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Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History

“Indians”: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History
Author(s): Jane Tompkins
Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 101-119
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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“Indians”: Textualism, Morality,
and the Problem of History
Jane Tompkins
When I was growing up in New York City, my parents used to take me
to an event in Inwood Park at which Indians-real American Indians
dressed in feathers and blankets-could be seen and touched by chil like me. This event was always a disappointment. It was more f imagine that you were an Indian in one of the caves in Inwood Park to shake the hand of an old man in a headdress who was not overwhelmed
at the opportunity of meeting you. After staring at the Indians for a
while, we would take a walk in the woods where the caves were, and
once I asked my mother if the remains of a fire I had seen in one of
them might have been left by the original inhabitants. After that, wandering
up some stone steps cut into the side of the hill, I imagined I was a
princess in a rude castle. My Indians, like my princesses, were creatures
totally of the imagination, and I did not care to have any real exemplars
interfering with what I already knew.
I already knew about Indians from having read about them in school.
Over and over we were told the story of how Peter Minuit had bought
Manhattan Island from the Indians for twenty-four dollars’ worth of
glass beads. And it was a story we didn’t mind hearing because it gave
us the rare pleasure of having someone to feel superior to, since the
poor Indians had not known (as we eight-year-olds did) how valuable a
piece of property Manhattan Island would become. Generally, much was
made of the Indian presence in Manhattan; a poem in one of our readers
began: “Where we walk to school today / Indian children used to play,”
and we were encouraged to write poetry on this topic ourselves. So I
Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn 1986)
? 1986 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/86/1301-0007$01.00. All rights reserved.
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102 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
had a fairly rich relationship with Indians before I ever met the unpre-
possessing people in Inwood Park. I felt that I had a lot in common with
them. They, too, liked animals (they were often named after animals);
they, too, made mistakes-they liked the brightly colored trinkets of little
value that the white men were always offering them; they were handsome,
warlike, and brave and had led an exciting, romantic life in the forest
long ago, a life such as I dreamed of leading myself. I felt lucky to be
living in one of the places where they had definitely been. Never mind
where they were or what they were doing now.
My story stands for the relationship most non-Indians have to the
people who first populated this continent, a relationship characterized
by narcissistic fantasies of freedom and adventure, of a life lived closer
to nature and to spirit than the life we lead now. As Vine Deloria, Jr.
has pointed out, the American Indian Movement in the early seventies
couldn’t get people to pay attention to what was happening to Indians
who were alive in the present, so powerful was this country’s infatuation
with people who wore loincloths, lived in tepees, and roamed the plains
and forests long ago.1 The present essay, like these fantasies, doesn’t
have much to do with actual Indians, though its subject matter is the
histories of European-Indian relations in seventeenth-century New En-
gland. In a sense, my encounter with Indians as an adult doing “research”
replicates the childhood one, for while I started out to learn about Indians,
I ended up preoccupied with a problem of my own.
This essay enacts a particular instance of the challenge post-struc-
turalism poses to the study of history. In simpler language, it concerns
the difference that point of view makes when people are giving accounts
of events, whether at first or second hand. The problem is that if all
accounts of events are determined through and through by the observer’s
frame of reference, then one will never know, in any given case, what
really happened.
I encountered this problem in concrete terms while preparing to
teach a course in colonial American literature. I’d set out to learn what
I could about the Puritans’ relations with American Indians. All I wanted
was a general idea of what had happened between the English settlers
and the natives in seventeenth-century New England; post-structuralism
and its dilemmas were the furthest thing from my mind. I began, more
1. See Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red (New York, 1973), pp. 39-56.
Jane Tompkins is professor of English at Duke University. She is
the author of Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction,
1790-1860 (1985) and editor of Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism
to Post-Structuralism (1980). Her current work concerns the construction
of male identity in American popular culture.
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 103
or less automatically, with Perry Miller, who hardly mentions the Indians
at all, then proceeded to the work of historians who had dealt exclusively
with the European-Indian encounter. At first, it was a question of deciding
which of these authors to believe, for it quickly became apparent that
there was no unanimity on the subject. As I read on, however, I discovered
that the problem was more complicated than deciding whose version of
events was correct. Some of the conflicting accounts were not simply
contradictory, they were completely incommensurable, in that their as-
sumptions about what counted as a valid approach to the subject, and
what the subject itself was, diverged in fundamental ways. Faced with
an array of mutually irreconcilable points of view, points of view which
determined what was being discussed as well as the terms of the discussion,
I decided to turn to primary sources for clarification, only to discover
that the primary sources reproduced the problem all over again. I found
myself, in other words, in an epistemological quandary, not only unable
to decide among conflicting versions of events but also unable to believe
that any such decision could, in principle, be made. It was a moral quandary
as well. Knowledge of what really happened when the Europeans and
the Indians first met seemed particularly important, since the result of
that encounter was virtual genocide. This was the kind of past “mistake”
which, presumably, we studied history in order to avoid repeating. If
studying history couldn’t put us in touch with actual events and their
causes, then what was to prevent such atrocities from happening again?
