Cherokee removal and Marxist theory

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Feb 24 11:23:50 MST 2002

I am currently reading a brief (143 pages) but powerfully argued and
researched book on Andrew Jackson's genocidal removal of the Cherokee
and other "civilized" Indian nations from their homeland in the
Southeast to west of the Mississippi. Titled "The Long Bitter Trail:
Andrew Jackson and the Indians" and written by Anthony Wallace, it
makes a strong case for seeing North American Indian society in much
more complex terms than is usually the case in "stagist" dominated

Instead of seeing indigenous peoples as an undifferentiated mass
belonging to the "savagery" or hunting-foraging stage of history,
Wallace joins with Eleanor Leacock and other Marxist-oriented
anthropologists in identifying ways in which the exception proved the
rule. For example, Leacock points out that the Northwest Indian
tribes were already at the early stages of a kind of tributary class
society when Columbus made his way to these shores. Fishing, instead
of agriculture, provided the surplus product for the maintenance of a
priestly/chiefly caste that might have evolved into a true class in
Marxist terms.

What I learned from Wallace is that Indians living in the Southeast
depended much more on horticulture than they did from hunting or
foraging. Moreover, there is ample evidence that their mode of
production is derived from Mexican indigenous societies from which
peoples like the Seminole, Chocktaw and Cherokee most certainly
sprang from. Wallace writes:

>>The Native Americans of the Southeast were the heirs of a highly
advanced pre-Columbian civilization, named by archaeologists the
"Mississippian Tradition," which was ultimately related to the high
cultures of Mexico and Central America. The variety of corn (Eastern
flint) that they grew originated among the Maya of Guatemala; the
Mississippian religious symbolism echoed Aztec motifs, presumably
brought north by traders from the Valley of Mexico. And like the Maya
and the Aztecs, the Middle Mississippians built large pyramidal
ceremonial mounds, some as high as 100 feet. A major Middle
Mississippian central area, with pyramid, plaza, residences, and a
perimeter defended by palisades and moats, might have as many as
forty thousand residents. All this implies a strong, centralized
administrative authority. At its apex, about A.D. 1200, the
Mississippian Tradition produced what anthropologist Charles Hudson,
a specialist on the Southeastern Indians, has called, perhaps too
enthusiastically, "the highest cultural achievement ... in all of
North America."<<

In all likelihood, the relatively advanced character of Southeast
Indian life made their transition to "civilization" much easier than
in the rest of the country, where hunting-and-foraging clashed with
the agricultural proclivities of the colonists. Indeed, the Georgia
Cherokee were in many ways identical to their white, Christian
neighbors even to the point of owning slaves.

This, however, did not prevent the ruling class from conspiring to
remove these peoples from Georgian and adjoining states. While
presented as an inexorable struggle between the forces of
"civilization" and "savagery", this was nothing more than a desire to
seize rich land on behalf of the oppressor nationality. The Cherokees
at this point were more of an obstacle to the class interests of
Anglo-American farmers rather than to capitalism as such. Even when
John Ross, landowning chief of the Cherokees and publisher of a
Cherokee language newspaper, invoked the laws of the constitution,
Andrew Jackson took the side of the Georgia planters whose Indian
removal policy was backed by state law.

The main ideological architect of the Indian removal policy was one
Lewis Cass (1782-1866) who was Superintendent of Indian Affairs for
the Michigan Territory and Secretary of War under Jackson at
different times in his career.

Cass's had a notion of a "hunter state." As Wallace describes it,
"The hunter state was a stage in the progress of mankind toward
civilization, a stage through which Europeans had long since passed.
The Indians of Eastern North America, both in the North and in the
South, he believed, still remained in the hunter state."

Anybody who has checked out my articles on Marxism and the American
Indian will immediately recognize the origins of Cass's thesis. It
comes from the rather widespread and deeply imbedded notion of
"stages" found in British and Scottish political economy that
preceded Marx. The notion of an evolution from hunting to farming to
manufacturing, etc. is not peculiar to Marxism. It found expression
in the vast corpus of colonialist apologetics that served to justify
primitive accumulation in the New World. This kind of ideology was
reinforced by the Victorian era Social Darwinism that also conceived
of history in schematic terms, where one kind of economic mode
displaced another because it was "fitter". Unfortunately, some of
this thinking continues to pervade Marxism. Bad as it is in terms of
theory, it has also led to terrible strategic and tactical mistakes
as witnessed in Sandinista Nicaragua.

There, of course, is only one problem with Cass's thesis as applied
to the Cherokee and other "civilized" tribes. It simply did not hold
water. Wallace writes:

>>Cass paid scant attention to one major fact: throughout the area
occupied by the Eastern Indians, horticulture, not hunting, actually
provided the staple foods of the native diet-corn, squash, and
beans-and fish and shellfish were as important as venison in
supplying protein. In this, as we now know, the Eastern Indians were
typical of horticultural or "neolithic"-level communities around the
world. And it may be noted that even traditional hunters and
gatherers in temperate and tropical climates commonly secure the bulk
of their calories from wild vegetable products, fish, and shellfish.
Nor did Cass pay much attention to the fact that this horticultural
economy was carried on in the Northeast, both in pre-Columbian times
and after, exclusively by women, and by both women and men in the
Southeast. What Indian men should do, he declared, was learn to plow
and keep domestic animals, and the women should spin, weave, and make
soap-just as the Indian reformers wanted them to do. But the men
would not undertake this new role, because they were incapable of
reason (their language was defective) and they were irredeemably
attached to the pleasures of the chase and the warpath. Nor did Cass
think that Whiggish do-gooders would soon be able to civilize them,
despite a few local successes.<<

All in all, the apologetics of Cass strikes one as being of the same
cloth as Zionist arguments on behalf of the need to remove
Palestinians. As long as there were uncivilized Arabs wasting the
land that god gave the ancestors of the Zionist colonizers, there
could be no progress. It was much of a lie in the USA in the 1830s as
it is today.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 02/24/2002

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