History without reservations: unpicking the myths about Native Americans

I grew up in New York City and had what most people would consider an exceptionally liberal education: yet it skipped over a vital part of our national history.

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In the summer of 1989 – the year of the Hillsborough disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the protests in Tiananmen Square – the New York Times ran a short article about William F Cody. “Buffalo Bill’s medal restored” was the headline. Long before Cody became the best-known showman of the 19th century, he had served as a scout during the “Indian Wars” that racked the Great Plains in the years after the American Civil War. In 1872, for his service, he was awarded the Medal of Honour, the US military’s highest award. According to the newspaper, he received it “for valour after leading a cavalry charge against a group of Sioux. He killed two, recovered several horses, and pursued the retreating Indians.”

Then, in 1917, the award was revoked. It is easy to imagine in the 21st century that this might have been because, in the intervening decades, attitudes to killing people who were defending the land on which they had lived long before Europeans had ever dreamed of a place called America had changed. This, however, was not the case. The trouble was that Cody, as a scout, was considered to be a civilian and so technically was not entitled to receive the medal.

His family campaigned down the years to have it returned, and so it was, in 1989. Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming said that the decision had finally set “the record straight”. He was glad that the US army had accepted that Cody “clearly deserves our nation’s highest honour”.

That remark ran without comment. Perhaps things have changed over the past three decades, or perhaps they haven’t. Only a few months ago, Hillary Clinton found herself in hot water when she told CNN that she could handle Donald Trump, thanks very much. “I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak,” she said.

The phrase “off the reservation” has its roots in the forced relocation of Native American people from the early 19th century onwards. As J C H King writes in Blood and Land, the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, led to “land purchases under duress, forced removals and war, collectively known as Nunna daul Tsuny, literally the ‘Trail where they cried’, now the ‘Trail of Tears’, for the removal of the Cherokees, of whom alone between 4,000 and 8,000 people died”.

Clinton was forced to row back and her political director acknowledged that the phrase had “some very offensive roots”. It is hard to imagine her using a phrase similarly offensive to African Americans or Latinos.

Americans have finally begun to acknowledge fully the dreadful and enduring legacy of African-American slavery: to say out loud, at least, that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed the slaves, was not an act of magic, cleansing the land of evil. Yet it seems that the history of Native American and First Nation people – in Canada, too – has been more difficult to accept.

One of the many striking passages in Blood and Land is King’s plain-spoken discussion of the way in which the discredited science of eugenics seemed to keep a firm grip on government policy towards native populations long into the 20th century. “Between 1970 and 1976,” he writes, “some 25-50 per cent of Indian women were sterilised, a total of 25,000 by the end of 1976.” Read that sentence again: its simplicity is shocking. Similar programmes existed in Canada. “What is remarkable about these termination and sterilisation programmes,” King continues, “is that they were instituted a little before but principally during the era of the civil rights movement: that is, as African America successfully fought ancient measures, new federal measures of dispossession, of land and body, were being imposed on Indian people.”

King, who spent nearly 40 years at the British Museum and is now the inaugural Von Hügel Fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, uses different terms for his subjects at different times. Native, indigenous, aboriginal, First Nation and Indian, he writes, “mean different things to different people in different contexts”. He uses all of these terms in a text that is encyclopaedic in its range – the book comes in at well over 500 pages before you get to the notes. And it is not, strictly speaking, a narrative. He presents “a series of them­atic but overlapping chapters” that consider the subject of native North America under headings such as “Success”, “Recovery” and “Language and Literature”, before lighting out for the territory: the second half of the book addresses the native cultures and those cultures’ interactions with invasive Europeans in each geographical ­region of the continent.

The preference for theme over story and the sheer range of information contained here make this a challenging book for the general reader (and perhaps especially readers who may not be familiar with the wider histories of the United States and Canada). Yet one of its strengths is its willingness to turn over the stones of the stories that we think we know and see what lies underneath. Richard Nixon remains notable, it turns out, for his positive attitude (and policies) towards native people. No mention is made of some of his other failings. (John Ehrlichman – whose involvement in the Watergate scandal resulted in his resignation and imprisonment – is merely referred to as his “domestic affairs adviser in the White House”.)

What is made abundantly clear, over and over again in these close-set pages, is how resilient native cultures have been in the face of centuries of aggression and depredation. To see that oppression enacted against every indigenous group across the North American continent, over every century and in every region, is disturbing, all the more so for King’s neutral tone.

“Discuss the role of the Franciscans in changing the economy of California from a hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural economy,” runs a high-school history question from that state. As King writes, “The destruction of native California is glossed, 19th-century style, as social evolutionary progress.” What does that “progress” mean? The destruction of religions, the disappearance of languages and – for many North Americans – plain ignorance of what has gone before.

I grew up in New York City and had what most people would consider an exceptionally liberal education. For me and my fellow grade-schoolers, however, our nation’s history began when Columbus “discovered” America, then it skipped to the Dutch and the Mayflower pilgrims and went barrelling forward to the revolution. Native people were bit players, if they played any role at all. As for the “sale” of Manhattan by the Native Americans to Pieter Minuit of the Dutch West India Company and his crew in 1626: “Purchase of land would have had no meaning for the early native population, and so a one-sided agreement was concluded.”

