Monday, November 27, 2017

First Peoples in Revolution


Age of Revolutions has just finished (more or less) a series on Native Americans in the era of the American Revolution. The authors in the series wrote of efforts by the Iroquois, one of the groups most devastated by the Revolutionary War, to mitigate conflict between their own Six Nations. They studied the Chickasaws’ successful balancing of their alliance with Britain (and the vital supplies it brought) with their desire to stay out of another damaging war. They noted how the Odawas used Britain's growing demand for their military services to leverage greater material concessions from the Crown. They described how traditional masculinity, the desire to defend hunting grounds and display martial valor, drew some Cherokee men into the conflict, and how some Cherokee leaders sought to cool the tempers of warriors from the Chickamauga faction. One looked at eastern Native Americans’ efforts to mitigate the destruction of the war by shifting to a new, diversified commercial economy. One, Andrew Frank, found the Revolution a non-event from the perspective of nations like the early Seminoles.


Most of the series’ writers agree, I think, that Native Americans did not view the American Revolution as a positive good. Why would they? The rebel colonists wanted freedoms that either endangered or did not apply to American Indians: the freedom to acquire more (indigenous) land, and freedom from arbitrary, non-consensual taxation Some First Peoples did share the rebels’ distaste for the British army, the intrusive force that radicalized rural New Englanders, white Carolinians, and others as the war progressed. Few, however, trusted the Patriots enough to join force with them against that army. Those few who did generally lived “behind the frontier” in New England reserve communities, or in districts like the Catawba homeland, a capsule of southern Indians surrounded by white backcountry settlers. Indians in these regions shared at least some interests with their white neighbors. Some First Peoples also supported the rebels because they believed the alliance would bring them political advantages, or because they had personal connections to colonists that preceded the Revolution (e.g. the Oneidas). The great majority of Native Americans, however, either supported George III or stayed out of the Revolutionary War altogether.

In general, in a global context, revolutionaries don't seem to make much effort to appeal to indigenous peoples. If one is trying to overthrow a state, it makes sense to focus one's recruitment efforts on the state's constituents, on those who have to pay its taxes and obey its laws, and who also have some stake in the political community. Indigenes, who usually live independently of state authority or (all too often) live in subjugation at its margins, don't make optimal targets for revolutionary persuasion. I don't believe the First French Republic made an outreach to the Guaranis of Guyana,* for instance, nor the Bolsheviks to indigenous Siberians (at least not during the Russian Revolution), nor Mao's communists to the Miao of southwestern China. Indeed, indigenous peoples often provide fighting men to counter-revolutionary forces, as did the Senecas and Creeks in the American Revolutionary War, the Mapuches (whom my friend and colleague Pilar Herr studies) in the Chilean independence war, and the Hmong in the Second Indochina War. Incumbent regimes enjoy more familiarity with the divide-and-conquer tactics, like the use of "ethnic soldiers,"** essential to most kinds of imperial rule. Indigenous peoples, for their part, quite rightly view radical social change as more of a threat than an opportunity, particularly if Europeans introduced that change. Regrettably, their experiences after the Age of Revolution would only ratify what they had already learned.


* The Republic's agents in the United States did try to recruit Creek and Cherokee warriors for a planned campaign against Saint Augustine, but no-one replied to their appeal. (Robert Alderson, Jr., This Bright Era of Happy Revolutions [South Carolina, 2008], 142-43, 160-61.)

** To borrow a term from Neil Whitehead. See his "Carib Ethnic Soldiering in Venezuela, the Guianas, and Antilles," Ethnohistory 37 (1990): 357-85.

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