Moonsu Shin | 2007. 04.
In December 1607, John Smith, one of the English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, was captured by the local Native Americans while traveling upstream along the Chickahominy River to gather food for the winter. When Chief Powhatan ordered the execution of this foreigner, his daughter Pocahontas ran out and threw herself on Smith’s body, begging her father to spare the man’s life. Taking this unexpected incident as a divine sign, the chieftain took back his order and released the alien, even providing him with food. Thanks to these provisions, the English colonists were able to survive the winter.
Three hundred years later, in August 1911, in Oroville, a small town near the Sacramento River in northern California, a Native American was captured by the local residents. The sheriff of Oroville jailed and started to interrogate this exhausted, emaciated man. He tried all possible Native American languages in addition to English and Spanish, but to no avail. It was only through professors of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, that the mysterious Indian was finally identified. After attempting a conversation based on their list of extinct Native American vocabulary, the scholars realized that this man was a member of the Yahi, a branch of the Yana nation, who had lived at the foot of Lassen Peak nearby but had been massacred. Subsequently named “Ishi,” which means “man” in the Yana language, he spent 4 years at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco, and died in March 1916 of infection from tuberculosis, a disease of civilization. With his death, the Yahi nation was obliterated from the face of the earth.
The two episodes above epitomize the sorrowful history of Native Americans, who declined as a result of the intrusion of white Christian civilization. In the early 17th century, when full-fledged exchange between the two civilizations began, North America is thought to have been home to at least 20 million Native Americans with 500 disparate languages. However, by the early 20th century, when Ishi, dubbed the “Last Stone-Age Indian in North America,” died, over 250 of the some 500 original Native American nations had been annihilated, and there were only 250,000 survivors in all of North America. Native Americans would never even have dreamed that their encounter with these pale-skinned strangers would lead to such atrocious results in just three centuries. Indeed, they were friendly to white invaders at first. Native Americans guided white men, provided them with food, and taught them to fish and to farm the land. The numerous Native Americans who have been mythologized in white American history such as Pocahontas, Squanto, and Sacagawea attest to such beneficent, amicable relations in the early days. The friendly relations between the two parties did not last long, however. As they became accustomed to the unfamiliar environment and increased in numbers, white colonists began to turn their eyes to and covet the land on which Native Americans had lived for generations. To protect their homeland, Native Americans had no choice but to fight back against such greed and despoliation.
In this struggle, however, Native Americans nearly always lost to white men, who were armed with the superior technology of their civilization. Consequently, the battle line continued to shift westward. Along the Appalachians when white colonists broke free from British rule and founded the United States, this line moved westward at an increasing rate so that, by the 1830’s, 50 years after independence, it had shifted to the Mississippi River, then to the Rockies, finally to reach the Pacific coast of California by 1849, 20 years later, thanks to the Gold Rush.
At a history conference organized to commemorate the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner called the line of this battle, besmeared with conquest, exploitation, and slaughter, the “meeting point between savagery and civilization” and summarized American history as a history of the movement of the frontier, or one of the progress of civilization in conquering a savage land. Even before this, in 1890, in completing a national census, the United States Census Bureau had defined a “frontier” as any area with a population density of fewer than two people per square mile and had declared that there no longer existed a frontier line in America. This official statement from the United States government that the frontier had disappeared from America held more than a demographic significance. At the end of the same year, on December 29, United States government troops ruthlessly massacred, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, over 350 members of the Miniconjou, a branch of the Lakota nation, who were among the last to continue opposing the federal government’s land expropriation policy. Consequently, finally extinguished was Native Americans’ resistance against white men, which had continued locally in the South and the West following California’s admission to the Union in 1850.
Native American nations who had avoided extinction and survived into the 20th century continued to lead lives of banishment on their own land, out of touch with the rest of the world and dependent on rations and pensions doled out by the United States government, on “reservations” designated by the same government. Nor, for that matter, was white men’s infiltration quite over. White men all too often would trespass on the reservations in pursuit of the cattle they had put to graze; dug up Native Americans’ abodes in search of ore, uranium, or oil; and once again forced them to relocate, on the pretext of building dams and power plants. After a century of such calamities, the Native American population has increased to approximately 2.5 million today. However, the majority still suffers from abject poverty, placed on the lowest rung of the social ladder even in comparison with other non-white populations. Moreover, due to prolonged dependence on the government’s “protection,” they have lost their languages and most of their cultural traditions. Even the few remaining rituals have fallen to the status of spectacles for tourists thanks to the onslaught of commercialism.
Few today would accept Turner’s view that westward expansion was the progress of civilization. Nor did he himself see the movement purely as a process of transplanting white civilization. Turner stressed that white Christian civilization had continued to change and to renew itself after its initial crossing of the Atlantic because of contact with “savagery” and that such modifications had consequently served as the basis of Americans’ unique social customs and national character. He is limited, however, because he viewed the process solely from the perspective of the conqueror. Nevertheless, his argument that a correct understanding of the dynamic interaction between white civilization and Native American civilization must be the heart of American history is valid to this day.
