Sunday, September 2, 2007
Venting about PC "Native Americans=Good; Whites=Evil"
One of my pet peeves is the notion that American Indians were and are saintly stewards of their environments, and that Europeans were evil racists who cheated and stole from the natives for their selfish gains. And today I found yet another big newspaper spread asserting that settlement of Western Washington state by whites was unfair thievery.
I'm writing a chapter about Native Americans for a book. And as part of the research for that chapter, I took great interest in an article in our local Seattle Times newspaper (Aug. 30, 2007) called "Native Landscape," describing the collision of local cultures with the arrival of the white man by Coll Thrush in his book, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-over Place.
Washington State is Indian country. We live in places that are names of tribes: Snohomish, Sammamish, and along the Duwamish River. Native American designs and totem poles and Casinos seem to be everywhere. According to an online Casino Guide, there are 26 Indian casinos in the state--perhaps the best advertised being Tulalip and Mukelshoot, all on Indian land. Seattle, after all, was named after a native American chieftan. The Makah tribe every year famously is allowed to violate international anti-whaling treaties by harpooning and then shooting whales with guns. They then bring the carcass to shore, eat a bit of blubber, and let most of the rest go to waste. They do this claiming it is their ancestral tradition, part of their tribal religion. I suspect they do it to assert their presence and gain both publicity and, in overriding governments, power.
This newspaper article, in the most matter-of-fact tones, described the transition of the Seattle region from isolated stone-age tribal outposts to divided parcels owned by white invaders. Reporter Mary Ann Gwinn writes, "Boom-bust cycles from 1880-1920 would drive many Native people from their last refuges within the city limits. It was the 'nadir' of the indigenous Seattle story, Thrush writes. Sometimes the destructive force was development, sometimes outright arson; a couple of Duwamish tribal longhouses was burned by whites in 1893...In 1910, one Indian agent estimated that 1,000 to 3,000 Indians were both landless and homeless. The building of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks wiped out several Indian settlements that until then had managed to survive.
"A sad and shameful story of this period was that of Seetoowathl, a Duwamish Indian who lived in a ramshackle floating house near the mouth of the Duwamish...starved to death in the hard winter of 1920...
"As whites moved Indians to the margins, they appropriated their culture and symbols. A low point of this cultural theft occurred in 1899 when a group of Seattle business leaders cruising the coast of Alaska cut down a totem pole erected in honor of a Tlingit noblewoman, discarded her cremated remains and erected the stolen pole in Pioneer Place Park."
And in much more recent times: "In the 1950's, Indians laid off after the wartime boom were cut adrift, and the ranks of Seattle's Skid Road population swelled."
Was there any time or event when whites acted kindly toward Native peoples? Well, not in this article. The employment of Indians is seen as serving whites' selfish needs for "lumbermen and laundresses, hunters and haulers," and despite the fact that other minorities such as Japanese who had been interned in camps managed to pick up their lives with dignity after the second World War, it seems that whites' "cutting adrift" of Native Americans was what made them fill "the ranks of Seattle's Skid Road population."
In other words, whites are bad, Native Americans good. Now, I look upon every Native American individual with respect, and I'm aware that indeed, there were cases of wrongdoing by settlers toward native peoples. But one can argue that advanced civilization (ie with written language, the wheel, metal, glass, advanced monetary system) might have something from which a stone-age civilization can benefit. And that portraying Indians as flawless overlooks quite a bit of fact--including their aggressive taking of slaves, their eating native horses to extinction, their running herds of buffalo off cliffs and wasting almost all of the resultant meat, their burning off forests, and their inter tribal warfare.
Nowadays, kids hear the myth that white soldiers gave Indians smallpox-infected blankets out of hatred. Even in an overview of American history at an exhibit on Lincoln in Disneyland, I heard lamentation about white man's cruelty and theft from noble and blameless Native Americans.
I realize that what I've just written is inflammatory, but don't you agree that perhaps reality might not be as clear as "white-bad, native American-good" that politically correct writers insist on cramming down our choking throats?