Politics and Commentary
Letter from America - 10
This week, the people of Illinois have been enjoying an “Indian summer” – a golden stretch of time when the chilly descent from autumn into winter is put on hold. In Chicago, the warm weather has tourism entrepreneurs rubbing their hands at the prospect of full boats on architecture-admiring river cruises. In the countryside, visitors to Fall festivals are indulging in the heady excesses of pumpkin displays, hay bales and corn harvesting demonstrations.
Amidst all the fun, few people give much thought to what “Indian summer” may actually mean. Those who do tend to disagree over the origins of the phrase. Some say it simply refers to the time of year during which Native Americans harvested their crops and made the most of pre-hibernation hunting opportunities. It’s equally likely, however, that the term equates “Indians” with deception – as in “Indian giver”, someone who takes back a gift – and is thus a warning against being fooled by a false summer.
The implication is obvious: Indians aren’t to be trusted. They make promises of peace or agreements over land and then go back on their word. That, at least, was what English and French colonisers claimed and what citizens of the young American republic believed. To anyone with the vaguest post-colonial sensitivities, this characterisation is bitterly ironic; it was the white man who broke treaty after treaty with “the red man” and who, ultimately, was culpable in one of the worst genocides in world history.
Up to 30 million Native Americans were killed in the centuries following the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Shunted into ever-smaller “reserves” (Hendrik Verwoerd would have called them “tribal homelands”), they were easily forgotten during America’s nineteenth-century industrialisation and twentieth-century economic expansion. Their presence endured largely in evocative place names and folksy social histories.
Yet, it could be argued, in the national subconscious there has always been a gnawing sense that something is missing at the heart of the United States: a shared origin in mutual aboriginal forebears, predating the Founding Fathers. America’s “First Peoples”, some have suggested, might serve that useful purpose – if their presence, or at least their memory, could be recuperated.
But the fact is that Indian-ness is typically invoked in superficial and, frankly, commercial ways. In North Carolina, for instance, the town of Cherokee promotes its Native American connection through tourist kitsch (and, incidentally, makes most of its money through a nearby casino resort). This is a model replicated in various parts of the country, a sad detraction from earnest efforts to preserve Native American traditions in “cultural villages”.
More commonly, associations of Indians with bravery – or savagery – in warfare create useful symbols for sports teams: braves, tomahawks, chiefs, arrows, warriors, redskins and blackhawks abound. (There are interesting parallels here with the names given to US military operations and equipment.)
Take the sports teams of the University of Illinois, for example. This academically impressive institution is best known in the semi-professional world of college sport for “the Fighting Illini”. The Illini were the tribe that gave the state of Illinois its name; like the Chikasaw, Sioux, Dakota and other peoples in neighbouring territories, they were moved to reserves in Oklahoma soon after the Civil War. For generations of students, however, the word Illini has conjured not an acknowledgement of forced displacement but fond memories of sporting success.
Until a few years ago, “Chief Illiniwek” was the official mascot of the university’s football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams. He would appear in moccasins, skins and feathers, and dance for the crowd at half-time. Despite the administration’s attempts to ban what many consider an offensive and frankly racist caricature, the Chief remains stubbornly entrenched in the collective imagination of alumni and current students.
This controversy represents a wider debate in “the Land of Lincoln” – that is, in the state of Illinois (where Lincoln lived for much of his life, as memorialised on every vehicle licence plate in the state) as well as in the country whose union Honest Abe managed to save. Historians have not reached consensus on whether Lincoln was complicit in, or effectively opposed, the oppression of Native Americans. But contemporary attitudes suggest that most “non-native Americans” are indifferent either way.