I say this because the history of the conquest of the West, despite the large share that it occupies in the American national memory, fails to garner the spotlight that it deserves and needs. As Patricia Nelson Limerick, the author of the outstanding The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, has stated with concern, the history of the West remains on the periphery of American history. The history of viewing African-Americans, yet another group victimized in the Americanization process, as the other has won considerable attention as a result of the civil rights movement and in relation to racial discrimination, which continues to be a serious social problem. On the contrary, the conquest of the West and its legacy have yet to be discussed in full. It is difficult to deny that, consequently, the West in the American popular imagination is still colored by Hollywood’s romanticized aura and seen as the site of struggle between lonely, brave white pioneers and evil “Injuns.”
Recent discussions that examine the opening of the West in terms of colonialism or imperialism urge us to see the situation from a balanced perspective by placing the focus not on the conquerors but on the conquered, the Native Americans. However, even such efforts have been limited by the fact that Native American cultures were fundamentally oral. Without records, it is difficult to obtain the testimony of the defeated that can cancel out the victors’ one-sided rhetoric. This is why the history not only of the West but also of the United States is liable to double distortion. We must therefore examine the system of doxa, the idées fixes and popular myths incited by white men’s one-sided records, if we are to grasp the West correctly and, based on such an understanding, to arrive at in-depth knowledge of American society. Such a task includes and demands, as I have mentioned above, the effort to resurrect the voices of the others who have been marginalized and silenced by the language of power and, at the same time, to resist the temptation of historical simplification and schematization. In other words, even progressive stances on the side of history’s losers can unwittingly depreciate Native Americans’ active, autonomous participation in the historical process by depicting them solely as the victims of white expansionism.
Although it has been dominated largely by a logic of violent force, the relationship between Native Americans and white men has at times been one of dialogue and compromise as well. From 1632, when Chief Powhatan and English colonists in Virginia contracted a peace treaty, to 1871, when the United States government decided no longer to contract such treaties with Native Americans, a total of 389 treaties were signed between the two parties. As the Lakota chieftain Sitting Bull argued, almost none of these treaties were faithfully adhered to. However, the responsibility for breaching the treaties did not lie solely with white men, either. Internal conflict and dissension among Native Americans had a considerable effect as well. Sitting Bull himself was the chieftain of the Lakota nation, which consisted of seven branch nations; Powhatan was the head of a federation of 32 nations spread out in the Chesapeake Bay area. Consequently, depending on their respective self-interest, even branches ultimately belonging to the same nation could either collaborate with or resist against white men. In other words, because Native Americans who collaborated with or maintained armed resistance against the United States government were all acting on complex motivations, collaborators cannot be seen solely as traitors and the reason for resistance may not always have been motivated by tribal loyalty.
The same holds true for white men as well. While citing Manifest Destiny to justify its conquest of the West, white society at times has betrayed contradictory attitudes and perspectives depending on the situation. This is because white men could not but hesitate when they felt that their policy of imperialistic despoliation went against social conscience or the cause of justice. A pluralistic and complex viewpoint is therefore all the more needed, as I have stressed above.
This volume of photo essays by photographer Mr. Seung-hyun Sohn is one fruit of such invaluable efforts. Moreover, it is the product of the artist’s personal participation in “Omaka Tokatakiya,” a 15-day horse riding event begun in 1986 by the Lakota nation of South Dakota to commemorate the spirits of their ancestors massacred at Wounded Knee and to recover their identity. Even when we do come in contact we Native American cultures, they are usually likely to be distorted—commercialized rituals and spectacles for tourists. The images that Mr. Sohn presents in this book, however, are more than those by a mere bystander. Because they are the fruit of his participation in the event despite the cold weather and his sharing of joy and sorrow with the Native Americans, with due respect for the spirit behind the event, these images betray deep empathy and understanding. This is why they are so moving.
The United States has been Korea’s foremost partner throughout the modern era. Despite such close relations, however, it is doubtful whether we are as knowledgeable of American society as we should be. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that our understanding of American society focuses either on political relations as represented by the Korean-American alliance or on superficial images distorted through the prism of pop culture such as Hollywood. America remains a close yet far country, a familiar yet unfamiliar society. That is why these impressionistic sketches by Mr. Sohn, who personally experienced Native American cultures, are all the more valuable. This volume is a sign that Korean society, at last, has transcended such superficial understanding and come to have a deeper, more balanced perspective. I strongly hope that this book will serve as a stepping-stone for many people in grasping the reality of American society on their own.
Moonsu Shin (Professor, Seoul National University; American literature major)