Cooler weather truly welcome. In the morning, distracted from the job at hand by returning to 1491 for an extended re-browse before turning the book over at the library counter.
Entranced by this image of the Indians of the North American Northeast as healthy, vigourous and — in the eyes of the straitjacketed Europeans — shockingly autonomous individuals. “Living, breathing role models of human liberty” in Mann’s words, whose insubordinate attitudes were adopted by the colonists and horrified the mother country power elites.
As [Benjamin] Franklin and many others noted, Indian life — not only among the Haudenosaunee, but throughout the Northeast — was characterized by a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe. Franklin’s ancestors may have emigrated from Europe to escape oppressive rules, but colonial societies were still vastly more coercive and class-ridden than indigenous villages. “Every man is free,” the frontiersman Robert Rogers told a disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages. In these places, he said, no other person, white Indian, sachem or slave, “has any right to deprive [another person] of his freedom.” As for the Haudenosaunee, colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, they had “such absolute Notions of Liberty, that they allow no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.” …
Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality. Northeastern Indians were appalled by the European propensity to divide themselves into social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy compelled to defer to those on the upper….
The French adventurer…Baron of Lahontan…reported [on the Huron]: “…They brand us for Slaves, and call us miserable Souls, whose life is not worth having, alleging That we degrade ourselves in subjecting our selves to one Man who possesses the whole Power, and is bound by no law but his own Will…[individual Indians] value themselves above anything that you can imagine…”
Mann’s point is that the colonists modelled their notions of liberty on the living examples alongside them, and evolved a social structure to match because they had to. “Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members — surrounded by examples of free life — always had the option to vote with their feet.”
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs. yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life…and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, when there is no reclaiming them. [Franklin writing in 1753]
The character of the Founding Fathers and of the nascent United States was shaped by the brash, indomitable spirit of Native American culture. Europe’s Enlightenment philosophers illustrated their ideals of liberty with Native American examples. And the Boston colonists dressed as Mohawks for their Tea Party mutiny against the British.
Extraordinary to think that credit for the modern conception of human liberty and the universal drive towards political structures that honour that aspiration, probably belongs with the Haudenosaunee military alliance of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, since it was their example that was transmitted to the world via the Enlightenment and the founding of the US.
Extraordinary, but sickeningly ironic.
In your fingers. In your head