An Exception to Exceptionalism

Iron Eyes Cody: America's Favorite Indian Was Really ItalianThe history and timeline of slavery in the United States tends to be almost exclusively related to the diaspora of African people to the Americas beginning in 1619. The subsequent racist heritage spawned by the advent of Black slaves, in turn, is primarily linked to that seminal event. Slavery and racism, then, have become predominantly a narrative about Blacks. The human cargo from Africa was considered savage chattel, ineligible for salvation by the sanctimonious settlers. The indigenous peoples encountered by the newcomers from Europe were viewed similarly. Why or how did Native Americans escape slavery? The answer is, they did not.

And when an Iroquois tribe attempted to constrain the territorial imperatives of English newcomers, a war (King Philip’s War, 1675) broke out, with the resultant deaths of thousands of Native Americans with thousands more sold off into slavery in the Caribbean. Historians (Colonial enslavement of Native Americans included those who surrendered, too | Brown University) report that between 1492 and 1880, 2 million to 2.5 million Native Americans were forced into or sold into slavery.

Colonial settlers who had journeyed to the New World for religious freedom (so received history portrays) were not guided by religious beliefs or theology when and where their desires for the rich and fertile lands inhabited by Native Americans were concerned (Colonial America Depended on the Enslavement of Indigenous People | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine).

Some historians have begun to dig deeper into the nation’s colonial dynamics, concluding that a reconstruction of the “compelling narrative of the Puritan migration” and its representation of the origins of American exceptionalism is required. An excerpt from Smithsonian offers some perspective: 

Enslaving Native Americans became one of the primary ways to expand the economy for colonists in South Carolina and to a lesser extent in North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana. From 1670 to 1720 more Indians were shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, than Africans were imported as slaves—and Charleston was a major port for bringing in Africans.

In the 1630s, the Connecticut River Valley was home to the powerful Pequots. The settlers at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay wanted their rich, fertile land and in order to get it, they persuaded Mohegan and Narragansett allies to help them fight the Pequots. In 1637, they burned a village on the banks of the Mystic River in southeastern Connecticut, killing 400 to 700 Pequots. That massacre turned the tide of the war and Pequot survivors were pursued, captured and sold as slaves.

Enslaving Native Americans became one of the primary ways to expand the economy for colonists in South Carolina and to a lesser extent in North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana. From 1670 to 1720 more Indians were shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, than Africans were imported as slaves—and Charleston was a major port for bringing in Africans.

We learned in our grade and high school civics curricula that the US Constitution includes clauses referencing the esteem to which the Founding Fathers accorded Native Americans as “sovereign” and were to be accorded diplomacy exclusive to the federal government. Treaties with Native American nations by definition are the “supreme law of the land” and only Congress can regulate commerce with “Indian tribes.” This fundamental relationship represented a purely pragmatic policy and a measure of national security as scholars note that Native Americans were very powerful and considered a serious threat to the new United States (American Indians & The United States Constitution by Robert J. Miller (flashpointmag.com). After all, Native Americans were in de facto and de jure possession of lands hungrily eyed for expansion.

While the nation’s first president publicly pronounced a policy of fair and equal dealing between the infant government and native tribes, he also pursued military actions to oust them from their lands and promoted a program of “civilizing” the indigenous peoples. These duplicitous strategies enabled the United States simultaneously to avoid creating multiple military battle fronts while preserving the Constitutional prerogative of negotiating the acquisition of land from Native Americans. Here again, an iconic emblem of American exceptionalism stands on clay feet.

Sadly and perhaps ironically, the exceptionalism so earnestly portrayed by some betrays, at the same time, words in the Declaration of Independence announcing “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men ae created equal.”

Sadly and perhaps ironically, the exceptionalism so earnestly portrayed by some betrays, at the same time, words in the Declaration of Independence announcing “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men ae created equal.” Our friends across the pond might declare such crass hypocrisy as gob smacking.  

Zealous advocates of an idyllic American exceptionalism tend to adopt a myopic view of the early history of the United States that, in contemporary times, continues to sustain marginalization of Native Americans and Blacks. There is a price to be paid for this deflection and disingenuousness. On the other hand, there is virtually no cost to adopting a clear-eyed view of historic truth as recognition of imperfection.

 

 

 

 



Categories: CIVIL RIGHTS, congress, Issues, National, native americans, politics, racial symbols

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