Despite what indigenous communities have achieved in recent years (the growth of a casino-based economy in the US; the creation of the Nunavut territory in northern Canada, land that encompasses the traditional lands of the Inuit), one comes away thinking that, for all the resilience and energy on display here, progress has been one-sided, pretty much, ever since.

One of the striking aspects of King’s book is that the stories that Europeans and non-native Americans do know of native people are not accorded any special privilege in the telling; they are placed carefully in a much broader context. The story of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull and the defeat of General Custer at Little Bighorn in the year of America’s centenary, which ensured that a “solution” would be found to the “Indian problem”, is only part of the complex history of the West, though King’s language may have a particular and bitter resonance here. Most readers are accustomed to seeing these narratives set apart, told as tales that became part of a western European mythology of colonialism and conquest.

And so they might turn to Sorrow of the Earth by Éric Vuillard (to be published next month). Vuillard is a French author and film-maker; this is the first of his books to be translated into English. Set against Blood and Land, it sits pretty much at the opposite end of the scholarship scale, but then it is not aiming to compete in that regard. Rather, it is a swift and engrossing postmodern interrogation of the brutal cost of manufacturing myth.

If you think Kim and Kanye are famous, your grandpa might tell you that they had nothing on Buffalo Bill. Cody – who got his name thanks to his relentless slaughtering of the animals to feed crews building the Kansas Pacific Railway – found fame far beyond the shores of the North American continent. His Wild West shows were a smash all over Europe, and at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th he travelled the length and breadth of Britain, playing to crowds that today would still be the envy of any performer.

Beginning in 1883 – the year the Brooklyn Bridge was finished, the year Karl Marx died – he produced an extravaganza that re-enacted frontier life before his audiences’ eyes: here was a buffalo hunt with real buffalo! An Indian attack with real Indians! The Pony Express galloped around the arena and, at the end, there was a re-enactment of Custer’s last stand – in which some of the actors were Lakota warriors who had fought in the actual battle. The first public performance attended by Queen Victoria after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

Vuillard, in an energetic translation by Ann Jefferson, recognises that what drew all those thousands to Bill’s arena was what draws us to it still: powerful storytelling that claims to be inspired by real-life events. Yet, for those who saw the Wild West show, the truth seemed to be right there in front of them. Where is Sitting Bull, the great Lakota chief? Here, in the arena. Who’s fighting Custer? The Indians who were there.

“The highlight of the show isn’t a show, it’s reality,” Vuillard writes. “Yes, there’s nothing to beat it!” But underneath is the knowledge that reality, being displayed in this way, is permanently changed. “It’s strange, and hard to explain,” he writes. “Reality is still there but it’s as if it had lost its substance. Everything you thought it was founded on has suddenly been disrupted, altered, damaged, exposed.”

It’s a shame that this fast-paced and original book doesn’t list any sources at all, or make any suggestions for further reading. Even so, it sets out elegantly why the fabrication of the “Wild West” still resonates so powerfully today. “The other” is made into entertainment, frightening and yet ultimately containable – until it won’t be contained any more.

Goyahkla was an Apache leader who fought against the containment imposed on him and his people, first by Mexico and then by the US, in the middle of the 19th century. Geronimo was his Spanish name, and it is the one that has endured, becoming a byword for resistance.

In the 1880s, he and his fellow members of the tribe were among those who, determined to fight back against European immigration, raided “off the reservation” – the term that would come to haunt Candidate Clinton. And again, the image of that resistance is often skewed away from its origins. In 2011, when US special forces killed Osama Bin Laden, President Barack Obama revealed in an interview that the ­al-Qaeda leader had been given the code name “Geronimo”.

The actor and novelist Ethan Hawke has long been fascinated by tales of the Apaches, as he writes in a thoughtful afterword to Indeh, a graphic novel produced with the author and illustrator Greg Ruth. For years, Hawke planned a film around the story of Goyahkla’s early years, how his family was killed and how he came to be a leader of his people despite the odds stacked against him. Financing was hard to come by, and so the tale has taken another form.

Ruth’s flowing, black-and-white washed images are much more than a vehicle for Hawke’s clean writing. Don’t be fooled by the movie star’s name on the cover – this is very much a collaborative work, one that moves swiftly to tell a story of violence, ­revenge and loss. If it has a flaw, it is that, in both words and images, character is subsumed too much by the story: both the Apaches and their opponents come across as curiously flattened.

But it is – as all of these books are, in their very different ways – an attempt to see a fraction of the story of native North America more honestly than that story has been seen in decades and centuries past.

Erica Wagner is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Blood and Land: the Story of Native North America by J C H King is published by Allen Lane (646pp, £30)

Sorrow of the Earth: Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and the Tragedy of Show Business by Éric Vuillard. Translated by Ann Jefferson is published by Pushkin Press (160pp, £12.99)

Indeh: a Story of the Apache Wars by Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth is published by Grand Central Publishing (240pp, £18.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge