Three Depictions

Above: A depiction of American injustice towards American Indians under the leadership of American president Andrew Jackson. The Trail of Tears.

I will admit that I do American Indians an injustice with my coverage of them in my courses; I suspect it has to do with my own historical weakness and understanding of the American Indians’ plight. My friend James Stripes, noted this below on his blog; I thought it was telling regarding perspectives towards early American Indians.

Frederich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of the core texts outlining the prospects of communism, offers one stereotype of American Indians:

Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes, or police, without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned. . . . The household is run communistically by a number of families; the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the households — still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required. . . . There are no poor and needy. The communistic household and the gens know their responsibility toward the aged, the sick and the disabled in war. All are free and equal — including the women.
Frederich Engels, The Origin of the Family (1884)

Chief Justice John Marshal of the United States Supreme Court, writing a half century earlier, offered a more negative assessment:

But the tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness.
Chief Justice John Marshall, Johnson v. McIntosh (1823)

Both men were wrong.


2 thoughts on “Three Depictions

  1. I wrote to the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC when I started my Genocide Awareness Month unit in which we read sections of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and watched Dances with Wolves. I, like you, feel woefully uninformed about the history of the native people, and I wanted to make sure that I did it at least reasonable justice in my class. I’ll forward you the reply they sent me in case it can be useful to you.

    The benefit *I* have, as an English teacher, is that I work mostly in fiction. Even so, I want to be sure that I’m able to point out where fiction and reality intersect (or, more importantly, where they diverge) so that the students have at least some grounding in the history and context as we make our way through the literature.

    • Mrs. Chili, it would seem that this would be a great challenge for you due to the amount of bad “fiction” written on this issue? You must address a host of questions, which is good?

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