For a while, I remained at this impasse. But through analyzing the
process by which I had reached it, I eventually arrived at an understanding
which seemed to offer a way out. This essay records the concrete experience
of meeting and solving the difficulty I have just described (as an abstract
problem, I thought I had solved it long ago). My purpose is not to throw
new light on antifoundationalist epistemology-the solution I reached is
not a new one-but to dramatize and expose the troubles antifounda-
tionalism gets you into when you meet it, so to speak, in the road.
My research began with Perry Miller. Early in the preface to Errand
into the Wilderness, while explaining how he came to write his history of
the New England mind, Miller writes a sentence that stopped me dead.
He says that what fascinated him as a young man about his country’s
history was “the massive narrative of the movement of European culture
into the vacant wilderness of America.”2 “Vacant?” Miller, writing in
1956, doesn’t pause over the word “vacant,” but to people who read his
preface thirty years later, the word is shocking. In what circumstances
could someone proposing to write a history of colonial New England not
take account of the Indian presence there?
2. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. vii; all further
references will be included in the text.
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104 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
The rest of Miller’s preface supplies an answer to this question, if
one takes the trouble to piece together its details. Miller explains that as
a young man, jealous of older compatriots who had had the luck to fight
in World War I, he had gone to Africa in search of adventure. “The
adventures that Africa afforded,” he writes, “were tawdry enough, but
it became the setting for a sudden epiphany” (p. vii). “It was given to
me,” he writes, “disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa,
to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be
the innermost propulsion of the United States, while supervising, in that
barbaric tropic, the unloading of drums of case oil flowing out of the
inexhaustible wilderness of America” (p. viii). Miller’s picture of himself
on the banks of the Congo furnishes a key to the kind of history he will
write and to his mental image of a vacant wilderness; it explains why it
was just here, under precisely these conditions, that he should have had
his epiphany.
The fuel drums stand, in Miller’s mind, for the popular misconception
of what this country is about. They are “tangible symbols of [America’s]
appalling power,” a power that everyone but Miller takes for the ultimate
reality (p. ix). To Miller, “the mind of man is the basic factor in human
history,” and he will plead, all unaccommodated as he is among the fuel
drums, for the intellect-the intellect for which his fellow historians, with
their chapters on “stoves or bathtubs, or tax laws,” “the Wilmot Proviso”
and “the chain store,” “have so little respect” (p. viii, ix). His preface
seethes with a hatred of the merely physical and mechanical, and this
hatred, which is really a form of moral outrage, explains not only the
contempt with which he mentions the stoves and bathtubs but also the
nature of his experience in Africa and its relationship to the “massive
narrative” he will write.
Miller’s experiences in Africa are “tawdry,” his tropic is barbaric
because the jungle he stands on the edge of means nothing to him, no
more, indeed something less, than the case oil. It is the nothingness of
Africa that precipitates his vision. It is the barbarity of the “dark continent,”
the obvious (but superficial) parallelism between the jungle at Matadi
and America’s “vacant wilderness” that releases in Miller the desire to
define and vindicate his country’s cultural identity. To the young Mille colonial Africa and colonial America are-but for the history he w bring to light-mirror images of one another. And what he fails to se in the one landscape is the same thing he overlooks in the other: t human beings who people it. As Miller stood with his back to the jungl thinking about the role of mind in human history, his failure to see t the land into which European culture had moved was not vacant b already occupied by a varied and numerous population, is of a piece wit his failure, in his portrait of himself at Matadi, to notice who was carrying the fuel drums he was supervising the unloading of.
The point is crucial because it suggests that what is invisible to th historian in his own historical moment remains invisible when he turns
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 105
his gaze to the past. It isn’t that Miller didn’t “see” the black men, in a
literal sense, any more than it’s the case that when he looked back he
didn’t “see” the Indians, in the sense of not realizing they were there.
Rather, it’s that neither the Indians nor the blacks counted for him, in a
fundamental way. The way in which Indians can be seen but not counted
is illustrated by an entry in Governor John Winthrop’s journal, three
hundred years before, when he recorded that there had been a great
storm with high winds “yet through God’s great mercy it did no hurt,
but only killed one Indian with the fall of a tree.”3 The juxtaposition
suggests that Miller shared with Winthrop a certain colonial point of
view, a point of view from which Indians, though present, do not finally
A book entitled New England Frontier: Puritans and Indian 1675, written by Alden Vaughan and published in 1965, p rectify Miller’s omission. In the outpouring of work on the E Indian encounter that began in the early sixties, this book is major landmark, and to a neophyte it seems definitive. V knowledges the absence of Indian sources and emphasizes materials which catch the Puritans “off guard.”4 His announced that “the New England Puritans followed a remarkably huma erate, and just policy in their dealings with the Indians” seems by the scope, documentation, and methodicalness of his pr p. vii). The author’s fair-mindedness and equanimity seem eve apparent, so that when he asserts “the history of interracial from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the outbreak of King Phil a credit to the integrity of both peoples,” one is positively reas p. viii).
But these impressions do not survive an admission that comes late
in the book, when, in the course of explaining why works like Helen
Hunt Jackson’s Century of Dishonor had spread misconceptions about Puritan
treatment of the Indians, Vaughan finally lays his own cards on the table.
