Coping with the erasure of Native Americans in early American cities
Walk through any New England town and you’ll immediately see the historical references on the landscape. The “last” Indian who lived in this space; the “first” settler (invariably an Englishman) who lived nearby. The “last” Indian wigwam or longhouse or village; the ‘first’ (column) house or town or trading post. You will see the ‘first’ church and the ‘first’ road. And, of course, there are the “last ones”. The “last” Indian who lived in the city; the “last” Indian village or weir or fishing dump. The city I am sitting in as I write this, Concord, Massachusetts, and surrounding towns have all done this with multiple monuments to early and late replacement settlers. As historian Jean O’Brien (Ojibwe) has argued, “first” and “enduring” is an American national tradition – a form of colonial erasure of the people(s) who previously occupied, lived and created cultures and institutions on earth. . In some cases, you will see “Indianized” aspects to this erasure. Occasionally you see artifacts of previous occupation: Indian names that mark certain features of the landscape; or, the Indian names which mark the townships. But this only serves to more fully reinforce settler colonial erasure – these are simply leftovers from long ago and, we must understand, an ancient past that is no longer relevant.
In many large cities (particularly in the Northeast but also elsewhere), the erasure of Indian presence or even existence is often more complete. The Indians were not part of the urban space, this history and this denomination tell us. The Indians lived in “wild” places or rural places or small places; they lived in the places between the built landscapes that the colonists created by establishing civilization in the New World like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Albany or Montreal. But, as Colin Calloway has long pointed out, this has always been just an agreed colonial lie. It was never a colonial reality. In his new book, “The Chiefs Now in This Town”: Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America, Calloway directly attacks this lie and provides a wealth of details, stories and recollections of the Native American peoples who passed through, sojourned, visited and populated the cities of Colonial America and early National America. Its central purpose, he asserts in his introduction, is to provide a “means [for] explore plural understandings of the past” (14). As Calloway points out: “Many historians have looked to the writings of colonial travelers for a deeper understanding of Native American society and culture, but few have turned to Native American travelers for an alternative understanding of Native American society and culture. primitive american culture. A wealth of literature examines the imperial gaze, but indigenous eyes are as important as imperial eyes in understanding contact. (14)
Calloway organizes the book thematically to examine the Indian relationship to colonial towns. In some ways, each chapter can stand on its own to examine some aspect of the Indigenous relationship to planning (something very useful for using the text in the classroom). He notes at the outset, for example, that cities have never been spaces unknown to indigenous peoples. They had already lived and created large townships and cities long before the European invasion in places as varied as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) town of Hochelaga, near present-day Montreal (which had at least 3000 inhabitants); or in the town of Etzanoa in Wichita (Quivira), near the junction of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers in present-day Kansas (which had a population of up to 20,000). These towns were places centrally organized around kinship and community – they were important for what they meant to a people rather than simply as great places of commerce. But the main part of Calloway’s analysis concerns the port cities along the Atlantic coast built by colonial societies. They were, he said, “late additions to the urban landscape of North America, and many of them were established where Indian communities had once existed, sometimes on their very ruins.” (25). Each chapter is organized thematically around topics such as what was seen upon arrival in town, interactions with other Indian peoples in colonial towns, the risks of visiting colonial towns (especially due to disease and violence but also the consumption of alcohol), or the shows they witnessed or experienced during their visit.
The most interesting subject for investigating the imperial gaze is Calloway’s discussions of American Indian views of imperial society. Officials believed that bringing Indian peoples to colonial towns would impress native visitors and amaze them to see the marvelous achievements of advanced civilization. Native American visitors often pointed to the extensive trade that seemed to be the main purpose of urban spaces – noting with amazement the number of ships, goods and stores that populated the towns along the Atlantic coast. Since Indian cities were primarily spaces for community building and cultural creation, the focus on economic practices captured much of their attention. Commerce was not the centerpiece of native community life. The emphasis on trade and the hope to inspire fear were, in essence, bold attempts to establish settler superiority. But for most Indian peoples, it was a wasted effort. Although Native Americans often enjoyed their stay in 17th and 18th century colonial cities in North America, they also saw urban filth, poverty, and frequent injustices that shocked them. Indeed, it helped establish an in-depth Native American critique of the functioning of colonial society and the purposes that organized the functions of colonial communities. More often than not, Indian viewers and visitors pointed out the hypocrisy of colonial claims to superiority. For example, the Seneca leader Red Jacket – who frequently spent diplomatic time in the colonial urban spaces of New York – told a Quaker missionary that “white people, who have a good book called the Bible among them, which tells them the spirit of the Great Spirit…are so evil, and do so many evil things…” (154).
The only problem with Calloway’s work is that we just want to know more. This work focuses on the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the national period. In the long term, Calloway provided a guide to how Native American peoples thought and how they related to urban space in the 19th century and beyond. A search for books on urban America and Native American life reveals only a few large books, but they are certainly on the increase; after all, the vast majority – over 70% – of American Indians today live in cities. Much of this recent historical work focuses on periods of assimilation and termination – particularly after the federal urban relocation program instituted under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Novels and memoirs also captured this experience from the mid-20th century to the beginning of the 21st century. We should see this as a reclaiming of Indigenous spaces – a return of Indian lives, voices, and experiences to the center of thinking about urban America. For example, in Cheyenne-Arapaho writer’s award-winning film Tommy Orange, There, there: a novel, it centers the experience of late 20th and 21st century Native Americans as “present, modern, relevant people” in the cities of the American West (the book focuses on Oakland).
Calloway has done a major service to scholars and teachers of Native America – and even more to US history in general – to expand our view of how Native American peoples interacted with American urbanism and shaped it since the colonial invasion. . Hopefully, Indigenous urbanity is better understood as part of the American past, the American present, and the American future.