The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, August 12, 2011

Beads, Morals, and History

One of the things that both fascinates and frustrates me about how people within the United States view the history of European interactions with Native Americans is how the stories invariably end up being streamlined, simplified, and mythologized either in order to assign blame or to teach a moral lesson or to tell a story of racial superiority (and this goes both ways). The reality of culture contact situations goes out the window to be replaced with a storybook description that replaces the messy realities with a black-and-white tale of right vs. wrong.

If you grew up in the U.S., you have most likely heard that Manhattan Island was bought from the local Native American inhabitants for $24 worth of beads (usually described dismissively as "trinkets") (though the Straight Dope makes a compelling argument that in modern terms, a price between $70 and $80 would be more accurate). The tale of this 1626 purchase is usually told as part of a story about how the Native Americans were taken advantage of by the European settlers. It is, in many ways, the emblematic story of the ways in which crafty European settlers callously took advantage of naive native peoples who weren't sophisticated enough to understand the "wily white man's ways". The story is basically bullshit. Oh, the narrative is true, as far as it goes, a European settler did provide beads and other materials worth a relatively small sum of money in European terms to a group of local people in return for possession of the island. However, the notion that the Native Americans were unsophisticated bumpkins who were easily hoodwinked when a white guy shoved some shiny stuff at them is nonsense - the basic facts of the story may be accurate, but the moral of the story is essentially ignorant and racist nonsense based on the notion that non-Europeans are a bunch of simpletons. While the tellers of this story may be sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans, they nonetheless are also astoundingly condescending.

First, it should be considered that much is made of the apparently small monetary value of what was traded, and the fact that it is usually described, dismissively, as "trinkets." The implication being that the people of Manhattan Island were so foolish that they would take a bunch of gaudy junk to be something of real value, and in so doing allow themselves to be taken advantage of. However, in cultures where money has not yet been developed, it is very common for exotic trade goods to mark the possessor as someone with authority and social cache, and the distribution of these trade goods can bring tremendous influence and wealth to the people who trade them away or hand them out. What might have been the equivalent of a cheap Kmart bracelet to the European economy may have been the equivalent of designer platinum jewelry when placed within the Manhattan economy. The economies of the European settlers (based on money and goods generated as per the structures of that society) was so radically different than the economy of the Native Americans that they encountered (where social prestige and ownership were often formulated in radically different ways) that to compare the two isn't a matter of comparing apples to oranges, but is more akin to comparing apples to monitor lizards.

Just as the European settlers were doing what made sense within their culture, it is likely that the native Manhattanites were doing what made sense within their culture. Whatever the motives, interests, or attitudes of the Europeans, the people of Manhattan were not simpletons, and the story of how Manhattan was sold for a handful of useless shinies leaves out 50% of the story. It's rather like claiming that the 1850s placer miners who moved into California were "travelling great distances just to get a few handfuls of sand*" - well, the sand contained gold which, within the miner's society, was of tremendous value and therefore their actions made sense.

There is another variant on the tale which holds that Peter Minuit, the man who made the transaction, was himself fooled by a group of Canarsie who were trading on the island but did not reside there and therefore did the 17th century equivalent of selling Minuit the Brooklyn Bridge. This variant re-casts the story not as "the mean old white man exploits the natives" but re-creates it as a trickster tale in which the "clever natives exploit the mean but foolish white man." Again, there may be some truth to this story - it was not unheard of for Native American groups to sell land multiple times to multiple Europeans - but even this one takes the basic facts (and potential facts, as it is unclear whether or not the people who sold Manhattan actually had a right to do so under their own system of property) and attempts to turn it into a story that is, quite simply, probably not an accurate reflection of what, precisely, was happening.

