Saturday, July 7, 2012

Infantilizing Native Americans

I started reading Founding Choices: American Economic Policy in the 1790s at the beach this week. So far it's an excellent book that has given me a lot to think about. But there was one line in it that agitated a pet peeve of mine: the way we infantilize Native Americans, particularly those living in the vicinity of the Ohio territory in the early republic period.

The first chapter, speaking of the Ohio territory, the authors write "Its [Congress's] ability to develop this land, however, was threatened by several factors: the free flow of squatter-settlers into southern Ohio, opposition from indigenous peoples who were surprised to learn they had just been defeated in the Revolutionary war, and the retention by the British of frontier forts from which they could encourage resident tribes to resist American expansion."

The indigenous people did not just lose the Revolutionary war, of course. Shortly before that war, though, they lost the French and Indian War and I guarantee you that was not news to those indigenous peoples. It was called the "French and Indian War" because we fought the French and the Indians, who worked together very closely to harass British colonists. We made overtures to certain tribes but it didn't come to much. Almost all of them quite decidedly allied with the French, and with the French they fought an extremely bloody and expensive war against us. And they ended up losing.

Why is it that no one gets teary-eyed over the fact that Canada became British territory after that war, but when it comes to Ohio somehow by the 1790s its like the war never happened???

Unfortunately, I think it's beause we as a society infantilize Native Americans and we prefer to treat them as something other than regular human beings just like the rest of us. My maternal grandfather's family has a lot of French Canadian in it. Needless to say they weren't treated particularly well after that war. Many (not my relatives) fled down the Mississippi at that time for precisely that reason (ever notice that "Cajun" sounds an awful lot like how a Cajun would pronounce "Acadian"?). There's absolutely no ambiguity about the fact that the French in Canada were beat in the 1760s and that that had territorial consequences. The fact that Canada became British isn't considered illegitimate at all. Why do we treat the Native Americans of the Ohio territory, who made the exact same gamble as the French, any differently?

I don't understand.

That's not to say that territorial expansion isn't a sad part of human history - it is. And it's definitely not to say that all our dealings with the Native American population are as legitimate as this. I have a lot more sympathy for some of the tribes farther west. But we had clear borders, the French and the Native Americans regularly encroached on those borders, we had a war over it, and the Americans won. The French and the Native Americans are in the exact same boat on that one, and if you can talk about "British Canada" without batting and eye, then you better be prepared to talk about "British Ohio" in the same way.


  1. But we had clear borders, the French and the Native Americans regularly encroached on those borders, we had a war over it, and the Americans won. Hmmmm. And British forces did not have anything to do with it? As far as I know, there was no belligerent called "America" or any derivative thereof. There was a belligerent called "the British Crown".

  2. One of the striking questions is why the Canadian colonies did not join the 1776 Revolt. They had every bit as much "taxation without representation". My take is that they did not care about slavery (so Somersett's Case did not bother them), they were too few to be land-hungry for Amerindian land (so the Crown insisting on its Great Proclamation did not bother them) and they needed the Crown to arbitrate between English and French so the Imperial Protector still had a role). The Revolting Colonies did want to grab Amerindian land, did care about slavery and did not feel territorially threatened, so their lack of say in British decisions were big deals and they did not feel they needed the Imperial forces anymore. A judgement summed up brilliantly in "no taxation without representation", code for "we do get a say in decisions which matter for us".

  3. It isn't a book I would take to the beach, but I bet it must've been an informative read!

    If you don't mind me asking, was Adam Smith's role in influencing the founding fathers' economic thought discussed in the book? According to Dr. Michael Emmett Brady, Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations had a big impact on their economic thought and subsequently, the economic policy of the early United States.

    Is Dr. Brady correct on this, whether the issue is touched upon in the book or not?


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