Often, I address white American attitudes towards native peoples. How historians have ignored whole sections of our history, racism and genocide against native peoples, the lack of education about all of this history. But, recently I was reminded about how many Native people are themselves victims of having the same opinions of their own tribes, of the past, as the white populations around us. Many Native peoples have been separated from their history. They have learned through the same education systems about our ancestors, and they have become immersed in the stereotypes of native peoples that many people have in our society. In many ways, the assimilation experiment of the United States, worked. Some native people today see their ancestral peoples of the past as savages, warlike, drunken, lazy, and just the same as do many other people in on our society.
In some ways, the continuation of the reservation system helps to support the stereotypes. There are many poor and depressed Native people on reservations who seem to be living off whatever services and money they can get from their tribe. Many native peoples still do not graduate high school or go on to college. Native people have the lowest live expectancy of any minority. Many become what appears to be lazy, drug depressed peoples, alcoholics that will never amount to anything. This is the outward appearance. And these appearances tend to confirm many of the stereotypes. I think the problem is in the reservation system itself, creating a literal prison for native people, and the other behaviors are coping behaviors for the system. There remains a layer of colonialism in tribal societies, people removed from their tribal identity, from who their people truly were.
Instead, many native people are immersed in a system of believing that their peoples of the past were completely savage and warlike, and if it wasn’t for Americans we would not be civilized today.
In my studies, I have found this not at all to be the case. Most tribes were not warlike. Tribes would make war rarely in most areas, and mainly had economic relationships of kinship and trade with one another. Concepts of ownership and rights were very different. Families could own property but the idea was more fluid. Ideas of respect and respect for the previous inhabitants were paramount. If respectful relations did not occur then there could be trouble. Tribes in Oregon had few wars with one another, especially their neighbors, who they were likely related to by marriage. Normally if raiding was to occur, it was will a tribe further away. In the Willamette Valley the Klamaths and Tillamooks would raid the Kalapuyans to take slaves. In the plateau, the Paiutes would raid tribes on their periphery into the 19th century.
Theft is an interesting concept. I have read numerous accounts of theft by tribes of the stuff that the Americans or British brought. Theft was looked on as acceptable if you could get away with it. People, tribes, had to be on their guard to make sure their stuff was not stolen. On most accounts of theft we read this is targeting the Americans or British. Although occasionally it would occur between tribes. In 1812 the Tualatin stole from the Clatsops. In the 1850’s, the Paiutes raided the Wascos numerous times. Ownership of stuff was very fluid. In British and American philosophies, theft is a crime punishable by death. First ownership is ultimate ownership of stuff. But the tribes did not believe this way. They had a different philosophy regarding theft and ownership. Theft of things could bring prestige and wealth.
The glory going to those who got away with it. Sort of reminds me of the idea of “Counting coup,” as really not a violent game, but instead a way to gain glory without a lot of death. In counting coup, warriors would get close enough to touch the enemy, or bap them on the head, gaining them some prestige. In some tribes it included death or taking of a scalp. They proved themselves athletic brave and smart enough to trick the opposition. Trickery generally was seen as a measure of a person’s prestige. We see this also in game of chance and gambling. Stick game can be won by trickery, and a good gambling song. Then trickery is used in hunting and fishing. Fish weirs, night light fishing, deer head decoys, elk pit falls, and snares. Like people are trying to become Coyote, the true measure of prestige.
But in the 19th century some of the theft from Americans was done through a need for retribution. The Americans failed to pay for their lands, failed to follow diplomatic procedures when meeting another people. So the tribes stole whatever they could from these wealthy powerful white people. The tribes then gained back some of their pride, and the tools to equalize their relationship.
The tribes were always ready for war, but, large scale war with other tribes was rare. There are some stories, the great war between the Paiutes (or was it Klamath?) and Clackamas which wiped out most or the Clackamas, it happened before the Americans came. But most warfare in Oregon involved tribes lining up their forces and then negotiating a withdrawal. This happened in 1812, when the Cowlitz wanted a part of the Columbia, Chief Kiesno held them off with a superior force of allies. In the upper Northwest Coast, raiding and warfare was likely much more common. There, many of the towns were essentially walled fortresses, to stop invaders. We did not have walled fortresses in Oregon. And there are numerous accounts of tribes from the north coming into Puget sound in large canoes to raid and take slaves. There are no accounts of raiding like this in Oregon. There are a a few accounts of Klamaths taking slaves from the Kalapuyans, who would fight back.
No, most of the violence was focused on the Americans. The British had a few problems, some ships were raided, they had trade goods stolen. The Americans beyond all others sought to simply take all the land and ignore or eliminate the tribes. They treated the tribes in racist ways, ignored their previous habitation despite American laws, and invaded in such numbers that there was little room for the tribes. Tribal food sources were destroyed, villages were attacked, and so the tribes were under threat of extinction. It was genocide. The tribes simply wanted what they had always had, and respect for their presence. but the Americans left them nothing, then turned around and blamed the war on the tribes, on their warlike attitudes.
After this, they placed the tribes on reservations where many more died. The reservation system was not meant to sustain thousands of people, in a healthy environment, but to force an American concept of Indians upon them, to make them assimilate and force them to comply with American policies of oppression and repression. When assimilation did not immediately work, the US simply tried to define us out of existence, making it a policy that only people of 1/2 Indian blood quantum were true Indians who could get benefits. Then in the 1950’s the Federal government just declared our treaties terminated, dispossessing all western Oregon tribes with one Congressional bill. Many people became fully assimilated in the next 29 years before the tribes were restored. Many of these same policies continue today and the effects of this institutionalization, and histories of loss are very apparent in many native people.
It is almost like we are taught to hate ourselves.
How do we educate Native people, and really all people, and convince them that much of what they believe about the tribes, is a lie.
Categories: Native Issues
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.