Timothy Egan wrote that appeared in the New York Times back in August. Egan lamented “our Dumbed-Down Democracy,” and saw in the rise of Donald Trump evidence of a failure in, among other things, American civic education. If Americans knew their constitutionalism, Egan argued, they would be less likely to support a candidate who showed no concern for the American constitutional tradition. “The current presidential election,” Egan wrote, “may prove that an even bigger part of the American citizenry [Bigger than the thirty million adults who, Egan asserted, cannot read] is politically illiterate—and functional. Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.”
There has been no shortage of opinion pieces and analyses like Egan’s in recent months. As a college professor, as a teacher of history and the humanities at a school where, fortunately, these subjects are still valued, I wonder about whether any of the current state of affairs can be laid out our steps. Are we doing enough to produce critical and informed citizens? Should we do more?
A long time ago when I taught at your college in Billings, Montana, you emphasized that we should be doing “applied research.” We should strive to be relevant. I was untenured, and in a deeply dysfunctional department. You were no help on that front, either. I understood that to survive as a professor I needed to toe the company line. But what on earth did “applied research” mean? I was a historian with training in early American and Native American history. How, I asked, would I cast these interests in a project that you would consider “applied” and relevant?
You did not expect the question, and I never got a meaningful answer, but I could see plenty of problems on campus. As you might remember, Native American students were the largest minority on campus, and many of them traveled a long way from the Crow Reservation to attend their classes. There were those on campus who did much to make the college a welcoming environment—staff and faculty. They did good work. Students could use Crow to fulfill the college’s foreign language requirement, for instance, and the Intertribal Indian Club was a valuable and effective resource. Its annual powwow, a beautiful and inspiring event held off campus, was the college’s largest student-sponsored event. I do not think you knew that. In the four years I was in Billings, neither you nor the President ever attended because, in the President’s words, it was a thing “for Indians.”
There were a lot of problems on campus. Financial aid was limited. Some faculty embraced stereotypical and, in places, racist views of Native Americans that could create an incredibly hostile environment on campus. Many faculty, acting on an assumption that Native American students would not speak up in class, never bothered to reach out. I heard faculty say, about a student who did well in a class, that “she did really well for an Indian.” I told you about this. You said something along the lines of, “Yeah, sometimes the Crows will really surprise you when they do well.” Again, untenured. I did not tell you how screwed up I thought that was.
But I watched this environment. Coming from southern California, this was all new to me. There was an event that caught my attention. I thought it would fit your description of an “applied research” project. Down in Hardin, a town that borders the Crow Reservation, a series of ugly racial incidents took place. I do not remember all the details, and I am sure you don’t either. There had been some sort of cultural awareness day at the high school. A significant number of white kids, with their parents’ support, stayed home. Took a walk. The Crow kids made some noise about this and, the next morning, distributed on driveways in Hardin was some racist, Christian Identity literature, and texts like “The White Man’s Bible”—really vile stuff.
That’s what I heard. I heard a lot of stuff. I went down to Hardin. Tried to talk to some locals. I couldn’t blend, really. A friend of a friend put me in touch with a local minister, and I talked to her for a while. She confirmed that there was some ugly and really open racism in Hardin, but also that there were good people trying to make things better. To investigate this problem, would require getting into the community, spending a lot of time, watching and listening and talking. Producing a piece of “applied” research, then, would be difficult. I lived sixty miles from Hardin. I was a single parent, at the time, and I taught seven courses a year. Time was short. I could not get into the community enough to understand what these white people were thinking.
I could talk to my Crow students who had attended Hardin High, however. I persuaded a number of them to allow me to record interviews with them. I still have the microcassettes in my desk at Geneseo, even though I no longer have anything upon which to play them. They spoke of the white ranchers’ kids who drove to school in their big, new trucks, paid for from the proceeds of ranching operations on land that had once belonged to the Crows. They spoke of intimidation. Of gym teachers who told kids to take a leak before they went out for PE, “because they need something to drink down at Crow.”
When I was a student at Cal State Long Beach, one of my professors in American Indian Studies told me that interest in Native American studies among white people decreases in direct proportion as you get closer to Indian country. And that seemed to be the case in Billings. A lot of the people in my classes did not want to hear about racism at Crow, and the statistics that testified to the continuing impacts of colonialism and discrimination. You and the President proved the truth of that statement, too.
