American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 8: Phase IV – Academic Research and the Museumizing of Indian Culture

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

Even as the Native Americans were being killed, relocated, and systematically subjected to conditions of genocide, there was considerable interest in governmental and private circles for documenting and preserving important aspects of the culture in museums and books. This was sometimes fired by the quest for knowledge or reputation via authorship. Often the motivation was money through “ownership” of soft and hard knowledge in the form of traveling exhibits. Former frontiersmen who had made their mark as “Indian fighters,” along with missionaries and officials who ruled over the defeated natives, jumped on the latest bandwagon to document, paint and later photograph various aspects of Native American life, including languages. Thus a famous Indian-fighting general wrote to a famous Indian Office administrator, urging him to collect such materials for the sake of history, before the tribes entirely disappeared. Often there were only one or two surviving members left of the great tribes (Drinnon 1997, p. 194). 

Field agents and missionaries who were collecting data on Native American languages and vocabularies were urged to be especially attentive to any “last man of his tribe—to get from him the words [of his language]. Such a man may be looked upon as a connecting link between time and eternity, as to all that regards his people; and which, if it be lost all that relates to his tribe is gone forever” (Drinnon 1997, p. 192). 

Writers, painters, Indian fighters, administrators, philanthropists, and missionaries all got into this act. They knew that lining up the right partnerships with the right “Indian experts” to produce these books, illustrations, and traveling exhibits could be immensely profitable, and would make reputations as sought after “experts.” 

One such famous author teamed up with an Indian fighter/administrator and urged a well-known painter of scenes from Native American life, urging him to join up in illustrating a forthcoming work on native history: “(If you) . . . join us, we shall have in our hands a complete monopoly; no other work can compete with that which we could make.” And this could lead to “immense profit” (Drinnon 1997, pp. 194–195). This book went on to become the definitive nineteenth-century history of the Native Americans, the multi-volume McKenney and Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America, bringing the authors money and glory. 

This is an important lesson to draw as it remains quite true today: Interest shown in any ethnic group by well-paid American academics is not necessarily due to genuine altruism and deep sympathy with that group.

Ultimately the goal in many cases is to gain approval and validation in the form of job appointments, research grants, promotions and an ego-boosting collection of students—that is, validation not from the humans being studied, but from one’s own peer group and from the prevailing establishment.

The deep culture has created institutional mechanisms of peer-review, funding, tenure, censure and promotions that all scholars must live with.

Independent scholarly research, especially on cultures of non-Whites, is unlikely to happen unless American scholars’ work is scrutinized and the framework seriously challenged from outside, that is, by scholars of the “other” culture being studied or American intellectuals outside the academy. 

Scholarly histories of the Native Americans also portrayed their barbarity and savagery to the fullest extent possible. They were depicted as “fierce, rapacious and untamable” (Hall 1978, p. 104); also “we find the Indian, when seeking revenge . . . becomes processed of an insatiate and insane thirst for blood, which impels him to feed his passion, not only to the carnage of the helpless of the human race, but even by slaughter of domestic animals” (Hall 1978, p. 112). It was also common in scholarly works, as well as in the popular literature, to dehumanize Native Americans by comparing them physically and culturally with animals— wolves, snakes and vultures were the tropes used, explicitly or implicitly (Drinnon 1997, p. 197). Sometimes an individual’s criminal acts were not blamed on the individual’s character—as would be the case for a White person committing the same crime—but rather his culture and religion were blamed as “savage.” Thus we have this scholarly expression of sympathy for the Indian’s low moral development: “. . . he has never been taught those lessons of humanity which have, under the guidance of civilization and Christianity, stripped war of its more appalling horrors, and without which we should be no less savage than the Indians” (Hall 1978, pp. 201–202). The end result was that he must be “cured” of his religion and culture or else be destroyed. 

A crucially important factor in reinforcing this message was the lack of balance in gathering and presenting opposing data or having voices from the other side that would evaluate the values and power structures linked to Whiteness or Christianity as important factors in the conflict.

The atrocity literature did not document the greater savagery and the many unprovoked attacks and systematic massacres committed by White Christians against the Native Americans. 

Drinnon notes dryly that it is unclear what the Native Americans themselves thought of this great interest that was being shown in the dying tribes, cultures, religions and languages by many of the same people who were directly and indirectly responsible for their extinction. However the data collectors were powerful and the native informants, translators and interpreters had little choice and provided whatever the various scholars sought. It is likely that this scholarly “recording” and “museumizing” of the Native American, while simultaneously carrying out popular denigration, missionary conversions and gradual genocide among them, helped assuage the American conscience. By showing that Americans were appreciating and memorializing the Native Americans—albeit as objects of the “dead past” to be gazed at—it legitimized the sense of the historical “inevitability” and destined “melting-away” of the Native American, absolving the predator culture of any culpability. 

Another method to shield the self-image from these unsavory aspects of America’s past is to not talk about it. Popular works on American history often block negatives—both of the Western intellectual tradition’s “soft power” attacks on others as well as of America’s hard power actions. James Loewen explains: “Most historians were males from privileged White families. They wrote with blinders on. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., found himself able to write an entire book on the presidency of Andrew Jackson without ever mentioning perhaps the foremost issue Jackson dealt with as president: the removal of Indians from the Southeast. What’s more, Schlesinger’s book won the Pulitzer prize” (Loewen 1996, p. 273)!20

While many of today’s best American historians (including those quoted in this chapter) are more forthright and do critique the Christian and Enlightenment lapses of the past, this knowledge of the dark side is still debated mainly in closed academic circles, and does not loom large in the public understanding of America. Indeed Americans are understandably uncomfortable when this dark history is presented. 

This mythic self-righteousness hides the extended genocide of Native Americans in the basement of America’s collective memory in order to prevent guilt. This helps to preserve the deep culture, whose many benign and truly admirable characteristics get highlighted.

But unfortunately, it also prevents Americans from learning from this experience and examining the particular strains in their collective mythology and national character that caused these tragedies and that continue to manifest in their dealings with non-European, non-Christian cultures. Native Americans, as living and vibrant cultures, religions and peoples, are almost extinct. But their memories are preserved in museums, and their names live on as automobile models, team names, commercial brands, place names, and so on. Individuals and groups among them appear to prosper as “civilized” and “exotic” casino operators, who are part and parcel of the American landscape rather than a challenge to it. 

In sharp contrast there is a large White guilt toward Blacks, primarily because, unlike Native Americans, Blacks live in the mainstream in large numbers, have a group identity, and have become mobilized as a voice that will not go away. Very importantly, Black scholars have also developed a sterling intellectual tradition that reverses the gaze on White culture, and have tried to challenge White frameworks by adopting Afro-centric frameworks.

To be continued ..

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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