Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930

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9780374299750: Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930
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Winner of the 2005 Francis Parkman Prize A century ago, U.S. policy aimed to sever the tribal allegiances of Native Americans, limit their ancient liberties, and coercively prepare them for citizenship. At the same time millions of arriving immigrants sought their freedom by means of that same citizenship. In this subtle, eye-opening new work, Alan Trachtenberg argues that the two developments were, inevitably, juxtaposed: Indians and immigrants together preoccupied the public imagination, and together changed the idea of what it meant to be American.

To begin with, programs of "Americanization" were organized for both groups, yet Indians were at the same time celebrated as noble "First Americans" and role models. Trachtenberg traces the peculiar effect of this implicit contradiction, with Indians themselves staging "The Song of Hiawatha" (which was also translated into Yiddish); Edward Curtis's poignant photographs memorializing vanishing heroism; and the Wanamaker department store making a fortune from commercialized versions of their once reviled cultures. By 1925 the national narrative had been rewritten, and citizenship was granted to Indians as a birthright, while the National Origins Act began to close the door on immigrants.

In Shades of Hiawatha, Trachtenberg eloquently suggests that we must re-create America's tribal creation story in new ways if we are to reaffirm its beckoning promise of universal liberty.

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About the Author:

Alan Trachtenberg is Neil Gray, Jr. Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Yale University, where he taught for thirty-five years. His books include Reading American Photographs (H&W, 1989) and The Incorporation of America (H&W, 1982). He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

From The Washington Post:

The only constant thing about the image of the American Indian is that it's always changing. In Shades of Hiawatha, a book of elegance, depth, breadth, nuance and subtlety, Alan Trachtenberg has focused in fresh and revealing ways on this protean social and cultural history. A professor emeritus of English and American studies at Yale, he also addresses the often similar histories of Indians and immigrants, as both sought in the late 19th century to elude the categorization of "alien" and "other" and to be seen as part of the American national identity. Useful as this is, however, the thrust of the book is what it brings to deciphering the images of American Indians throughout the crucial half-century from the post-Civil War lows of the 1880s to the coming of the New Deal.

As a moral matter, American Indians presented a standing rebuke from independence on; as a constitutional matter, these first peoples of the United States were always more than an ethnic or racial minority. Indeed, Chief Justice John Marshall, in a legendary political confrontation with President Andrew Jackson, declared that the Cherokee nation, not the state of Georgia, had inherent sovereignty and jurisdiction over tribal territory. At least in theory, what emerged from the early years of the republic was a perception -- held by politicians, elites and ordinary citizens alike -- that Indian communities were genuinely organized societies in their own right, occupied by honorable (if often romanticized) peoples. Hence the widely held view of American Indians as "noble savages."

As Manifest Destiny rolled west in the mid-19th century, however, this romantic view wilted quickly. After two decades of military conflict on the Great Plains beginning in the 1860s, American Indians -- at least in the popular, non-native mind -- had become far less "noble" and much more "savage." Further complicating matters in a wider society in which Christianity had long been a touchstone, American Indians were also completely "heathen."

The subsequent period, from the 1880s until the advent of President Franklin Roosevelt's reforms, marked the nadir of social and cultural life for America's first peoples -- in terms of both malleable popular image and hard reality. A complete demographic collapse occurred during the five centuries following European contact, gutting the American Indian population in the United States from an estimated 6 to 9 million people in the 15th century to just 250,000 in the federal census of 1900. Confined to reservations that encompassed a mere fraction of their former landholdings, American Indians lived, virtually without exception, in poverty and under cultural siege -- miseries typified for many non-Indians by the image of James Earle Fraser's sculpture "The End of the Trail," with its slumping and defeated warrior on horseback.

During this era of American history, which also witnessed the Industrial Revolution in the United States and a vast influx of new immigrants, the "Indian question" remained at center stage. "Assimilation" became the political and cultural imperative of federal Indian policy. A sort of forced resurrection -- as Capt. William Henry Pratt, the director of the Carlisle Industrial (Indian) School in Pennsylvania, put it in the 1880s -- would "kill the Indian and save the man." After years of scandal, President Ulysses S. Grant removed the U.S. military from the business of Indian administration, but imposed in its place Christian denominational control of the Indian agencies, which often brought its own brand of cultural oppression. At boarding schools, Indian students were dressed in military uniforms, had their hair cut in defiance of deeply rooted traditions, and were prohibited from speaking their native languages. Meanwhile, back in their reservation homelands, the federal government banned many traditional ceremonies and rituals.

Trachtenberg both limns this painful past and offers trenchant insights into it. The platform for his recounting is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1857 epic, The Song of Hiawatha. In this rapturously received book, which sold about as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin, the popular poet produced his own version of "a mythical Ojibway culture-hero" -- now transformed into a less-threatening Indian icon than, say, Crazy Horse, the ferocious Lakota warrior who would destroy Gen. Custer's cavalry in 1876. As Trachtenberg notes about the ongoing popularity of Longfellow's version, "The turn toward Hiawatha as an alternative to Crazy Horse was surely a function of the apparent defeat of the ultimate 'savage' " -- in other words, the substitution of a "good" Indian for a "bad" one.

The implications of this positive if troubled image were many, and the reasons for popular adherence to it were equally diverse; with precision and clarity, Trachtenberg charts them all. The new view of American Indians was part of America's sometimes confused efforts to define its own national identity. This "ennobling of the savage" also may have been part of an attempt to expiate some collective American guilt over what had been done to the country's Indians. Trachtenberg describes in detail the almost comical efforts (albeit well-intentioned) of the Wanamakers, the famous merchandising family of Philadelphia, to build an Indian memorial of truly heroic proportions on Staten Island -- at the very moment that Indian cultures were under the most sustained assault of their long history.

The most poignant -- and telling -- passages of Shades of Hiawatha occur near the conclusion of the book, when Trachtenberg turns from third parties' images of the American Indian to a memorable treatment of the writings of the Lakota chief Luther Standing Bear throughout this period of cultural peril. Trachtenberg's almost poetic description of the course and meaning of Standing Bear's life, told primarily in the latter's own words, explains much about American Indian images -- showing both where such images depart from harsh underlying realities and, perhaps more important, how Standing Bear and others in his generation, in gallant opposition, finally succeeded in achieving, to use author Gerald Vizenor's phrase, a "triumphant survivance," moving from their dismal present into a more promising Indian future.

Reviewed by W. Richard West Jr.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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