The root of the misunderstanding [about Puritans and Indians]
… lie[s] in a failure to recognize the nature of the two societies
that met in seventeenth century New England. One was unified,
visionary, disciplined, and dynamic. The other was divided, self-
satisfied, undisciplined, and static. It would be unreasonable to
3. This passage from John Winthrop’s Journal is excerpted by Perry Miller in his
anthology The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry (Garden City, N.Y., 1956), p. 43.
In his headnote to the selections from theJournal, Miller speaks of Winthrop’s “characteristic
objectivity” (p. 37).
4. Alden T. Vaughan, New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 (Boston,
1965), pp. vi-vii; all further references to this work, abbreviated NEF, will be included in
the text.
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106 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
expect that such societies could live side by side indefinitely with
no penetration of the more fragmented and passive by the more
consolidated and active. What resulted, then, was not-as many
have held-a clash of dissimilar ways of life, but rather the expansion
of one into the areas in which the other was lacking. [NEF, p. 323]
From our present vantage point, these remarks seem culturally biased
to an incredible degree, not to mention inaccurate: Was Puritan society
unified? If so, how does one account for its internal dissensions and
obsessive need to cast out deviants? Is “unity” necessarily a positive culture
trait? From what standpoint can one say that American Indians were
neither disciplined nor visionary, when both these characteristics loom
so large in the enthnographies? Is it an accident that ways of describing
cultural strength and weakness coincide with gender stereotypes-active/
passive, and so on? Why is one culture said to “penetrate” the other?
Why is the “other” described in terms of “lack”?
Vaughan’s fundamental categories of apprehension and judgment
will not withstand even the most cursory inspection. For what looked
like evenhandedness when he was writing New England Frontier does not
look that way anymore. In his introduction to New Directions in American
Intellectual History, John Higham writes that by the end of the sixties
the entire conceptual foundation on which [this sort of work] rested
[had] crumbled away…. Simultaneously, in sociology, anthropol-
ogy, and history, two working assumptions … came under withering
attack: first, the assumption that societies tend to be integrated,
and second, that a shared culture maintains that integration….
By the late 1960s all claims issued in the name of an “American
mind” … were subject to drastic skepticism.5
“Clearly,” Higham continues, “the sociocultural upheaval of the sixties
created the occasion” for this reaction.” Vaughan’s book, it seemed, could
only have been written before the events of the sixties had sensitized
scholars to questions of race and ethnicity. It came as no surprise, therefore,
that ten years later there appeared a study of European-Indian relations
which reflected the new awareness of social issues the sixties had engen-
dered. And it offered an entirely different picture of the European-
Indian encounter.
Francis Jennings’ The Invasion of America (1975) rips wide open the idea that the Puritans were humane and considerate in their dealin with the Indians. In Jennings’ account, even more massively documente than Vaughan’s, the early settlers lied to the Indians, stole from them 5. John Higham, intro. to New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. Higha and Paul K. Conkin (Baltimore, 1979), p. xii.
6. Ibid.
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 107
murdered them, scalped them, captured them, tortured them, raped
them, sold them into slavery, confiscated their land, destroyed their crops,
burned their homes, scattered their possessions, gave them alcohol, un-
derminded their systems of belief, and infected them with diseases that
wiped out ninety percent of their numbers within the first hundred years
after contact.7
Jennings mounts an all-out attack on the essential decency of the
Puritan leadership and their apologists in the twentieth century. The
Pequot War, which previous historians had described as an attempt on
the part of Massachussetts Bay to protect itself from the fiercest of the
New England tribes, becomes, in Jennings’ painstakingly researched ac-
count, a deliberate war of extermination, waged by whites against Indians.
It starts with trumped-up charges, is carried on through a series of
increasingly bloody reprisals, and ends in the massacre of scores of Indian
men, women, and children, all so that Massachussets Bay could gain
political and economic control of the southern Connecticut Valley. When
one reads this and then turns over the page and sees a reproduction of
the Bay Colony seal, which depicts an Indian from whose mouth issue
the words “Come over and help us,” the effect is shattering.8
But even so powerful an argument as Jennings’ did not remain
unshaken by subsequent work. Reading on, I discovered that if the events
of the sixties had revolutionized the study of European-Indian relations,
the events of the seventies produced yet another transformation. The
American Indian Movement, and in particular the founding of the Native
American Rights Fund in 1971 to finance Indian litigation, and a court
decision in 1975 which gave the tribes the right to seek redress for past
injustices in federal court, created a climate within which historians began
to focus on the Indians themselves. “Almost simultaneously,” writes James
Axtell, “frontier and colonial historians began to discover the necessity
of considering the American natives as real determinants of history and
the utility of ethnohistory as a way of ensuring parity of focus and im-
partiality of judgment.”9 In Miller, Indians had been simply beneath
notice; in Vaughan, they belonged to an inferior culture; and inJennings,
7. See Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of
Conquest (New York, 1975), pp. 3-31. Jennings writes: “The so-called settlement of America
was a resettlement, a reoccupation of a land made waste by the diseases and demoralization
introduced by the newcomers. Although the source data pertaining to populations have
never been compiled, one careful scholar, Henry F. Dobyns, has provided a relatively
conservative and meticulously reasoned estimate conforming to the known effects of conquest
catastrophe. Dobyns has calculated a total aboriginal population for the western hemisphere
within the range of 90 to 112 million, of Which 10 to 12 million lived north of the Rio
Grande” (p. 30).
