Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Cows, and Coming Home

This week (Saturday the 23rd) marks the 200th anniversary of the return of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Earlier in the month the Corps of Discovery passed several traders' pirogues heading up the Missouri River, but on September 20th, 1806 -- two centuries ago today -- they encountered their first definite sign of European settlement in two years: cattle. "We saw some cows on the bank," William Clark reported, "which was a joyful sight to the party and caused a shout to be raised for joy." (William Bakeless, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, 382.)

It may seem a comical episode, but it also helps affirm Alfred Crosby's observation that the most important feature of early modern European expansion was the "portmanteau biota" Europeans brought with them: cattle, sheep, horses, swine, rabbits, wheat, grapes, peaches, various weed species, and epidemic diseases like smallpox. These plants, animals, and microbes provided European colonists with larger and more reliable supplies of food, fiber, and animal energy than their indigenous competitors, not to mention a biological arsenal (however inadvertantly used) that was far more lethal than Europeans' muskets and artillery. William Clark didn't mention all this in his journal entry, of course, but he did suggest that the most characteristic sound of Euro-American civilization in 1806 was not the pealing of church bells or the clanking of steam engines, but rather the mooing of American settlers' bovine vanguard.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Latest Craze with All the Kids Today

In last week's post I mentioned that one of the Inuit who sojourned in Europe in the 1560s had facial tattoos, which were quite common among 16th-century Eskimo men and women. Such tattoos fell out of fashion by the early 20th century, but appear to be making a partial comeback, according to a story in the September 17, 2006 issue of the Anchorage Daily News. Author Alex Demarban reports that several women from the Inupiat community of Barrow, Alaska are reviving the practice of tattooing their chins (usually with blue stripes or circular patterns of dots), as a way of honoring their ancestors and cultural heritage. One man, a whaler, is planning to tattoo a whale-tail necklace on his chest to record his kills.

"Tattoos were common throughout Alaska for hundreds of years," Demarban reports. "Some elder seamstresses used bird-bone needles...sinew, thread, and soot to decorate human canvasses, said Lars Krutak, an anthropologist who studied the custom in Alaska and elsewhere. For women who bore elaborate designs across faces and necks to enhance beauty or fertility, it was a painful rite of passage...For hunters, the etchings - usually dark blue - boosted bravery and could ward off evil spirits."

According to Demarban and Krutak, Christian missionaries and boarding schools were responsible for "stamping out" Inuit facial and chest tattoos, though the indigenous inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island continued the practice into the 1920s. It remains to be seen whether the current revival of facial tattoos is just a quirky decision by a few isolated people, or whether it becomes a larger cultural trend. If the latter is the case, we will at last be able to use the words "major cultural trend" and "Barrow, Alaska" in the same sentence.

Monday, September 11, 2006

New Prey: Voyagers to the East Part IX (redux)

For the previous entry in this series, click here. For the original Part IX, click here.

In their essay "This New Prey: Eskimos in Europe in 1567, 1576, and 1577" (in Christian Feest, ed., Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays [Nebraska, 1999], 61-140), William Sturtevant and David Quinn provide some additional information on these involuntary travelers. The Inuit who came to Europe in 1567 were a woman and her 7-year-old daughter, captured by French or Basque sailors in Labrador the previous year, and put on display in Antwerp and the Hague. A contemporary woodcut portrays the two captives wearing hooded sealskin parkas and shows the unidentified woman's facial tattoos; a German handbill describes them as "wild people and man-eaters" and expresses the hope that mother and daughter were both converted to Christianity (130-131). Sturtevant and Quinn assert, however, that "they cannot have survived long and certainly never saw their homeland again" (68).