This version of the story is charming, but while it might be historically accurate (there is alot of uncertainty about the native people's side of things in most of these colonial histories, especially those from before the 19th century) it tends to be told in a way that recasts the story not as a historic narrative but, again, as a morality tale in which the villain is gotten the better of. The problem is that this reading requires that the complexities of culture contact situations again be jettisoned in favor of a simple and appealing narrative, so that even if the narrative is more-or-less accurate, the reader is likely to misunderstand important aspects of the situation, making evaluation of events surrounding the event difficult if not impossible. It precludes the ability to ask why Minuit dealt with this particular group and not another (basic racism - they all look alike? Disiniterest in local social practices? Misunderstanding of settlement patterns?) and it fails to account for the cultural context in which the native people were participating (were they trying to rip Minuit off? Were they engaging in an acceptable practice that had different meanings for them than for the settlers?).

A version of the story that may be more accurate, or at least seems to make a bit more sense to someone who knows about the economies of hunter-gatherers and non-state farmers, is described here. This variant holds that the Native people of the area didn't recognize land ownership, in that it was a foreign concept to how they structured their economies, and that they thought that what Minuit was doing was giving gifts with the intention of securing the right to share the resources and land on the island with the people who lived there. This is somewhat consistent with the way in which many societies view land - the resources on the land may be controlled or owned but the land itself is something there independent of the people who use or occupy it.

However, even this is an over-simplification. It assumes, first and foremost, that the people of Manhattan Island didn't comprehend that the Europeans did have a concept of land ownership - and they may very well not have understood this, but it's difficult to say based on the nature of the ethnohistoric record. Indeed, if Minuit "did business" with the wrong people as described in the previous version of the story, this implies that the local peoples did understand European land ownership to some extent and may have taken advantage of that. Additionally, while many groups do not have a concept of land ownership, they often do have a concept of territorial control - you may not own the land, but you'll damn well keep people who don't belong there from using the resources on it. This is different from owning the land in some rather significant ways, but for the purposes of making sense of this chapter in history it is similar enough to make the question of whether or not the land was sold rather murky. Again, while it is possible that the people of Manhattan may not have comprehended the European concept of land ownership, to simply assume that they did not because it was not a part of their own tradition is to assume, again, that they are simpletons incapable of understanding the ways of another culture. Tellings of this version of the story rarely, if ever, seem to discuss why the people of Manhattan might not have understood this aspect of European culture, they simply take it as given that these people were somehow incapable of comprehending it. Again, this is astoundingly condescending.

What is clear is that, over the next two centuries, the people who had once lived on Manhattan were driven out, and that a city scape that it is now impossible to even imagine as a wooded island gradually appeared. Injustices committed by European settlers - both against native peoples and against each other - are well documented, and I am not trying to create an European apologetic or a politically motivated history. What I am trying to do is point out that the stories that we learn about the interactions between European settlers and local native peoples are often modified or embellished by a desire to turn the dirty business of culture contact (and often cross-cultural aggression) into a morality tale that doesn't quite match reality, and that our readings of the past are typically informed more by our assumptions than by the facts of what happened.

*I know that some pseudo-intellectual, on reading that, will sniff and say "well, they were just looking for sand, because gold doesn't actually mean anything!" This person is just as guilty of ignoring the cultural context of the miners as someone who dismisses the "trinkets" given to the people of Manhattan island is of ignoring their cultural context. In other words, if you're the person who is saying "well, they were just after sand", stop being so fucking pretentious!


excellency said...

Thank you for these postings. I don't know you, or even remember exactly how I found your blog, but it's one of my favorites and I check for updates pretty much daily. As an engineer I never got to take classes in social stuff, and a lot of your explanations about cultural attitudes is very helpful to me. I've been reading archaeology materials for years as a private interest, but it's all been through the lens of my biases and ignorance, and you have such a wonderfully clear and reasonable way of explaining attitudes that I can see how my acquired internal perspective is not the only filter that can be applied to situations. I'd only ever heard the superficial versions of the Manhattan story, and never felt any need to consider why those were not only not necessarily true, but what they implied about my assumptions. I'm not going to get all weird on you, but I did think you might like to know that you're not writing to a vacuum, and your work is appreciated.

Anthroslug said..., that is quite possibly the best compliment my writing has ever received. Thank you.

Lynn said...

I'd second what excellency said... I've learned a lot reading your blog, and not just about archaeology.