A Perspective on Our Indian/White History
Calumet County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History

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A Perspective on Our Indian/White History

Many of us are outraged at what Whites did to Indians. Even those of us who have as much or more White as Indian ancestry. There is certainly much to be outraged about. But here is another perspective.

The Whites arrived. Briefly Indians and Whites sometimes got along well. But everywhere, different perspectives quickly led to antagonisms and battle. Indians suffered most for diseases, which, with only a few exceptions, were no ones fault. Disease decimated Indian populations, produced leadership struggles to fill vacant positions and surely led many to even question their spiritual beliefs. Meanwhile, Whites kept arriving in ever larger numbers to soon greatly outnumber Indians.

Most Indians quickly became enamored with White technology. They found iron better than fire and rocks for cutting trees, better than rocks for butchering game and better for many other uses. Cloth is better than skins for clothing. Firearms are better than bows and arrows for hunting and battle. This does not mean that Indians were savages. We can easily argue that much of their varying cultures: their social, political and economic institutions were equal or superior to that of Whites. Especially for their demographic, technological and environmental situations. But like them, few if any of us would go back to living only with Indian or even White technology of the 1600s.

Wanting White technology, furs, wampum and land became important trade goods. Fierce intertribal rivalries soon resulted to control these resources, which Whites quickly exploited. Only rarely did intertribal coalitions result to oppose the Whites. Some Indians almost always joined with Whites to battle other Indians. In part, because Whites were generally more powerful allies than Indians. As for example, among the Mohegan, Pequot, Niantic, Narragansett and Montaukett.

Often noted are the scalping, torture and mutilation by both Indians and Whites during their battles. But battles between Indians were often just as brutal before the Whites arrived. And Whites practiced cruelty not only in war, but also as judicial punishment.

As among Indian tribes, there were differences among Whites of different nationalities. The French and Dutch were fairer than the English, who were prejudiced against all non-Whites. But within each nationality, some Whites treated Indians well and others treated them poorly. It only takes a few liars, cheaters, thieves and murderers to wreck havoc. And such people occurred among both Whites and Indians.

More important were the actions of authorities. Some White administrators tried to treat Indians well, especially those in closest contact and with most experience in dealing with Indians. But these were generally undermined by overwhelming numbers of Whites seeking land. Especially after the revolutionary war, the White administrators, treaty makers and legislators were responsive to their land hungry constituents. Unfair treaties were made and almost always broken due to the overwhelming numbers of White settlers, constituent pressure and tight budgets.

Both in New England and later in New York, members of each tribe tried various strategies to cope with terrible situations. Some (whom I call 'traditionalists') tried to maintain their traditional ways. Others (whom I call 'modernists') sought to learn English, Christianity and European style farming and other vocations. Still others succumbed to alcoholism. Many tried several or all three in various combinations. It was modernists who created the Stockbridge and Brothertown tribes and moved to Oneida lands in New York. About 50 years later, Stockbridge, Brothertown and modernists among the Oneida moved to Wisconsin. Among other tribes, the same splits occurred among those who chose differing strategies.

I stop here with the move of New York Indians to Wisconsin, without treating the later wars between Whites and other tribes, the trails of tears, massacres, changing BIA policies and other White mistreatment of Indians. But I ask a question about this early period that I have seldom seen posed or answered. What alternative history can you imagine and suggest as feasible?

Could Whites have visited the Americas, seen the resources and just sailed away never to return? Where else in history has this ever occurred? Could they have just established trading posts without immigrating, as the Japanese forced foreigners to do for several centuries? Once White settlers began coming in enormous numbers, could the buying or stealing of Indian lands have been prevented? Could Indian hunting and agriculture have survived the population pressure? Could the transition to White control have been done more fairly and less brutally? Even if changes occurred more humanely in the short run, would the long run have been much different.

We need to know our history and take steps to correct its ill effects. We also need to focus our attention upon building a better future. We must not let historical resentments become an escape from dealing with current issues. This is my opinion. I welcome the expression of other opinions, especially from those who have suffered more than I from the vicissitudes of our history.

This information was contributed by: Dave Thomas

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