“The Environment” and the Destruction of American Indians in the American Mythos

The United States is known for its vast tracts of land, its wide open plains, its mountain ranges, its vast deserts.  It is a land with bountiful natural resources among a variety landscapes.  Iron ore, coal, gold, and a host of other raw materials fueled its unprecedented industrialization.  And so a broad concept of “the environment” came to lodge itself firmly in some vague American mythos with its own connotations which have never seemed to transfer to European historiography.  But is that all it is?  Is it everyone’s mythos?  Or, was it largely a space which was subdued by a masculine capitalist militarism bar nothing, bar rocky New England soil, the bay of Boston, the everglades of Florida, the dry plains, or, as colonist ideology depicted them, scalping bloodthirsty noble red savages?  The vastness of early North America appeared vast to the newly arrived pale-skinned colonists (not settlers) because native peoples were classified as sub-human thus enabling the presentation of America as a virgin land ready for the taking.

John Vanderlyn's Painting, an Ideological Depiction of Native Americans (1804)

In my introduction I have chosen my words carefully: I speak of American Indians only to show how white colonists depicted them in pictures, in literature, in folklore. I also mention some of the examples of the harsh climates Europeans found in their New World.  These play a crucial role along with the key aspect of my argument though a second fiddle to the main theme, events only made possible because of a more pressing concerns.  The land was “virgin” to the patriarchical society.  In reality (this is, materiality) and then through history (the realm of ideas) the theme, becoming an ideology, of the environment forged its place in the American mythos and in American historiography (“American” is used here to denote what in the future would become the US; no hegemonic erasure of the other Americans, north or south, is intended).

The “New World” Europeans though they “discovered” did indeed seem empty to them.  First of all, it was in fact less populated than their homeland.  England especially was quickly running out of land.  Men took to ships to make their own way as it were and to get some land for themselves—an impossibility for an increasing number of Europeans in the 17th century.  For a culture whose political economy rested on land—the vote for example or for political position in any capacity—America was a godsend.  But, here’s the rub: people were there, and it is a grave error if we stress this first point at the expense of the second.

For American Indians America wasn’t a “New World.”  They lived on it and with it in complex and varied ways.  It may sound redundant to point it out, but the mistake still happens even in history graduate seminars: not all native people in North America were “nomads.”  However, some were and this should not take away from any points made here in any case.  While the numbers are debated among historians vary, it is safe to say that it only matters that people lived there.  (Estimates range from anywhere from between 5 and 20 million.  12 million is perhaps the most often quoted number for the area within the future US.)

To white colonists—of the English crown at first and then of the established United States of America soon—America could only be empty and ready for the taking if the people already there were labeled as sub-human.  This ideology, as a state apparatus of England first and then the US, enabled for the almost wholesale slaughter of native people.  Once deemed as unequals to the white “settler,” any moral considerations against taking land were muted.  Then, once the “red man” fought back as his livelihood was threatened, whites went ahead with this ready-made excuse for total war both militarily and culturally.  Once a natural resource was found on “Indian land” the inevitable occurred: white ownership backed up by arms.

The ability to master the landscape in the biblical Christian tradition only added fuel to the fire.  Colonists believed that their ability to turn a rocky, uneven island into the flat New York grid system only spoke to their superiority.  They filled the bay around Boston, expanding it in size.  Backed up by an ideology labeling the American Indian as savage and primitive, the Englishman “improved” the land with his fences, agriculture, and livestock (see Creature of Empire by Virginia Anderson for an expertly written book).  With metal plows they broke up the hard soil of New England, then the Great Plains.  To Europeans, who had increasingly traced their heritage back to the Greeks, this conquering of America seemed to occur with astonishing speed.  How many years of history had London?  But, in America there erupted new, large, and expanding cities to rival Europe in what seemed a fraction of the time.  With American Indians nearly hunted out existence by the late 1800s, the frontier (which Huckleberry Finn sets out for shortly after freeing Jim) was deemed a place of opportunity open to the white male.

Colonialist ideology was served not only by Mark Twain’s literature, but by Henry James’ as Jackson Lears points out in his interesting yet unwieldy Rebirth of a Nation.  James’ protagonist of The American (1877) is “a quintessential Anglo-Saxon but with echoes of the noble Red Man”.  Lears notes that Jack London would pick up on similar strains: the need for whites to adopt a primitive virility to thrive in the vast expanse of America’s environment.  Thus would the white American man be able to become a “proud descendant of the ‘white savages’ who subdued the continent” (emphasis added).  This ideology was so expertly crafted that it allowed an assimilation of what it had previously constructed American Indians to be.  I do not think Žižek would hesitate to label it ideology par excellence. This tradition did not rest idly in the realm of literature, but was championed by history and the social sciences.

These are the themes which, first, established themselves a strong role for the environment in the American mythos and, second, were picked up by historiography in the US.  Environmental history has a uniquely American popularity.  There is not equal focus on it in Europe (I am limited here to speaking about Western traditions of history philosophy).  Traditional historians have too often erased the multiple cultures which make up history.  The role played by both history and the social sciences in Western nation-building, as legitimizers, has been well-documented today.  At the time, however, the likes of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis (followed by scientific racism to name just a couple) served the ideology which spelled the destruction of native people, championed American “democracy,” and afforded the environment its prominence in the US tradition

Strains of environmental history which seek to explicate a simple narrative of how the environment enabled colonization and the extermination of American Indians really tells us nothing much at all.  Like the “cheerful historians” E.J. Hobsbawm rips apart in his book Labouring Men, to focus on this aspect of “history” is only to apologize indirectly without taking on blame.  It is a sort of method which disappears one’s own generation of guilt for the past from which they have directly benefitted.   It is as if to say, “Well, the settlers couldn’t quite help it, could they?  The poor soil of New England made it so England farmers had to grab more of the land because yields were lower.  Plus, there was drought, so they needed the Indians’ food.”  It casts history as an inevitable and thus blameless.  It is a history which threatens to forget suffering.

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