Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gather the Bones, 11: 1450: Turtle Island Before Columbus: Or, The Conquest of Paradise By Something I'm Not Really Responsible For

Look! It's snide mockery of Charles C. Mann. And a reluctant appreciation of John Ralston Saul, not afraid to issue a book that rips off the Canadian Bandaid and sinks like a stone. Ordinarily not the kind of compatriot that I appreciate, (Cry me a river, Tubby),but I commend his courage.

So let's start with a review of the facts at hand.

No, let's start with today's dubious musical provocation. At the end of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe references Christ, "who was born across the sea." I've heard it said (strawman alert!) that she captures the problem of American Christianity.* It's a foreign import with no authentically American roots.

 Yeah, right. If you want to pull the other one** after this, I'll dig up snake-handlers.  

No. Wait again. I'll dig up snake handlers anyway.

So here's a summary of the core problem (again):
i) We begin by asking,"how many people were there in America in 1491?" There are two possible answers: first, a lot. Say, 18 million per Henry Dobyns. Or a low one. Say, 2.4 million per Douglas Ubelaker. On various not-indefensible assumptions, 6 million  or 800,000 east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio. The former then implies massive depopulation, the latter basal demographic continuity. Except that it's not "implied." Both estimates begin with the fact that we don't know how many people there were then and have no valid methodology for counting them, so they project backwards.

In other words, the question is misphrased: we're asking instead about protohistorical demographic events. The Dobyns position requires hypothesising a major demographic event, that, however likely this or that person might deem it, falls short of the phenomenological status of, say, universal gravitation. The Ubelaker requires the hypothesis that some eyewitness estimates of peri-Contact populations to be high. Since this last is given, one might suppose that Occam's Razor has already ruled.

Except that anyone who invokes Occam's Razor these days is presumptively a pig-ignorant SF fanboy. We know that there were "demographic"events in per-Contact phases. People die. They die all the time, and at a much more elevated rate when they come into contact with carriers of diseases to which there is no substantial established herd immunity. We call these episodes "epidemics," and if there were a great many of them in history in general, the Contact period was ripe with potential for very serious ones. There's your demographic event, Bob's your uncle, let's knock off this blogging thing early for a beer.

Only hold up for a second. Six million to 800,000? That's one serious epidemic. Scientists have never actually observed a human epidemic with anything like this effect! The obvious retort is that we're not talking about immunology here. We're talking about the history of the human immune system. Has anyone actually done the history of the immune system so that we can know that observations made today (or, more relevantly, in the Nineteenth Century) are relevant in the Sixteenth Century? And I shamefacedly admit that they are not. No one has any idea how they would even go about doing that. Things could have been different back then.

Now, I could argue that the first step in any history of the human immune system would be to discount doomsaying contemporary reports as, well, doomsaying If someone is telling you that a thousand or 10,000 people died of this or that disease every day for months on end in Eighteenth Century Algiers (more books like this, please) or sixth century Istanbul, he is, uhm, exaggerating.

But I'm not. I'm going on the left hand side. Beginning in Andrew Jackson's second term and continuing through 1890, an indeterminate number of Indians previously living in the the good bits of the United States were removed to the "Indian Territory" of which the remnants after various Congressional scissions were reconstituted as the state of Oklahoma in 1907. Although to be fair to Oklahoma, it's not necessarily one of the bad bits of the modern United States. Although, come to think of it, that might be why it's a state now, and not an Indian Territory. The 2010 Census reported Oklahoma's population at 3.75 million, of whom, not surprisingly given its history, a large proportion are Indian. 11.4% self-report as Indians, including 7.4% Cherokee, descendants of the 18,000 Cherokee and and 3000 Black slaves removed by Jackson back at the beginning of it all. However, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, only 8.7% of these claim solely First Nations descent. That's 395,000 people, btw.

What's this? People marrying across racial lines? If I had pearls, I'd be clutching them! Well, I'm sure that it only started happening recently. Or only happened a long time ago. Or only happened in some strange parallel universe that only impinges on ours at the very moment when we are forced to regard such statistics, and then withdraws from our reality once again.

Anyhoo, demographics of the Indian Territory/Oklahoma. Without regoogling, and hence generating links for you to follow (but try here for the numbers and here for a scholarly discussion), I can still confidently tell you this: that the population of Indians in the Indian Territory stabilised at from 50 to 70,000 shortly after the election of 1840 and remained at this level through the 1950 Census, even as the native-born population of White and Black Americans increased from 17 million to 150 million. This is history under observation. We can rule out two possible explanations for the Indian population of the Indian Territory's failure to thrive: pandemic disease and genocide. Nineteenth Century moralists would throw in "drink"and degeneracy(?) as additional explanations. I'm not used to hearing "drink" invoked as a reason for population decline in any other context than Indians, but then I wasn't born in the Nineteenth Century, either.

