The idea of the native peoples of the Americas has been charged and complicated since the moment of first European contact with what the Europeans called, and we still call, the New World. The strength of the fantasy that we projected on this continent was such that it made the people here feel almost invisible, and made them very hard for us to see — and still does. In a real way you can say that modern American life and literature still depends very heavily upon that fantasy, upon encounters with the unknown, encounters with strangers, encounters exactly like those which characterized the birth of the United States many thousands of years after this land was populated by Americans.
Lately I’ve been reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe with my children. You know the story, which is based on an account written by a real man named Alexander Selkirk who was stranded on an island off Argentina. At one point in the novel, Crusoe is walking on the beach and he sees a human footprint in the sand. This is an incredible moment for him. He’s terrified, and his first reaction is to hide; he doesn’t want to risk running into the strangers who have come to his island. It never occurs to him that he is the stranger and someone else, a native, is terrified of him. The novel is told completely from the point of view of the European, which is one of the reasons it was so popular in Europe when it first appeared. But that’s not at all the way the real encounter took place in history; the real danger was Crusoe, the European, whose footprints would be followed by incredible death and destruction of the native people.
There were perhaps sixty million people living in North and South America at the time of the first European contact. Four hundred years later, as the 20th century opened, censuses counted a quarter of a million living descendants of those sixty million. There had been a gigantic, terrifying, die-off of Native Americans. And at that time people thought that those 250,000 men and women and children were the last remnant, and soon they would be gone; Edward Curtis’s famous pictures of the Last Native Americans were conscious efforts to record people who weren’t going to be here anymore. He wanted to get photographs of them before they became extinct. He wasn’t alone in expecting their extinction; I found an editorial in an 1877 issue of The New York Times, on the subject of Indian reservations, that actually said, in effect, that the Indians are going to die out, so let’s at least let them die out on the land they love.
A cold and scary thought, and I am happy to report the die-off didn’t happen. In the 1990 census there were more than two million Americans who identified themselves as Native Americans, which, in census-speak, makes them one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the country.
But there is no dispute that the arrival of Europeans on this continent was a disaster to the people who were here, and again I blame fantasy, even before smallpox, which killed most of them, and violence, which killed most of the rest. In some cases the fantasy was hopeful — here are people who are wholly free, the noble savage, depicted like Roman emperors, in their togas of furs and skins, striking the poses of classical statuary. In other cases the fantasy was that “Indians” — even the common name is a fantasy — were inhuman, unChristian, deserving of no more consideration than you would give an animal. The Christian minister Cotton Mather, whose name is still written with respect in our history books, was of the opinion that the native Americans should be wiped out as you would rid your garden of weeds.
The fantasy remains, for all we think we are sophisticated and sensitive these days. The mascots and logos of sports teams featuring the angry faces and dancing bodies of American Indians, for example — pretty derogatory and insulting. The Washington Redskins? Chief Wahoo, the mascot of my beloved boyhood Cleveland Indians? Yet those teams, and so many others, do not change their names, because the Native American demographic, at two million people, is simply too small to protest effectively. It’s that simple.
In 1874 the Lakota chief Red Cloud gave a speech in New York City, at Cooper Union, and people there went crazy — they lined Fifth Avenue just to watch him walk by. His speech was reprinted in newspapers and made him a star. It made people fall all over themselves trying to help the Sioux. As a result of his enormously successful speech, the federal government made very generous concessions to the Sioux in a treaty that was signed shortly after that time. The treaty stated that the Lakota owned huge parts of the American Northwest, including the Black Hills of South Dakota, a holy place for the Sioux. And about twenty minutes after the treaty was signed, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the treaty was promptly broken. The government found itself in a tough spot; it is very hard to stop a gold rush, hundreds of thousands of people rushed into the Black Hills, and for a while the government stationed soldiers around the hills to keep prospectors out, but that didn’t last long. By 1875, not long after Red Cloud’s speech, the hills were filled with white prospectors illegally taking gold worth millions of dollars from Sioux land. The government, to its small credit, tried to buy the hills back (not for a generous sum, either), but the Sioux declined.
Violence and argument ensued. The government decided that the solution was to require all Sioux and Cheyenne peoples to move onto reservations by January 1, 1876. The Sioux were already split among themselves about reservation life versus free life; those who came in to the reservation got food, heat, cash, and coffee (and one thing I learned about the Lakota then and now is that they do like coffee). Those who stayed out on the prairie sneered at the reservation Sioux as prisoners, sell-outs, chickens.
The government sent United States Army troops to bring the off-reservation people in. There were three military expeditions. One was led by the storied General George Custer, who found a huge group of Sioux (some 5,000 or so) at one encampment, a tremendous gathering for this nomadic people. General Custer, perhaps dreaming of a huge victory that would propel him to the Presidency he craved — remember that this is 1876, the nation’s centennial, and a resounding military victory, then as now, is great political fodder — attacked with his 276 soldiers. The Sioux killed him and all the men with him.