On Native Grounds | The Nation


On Native Grounds

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Land-use differences also reflected different forms of technology. Indians had long since entered the Iron Age and were expert in the use of knives and guns. But they were nearly helpless before the dual threat of the sawmill and the tavern. One robbed them of their forests while the other robbed them of their wits. "Drink no strong water," one Oneida advised his fellow tribesmen. "It makes you mice for white men, who are cats. Many a meal have they eaten of you." But the Indians would not, or could not, resist, which is why state politicians were careful to bring along a barrel of rum when negotiating land sales. Land-use practices also shaped notions of law and justice. As a consensus society, Indians were less concerned with holding individuals to account than with smoothing over differences in the interests of social cohesion. If one Indian killed another, it was up to the victim's family to exact revenge or the other side to make amends by offering gifts and "covering the grave." Both processes were highly ritualized. One missionary, according to Taylor, recalled seeing "a confronted Iroquois murderer calmly sit down to sing his death song while the avenger smoked a pipe for twenty minutes before plunging a tomahawk into the singer's skull." This was strange, certainly, but white notions of justice were in some ways even stranger. In 1791 the Iroquois leader Joseph Brant complained, in reference to an earlier murder, that "if a white man kills an Indian, the Crime is passed by with impunity, but if an Indian kills a white man, he is to be instantly delivered up to Justice." Federal Indian Commissioner Timothy Pickering noted that it was a maxim along the frontier "never to hang a white man for killing an Indian" and declared that the settlers were "far more savage & revengeful" than the so-called savages themselves. In western Pennsylvania, murders of Native Americans "became so frequent," according to Taylor, "that, in 1796, the secretary of war established $200 as the standard price for an Indian life."

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Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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While professing Christianity, settlers thus flouted the Golden Rule. As shocking as this was, Taylor notes, Indians would not have liked the criminal justice system any better had it been a model of evenhandedness. Whereas whites believed in a system that was formal and adversarial, Indians preferred one that was up close and personal. Harmony, social reinforcement and traditionalism were the goals, not justice in the modern sense of the word. But however attractive it may now seem, traditionalism had its dark side. Devastated by land losses and alcoholism, Indians in western New York increasingly returned to traditional religious practices after 1800 in an effort to restore a semblance of the old social balance. An Indian prophet named Handsome Lake gained a following by blaming witchcraft for many of the Indians' woes, and in 1804 an Indian council convicted two local women of dealing in poisonous potions and magic fetishes. The local chief promptly dispatched both by tomahawk. Taylor does not say what happened to the executioner, but it is difficult to know whether prosecuting him would have made things better or worse. Obviously, local officials could not stand by while a self-proclaimed prophet imposed a reign of terror. But preventing him meant interfering with the few remaining structures propping up Indian society. In the name of justice, the result would have been to plunge Indians all the more deeply into alcoholism, superstition and despair.

But there was a way out of this predicament via the construction of a sovereign authority over both settlers and Indians, an authority capable of holding the first group back while easing the second along the path to modernity. The task would not be easy. White racism was ferocious, while the Indians, especially the young males, were hostile to the slightest suggestion of change. They saw agriculture as women's work and viewed hiring themselves out to work for wages on neighboring farms as the deepest humiliation. Not unlike the European warrior class, they were aristocrats who viewed labor with disdain and believed that hunting and fighting were the only fit occupations for men of their ilk. Attitudes like these may have worked when the Indians had the forest all to themselves, but now that this was no longer the case, they were leading to catastrophe.

The new federal government set out to establish such an authority following ratification of the Constitution in 1788. Pickering, a rock-ribbed Federalist from Massachusetts, was Washington's choice to head up negotiations with the Iroquois. Among Pickering's first acts was to prohibit land sales without federal approval. Secretary of War Henry Knox, the prime mover behind the new Indian policy--and who once summed up his attitude toward rapacious state politicians with the words "Smite them, smite them, in the name of God and the people"--moved to place Indians under federal jurisdiction. In 1790 a Federalist-controlled Congress invalidated land purchases without federal approval. In 1793 it passed another law, imposing criminal penalties of $1,000 in fines or a year's imprisonment for violations.

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