Be that as it may, the demographics have a sting in their tale: if the Indian population of the Indian Territory had so much trouble in reproducing itself prior to 1950, the statistics since 1960 show that the problem has quite gone away. Since then, First Nations populations in Oklahoma have gone from that stable 70,000 to the aforementioned 395,000. Now, this is no California, where the First Nations population fell from (135,000 or maybe 1.5 million) in 1840 to 25,000 in 1900 and then rose to 100,000 in 1970 and 370,000 in 2011, or Ohio (42! Indians in 1840, 200,000 or so in 2011) but it's impressive enough.

Indians. They get their freak on. But is that what's actually going on? Well, no. We have birth rate statistics, too, and they tell a different story. Here's what Statistics Canada and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs thinks is going on. And here's the cut-and-paste quote, since this is kind of important:

"The remaining increase is accounted for by various other factors, such as fewer incompletely enumerated reserves and an increased tendency of people to identify as Aboriginal. The trend to increased reporting of Aboriginal origins or identity has been evident since the 1986 Census and is thought to have resulted from an increased awareness of Aboriginal issues."

Some in the past, purely in a spirit of disinterested historical inquiry, have made me pull up more links and citations on this point. So, not to worry; they exist.

So at the end of this long digression, I come to a point. If you asked yourself, from what people knew or claimed to know about how North American society worked, between, say, 1840 and 1950, whether people could move from the "Indian" to the "White" column of the ledger, you'd say that this was impossible. At this end of this period, we have a massive "Ethnogenesis" is moving people out of the "White" to the "Indian" category. Now, this pretty directly implies a movement of people from the Indian side to the White side. Either it's happening in the present, with people moving their ancestors or other significant individuals from one side of the ledger to the other. Or it happened at some point in the past. Or both. Or we need to stop pretending that ethnogenesis isn't a complicated social fact rather than a breaking of the innate, scientific laws of race. Or all three.

But, above all, it implies a latent history of American Indians passing for White in the past, handed down to the present for resurrection as living history.

How does history become latent? In part, of course, by going underground in forgotten or disregarded archives and little-read plays and books and family histories. But I would say that it is more than that. Let's admit to our case the testimony of the post-processual archaeologists now working with prehistoric monumental architecture all over the world, including the pyramid mounds of the Eastern Woodlands.

The argument is simple: that architecture is important. That it creates, by itself, a "political landscape." That it reifies political and social orders.  I know, I repeat myself. Now, a given monument doesn't necessarily have the same meaning across time. The druids who hold ceremonies in Stonehenge today are not living in the social world of the people who built it, even assuming that we actually understand Stonehenge. (Weirdly persuasive moonbat.) We shouldn't assume that we can look at Monk's Mound at Cahokia and just get what it meant to the people who built it; although we also shouldn't assume that we can't. That's not the point. We've always known that the mounds were built by pre-Contact peoples, and that doesn't change even if we choose to call those people Phoenicians or Vikings instead of Indians. When we use our social power to appropriate those mounds in any of the various ways that we can, whether that is to homestead the land they sit on or to build a Catholic mission church on them or to conduct secrecy-riddled archaeological investigations on them, we have appropriated them. We're waving at latent history, making sly historical references.

Wow. This has been unsatisfying. I really wanted to get at the end of the Southern Cult here and the Beaver Wars here; but somehow I found myself reasserting my claim that there is a demographic problem to be solved. Ah, well, it's not anything I've said here before, anyway. And hopefully I can get into mounds next time I do this subject; although my plan is to talk about wooden planes next.

*So I picked the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's version of the Hymn. When did Salt Lake City start running away from its own authenticity? According to this,  Metamora and what's left of William Penn were reconstructed from manuscripts found in Salt Lake City early in the last century; but now we have this kind of thing. 
**I picked up this expression from Walter Goffart. If you know Walter, you know why I use it.


  1. Rereading, I've only just noticed the surname of the weirdly reticent owners of Watson Brake: Gentry.

    Not even faking.

  2. It's a pretty odd story. You can make up a romantic story about why, say, the owner of the farm adjacent to the Tower Site near Barnesville, Ohio is restricting access to it --if he is, as I was unable to confirm this on Google a moment ago--. That is, a story that would look like the one which Fenimore Cooper tells in Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, in which the gentry of the early nineteenth century Yankee country town are descended from the Indian "race" that used to claim the land. The Tower Site was abandoned around 1500AD-- just close enough for a wildly romantic imagination to propose a secret historical continuity. Some of the sites that Southern Culture archaeologists like Tim Pauketat have such difficulty reaching probably actually are cases of exactly this. Who knows? It's pretty easy to speculate wildly on the Internet when everyone is so busy protecting everyone else's privacy.

    But 3500BC? Here's where we get all cold and distinctly unromantic and borrow a page from British landscape studies and talk about new elites appropriating older sites. The Gentry are doing that in as modern a way. That is, to be locally powerful in many parts of the United States, it might serve to be seen as opposing the Feds.

    Not that I'm saying that Cliven Bundy is a sekrit Coloured Person Mopa Paiute, but it would be irresponsible not to speculate.