8. Jennings, fig. 7, p. 229; and see pp. 186-229.
9. James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North
America (Oxford, 1981), p. viii.
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108 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
they were the more or less innocent prey of power-hungry whites. But
in the most original and provocative of the ethnohistories, Calvin Martin’s
Keepers of the Game, Indians became complicated, purposeful human beings,
whose lives were spiritually motivated to a high degree.10 Their relationship
to the animals they hunted, to the natural environment, and to the whites
with whom they traded became intelligible within a system of beliefs that
formed the basis for an entirely new perspective on the European-Indian
Within the broader question of why European con devastating effect on the Indians, Martin’s specific aim why Indians participated in the fur trade which ultima the brink of annihilation. The standard answer to th always been that once the Indian was introduced to copper kettles, woolen blankets, and the like, he literal his hands off them. In order to acquire these coveted ite the animal populations on which his survival depende Indian’s motivation in participating in the fur trade wa the same as the white European’s-a desire to accumulate In direct opposition to this thesis, Martin argues that t Indians ruthlessly exploited their own resources had no supply and demand, but stemmed rather from a breakdow worldview that tied them to the game they killed in a spirit of parity and mutual obligation.
The hunt, according to Martin, was conceived not physical activity but as a spiritual quest, in which the spi must overmaster the spirit of the game animal before place. The animal, in effect, allows itself to be found and hunter has mastered its spirit. The hunter prepared rituals of fasting, sweating, or dreaming which reveal th prey and where he can find it. The physical act of ki important element in the process. Once the animal is k its parts used for clothing or implements, its remains of in ritually prescribed fashion, or the game boss, the species, will not permit more animals to be killed. The relati Indians and animals, then, is contractual; each side mus of the bargain, or no further transactions can occur.
What happened, according to Martin, was that as a re introduced into the animal population by Europeans, th disappeared, began to act in inexplicable ways, or sicken plain view, and communicated their diseases to the Indi consequently, believed that their compact with the a broken and that the keepers of the game, the tutelary 10. See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationship (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978).
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 109
animal species whom they had been so careful to propitiate, had betrayed
them. And when missionization, wars with the Europeans, and displacement
from their tribal lands had further weakened Indian society and its belief
structure, the Indians, no longer restrained by religious sanctions, in
effect, turned on the animals in a holy war of revenge.
Whether or not Martin’s specific claim about the “holy war” was
correct, his analysis made it clear to me that, given the Indians’ under-
standing of economic, religious, and physical processes, an Indian account
of what transpired when the European settlers arrived here would look
nothing like our own. Their (potential, unwritten) history of the conflict
could bear only a marginal resemblance to Eurocentric views. I began
to think that the key to understanding European-Indian relations was
to see them as an encounter between wholly disparate cultures, and that
therefore either defending or attacking the colonists was beside the point
since, given the cultural disparity between the two groups, conflict was
inevitable and in large part a product of mutual misunderstanding.
But three years after Martin’s book appeared, Shepard Krech III
edited a collection of seven essays called Indians, Animals, and the Fur
Trade, attacking Martin’s entire project. Here the authors argued that
we don’t need an ideological or religious explanation for the fur trade.
As Charles Hudson writes,
The Southeastern Indians slaughtered deer (and were prompt-
ed to enslave and kill each other) because of their position on the
outer fringes of an expanding modern world-system…. In the
modern world-system there is a core region which establishes eco-
nomic relations with its colonial periphery. … If the Indians could
not produce commodities, they were on the road to cultural ex-
tinction…. To maximize his chances for survival, an eighteenth-
century Southeastern Indian had to … live in the interior, out of
range of European cattle, forestry, and agriculture. … He had -o
produce a commodity which was valuable enough to earn hitn
some protection from English slavers.”
Though we are talking here about Southeastern Indians, rather than
the subarctic and Northeastern tribes Martin studied, what really accounts
for these divergent explanations of why Indians slaughtered the game
are the assumptions that underlie them. Martin believes that the Indians
acted on the basis of perceptions made available to them by their own
cosmology; that is, he explains their behavior as the Indians themselves
would have explained it (insofar as he can), using a logic and a set of
values that are not Eurocentric but derived from within Amerindian
culture. Hudson, on the other hand, insists that the Indians’ own bel 11. See the essay by Charles Hudson in Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade: A Crit of “Keepers of the Game,” ed. Shepard Krech III (Athens, Ga., 1981), pp. 167-69.
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110 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
are irrelevant to an explanation of how they acted, which can only be
understood, as far as he is concerned, in the terms of a Western materialist
economic and political analysis. Martin and Hudson, in short, don’t agree
on what counts as an explanation, and this disagreement sheds light on
the preceding accounts as well. From this standpoint, we can see that
Vaughan, who thought that the Puritans were superior to the Indians,
and Jennings, who thought the reverse, are both, like Hudson, using
Eurocentric criteria of description and evaluation. While all three critics
(Vaughan, Jennings, and Hudson) acknowledge that Indians and Eu-
ropeans behave differently from one another, the behavior differs, as it
were, within the order of the same: all three assume, though only Hudson
makes the assumption explicit, that an understanding of relations between
the Europeans and the Indians must be elaborated in European terms.
