Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gather the Bones, 5: What the Heck I'm Talking About, via Martin Byers

The thesis here is that the North American polities are much more like the mestizo societies of Latin America than is admitted in their public discourse. I wanted to be indirect here and develop the "context of discovery," because the idea of "miscegenation" has clearly not lost all of its charge. This is for grownups, and so you hint about these things. I've already hinted when I compared the Hill of Croghan to the Hill of Cumorah. But you know what, there's a limit to how many esoteric readings I can pack into my blog postings.

The central building is the first state capitol of Ohio, built about 1803 and now home to the Chilicothe Gazette. You can either call it "primitive," or note, as the Wikipedia article on Chilicothe starts out by noting, that the town is the centre of the old Hopewell Horizon of earth moundbuilding

Two problems with being straightforward: first, I am having trouble reconstructing the path that I took from worrying about logistics and the history of disease to blathering about how Natty Bumppo is actually George Croghan. That'd be what happens when you try to think while pulling three straight years of night manager shifts. That's a pretty trivial one when you get right down to it, but it does get in the way of developing a context of discovery into one of justification.

Second, I'm going to delay that discussion until I'm finished Lauren Groff's Monsters of Templeton , and that may take a while, since I have no plans on putting down Marc van de Mierop's Mediterranean in the Age of Ramesses II. Not only is it fascinating, but it is the second copy I've bought, the first having slipped out of my coat pocket on Skytrain. That reminds me of how tired I was already on my way to a recent party and that fatigue is an excellent excuse for my  failure to seize an opportunity there. I'm damn well going to read it before I wind my way through Groff's serpentine plot.

But what I can talk about is --flourish of trumpets-- theoretical apparatus! I don't want to put something called "culture" into a black box and use it to churn out "hegemony" and "ideology." I want to be specific and concrete. I want to reach down to the living presence of the (eastern Woodlands) North American past, to the mounds that tower by the riverside, sacred and ineffable places that speak to present as well as past.  

We've gone through centuries of fascination with these mounds. Archaeology, in its earlier, stumbling steps at getting into the minds of the past, dug bones and artefacts out of them in plenty and described them as "burial mounds," "mortuary temples," "civic ritual centres," and "charnel houses" while trying to account for these Moundbuilders. More recently, archaeology has come round to the radical notion that the "Moundbuilders" might have been "Indians." Thus this move.

Modern archaeological theory says that we  can say a great deal about how ancient monuments work. And one of the most basic tricks that we do with them is to appropriate them.  Landscape is always politicised, because knowledge and power are inextricably linked in discourse, and there is no knowledge more familiar than that of the landscape we inhabit. So when we build, we are putting a roof over our head, but also reifying social orders, authorising knowledge transmission, and, however, unstably, storing a socially-constructed credit that will make long distance trade possible.

And, again, when we appropriate the built landscape, we're making a political move. So what about this?
The hill of Cumorah, where the Angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, courtesy of

Let's all laugh at poor, backwards treasure digger Joseph Smith, seal of the prophets and historian of early North America. Some appropriations are just not on.

And why is that again? Because I don't think Smith was wrong at all. He was just writing, y'know, esoterically.

Look: cards on the table here. Joseph Smith, like the Ohio state delegates who gathered at Chilicothe in 1803, and for that matter George Washington and James Fenimore Cooper, never mind Andrew Jackson, was, as we say in polite society up here in the Canadas, "Méti." At this point, more than a thousand years after Erik the Red brought his 2000 odd followers ashore northwest of Cape Farewell, we all are to some extent. That's how the human "propensity to marry" works. The only question (if we're not going to get into blood fractions) is what makes you authentically Indian or authentically White. And it's a vexed question, a very vexed one. (Even more vexed when you consider social justice issues.) One that at one time not too long ago in the West had to be enforced, notably, as Sarah Carter has shown, through marriage laws requiring monogamy. Joseph Smith rather famously went the other way.

But here's the thing: Joseph Smith was a treasure digger before he became a prophet, as we all know. That is, he used a crystal peepstone to scry the location of buried treasure (and wells, and the like). So he was a seer before he became a prophet, and one of the most interesting things that he saw was ancient treasure buried in a vault under the Hill of Cumorah. When, at length, he got at that treasure, it turned out that it was holy scripture, the "Bible of the West," then a much sought after document, even if those who sought it were not sure what it might contain. And this took some time, because the Hill of Cumorah was on private land. It had already been appropriated.

Thanks to Lockwood Doty's 1876 history of Livingston County, you can get a sense of how that worked in specific cases, perhaps the most spectacular being his sober report that a Seneca chief was laid to rest underneath the altar of the Lutheran Church of Dansville, New York. (This claim is missing from the church website, although it does report Doty's other anecdote about stones recovered from a mound being used to build the church's foundation. I'd deal more with Doty, but James Fenimore Cooper makes a much clearer and explicit statement from the point of view of the appropriating landowner, and, as I've said, I'm going to get to that.

What I am going to talk about is the way all of this talk of bones and treasure brings to mind the most recent and sophisticated treatments of the Hopewell Horizon, where notions of mortuary temples and civic rituals are thrust aside for what matters: "the ideological imperative."

For Byers, the Hopewell mounds are, above all, scenes of ideological conflict. The framework was the "world renewal ceremony," in which, each spring, Hopewell groups came together in heterarchic sodalities. The sodalities cooperated, to the extent that they could, in the basic renewal cult, which involved laying another layer of fresh river silt on an emergent mound by the riverside, putting important artefacts in with the bones, and purifying the site with fire. Byers wants us to move away from thinking of this in terms of quaint cult and read it  ideological conflict. This was about taking possession of bones and artefacts as items of signifying power and in the process use them to colonising the other world(s) that lay beyond the barrier of earth. If we are to take David Lewis-Williams seriously, we can viably talk about a global, shamanic epistemology, that argues that humans derive their knowledge of the cosmos from that world. So the power of the move to appropriate it by establishing human outposts beyond the earthen (or stony) veil is pretty clear. (It's also interesting that, according to Doty, a mound was rising over Mary Jemison's grave in precisely this way as late as the mid-1830s.

In short, Smith's invasion of Cumorah seems, if Byers is right, to be playing the old Hopewell game. And the treasure he draws from it, the Book of Mormon, is a very literal appropriation of ancient bones. It tells the story of how both modern Indians and these bones, the ancient "Lamanites," are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Oh, to be sure, they have fallen away from God and been marked by the curse of Cain, but when Smith and his followers convert them back to Smith's interpretation of Christianity they will become White and delightful to the sight of the Lord.  I will continue to argue as a hypothesis that that is exactly what was happening on the frontier of American settlement in the 1820s, that Smith was laying out a programme whereby his followers could bring their kin within the American state. But I sure as heck know that it's not an hypothesis in this day and age.

So that's where I'm going with this: two authors from upstate New York arguing about who the bones belong to: Joseph Smith, and James Fenimore Cooper. More soon.

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