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Apologies to the Iroquois

The white governments, on the other hand, realized that the people who controlled the selling of the land would command the allegiance of the swarming settlers; and so the federal and New York State governments competed for control of Iroquois land, and New York won. In the 1790s the Washington administration tried to treat the Indians decently. It sought to return to the colonial practice of purchasing the Indians’ land instead of claiming it by right of conquest, as the Confederation government had done in the 1780s. At the same time the federal government sought to save the Indians in the West from the kind of extinction that seemed to be occurring in the East. Despite their magnanimous aims, however, neither President Washington nor Secretary of War Henry Knox ever doubted that the Indians’ hunting lands in the West eventually would have to be converted to farms and the Indians would have to become “civilized” by becoming farmers.

Taylor describes how the high-mindedness of the Washington administration was undermined by “greedy and vindictive settlers” and by the shrewd and illegal manipulations of the government of New York. Not only did the state take advantage of factional divisions among the Iroquois to put pressure on the Indians to make land sales, but it eventually ceased obeying the federal laws that required both that a federal treaty commissioner be present when land was sold through treaties with Indians and that such treaties be submitted to the president and Senate for ratification. By the early nineteenth century the state gained nearly total control of the once-great territory of the Iroquois. From being one of the least-developed and slowest-growing colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, New York by 1800 had become “the empire state.” It gained its “wealth and power,” Taylor writes, “by dispossessing and confining the Iroquois.” It had acquired millions of acres of Iroquois land at a fraction of its market value.


From any point of view, the story that Taylor tells is an ugly one. All the contestants in the northern borderlands—the British, the Americans, even the Indians themselves—were caught up in treachery, double-dealing, profiteering, and corruption. Most of the people involved, including some of the Indian leaders, it seems, were hustlers, out to establish their status or make money. Not only did whites exploit divisions between the Indian sachems, or tribal chiefs, and the warriors, groups that were volatile and unstable to begin with, but they took advantage of the clashing ambitions, rivalries, and hatreds among prominent Indian leaders like the Mohawk Joseph Brant, the Seneca chief Red Jacket, and the Oneida chief Cornplanter. Sometimes the Indians equaled the whites in chicanery. Indeed, Taylor occasionally becomes so eager to portray the Indians as victorious bargainers and not helpless victims in market transactions that he seems to enjoy describing the shrewd and successful land speculations of Indian leaders like Brant. He wants to show that someone like Brant was not “too naïve or too selfless to outwit white men at their own commercial game.”

Too much alcohol was a major problem for the Indians, and liquor was used cynically by the whites to soften the Indians’ resistance to selling their land. Indian warriors, deprived of their role as hunters and contemptuous of farming as women’s work, turned to excessive drinking and to fighting among themselves. When the state of New York in 1800 belatedly passed a law prohibiting the sale of liquor to the Indians in Oneida County, the Indian warriors protested, declaring that “we are able to take care of ourselves. We are not Children.” Liquor traders and tavern keepers didn’t like the law either, and it was never enforced.

In Taylor’s depressing and detailed account, it is the Iroquois women who seem most impressive; as a dominant force in the Indians’ matriarchal society, they were, he writes, “the enduring people of the community.” Not only did they do most of the farm labor and choose the village sachems, favoring “merit and personality in determining their choice,” but they seemed to be the only Indians who had any inkling of what their lands were worth.

Taylor, like many other American historians in recent years, is hostile to any promotion of American exceptionalism, any belief in celebrating America’s deviation from the traditions of the Old World. He is eager to blur any distinction between American and British behavior in the borderlands; the Old World British could be just as ruthless and acquisitive as the New World Americans. He describes at length how the British officials in Canada were as deceitful and corrupt as the officials of New York. The British in Canada liked to think they treated the indigenous peoples better than the coarse American republicans to the south, but Taylor shows otherwise. Only the relative scarcity of white settlers made the Indians’ lot in Canada seem better. By 1800, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) had only 35,000 settlers compared to New York’s 586,750 settlers. Nevertheless, Taylor writes, the same duplicity and expropriation of Indian land went on north of the border, but to a lesser degree.

Still, America does seem different when compared with Canada. Take, for example, the American ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and compare them to the Canadian “peace, order, and good government,” the docile-sounding formula used in the British North America Act of 1867 that created the Dominion of Canada.

Although Taylor spares no one, including Indians, in his many descriptions of double-dealing and treachery, he is clearly sympathetic to the Indians. In fact, at the outset of his book he comes close to creating the image of the noble savage. Although Indians did expect to receive many presents during council meetings with whites, Taylor suggests, they were not caught up in the excessive getting and spending of the American colonists: “The Iroquois considered it foolish and demeaning to labor beyond what they needed to subsist.” Taylor tellingly quotes the comment of a missionary who

noted that the Indians disliked the competitive and acquisitive values of the colonists: “They wonder that the white people are striving so much to get rich, and to heap up treasures in this world which they cannot carry with them to the next.”

