The Indian World of George Washington, by Colin G Calloway

This is the kind of American history I wish they’d taught me in school.

It’s a story of intrigue, of diplomatic maneuvering between dozens of nations. Of military campaigns won and lost. Of peace betrayed and hope rekindled.

I would have eaten this stuff up. Did eat it up, when presented with the history of Europe in the Middle Ages or Japan’s Edo Period or China’s Warring States.

(Okay, so the latter two I only got exposed to via video games, not school, but still)

But teaching me this version of American history would have forced adults around me to acknowledge our part in this struggle. And most of the time, we were the villains.

We made treaties with Native American tribes, swearing to abide by some border line, and then promptly set about settling past that line. We struck deals with the leaders of individual villages and then insisted whole tribes adhere to them. And when those tribes refused to sign new treaties with us, establishing new boundary lines, we invaded, burned their villages to the ground, and slaughtered their people.

And Washington was at the heart of all of this.

As First President, he established the policy of buying Native American land when we could, and killing them all if they wouldn’t sell. He also pushed them to become “civilized,” which in his mind meant dropping their own culture — including their sustainable agriculture, their religion, and their gender roles — and adopting settler culture wholesale.

Why would he do this? Because he speculated in Native American land, buying up the “rights” to tracts that hadn’t been formerly ceded by any tribe. He needed those boundary lines pushed back, that land cleared of Native Americans, and then settled by Europeans, if he was to recoup any profits.

This is the part of American history that has white squatters fighting both Native Americans and elites back east for their “right” to seize land.

The part that has our very first treaty under the Constitution negotiated with a Native American tribe.

The part that has Washington taking time out of the Revolutionary War to have three armies loot and pillage their way through Iroquios territory, destroying crops and peaceful towns as they went.

And its the part that shows the Native Americans as what they were: A free people, with their own politics and divisions, struggling to deal with the invasion of their lands. Some sought peace, some wanted to fight, and some moved rather than deal with the Europeans. But all of them thought of themselves as their own nations, with control over their own territory, and their own sovereign rights.

Something Washington never conceded to them, and he embedded that denial in our relationships with the tribes from the start.

This sort of history is complicated, and Calloway does an fantastic job sorting through it. Amazingly, he condemns Washington’s mistakes without finger-wagging.

It’s enough to relate them truthfully. The First President condemns himself.

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