It's a fair guess, because none of the four Inuit whom Frobisher took to England in 1576 and '77 survived for more than a few weeks. The unnamed Inuit man captured in 1576 caught cold while at sea and "died about 15 days after arriving in London" (72). Frobisher and his partners bought medicine and bedding for the man, and paid for his coffin and burial in Saint Olave churchyard, at a total cost of 8 pounds sterling. The three Inuit captured in 1577 -- a man named Kalicho, a woman named Arnaq, and a baby named Nutaaq -- lived only slightly longer. Kalicho was well enough to display his canoeing and duck-hunting skills on the Avon River in October 1577, but he soon sickened and died, probably of an infected lung. Arnaq and Nutaaq died of unspecified causes in early November. Kalicho and Arnaq were interred at St. Stephen's Church in Bristol and Nutaaq at Saint Olave Church in London. (84).

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Plus ca Change...

While reading Georges Lefebvre's 1939 history of The Coming of the French Revolution , I was struck by the uncanny similarities between the French monarchy's fiscal crisis -- the same crisis that destroyed Louis XVI's government -- and the financial problems of the modern United States government. The Bourbons ran regular budget deficits for most of the 18th century, and by 1788 the annual French deficit had grown to one-fifth of the size of total government outlays. Lefebvre quotes a 1788 budget forecast projecting public expenditures of 629 million livres and revenues of 503 million livres, resulting in a nominal deficit of 126 million livres. The actual deficit, however, was ultimately higher because a poor harvest throttled tax revenues.

Meanwhile, decades of borrowing had created a mammoth national debt and interest payments that crowded out other forms of public spending. In 1788 the French government spent 25% of its money on royal and civil expenses, another 25% on its army and navy -- and a crippling 50% on debt service. France's creditors had reached the end of their patience and would no longer loan money without huge concessions: the national Bank of Discount, for instance, only agreed to float a 100-million-livre loan if the King allowed its notes to circulate as legal tender. (Lefebvre, pp. 21-22)

The regime could not raise existing taxes to cover the shortfall because the commoners, who paid most taxes, had no more money to give. Between 1741 and 1785 "prices had risen 65 per cent and wages only 22 per cent" (p. 23); meanwhile, rents rose by 98%. As in the modern United States, the earnings of ordinary workers -- laborers and tenant farmers, in this case -- were stagnating or declining relative to inflation, while a few landlords and merchants were getting quite rich. Moreover, the wealthiest Frenchmen -- bishops, aristocrats, and rich bourgeois -- were partially or totally exempt from paying taxes. Sound familiar?

The French monarchy had only two ways out of its bind: it could inflate its debt out of existence, which in practice it was beginning to do (by monetizing the Bank of Discount's notes), or require the privileged orders to pay their fair share of taxes. When the King and his councillors chose the latter course, they caused the Breton nobility to rise in rebellion, and other nobles and jurists to demand the calling of the Estates-General, a concession which Louis XVI finally granted and which led to the end of the Old Regime.

The early 21st-century United States hasn't reached the same crisis point, but the comparable data are not reassuring. In FY 2006 U.S. tax receipts equalled $2.18 trillion, over 80% of which came from income and FICA taxes, while outlays equalled $2.57 trillion. 11% of last year's outlays ($390 billion) were financed with deficit spending. Interest payments on the national debt ($210 billion) equalled 8.2% of federal expenditures -- well below the French level, but greater than annual federal spending on Medicaid or combined annual federal spending on education, the environment, and foreign aid, and close to half of the United States' current defense spending (17%).* Finally, median household income in the United States has been stagnant since 1973 and has dropped an average of 2.8% since 2000, while prices have risen 17.5% during the past six years and 365% since 1973. (Sources: Concord Coalition, Washington Monthly [citing U.S. Census Bureau figures], Inflation Calculator.)

Is the United States on the verge of its own Bastille Day? Not exactly -- but we've been headed in that direction for thirty years (the late 1990s excepted), and some of our leaders seem determined to speed up the parade.

* The largest federal expenditures remain Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which collectively account for 45% of the budget; Paul Krugman isn't exaggerating when he calls the U.S. government "a mammoth insurance company with an incorporated army."