The Indians were also ecologically wise. Their

mobile, but seasonally patterned, way of life conserved most of the forest and streams—and their wild things—over the generations…. Compared to the colonists, the Iroquois used land extensively rather than intensively. The natives did clear and cultivate compact fields near their villages, but they kept most of their domain as a forest to sustain wild plants and animals.

Here Taylor might have benefited from consulting The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), by the anthropologist Shepard Krech III, who suggests that the Indians were no better at conservation and ecology than whites.

More important to Taylor were the Indians’ liberal ways of sharing possessions and caring for one another. The colonists who were kind and honest in their dealings with the Indians were, Taylor writes, “a most rare and elusive group in colonial America.” Indians were different:

They cherished the collective security maintained by expecting generosity from the fortunate to the needy. Instead of storing up wealth, prospering chiefs accumulated prestige by gifts to their kin and to the hungry and ragged. These values of hospitality and reciprocity spread resources through the seasons and across a village, sustaining a rough equality.

The Indians didn’t seem to know the meaning of inequality and social class. “Gender and age,” says Taylor, “rather than social class, structured Iroquois labor,” which made their culture different from the “more hierarchical culture” of the colonists.

Contrary to what many colonists believed and some scholars today argue, Indians, in Taylor’s view, had a sense of individual possession of property, but it “was more limited than the colonial mode of exclusive private property.” Their generosity and concern for community obliged them to share their goods with kin and friends in greater need. And they did not believe that what they possessed was a commodity that could be individually sold. When Indian land was sold to the white settlers, Indians assumed that they still retained some rights to the land and expected a continual flow of presents and food from the new occupants as compensation for the sale. Of course, the white settlers refused to accept the idea that they were simply guests in Indian country. They “acted as if they owned the land and had extinguished all native rights.” They dismissed the Indians who came to their door seeking food and presents as “idle beggars”—another sad example of the confusing collision of incompatible cultures.

More impressive to the colonists and to admirers like Jefferson was the Iroquois’ love of liberty. Since they dreaded coercion, “all forms of power had to be dispersed and closely watched to preserve the freedom of a people.” In their villages they also dreaded contention, “preferring the deliberative search for consensus, however elusive.” Although the white colonists thought the Iroquois lived in virtual anarchy, the “native villages,” Taylor tells us, “were remarkably harmonious—except when alcohol abounded…. Their public councils were dignified—in stark contrast to the rancor of colonial politics.” To reinforce the point Taylor quotes Sir William Johnson, the powerful British superintendent for Indian affairs in the northern colonies. Johnson was respectful of the Iroquois and had eight children with his mistress Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister. “All their deliberations are conducted with extraordinary regularity and decorum,” said Johnson. “They never interrupt him who is speaking, nor use harsh language, whatever may be their thoughts.”

The Iroquois weren’t religious fundamentalists either. “They disliked,” Taylor writes, “the missionary dogmatism that insisted on a Christian monopoly to spiritual truth. In contrast to the religious absolutism of Christianity,” they believed in “dual and relative supernatural truths.” Their communities were tight-knit and generally free of crime: “Theft and rape were virtually unknown among the Iroquois.”

They were “sticklers for tradition” and, befitting their oral culture, “preferred the methodical and rhythmic repetition of shared sentiments and histories expressed through prolonged rituals and speeches.” “Although Indians executed enemies by torture (and killed suspected witches among their own people)”—a strange throwaway line if there ever was one—they did not like the ways the colonists punished wrongdoers.

It is surprising that, beyond this brief mention, Taylor says nothing about the Iroquois’ methods of torturing captured war prisoners, especially since more than twenty years ago Daniel K. Richter wrote a full study of the Iroquois’ practices. The ritualistic tortures went on for hours, beginning with heavy blows designed to inflict pain without serious injury, followed by physical abuse, including the tearing out of fingernails and the poking of sensitive body parts with firebrands. Then the captives were allowed to eat and rest and later compelled to dance while the Indians decided their fate, either to adopt or to execute them. If slated for execution, the prisoners were burned once again systematically from the feet up. If they swooned too soon, they were revived and fed until the burning was resumed.

Before the prisoners expired, they were scalped and had hot sand thrown on their exposed skulls. They were finally killed by a knife to the chest or a hatchet to the neck. Then the victims’ flesh was stripped and thrown into cooking kettles, and the whole village feasted on the remains. Although the Iroquois executed mostly male captives, they occasionally tortured and killed women and children. Taylor reveals none of these details, and instead emphasizes how much the Iroquois “hated the coercive instruments of colonial power—the jail, whip, and gallows—even when exercised on colonists,” and, perhaps most important for our day, they were “averse to capital punishment.”

