Friday, December 4, 2009

With us the name of the savage is a byword of reproach - Francis Parkman's insensitivities, such as they are

When Francis Parkman traveled up the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1846, he had already decided, at age 22, to write a massive, multi-volume history of the "American forest," as he described the subject.  He meant the exploration and settlement of French America, and the conflicts with the English.   At the center of the work, always, were a dizzying variety of Native Americans.  Parkman thought he needed to get to know them.  Thus, his trip west, his sojourn with a band of Lakota Sioux, and his first book, The Oregon Trail

Parkman was violating my Guideline #1, letting the culture of one group (one subgroup of one group) stand in for the whole.  Thus his all-too-common generalizations about the "mind" or "character" of the Indian.  In fairness, though, Parkman's descriptions seem more observed than received.  But today's historians have to be more careful.

Another problem for - I was about to say "the modern reader," but I mean "me" - is Parkman's incessant use of the word "savage."  Here, he's using a word that is essentially forbidden now.  Too many malignant connotations are attached to it.  Yet Parkman does say, in The Conspiracy of Pontiac, just what he means:

With us the name of the savage is a byword of reproach.  The Indian would look with equal scorn on those who, buried in useless lore, are blind and deaf to the great world of nature. (end of Ch. 5)

Or later, describing a soldier's murder of a group of Shawnee, including his own wife and children, for the price of the scalps, Parkman writes:

His desertion was pardoned; he was employed as an interpreter, and ordered to accompany the troops on the intended expedition.  His example is one of many in which the worst acts of Indian ferocity have been thrown into shade by the enormities of white barbarians. (Ch. 27)

It's here in The Conspiracy of Pontiac, actually, that Parkman presented the proof (which he discovered) that English officers considered using smallpox-infested blankets as a weapon against the Indians (see Chapter 19).  Parkman was appalled; professional, but appalled.  He never violated Guideline #3: to Parkman, Native Americans were people.

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