Wednesday, December 28, 2011

88. North American Buckskin Map (NOT ON DISPLAY)

World War 0; or, the limitations of centralized authority.
Here’s a map of the midwest south of my homeland of Michigan—Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, apparently part of Missouri—made on a deer’s hide. You can even see the holes where the musket bullet killed the deer. It’s hard to see the map, but apparently it’s sort of a stylized subway map of the river systems in that part of the world; not to scale, but good for navigation. MacGregor tells us that the cities/habitations marked on the map tend to be native American settlements, not white; for instance, St. Louis was growing at the time this map was made, but isn’t where it ought to be on the Mississippi. This map was probably copied by whites from a native-made original, according to an expert (with a British accent) who notices that this copy is a little more refined, more carefully finished, than the typical native scrawl. (That’s what the guy said!)

It dates from the period of the French and Indian War, aka the Seven Years’ War, which MacGregor dubs (in the hook to his podcast) the first World War. True, that war (1756-1763) was a global escalation of the ongoing French vs. British war that you could trace (if you wanted) back before Henry V to William the Conqueror, and probably earlier. For the first time, in the Seven Years’ War, the British and French were fighting in India, and Africa, and remote locations like Mackinaw City, Michigan. In North America they were mostly fighting about hunting and trapping rights and routes. But waiting in the wings, the WASP settlements along the Atlantic coast were chomping at the bits to spill westwards and settle this vast new land, beckoning like Ishmael’s “things remote.” The result of the Seven Years’ War, for North American history, was that a huge chunk of land, the area in this map, fell under British administration; within a generation, with the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson would oust the French from the next third of the continent, freeing that up for white Americans. And of course, neither development boded well for the people who already lived in this area.

The big problem was another major cultural misunderstanding. In the British and then American tradition, land was to be owned. You could establish rights to land, you could have deeds and title and escrow and mortgages and you could sell land, it was a commodity to be traded. The natives didn’t understand the concept: land was land, an element of the world, like water, air, and animals, imbued with the million spirits of god. MacGregor’s expert on this podcast underlines an important point about native Americans’ attitude toward land, one also made in the apocryphal “Chief Seattle” speech: “Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.” He says it’s a tribal way of thinking, to structure history as people bounded by land, as opposed to people bounded by time (which is, I deduce, an enlightened, or nation-based way of thinking.) Whichever it is, it’s one of the main political conflicts of the modern era. And it proved impossible for a remote government in London, with other problems and financial constraints, to do a good job mediating between the needs of the natives and the needs of the settlers. So guess who got shafted.

I grew up without a tribe; what group identity I’ve had, in my experience, has come from the nation, and then from very small groups (my family, my team, my cast, my orchestra, my company). Moreover, the federalized system, the post-50s superhighways and homogenized culture in which I grew up impressed me, from a very early age, with the important lesson: if you stay in one place all your life, you’re a failure. You should move to new states, explore strange new malls, watch TV in a different time zone! “I’m sick of grinders, Marge!” says Homer. “I want a hoagie, a sub, a foot-long! Please, won’t you let me live?” I did that, and in recent years have ended up with a much deeper connection to my whereabouts (Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest) than I ever had to any place I have lived. But those early lessons die hard, and I will go to my grave thinking it’s important for the human being to be portable. You should be able to live anywhere. Tribal assignments to a given location, I was taught and can’t not believe, cause suffering.

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