It is easy in hindsight to believe that our present is the ineluctable result of the past. It did not appear so to those at the time though. Some of our most popular narratives, current and recent past, are simply poor didactic fictions crafted from an inability to imagine what life was like then.
Folktales, biblical stories and classical texts were more deeply and pervasively known then than now and helped shape an interpretation of all new encounters. On the other hand, current information of what was going on around them was notably sparse and slow to disseminate. In fact, the population of knowledge was pretty much just the opposite of today when one can count less and less on people sharing a common literary or cultural knowledge but can anticipate much greater awareness of the score of last night's game or the latest twist in some Hollywood celebrity's love life. We bring to our view of people of the past an expectation that we know how they thought and judge them by our current standards without allowing for our privileged position of knowing how particular stories ended.
In the very earliest days of the settlement of the America's there was a tendency to demonize Native Americans. They were the element out there beyond the settled boundaries where danger lurked. They raided settlements, butchered settlers and carried off women and children. They were savage and unpredictable.
Later, by the middle of the last century, these savage devils had morphed in popular representation into two dimensional characters in head-dresses and smoking peace-pipes. No longer relevant or a present danger, they were not represented in a malicious way or demonized; simply dismissed as quixotic, amusing, and irrelevant.
In the past twenty-five years, this imaging has morphed yet again, this time, either intentionally or accidentally, representing Native Americans as victims of a concerted ethnic cleansing. There is a greater inclination to attempt to understand this period of history from the Native American perspective, which is a worthwhile counterbalance to what came before which was mostly from the pioneers' perspective. It is ironic, though, that this contemporary storytelling is as ethnically insensitive and stereotyping as its predecessors but equally blind to that fact. In the modern telling, the Native Americans still lack agency - the capacity to demonstrate that they are individuals responsible for themselves and capable of crafting a life of dignity that may or may not, like everyone else, be marked with the outward trimmings of success.
It is all in how you view things. Most people are now aware that Leif Ericson and other Vikings made it to North America in 1000 AD and established an early, albeit in the event, temporary, settlement in Newfoundland. In fact, temporary settlements scattered along the northwestern coast of Canada continued for more than a decade before contact eventually dwindled away. While there were many likely reasons that this initial European discovery of and early settlement in North America failed, one significant reason is clear from the Vikings own writings; the resistance of the native skraelings, Native Americans. I think most people simply dismiss this first interaction as a simple false-start of settlement by Northern Europeans and think no further of it. The other way of considering this particular historical interlude is to view it as the first successful defeat of a new migratory invasion into North America. The Vikings were at the tail end of horrendously long "supply" line of several thousand miles. The technology differential between Native Americans and Europeans was not as dramatically wide in 1000 as it would be in 1500. Never-the-less, the Vikings were no pushovers. Viking raids, conquests and settlements extended over much of Europe (the British Isles, Russia, France, Germany, Poland, into Spain, etc.). The resistance and effective casting out of the Viking invaders from North America is a little recognized accomplishment in the pioneer history of North America.
The later discovery and settlement of North America by Europeans was a messy and uncoordinated affair with many cultures (on the European side) encountering many cultures (on the Native American side) and elements within each group seeking to align with elements of the other to wrest advantage over their traditional enemies: British seeking alliances with Native American tribes to contest incursions by the French and vice versa. Likewise between the British and the Spanish. Various elements of the Algonquin tribes sought alliances with the British against other traditional Native American tribes. Everyone viewed the other players as pawns to continue the battles with which they were already familiar.
Further, there was the complication of not only nationality but religion also. Protestants versus Catholics in this New World and even sect against sect such as Protestant Calvinists versus Church of England Protestants. The interaction between Plains Indians and settlers was not simply that between Native Americans and Europeans but the still more ancient contest between nomads and farmers.
Native Americans were decimated by the hidden enemy of new pathogens introduced into the continent by the new arrivals: smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, measles, etc. all took their massive toll. The technological gap was a gulf this time around compared to the 1000s. The numbers were different too - and they had to be for history to have taken the course it took.
We too quickly forget the simple numbers. Mortality rates of 10-30% per voyage by the early settlers were not unusual. Annual mortality rates in most settlements were 30-70% in the early years. Native American tribes, devastated as they were by diseases, were frighteningly effective in their early and continued resistance. They demonstrated remarkable flexibility in trying to navigate the tumultuous political waters created by the new invaders. The Indian Massacre of 1622 (resurrected in Ivan Noel Hume's book, Martin's Hundred), fifteen years after the settlement of Jamestown, repulsed English settlement in the vicinity for another generation.
King Phillip's War in 1675, effectively a coordinated alliance between numerous previously contentious Native American tribes to reverse the tide of immigration, was disastrous for both sides, but might easily have succeeded given slightly different circumstances. Native American raids on New England settlements were still occurring with some regularity into the middle 1700s.