In Martin’s analysis, however, what we have are not only two different
sets of behavior but two incommensurable ways of describing and assigning
meaning to events. This difference at the level of explanation calls into
question the possibility of obtaining any theory-independent account of
interaction between Indians and Europeans.
At this point, dismayed and confused by the wildly divergent views
of colonial history the twentieth-century historians had provided, I decided
to look at some primary materials. I thought, perhaps, if I looked at
some firsthand accounts and at some scholars looking at those accounts,
it would be possible to decide which experts were right and which were
wrong by comparing their views with the evidence. Captivity narratives
seemed a good place to begin, since it was logical to suppose that the
records left by whites who had been captured by Indians would furnish
the sort of firsthand information I wanted.
I began with two fascinating essays based on these materials written
by the ethnohistorian James Axtell, “The White Indians of Colonial
America” and “The Scholastic Philosophy of the Wilderness.”12 These
essays suggest that it would have been a privilege to be captured by
North American Indians and taken off to Canada to dwell in a wigwam
for the rest of one’s life. Axtell’s reconstruction of the process by which
Indians taught European captives to feel comfortable in the wilderness,
first taking their shoes away and giving them moccasins, carrying the
children on their backs, sharing the scanty food supply equally, ceremonially
cleansing them of their old identities, giving them Indian clothes and
jewelry, assiduously teaching them the Indian language, finally adopting
them into their families, and even visiting them after many years if, as
sometimes happened, they were restored to white society-all of this
12. See Axtell, “The White Indians of Colonial America” and “The Scholastic Philosophy
of the Wilderness,” The European and the Indian, pp. 168-206 and 131-67.
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 111
creates a compelling portrait of Indian culture and helps to explain the
extraordinary attraction that Indian culture apparently exercised over
But, as I had by now come to expect, this beguiling portrait of the
Indians’ superior humanity is called into question by other writings on
Indian captivity-for example, Norman Heard’s White into Red, whose
summation of the comparative treatment of captive children east and
west of the Mississippi seems to contradict some of Axtell’s conclusions:
The treatment of captive children seems to have been similar
in initial stages …. Most children were treated brutally at the time
of capture. Babies and toddlers usually were killed immediately
and other small children would be dispatched during the rapid
retreat to the Indian villages if they cried, failed to keep the pace,
or otherwise indicated a lack of fortitude needed to become a
worthy member of the tribe. Upon reaching the village, the might face such ordeals as running the gauntlet or dancing in center of a throng of threatening Indians. The prisoner migh so seriously injured at this time that he would no longer b ceptable for adoption.”1
One account which Heard reprints is particularly arresting. A y girl captured by the Comanches who had not been adopted into a but used as a slave had been peculiarly mistreated. When they wa to wake her up the family she belonged to would take a burning from the fire and touch it to her nose. When she was returned to her
parents, the flesh of her nose was completely burned away, exposing th bone.14
Since the pictures drawn by Heard and Axtell were in certain respects
irreconcilable, it made sense to turn to a firsthand account to see how
the Indians treated their captives in a particular instance. Mary Row-
landson’s “The Soveraignty and Goodness of God,” published in Boston
around 1680, suggested itself because it was so widely read and had set
the pattern for later narratives. Rowlandson interprets her captivity as
God’s punishment on her for failing to keep the Sabbath properly on
several occasions. She sees everything that happens to her as a sign from
God. When the Indians are kind to her, she attributes her good fortune
to divine Providence; when they are cruel, she blames her captors. But
beyond the question of how Rowlandson interprets events is the question
of what she saw in the first place and what she considered worth reporting.
The following passage, with its abrupt shifts of focus and peculiar emphases,
13. J. Norman Heard, White into Red: A Study of the Assimilation of White Persons Captured
by Indians (Metuchen, N.J., 1973), p. 97.
14. See ibid., p. 98.
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112 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
makes it hard to see her testimony as evidence of anything other than
the Puritan point of view:
Then my heart began to fail: and I fell weeping, which was the
first time to my remembrance, that I wept before them. Although
I had met with so much Affliction, and my heart was many times
ready to break, yet could I not shed one tear in their sight: but
rather had been all this while in a maze, and like one astonished:
but now I may say as, Psal. 137.1. By the Rivers of Babylon, there we
sate down; yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. There one of them
asked me, why I wept, I could hardly tell what to say: yet I answered,
they would kill me: No, said he, none will hurt you. Then came
one of them and gave me two spoon-fulls of Meal to comfort me,
and another gave me half a pint of Pease; which was more worth
than many Bushels at another time. Then I went to see King
Philip, he bade me come in and sit down, and asked me whether
I woold smoke it (a usual Complement nowadayes among Saints
and Sinners) but this no way suited me. For though I had formerly
used Tobacco, yet I had left it ever since I was first taken. It seems
to be a Bait, the Devil layes to make men loose their precious time:
I remember with shame, how formerly, when I had taken two or
three pipes, I was presently ready for another, such a bewitching
thing it is: But I thank God, he has now given me power over it;
surely there are many who may be better imployed than to ly
sucking a stinking Tobacco-pipe.
Anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking has to sympathize
with Rowlandson, but it is nonetheless remarkable, first, that a passage
which begins with her weeping openly in front of her captors, and com-
paring herself to Israel in Babylon, should end with her railing against
the vice of tobacco; and, second, that it has not a word to say about King
Philip, the leader of the Indians who captured her and mastermind of
the campaign that devastated the white population of the English colonies.
The fact that Rowlandson has just been introduced to the chief of chiefs
makes hardly any impression on her at all. What excites her is a moral
issue which was being hotly debated in the seventeenth century: to smoke
or not to smoke (Puritans frowned on it, apparently, because it wasted
time and presented a fire hazard). What seem to us the peculiar emphases
in Rowlandson’s relation are not the result of her having screened out
evidence she couldn’t handle, but of her way of constructing the world.
She saw what her seventeenth-century English Separatist background
15. Mary Rowlandson, “The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the
Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration
of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1676),” in Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642-
1836, ed. Richard VanDerBeets (Knoxville, Tenn., 1973), pp. 57-58.
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 113
made visible. It is when one realizes that the biases of twentieth-century
historians like Vaughan or Axtell cannot be corrected for simply by
consulting the primary materials, since the primary materials are con-
structed according to their authors’ biases, that one begins to envy Miller
his vision at Matadi. Not for what he didn’t see-the Indian and the
black-but for his epistemological confidence.
Since captivity narratives made a poor source of evidence for the nature of European-Indian relations in early New England because th were so relentlessly pietistic, my hope was that a better source of evid might be writings designed simply to tell Englishmen what the Amer natives were like. These authors could be presumed to be less severel biased, since they hadn’t seen their loved ones killed by Indians or b made to endure the hardships of captivity, and because they wer writing propaganda calculated to prove that God had delivered his cho people from the hands of Satan’s emissaries.
The problem was that these texts were written with aims no l specific than those of the captivity narratives, though the aims wer a different sort. Here is a passage from William Wood’s New England Prospect, published in London in 1634.
To enter into a serious discourse concerning the natural con- ditions of these Indians might procure admiration from the peo of any civilized nations, in regard of their civility and good tures…. These Indians are of affable, courteous and well disposed natures, ready to communicate the best of their wealth to t mutual good of one another; … so … perspicuous is their lo … that they are as willing to part with a mite in poverty a treasure in plenty…. If it were possible to recount the courtesie they have showed the English, since their first arrival in th parts, it would not only steady belief, that they are a loving peop but also win the love of those that never saw them, and wipe of that needless fear that is too deeply rooted in the conceits of man who think them envious and of such rancorous and inhumane
dispositions, that they will one day make an end of their Eng inmates. 16
However, in a pamphlet published twenty-one years earlier, Alex Whitaker of Virginia has this to say of the natives:
These naked slaves … serve the divell for feare, after a most bas manner, sacrificing sometimes (as I have heere heard) their Children to him…. They live naked in bodie, as if their sh 16. William Wood, New England’s Prospect, ed. Vaughan (Amherst, Mass., 197 88-89.
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114 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
of their sinne deserved no covering: Their names are as naked as
their bodie: They esteem it a virtue to lie, deceive and steale as
their master the divell teacheth to them.17
According to Robert Berkhofer in The White Man’s Indian, these
divergent reports can be explained by looking at the authors’ motives.
A favorable report like Wood’s, intended to encourage new emigrants
to America, naturally represented Indians as loving and courteous, civilized
and generous, in order to allay the fears of prospective colonists. Whitaker,
on the other hand, a minister who wishes to convince his readers that
the Indians are in need of conversion, paints them as benighted agents
of the devil. Berkhofer’s commentary constantly implies that white men
were to blame for having represented the Indians in the image of their
own desires and needs.’8 But the evidence supplied by Rowlandson’s
narrative, and by the accounts left by early reporters such as Wood and
Whitaker, suggests something rather different. Though it is probably
true that in certain cases Europeans did consciously tamper with the
evidence, in most cases there is no reason to suppose that they did not
record faithfully what they saw. And what they saw was not an illusion,
was not determined by selfish motives in any narrow sense, but was there
by virtue of a way of seeing which they could no more consciously ma-
nipulate than they could choose not to have been born. At this point, it
seemed to me, the ethnocentric bias of the firsthand observers invited
an investigation of the cultural situation they spoke from. Karen Kup-
perman’s Settling with the Indians (1980) supplied just such an analysis.
Kupperman argues that Englishmen inevitably looked at Indians in
exactly the same way that they looked at other Englishmen. For instance,
if they looked down on Indians and saw them as people to be exploited,
it was not because of racial prejudice or antique notions about savagery,
it was because they looked down on ordinary English men and women
and saw them as subjects for exploitation as well.’9 According to Kup-
perman, what concerned these writers most when they described the
Indians were the insignia of social class, of rank, and of prestige. Indian
faces are virtually never described in the earliest accounts, but clothes
and hairstyles, tattoos and jewelry, posture and skin color are. “Early
modern Englishmen believed that people can create their own identity,
and that therefore one communicates to the world through signals such
17. Alexander Whitaker, Goode Newesfrom Virginia (1613), quoted in Robert F. Berkhofer,
Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New
York, 1978), p. 19.
