In which we sense the presence of an absence
Yes, Ethan. But it's more like the Mars of the 1600s. And one particular, and fairly remote northern corner of Mars. And today we're going to spend a little time with some actual Martians.
—Martians. How nice. Are they little green men?
Well, no, Emily. They're red men. And women. And they're relatively tall.
—Oh I get it. We're talking about the Indians.
—And a gold star for Kylie.
—Make that a red star.
Yesterday we surveyed the ambitious, the desperate, the committed, and the coerced people who journeyed to the Americas. But there is one other set of people we need to consider here, and that is those who already were here. They too were a varied lot, who had been loving, killing, and otherwise dealing with each other for many centuries. The arrival of the Euros was something new under the sun, and, indeed, some of the natives resorted to astrological mythology to explain it.
Generally speaking, the arrival of these outsiders was a catastrophe whose scope defies human imagination. A big part of the reason were the microbes that Europeans brought with them: susceptible to diseases they had never been exposed to before, the natives died in numbers that are so shockingly large that they’re impossible to comprehend. The Tainos who greeted Columbus, and who jousted with their rivals, the Caribs, in a cluster of islands around Cuba, were virtually wiped out within a generation. One wonders if a nuclear war would—will?—be as deadly as the holocaust that was visited upon the native inhabitants once the Spanish arrived.
But this story is not one of pure destruction. For one thing, mortality rates from the epidemics brought by Europeans were not uniform. Those living in the mountains of Central America enjoyed relative insulation, as did many peoples of the North American interior. The natives had their own array of ambitious, desperate, committed and coerced people, and the introduction of a new element in the politics of their world meant there were new alliances to be made, old enemies to be vanquished, and goods (if guns and whiskey can be described in such terms) to be traded. In North America, powerful organizations like the Iroquois Confederacy, centered in what is now upstate New York, formed in response to European settlement and held their own, playing French and British colonists against each other while maintaining longtime feuds with Huron peoples to the west. If there were fatalists among them, there were also rising leaders who saw, and exploited, opportunities arising from a European presence. Yes, in the long run, they were defeated, displaced, and (partially) absorbed. But it was a long run, and for those peoples in the beyond the seaboard or closer to the Pacific one—Shawnees, Shasta, Sioux and Shoshone—it was even longer.
Back in the days of early American History, by which I mean the days in which histories of America began to be written down in books, Native American peoples were often portrayed as treacherous and warlike, whether because the threat they represented was raw and immediate—it’s hard to be fair-minded about people who scare the hell out of you—or because it felt necessary to justify their conquest. Other times, they were portrayed as tragic, noble doomed savages (they could afford to be seen that way because their doom was regarded as inevitable).
I sometimes see a Native American warrior—let's call him an Chickasaw, in what is now the Carolinas, around 1700, feeling literally or figuratively besieged but able to plausibly picture the prospect of better days. That man’s wife or mother, with little patience for men’s games, frets that in his daydreaming he’s neglecting the family that needs him.
No, no. Let's make it this: The warrior's mother is impatient that he assert himself, to move beyond picturing things and actually doing things. Like his late brother. And her own father.
—I don’t understand.
—No, I mean I don’t get it.
—No, I mean I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who those people were.
That’s correct, Jonah. You don’t.
—He’s imagining them, Jonah. He’s trying to tell you what it was like.
Correct, Sadie. But of course I don’t know any better than Jonah does. I’m just guessing.
—What’s the point of that?
A fair question. There are things I can tell you with a fair amount of confidence. Facts, dates. They’re points on a map of time. But that map won’t mean anything if you don’t have an idea of who lives in those temporal villages. You don’t know any of them. But I’m hoping you’ll see these people as people—people who were different than us, and also the same. Your ability to do that is a muscle I’m hoping to strengthen.
Of course all those hopes and plans of our Native American warrior, circa 1700, are a moot point now—maybe he perished in battle, or got sick and died before he got the chance, or maybe won some glory for himself and made a nice life that lasted for decades—but in that moment he’s still alive and his life is unresolved, just as there are any number of things in your life are unresolved in this moment. When we’re lucky we live as if the things we do matter. When even our defeats can distract us from our irrelevance.
Anyway, this imaginary Ottawa, or Mohawk, or Catawba—
—I don’t know those names. Were they in the reading?
No, Yin. Again, I mean for you not to know them. These identities, once so distinct, are now incomprehensible. Someday words like “African American,” or “Latino,” or “American” are likely to be the same, even as surviving strands of DNA from those people, literal and figurative, courses through the blood of future beings.
—That’s so sad.
—That’s so creepy.
—That’s kinda cool.
Yes. I agree. But here in 1700, where we’ve time-traveled, these identities that Yin doesn’t know did mean something. In this moment, that Ottawa or Catawba warrior lives against a backdrop of vast global struggle that spans oceans and continents that has intruded into the smallest detail of everyday life. By now England, France and their various allies have been whacking away at each other in America in seemingly endless warfare. Despite the fact that it takes weeks, even months, for information to travel back and forth from Europe to America, his majesty’s ministers are making plans and issuing orders that sucks our Native friend into an imperial vortex. A paper is signed in London or Paris and months later an Indian raid gets launched (they were paid to make it, you see; they needed the money) that results in raping, scalping, and pillaging. It also results in prisoners who get adopted by their captors who get converted to new ways of life and new places to call home.
Home. In the end, that’s what all this comes down to for most of these people: the longing for a place to call their own. The words place and own are relative and figurative. Native Americans, who did not conceptualize land ownership the way Euros did, nevertheless had territory they considered theirs collectively—Acadia as Micmac or Abenaki land, for example. But it was hard, and eventually impossible to maintain.
Home was even harder for the African immigrants. After their first few decades on North American shores, slaves lost the possibility some initially had to own property the way white men (and a few white women) did. Yet it requires no great leap of imagination to believe that some African immigrants formed attachments to landscapes, buildings and people, precisely because they knew all too well how fragile and temporary they could be.
Even those with relative freedom could find home to be a complicated, even elusive, concept. Young men and women might long to escape the shadows and oppressions of parents who laid claim to their lives and labor. Or they might simply feel an inchoate restlessness, an impulse to wander that could not be suppressed. (Maybe this comes close to what the essence of what youth actually is: a desire to test and redraw boundaries.) To this day, Americans are known for their relatively high degree of geographic mobility, though that has eroded in recent years.
And then there were those who did feel at home but who knew that those homes rested on shaky foundations. That was Anne Bradstreet’s problem.
Someone I want you to meet tomorrow. We’re going to spend a few days at the home of a friend of mine. I think you’ll like her.