Similarly, we lose perspective on time as we move west. Custer's Last Stand is so iconic that it is hard to realize that it occurred in the lifetime of grandparents of people alive today. The last Native American to come out of the hills, Ishi, did so as recently as 1911.
The interactions between Native Americans and Pioneers/Frontiersmen were complex and occurred in vastly different circumstances and time periods. When you begin thinking about it, we have all sorts of sub-narratives including:
* The almost completely overlooked but frequently fascinating interactions of Native Americans and the Spanish in the 1500 -1700s in the Southeast and Southwest
* The traditional New England fighting and trading in the 1600 and 1700s
* The cooperative but delicately contentious interactions of the mountain men and fur traders in the 1700s
* The contending but respectful foes a la Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the 1700 and 1800s
* The often overlooked frontiers and settlers of the Midwest in the 1700 and 1800s and,
* All those corresponding interactions in Canada, Mexico and Central and South America.
The history of the world is one of different groups of people intruding themselves for various reasons into the territories of others. The consequences of those intrusions span the spectrum of obliteration of the invader or the invaded, the establishment of both groups in some tense but stable symbiosis, the peaceful absorption of one group by the other (it not always being predictable as to which will occur; think of the successfully conquering Vandals in Spain and North Africa or the Normans in Britain, each militarily successful but each being subsequently subsumed by their conquered population), etc. The globe is a big place and the corners only finally got filled up in the past five hundred years or so (with the Maoris settling in New Zealand in the fourteen hundreds as being perhaps the last significant land mass to be reached.)
The world has been filled for centuries with contiguous migrations within continents but that is a somewhat different affair. The cultural, technological, political, economic, and biological (pathogens) differences are more a matter of degree than of kind when the migration is from within a confined area. The less familiar and difficult story to tell is that more recent one of the past five hundred years where migration has been freed from contiguous movements of people to the transformative shifts in populations from continent to continent and where the gulf of differences can be so great. We have some fascinating object lessons out there such as Abyssinia, Lesotho and the Kingdoms of Swaziland and of Thailand all managing to maintain their independence in the face of European colonization when others all around fell. We have seen some migrations (Europe into North America, South America and Australasia) succeed while corresponding movements into Africa and South Asia failed.
This is fascinating material from an historical and sociological perspective. Fascinating, in part, because we still don't know quite what to make of it. Who were the "good" guys, who were the "bad"?
So we continue to struggle collectively to figure out what kind of story to tell our children of our own past. We now know that European settlement into North America succeeded at the expense of the Native Americans but it was not always obvious that it would succeed and many had reason to believe that it couldn't succeed.
The three major trends of describing Native Americans (and particularly their interactions with pioneers), characterized as demonization, shallow stereotyping and victimization, all have deep flaws, most especially that they do not capture anywhere near the diversity and particularity of those interactions.
Below are a number of stories in which we hope a flavor of some of that variety of experience comes through. Reading about particular periods such as Thanksgiving, Westward Expansion, the Colonial Period, all have elements that capture some of the complex interactions between pioneers/frontiersman and Native Americans. This booklist is an attempt to gather some of that wide range into a single place to give a bit of the feel of complexity that actually existed.
Let us know which books you might recommend for children to learn about and experience through their imagination this particularly fascinating event.
A Picture Book of Sacagawea by David A. Adler and illustrated by Dan Brown Suggested
Children of the Wild West by Russell Freedman
This Land Is My Land by George Littlechild Suggested
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink Highly Recommended
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder Highly Recommended
Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling Recommended
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George Recommended
Pocahontas by Joseph Bruchac Recommended
Geronimo by Joseph Bruchac Suggested
Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla Suggested
Morning Girl by Michael Dorris Suggested
Guests by Michael Dorris Suggested
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich Suggested
The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich Suggested
The Life and Death of Crazy Horse by Russell Freedman and photographs by Amos Bad Heart Bull Suggested
Indian Chiefs by Russell Freedman Suggested
The Talking Earth by Jean Craighead George Suggested
Death of the Iron Horse by Paul Goble Suggested
The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman Suggested
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw Suggested
Rachel's Journal by Marissa Moss Suggested
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell & Ted (ILT) Lewin Suggested
Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O'Dell Suggested
Standing in the Light by Mary Pope Osborne Suggested
Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen Suggested
Sequoyah by James Rumford Suggested
Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith Suggested
Trappers & Mountain Men by Anastasia Suen Recommendation
Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen and photographs by James Watling & James Suggested
Night of the Full Moon by Gloria Whelan and illustrated by Leslie Bowman and Tony Meers Suggested
The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos
A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz Recommended
Give Your Heart to the Hawks by Winfred Blevins Suggested
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown Suggested
Jim Thorpe, Original All-American by Joseph Bruchac Suggested
Across America on an Emigrant Train by Jim Murphy Suggested
Native American Testimony edited by Peter Nabokov Suggested
Crooked River by Shelley Pearsall Suggested