18. See, for example, Berkhofer’s discussion of the passages he quotes from Whitaker
(The White Man’s Indian, pp. 19, 20).
19. See Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and
Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640 (Totowa, N.J., 1980), pp. 3, 4.
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 115
as dress and other forms of decoration who one is, what group or category
one belongs to.”20
Kupperman’s book marks a watershed in writings on European-
Indian relations, for it reverses the strategy employed by Martin two
years before. Whereas Martin had performed an ethnographic analysis
of Indian cosmology in order to explain, from within, the Indians’ motives
for engaging in the fur trade, Kupperman performs an ethnographic
study of seventeenth-century England in order to explain, from within,
what motivated Englishmen’s behavior. The sympathy and understanding
that Martin, Axtell, and others extend to the Indians are extended in
Kupperman’s work to the English themselves. Rather than giving an
account of “what happened” between Indians and Europeans, like Martin,
she reconstructs the worldview that gave the experience of one group
its content. With her study, scholarship on European-Indian relations
comes full circle.
It may well seem to you at this point that, given the tremendous
variation among the historical accounts, I had no choice but to end in
relativism. If the experience of encountering conflicting versions of the
“same” events suggests anything certain it is that the attitude a historian
takes up in relation to a given event, the way in which he or she judges
and even describes “it”–and the “it” has to go in quotation marks because, depending on the perspective, that event either did or did not occur-
this stance, these judgments and descriptions are a function of the historian’s
position in relation to the subject. Miller, standing on the banks of the
Congo, couldn’t see the black men he was supervising because of his
background, his assumptions, values, experiences, goals. Jennings, intent
on exposing the distortions introduced into the historical record by
Vaughan and his predecessors stretching all the way back to Winthrop,
couldn’t see that Winthrop and his peers were not racists but only En-
glishmen who looked at other cultures in the way their own culture had
taught them to see one another. The historian can never escape the
limitations of his or her own position in history and so inevitably gives
an account that is an extension of the circumstances from which it springs.
But it seems to me that when one is confronted with this particular
succession of stories, cultural and historical relativism is not a position
that one can comfortably assume. The phenomena to which these histories
testify–conquest, massacre, and genocide, on the one hand; torture,
slavery, and murder on the other–cry out for judgment. When faced
with claims and counterclaims of this magnitude one feels obligated to
reach an understanding of what actually did occur. The dilemma posed
by the study of European-Indian relations in early America is that the
highly charged nature of the materials demands a moral decisiveness
which the succession of conflicting accounts effectively precludes. That
20. Ibid., p. 35.
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116 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
is the dilemma I found myself in at the end of this course of reading,
and which I eventually came to resolve as follows.
After a while it began to seem to me that there was something wrong
with the way I had formulated the problem. The statement that the
materials on European-Indian relations were so highly charged that they
demanded moral judgment, but that the judgment couldn’t be made
because all possible descriptions of what happened were biased, seemed
to contain an internal contradiction. The statement implied that in order
to make a moraljudgment about something, you have to know something
else first-namely, the facts of the case you’re being called upon tojudge.
My complaint was that their perspectival nature would disqualify any
facts I might encounter and that therefore I couldn’t judge. But to say
as I did that the materials I had read were “highly charged” and therefore
demanded judgment suggests both that I was reacting to something
real-to some facts-and that I had judged them. Perhaps I wasn’t so
much in the lurch morally or epistemologically as I had thought. If you-
or I-react with horror to the story of the girl captured and enslaved by
Comanches who touched a firebrand to her nose every time they wanted
to wake her up, it’s because we read this as a story about cruelty and
suffering, and not as a story about the conventions of prisoner exchange
or the economics of Comanche life. The seeing of the story as a cause
for alarm rather than as a droll anecdote or a piece of curious information
is evidence of values we already hold, of judgments already made, of
facts already perceived as facts.
My problem presupposed that I couldn’tjudge because I didn’t know
what the facts were. All I had, or could have, was a series of different
perspectives, and so nothing that would count as an authoritative source
on which moral judgments could be based. But, as I have just shown, I
did judge, and that is because, as I now think, I did have some facts. I
seemed to accept as facts that ninety percent of the native American
population of New England died after the first hundred years of contact,
that tribes in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States had a
compact with the game they killed, that Comanches had subjecte captive girl to casual cruelty, that King Philip smoked a pipe, and so It was only where different versions of the same event came into conf that I doubted the text was a record of something real. And even the there was no question about certain major catastrophes. I believed tha four hundred Pequots were killed near Saybrook, that Winthrop was t Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when it happened, and on. My sense that certain events, such as the Pequot War, did occur i no way reflected the indecisiveness that overtook me when I tried to choose among the various historical versions. In fact, the need I felt make up my mind was impelled by the conviction that certain things hThis content downloaded from on Wed, 07 Sep 2016 20:09:23 UTC
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 117
happened that shouldn’t have happened. Hence it was never the case
that “what happened” was completely unknowable or unavailable. It’s
rather that in the process of reading so many different approaches to
the same phenomenon I became aware of the difference in the attitudes
that informed these approaches. This awareness of the interests motivating
each version cast suspicion over everything, in retrospect, and I ended
by claiming that there was nothing I could know. This, I now see, was
never really the case. But how did it happen?