I never did anything with those tapes. Never did an “applied research” project that accorded with your hazy standards. But I did keep plugging away at my own research in Early America, and Native America, and I continued to try to improve myself as a classroom teacher. And I left Billings, and found a job at a wonderful college in the Finger Lakes region of western New York.
I do not like to enter into the debate over what a degree in history is worth in monetary terms, because it brings us value in other ways. I have drawn upon the advice of so many people, and that advice informs how I teach. I tell my students that we are the ones who question everything. I tell them that I love the questions—the search for answers, the complexity and the absolute lack of definitive answers sometimes, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers.
In history, these stories can be tough to handle sometimes. Particularly in my field, I read about horrifying acts of violence, greed, viciousness, and hatred, all the ways in which war is a violent teacher. It can get you down sometimes, and history can be a brutal business. But, once in a while, there are these amazing stories: of selflessness, of grace–and of courage. And I tell them, that to the utmost of their ability, they should try to be intellectually fearless, and to have the courage to not shy away from those things that seem extremely difficult. To be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions they ask, the evidence they consider, the ideas they engage with, and the theses they advance, to be as fearless as they can be. Now, on this campus, in this country, in this global community, more than ever. This is History, Applied.
My students now live in a world where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn. They live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage. They live in a world where, when we stand up in the face of these problems and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it is like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even small ones, require a degree of courage and fearlessness.
I tell my students this, and that their studies can help them makes sense of this world. Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to their generation, I tell them, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out. It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree. To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong. To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us. That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.
It is easy to feel like the challenges we face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or whatever. But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? How would we live or have lived if we were exactly what is needed to solve those things we see as problems? If we knew we could close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act?
I am not sure what you would say to these questions. I do not know that you would agree that the power of history, whatever the subfield, is that it allows us to share in the experiences of people far removed from us in space and time, to take part in our broader, shared, humanity. That was never something you valued. You wanted the standards low, the seats full. I know that. So I thought of you when I read Egan’s piece. You never realized the merits of the liberal arts, the power of ideas, the feeling of connection one can achieve when they study the past. You left Billings, and became the president of a small college in a similarly red state, I think, but I did not pay any attention. But I do know this: history and the liberal arts empower our students to be curious, kind, and fearless in an informed way that makes our world a better place. That is something that transcends price and simplistic ways to measure learning outcomes.
The Cleveland Indians are a game away from the World Series, and the team’s post-season relevance offers an occasion to discuss the use of Native American images as mascots. Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, is as bad as they get. According to a nice piece on Deadspin, “the franchise is celebrating by rubbing its racism in the faces of every person tuning in to watch baseball at the peak of its season.” Despite pledging to rely less upon the Chief Wahoo logo at the beginning of the season, the Indians’ owner Paul Dolan said that “Chief Wahoo . . . is part of our history and legacy.”
Major League Baseball seems to want the entire issue to go away. A statement from the league read:
“Major League Baseball appreciates the concerns of those that find the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians to be offensive. We would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns outside the context of litigation. Given the demands for completing the League Championship Series in a timely manner, MLB will defend Cleveland’s right to use their name that has been in existence for more than 100 years.”
So Carry On, Boys!
I have written about racists sports stereotypes in the past. Mascots are not the biggest problem facing native communities, and nobody claims that they are. Too many Indian communities, for instance, continue to struggle to enjoy the measured sovereignty permitted them by the most anti-Indian Supreme Court in American history. State and local governments mount aggressive campaigns designed to skim the cream off of the fragile prosperity that has emerged in some native communities, looking to tax gaming and retail businesses located on Indian land in opposition to a constitutional logic that has stood for almost 190 years. They challenge American Indian tribal sovereignty, and the pressure at times is relentless.
Meanwhile, Native Americans have lower life expectancy, higher rates of death from cancer, injury and suicide, and are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and the victims of violent crime than their non-Indian neighbors. According to the Indian Health Service, Native peoples are six times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes than other Americans, and twice as likely to develop cervical cancer, three times as likely to develop diabetes, eight times more likely to contract tuberculosis, and twice as likely to die from homicide. Efforts to recover lost lands, acquired from them in transactions that on their face violated federal law, have been stymied by hostile federal courts. The list of challenges facing Native American communities is a long one.
MLB clearly has permitted the Indians to continue to use Chief Wahoo, and the prevalence of this horrible mascot in the postseason shows that the Cleveland Indians organization, like the NFL’s Washington Redskins, has no intention of doing anything and that they are perfectly content using images that are terribly racist and offensive.
In Native America I tell the tale of the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.” Thanks to some recent archaeological and historical work, we may now know more than ever before.
I grew up in Ventura, California, home of the Channel Islands National Park headquarters. Kids in my town, and I suspect around the country, learned a fictionalized version of the “Lone Woman’s” story in Scott O’Dell’s famous novel, The Island of the Blue Dolphins. In my memory, every kid had to read this book in middle school. San Nicolas is one of the Channel Islands, off of the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, though it is owned by the United States Navy, is not part of the National Park, and is not as a result as accessible as the other Channel Islands. Nevertheless, this was part of a history that was both local and significant to me, and it was a delight to have an opportunity to include the story in the textbook.
According to the conventional story, in 1853 a party of hunters led by a Californian named George Nidever encountered an elderly Nicoleño “busily employed in stripping the blubber from a piece of seal skin which she held across the knee, using in the operation a rude knife made from a piece of iron hoop stuck into a piece of rough wood for a handle.” She welcomed the white men, who could see that she lived in a camp comprised of “several huts made of whale’s ribs and covered with brush, although it was long since they had been occupied that they were open on all sides and grass was quite high within.” She had lived there for a long time, perhaps since the uprising of 1824. The white men saw that “there were several stakes with blubber on them,” and that there “was blubber also hanging on a sinew rope.” She had baskets, and “fishhooks made of bone, and needles of the same material, lines or cords of sinews for fishing and the larger rope of sinews [which] she no doubt used for snaring seals on the rocks where they came to sleep.”
At the invitation of the hunters, she accompanied the men as they hunted otter and seals on the islands. She traveled with them for several days. When the wind began to blow too strongly, “the old woman conveyed to us by signs her intention to stop the wind.” Nidever observed that “she then knelt and prayed, facing the quarter from which the wind blew, and continued to pray at intervals during the day until the gale was over.” Nidever described a Chumash woman living her life in time with a very old rhythm.
The arrival of the woman in Santa Barbara, however, made clear how much the Chumash world had changed. Less than a century after the Portolá expedition, few Californians had seen Chumash people. The old woman became a curiosity, an exhibit for the amusement of non-Indians interested in an “extinct” people. According to Nidever, “for months after, she and her things, as her dress, baskets, needle, &c. were visited by everybody in the town and for miles around outside of it.” Chumash people were exotic enough, one enterprising ship’s captain thought, that he offered Nidever $1000 for the woman. He wanted to place her on display in San Francisco, and he was willing to split the take with Nidever. Nidever refused. He learned bits of her story. She had lost a daughter, and she had grieved for many years. It was the defining event in her life. She did not have long to live. At Santa Barbara, she fell sick five weeks after her arrival and died, Nidever curiously noted, because of “eating too much fruit.” The priests at the mission church baptized her after her death and christened her Juana Maria.
Archaeologist Steve Schwartz, according to a story that appeared in the Ventura County Star on 9 October, began digging through the notes of linguist J. B. Harrington, who visited the Islands in the early 20th century, and determined that there was much more to the story. Schwartz found in Harrington’s papers answers to a number of mysteries: Why had the woman been left alone on the island in the first place? Why, after spending several decades largely alone, did she in 1853 choose to accompany Nidever? Some stories said that when the Nicloleño were leaving the island, the woman forgot her infant and left her kin to go find the child. Schwartz thought it unlikely that a woman would forget where her infant was, and that instead the child might have been 9 or 10; a nine-year old boy wandering off seemed more plausible. She remained behind with the child. According to Schwartz, “people would come to the island, see her and try to coax her to leave, and she wouldn’t leave.” Only after this child died was she willing to go to the mainland.
And though a sort of media storm took place when the Lone Woman came ashore in Santa Barbara, newspaper research indicates that bits and pieces of her story already were circulating. She appears in an 1847 Boston newspaper, and in newspapers in India, Australia, Germany and France.
Several years ago, Schwartz was part of a team that conducted excavations on San Nicolas that he believes led to the discovery of the Lone Woman’s cave. Schwartz and his colleague Sara Schwebel are assembling a Lone Woman website developed by Channel Islands National Park that will launch later this year.