Cass and the Cherokee

cc136 at cc136 at
Sun Feb 24 20:07:24 MST 2002

        Thanks, Louis, for the posts on Cass and the Cherokee.
Coincidentally, I've just finished reading David Rich Lewis' excellent
book, "Neither Wolf nor Dog: American Indians, Environment & Agrarian
Change."  Lewis also puts Cass clearly in the stagist camp:

"This stage theory of progressive development from savage to barbarian to
civilized society found fertile ground in the American atmosphere of
agrarian idealism and revolutionary egalitarianism.  It offered American
leaders a powerful intellectual tool in the debate over Indian policy.
Thomas Jerrerson, Bejamin Rush, and Albert Gallatin placed American
Indians in this teleological hierarchy and canonized the belief that they
must advance toward civilization through these stages or become extinct.
Lewis Cass and William Clark, superintendents of Indian affairs on the
western frontiers of an expanding United States, echoed this
developmental framework in their reports and writings." (9)

At the same time, we shouldn't let Cass off too easily - he clearly must
have known the extent of his own hypocrisy, and the extent to which these
Cherokee, as well as nations throughout the East, relied on sedentary
agriculture.  Lewis states:

"Despite the rhetorical emphasis on agrarian civilization, federal Indian
policy was implicitly one of removal and the extinguishments of Indian
land rights.  In the 1820s and 1830s, officials formulating removal spoke
in terms of the inevitable displacement of 'savages' by advanced agrarian
societies yet stressed their commitment to assisting tribes in new
'happily adapted' to agriculture.  Rationales for removing successful
agricultural tribes like the Cherokees were twisted and full of
The Georgia Assembly went so far as to argue that Cherokees 'had no right
to alter their condition and become husbandmen' after they had conclude
treaties reserving their right to use the land as hunters." (15)

Such hypocrisy was not new, of course.  It reflected a very old tradition
within Anglo colonialism in North America going back to the beginning.
Following many other scholars, Lewis writes: "Early European explorers
noted the extensive fields and grain reserves of eastern Indian farmers,
early colonists in Virginia and New England appropriated Indian crops,
and methods to their advantage and salvation."  Early colonists like John
Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in fact boasted
their good fortune.  Only later did successive generations think it
to invent reasons for their actions that purported to be in the best
of native peoples (an interesting ideological development which might be
analyzed in its own right).

Another point which should be noted is the extent to which the colonists
were acutely aware of native sexual divisions of labor.  In reality, the
that women did much of the field work was an important point of criticism
in the ideological war against native peoples.  Again, in Lewis' words:

"They looked down on native systems, which were seasonally variable
and diverse, which included non-domesticants, and balanced labor with
leisure, accumulation with subsistence.  From their perspective, native
agriculture did not conform to civilized standards, for Indians raised
a limited number of plants in poorly cultivated, intercropped fields,
for by women.  In the Euro-American view, this division of labor firmly
discredited Indian cultivation.  Women were to occupy themselves with
the domestic arts of homemaking while men tended the fields." (11)

In other words, colonists clearly viewed native peoples through
eyes, they also often had an understanding of native pratices (not their
contextual meaning, of course).  We should not say that colonists and
apologists for genocide simply 'overlooked', or 'paid scant attention to'
the details of native practices.

Of course, as Michael noted, the colonists tended to overplant
commodity crops on the former lands of displaced native nations.  Not
did this tend to reflect the class and ethnic divisions amongst
colonists, it
also tended to deplete the soil, to increase soil erosion and to
environmental degradation.  Much of these negative consequences resulted
from the political-ecological circumstances in which colonists found
themselves in North America.  Whereas many Anglos and Irish had practiced
communal agriculture which had encouraged sustainable agricultural
(field rotation, etc.).  With the supposed 'inexhaustible' and 'virgin'
lands of
North America, much traditional knowledge was lost, a fact which leaders
such as Thomas Jefferson often lamented.


Chris Carrick
PhD Candidate
Department of City and Regional Planning
Cornell University

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