Someone else, confronted with the same materials, could have decided
that one of these historical accounts was correct. Still another person
might have decided that more evidence was needed in order to decide
among them. Why did I conclude that none of the accounts was accurate
because they were all produced from some particular angle of vision?
Presumably there was something in my background that enabled me to
see the problem in this way. That something, very likely, was post-struc-
turalist theory. I let my discovery that Vaughan was a product of the
fifties, Jennings of the sixties, Rowlandson of a Puritan worldview, and
so on lead me to the conclusion that all facts are theory dependent
because that conclusion was already a thinkable one for me. My inability
to come up with a true account was not the product of being situated
nowhere; it was the product of certitude that existed somewhere else, namely,
in contemporary literary theory. Hence, the level at which my indecision
came into play was a function of particular beliefs I held. I was never in
a position of epistemological indeterminacy, I was never en abyme. The
idea that all accounts are perspectival seemed to give me a superior
standpoint from which to view all the versions of “what happened,” and
to regard with sympathetic condescension any person so old-fashioned
and benighted as to believe that there really was some way of arriving
at the truth. But this skeptical standpoint was just as firm as any other.
The fact that it was also seriously disabling-it prevented me from coming
to any conclusion about what I had read-did not render it any less
At this point something is beginning to show itself that has up to
now been hidden. The notion that all facts are only facts within a perspective
has the effect of emptying statements of their content. Once I had Miller
and Vaughan and Jennings, Martin and Hudson, Axtell and Heard,
Rowlandson and Wood and Whitaker, and Kupperman; I had Europeans
and Indians, ships and canoes, wigwams and log cabins, bows and arrows
and muskets, wigs and tattoos, whisky and corn, rivers and forts, treaties
and battles, fire and blood-and then suddenly all I had was a meta-
statement about perspectives. The effect of bringing perspectivism to
bear on history was to wipe out completely the subject matter of history.
And it follows that bringing perspectivism to bear in this way on any
subject matter would have a similar effect; everything is wiped out and
you are left with nothing but a single idea-perspectivism itself.
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118 Jane Tompkins “Indians”
But-and it is a crucial but-all this is true only if you believe that
there is an alternative. As long as you think that there are or should be
facts that exist outside of any perspective, then the notion that facts are
perspectival will have this disappearing effect on whatever it touches.
But if you are convinced that the alternative does not exist, that there
really are no facts except as they are embedded in some particular way
of seeing the world, then the argument that a set of facts derives from
some particular worldview is no longer an argument against that set of
facts. If all facts share this characteristic, to say that any one fact is
perspectival doesn’t change its factual nature in the slightest. It merely
reiterates it.
This doesn’t mean that you have to accept just anybody’s facts. You
can show that what someone else asserts to be a fact is false. But it does
mean that you can’t argue that someone else’s facts are not facts because
they are only the product of a perspective, since this will be true of the facts
that you perceive as well. What this means then is that arguments about
“what happened” have to proceed much as they did before post-struc-
turalism broke in with all its talk about language-based reality and culturally
produced knowledge. Reasons must be given, evidence adduced, authorities
citied, analogies drawn. Being aware that all facts are motivated, believing
that people are always operating inside some particular interpretive
framework or other is a pertinent argument when what is under discussion
is the way beliefs are grounded. But it doesn’t give one any leverage on
the facts of a particular case.21
What this means for the problem I’ve been addressing is that I must
piece together the story of European-Indian relations as best I can, believing
this version up to a point, that version not at all, another almost entirely,
according to what seems reasonable and plausible, given everything else
that I know. And this, as I’ve shown, is what I was already doing in the
back of my mind without realizing it, because there was nothing else I
could do. If the accounts don’t fit together neatly, that is not a reason
for rejecting them all in favor of a metadiscourse about epistemology;
on the contrary, one encounters contradictory facts and divergent points
of view in practically every phase of life, from deciding whom to marry
to choosing the right brand of cat food, and one decides as best one can
given the evidence available. It is only the nature of the academic situation
which makes it appear that one can linger on the threshold of decision
in the name of an epistemological principle. What has really happened
in such a case is that the subject of debate has changed from the question
of what happened in a particular instance to the question of how knowledge
21. The position I’ve been outlining is a version of neopragmatism. For an exposition,
see Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago,
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Critical Inquiry Autumn 1986 119
is arrived at. The absence of pressure to decide what happened creates
the possibility for this change of venue.
The change of venue, however, is itself an action taken. In diverting
attention from the original problem and placing it where Miller did, on
“the mind of man,” it once again ignores what happened and still is
happening to American Indians. The moral problem that confronts me
now is not that I can never have any facts to go on, but that the work I
do is not directed toward solving the kinds of problems that studying
the history of European-Indian relations has awakened me to.
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