Taylor finds in this Indian aversion to the whites’ method of dealing with murder the basis for a fascinating cultural analysis that is central to his book. The Iroquois lacked the state apparatus and the legal system used by whites to arrest, try, convict, and punish murder. They relied on customary law providing two different ways of dealing with murder: revenge killings or a ceremony that they called “covering the grave,” by which the murderer gave compensation or gifts to the kin of the deceased. This worked well as long as the murderer and the victim were Iroquois. But when an Indian murdered a white or a white murdered an Indian, an extremely severe clash of cultures took place. The white governments, whether British or, later, American, sought to establish their sovereignty by trying and publicly hanging convicted murderers—a procedure that appalled the Iroquois, especially when an Indian was the one hanged. No cultural issue, Taylor suggests, carried more weight in the struggle between the Iroquois and the white governments than this difference over the punishment of murderers. The increasing ability of the British and later the American governments to impose their law of murder on the Indians became “a critical marker” of the relative degree of white power and native sovereignty. Eventually, the state of New York began prosecuting and hanging Indians who had killed other Indians. By that point, in 1800, the Iroquois, as several whites observed, had become “completely cowed,” “a harmless race, & perfectly mild & obedient.”

In the end the Iroquois’ efforts to resist and adapt to the white settlers proved fruitless, and, despite Taylor’s attempt to demonstrate their resourceful defiance, their small numbers doomed them to fail. They were the victims in a tragedy—a tragedy, however, whose ultimate significance, like the history of the United States in general, transcends the motives and miseries of its participants. The historical process by which entire groups hold power and lose it is always larger than the actions of the individuals who make it up.

Of course, movements of peoples and violent acquisitions of land such as those that took place in eighteenth-century America have been common for millennia everywhere in the world. Consider, for example, the takeover of much of Celtic Europe and eventually of the Roman Empire by aggressive and often ruthless Germanic tribes over fifteen centuries ago. Ancient Britain itself was repeatedly invaded, first by the Romans and then by Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, and later by Scandinavian Vikings, and finally by Normans. But these ancient conquests and displacements of peoples from their land took place so long ago and left so few records that the personal agonies and human costs they entailed have been largely lost to history. We make few moral judgments about the evils of these remote conquests and displacements. Not so with the European takeover of North America, especially during the eighteenth century. We have an extraordinarily rich and detailed documentary record of the British and American acquisition of the lands of the indigenous peoples, with much of its brutality and bloodshed and its personal pain and suffering vividly revealed. The relative nearness of the events and the fullness of the documentary record, and its flagrant contradiction of the claims of the whites to be civilized and enlightened, have made all the difference in the way we today judge what happened two hundred years ago.

Taylor is a prodigious researcher, and he has investigated, it seems, nearly all of the documentary record as it relates to the late-eighteenth-century Iroquois. Unfortunately, he seems reluctant to leave anything out, and as a result his book is sprawling and exhaustive. Because his tale of the struggle of the Iroquois against the British and American governments during four decades is so detailed and complicated, it is not at all easy to follow. (The index doesn’t help: there are, for example, thirty-three page entries listed under “land speculation” with no subheadings.)

Besides emphasizing the cultural conflict over murder, Taylor tries to use the lives of particular people who had relations with one another throughout the period to give some coherence to his story. In particular, he has much to say about the relations of Samuel Kirkland, the Connecticut-born Christian missionary and sometime land speculator who spent his life with the Iroquois, and Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader who traveled to London and dazzled white leaders everywhere with his gentlemanly manners and sophistication. Kirkland and Brant first met each other at Eleazar Wheelock’s school in Connecticut in 1761; they saw each other over the succeeding decades, and died within months of each other in 1806. But their interesting and intersecting lives are not enough to hold the book together. Taylor’s cast of characters is too large, and the reader is hard put to keep them all straight, especially since some of them reappear only at intervals of thirty or forty pages.

Although Taylor has said elsewhere that he attempts in his writings “to appeal to a relatively broad readership,” his book, I suspect, will be read mainly by specialists, since his story is so intricate, the issues so complex, and the details so extensive. But readers who persevere with his book will find that it casts light on some of the strange events of our own time. As Taylor points out, the Iroquois, citing the Jay Treaty of 1795, have in recent years asserted their right freely to cross the international boundary between the United States and Canada without acknowledging the restrictions of the two countries. Benefiting from a federal law passed in 1988, Iroquois have also created at least ten Indian gambling casinos in upstate New York, with perhaps more to come. Although these casinos are scarcely the kind of compensation the eighteenth-century Iroquois expected for losing their lands, they can be seen as a pathetic and belated reparation for what happened two centuries earlier. Over the past generation, far from withering away, Indians have tripled in number, growing from 827,100 in 1970 to 2,475,956 in 2000, certainly increasing much faster than the white population. Has the prospect of being part owner of a casino caused more people to assert that they are Indians? Perhaps some day, centuries from now, historians may turn this apparently sudden claim of Indian identity, along with the multiplication of gambling casinos, into another chapter in the sad and sordid story of America’s relationship with its native peoples.

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