It is clumsy to speak of the American Indian as a cipher for one people, for he was a cacophony of tribes and tongues; and if you imagine him like a Remington silhouette scanning a reddened midwestern prairie in the sunset, you might just as well think of him painting a psychedelic totem in the subarctic.
The diversity of the Indian was united by cords of dignity and hardships. His sufferings that were afflictions of nature elicit modern sympathy, and those that were inflicted by the white man elicit modern guilt. From the highest vaults of apophasis I say that I will not mention the frequent cruelties of tribe to tribe, and of tribes to missionaries, or the screaming superstitions, or the inferior native epistemology, or the very bad recipes. The same might be said, in one degree or another, of every culture that ever was, with the single exception of France under Charles X.
Though not an Indian myself, I used to think that it would be grand to be one, and it was my privilege in fact to attend a school for Indians in New England. We had a school song, one of the finest ever written, about the first student, the Sachem of the Wah-Hoo-Wahs, whose course of studies consisted solely in five hundred gallons of New England rum. I must admit that it pales, as it were, when compared with “Hiawatha’s Wooing”:
From the waterfall he named her,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water.
Minnehaha was all lovely as the woods in the moonlight, and though Longfellow may have overlooked her smallpox, she was truer than the Walt Disney Corporation’s vulgarization of the Anglican Pocahontas as a shill for the Green Party.
Our reverie turns to that excellent man of the Pawtuxet tribe, Squanto, who died two years after the arrival of the theological pests known as the Pilgrim Fathers. For years before these radicalized Separatists arrived in Plymouth Bay, the Portuguese were fishing the rich coastal areas of Maine. It seems quite likely that Squanto was abducted, or enlisted, by them and taken back to Portugal, and then made his way to England. There he joined up with some fishermen who also had an active trawling industry in northern New England waters.
Having lived with them long enough to learn some of their language, he sailed with them to the Maine fisheries, eventually working his way south to his native tribal area. After the “Mayflower” deposited her sober jetsam on Plymouth Rock, the remarkable Squanto happened to be right there, astonishing the passengers by greeting them in a heavy Bristol accent: “Welcome, Englishmen.” Any normal shipload of tourists on a Cunarder would have called this an amusing coincidence, but the Puritans lapsed into Psalms, in the belief that this was the fulfillment of the Book of Daniel. Squanto helped the Pilgrim Fathers survive their first winter, and thus the American Indian and the Portuguese are indirectly responsible for three hundred years of neurosis known as the New England Yankee.
The noble American Indian had the hapless duty of teaching the Puritans how to party. The coastal tribes of the American northeast equated feasting with a creative use of food and drink that would have excited admiratio in the gargantuan emperor Vitellius. The gathering place along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, still known as Manayunk, and the gathering place in New York still known as Manhattan, take their names from “meneiunk” and “manna ha ta” which mean “place where we go to drink.” The New York Chamber of Commerce disputes the almost certain evidence that “manna ha ta” was an intensifier whose more precise meaning is, “place where we go to vomit.”
Another coincidence in the Indian romance centers on the date of September 15, 1830, when the Choctaw Indians ceded their lands east of the Mississippi to the United States, in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. On the same day, in England, history’s first railway fatality occurred. William Huskinson was run over by a steam engine as he reached out to shake the hand of the Duke of Wellington, who was in the process of dedicating a stationary locomotive. In those fell and fatal hours, the age of the engine had arrived, and the buffalo was wandering into the ghost lands.
Cast a cold eye on those centuries and the Indian pageant looks like some anthropological curiosity fit for a few display cases in the Museum of Natural History. But the wise heart senses more. As drums beat in mossy forests, a strange fellowship gazes from the campfires: not Minnehaha who never was, though we love her anyway, but Portuguese sailors, Squanto, flinty Puritans, and the reduced William Huskinson.