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Points of Conflict vs. Points of Contact

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Points of Contact vs. Points of Conflict

In attempting to construct a narrative about a particular group of people, historians sometimes encounter difficulty in getting beyond either the characteristics with which members of the group might use to identify with one another or the characteristics that outsiders of the group might use to identify the group’s members (characteristics such as race, ethnicity, class, nationality, etc…). Such a challenge is compounded for the historian studying Colonial America, as North American Indian groups in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not leave the kinds of written sources usually needed to write extensive narratives about Indian economic, political, legal, and cultural practices. Of course, we do have the written sources of European observers to construct these narratives. As we’ve seen, though, first-hand descriptive accounts of Indian ways of life provided by Europeans can be fraught with misunderstandings and cultural prejudices. This week’s assigned readings, by zeroing in on points of intersection in the public lives of Indians and Europeans in Colonial America, offer a resourceful approach in drawing out Indian cultural and political mores from the historical record (as well as those of their European counterparts). We saw a couple of weeks ago how the initial points of contact between Indians and Europeans opened up to each group a new, almost incomprehensible world (whether it be the interior of the continent for Europeans or the manufactured goods of Europe’s trade networks for Indians). Similarly, this week’s readings demonstrate how points of conflict between Indians and Europeans primarily arose as a result of both groups attempting, and sometimes failing, to apply their own economic, cultural, and political frameworks to a cross-cultural setting. In other words, the points of conflict (which include benign cultural conflict as well as that of physical violence) highlighted in this week’s readings offer a window into both the conceptual frameworks which Indians and Europeans innately brought with them to potential conflicts as well as the ability or inability of those frameworks to be reconciled in order to avoid serious disputes. For example, Alfred A. Cave’s “Who Killed John Stone? A Note on the Origins of the Pequot War” remarks that “since the payment of wampum in Algonkian custom was a means of atoning for murders as well as obtaining the protection of a stronger power,” Pequot sachems who sent wampum to Boston after Stone’s murder in 1634 probably (and mistakenly) thought they had provided the proper legal remedy for Stone’s death (517). Likewise, in Evan Haefeli’s article on “Kieft’s War and the Cultures of Violence in Colonial America,” the author notes that “the war’s worst killing began with a clash of methods for dealing with murder” (23). While New Netherland officials operated with conceptions of a legal framework in which those in authority enjoyed some degree of police powers within their jurisdiction, the local sachems “did not have coercive power over their people” (26). We later gain even more insight into the legal and political expectations of the Indians around New Amsterdam when, following a brief period of peace, they again waged war against the Dutch because “too many people had been killed in the massacres for Kieft’s meager presents to satisfy the sachems” (30). Here, then, were instances in which the degree of difference between Indian and European legal and political frameworks was so great that neither side could occupy Richard White’s “middle ground” wherein “diverse peoples adjust their differences through what amounts to a process of creative, and often expedient, misunderstandings” (x). In the other two articles, tough, we get a sense of instances in which Indians and Europeans “creatively” found ways to negotiate (at least temporarily) the conceptual frameworks they brought to points of potential conflict. Professor Silverman’s article on “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation: Creating Wampanoag Christianity in Seventeenth-Century Martha’s Vineyard” explores how Wampanoags diagnosed similarities and differences between Christianity and their native faith through “a process of religious translation” (37). Through “cross-cultural exchanges” in which the Wampanoags could “probe [Christianity’s] gray areas and contradictions,” the native converts adopted not so much “a new faith brought by the English than a colonist-spurred revival of ancient Indian ways” (24; 31). In Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s “King Phillip’s Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England,” the author demonstrates the manner in which Indians and Europeans tried (and ultimately failed) to cross-culturally apply their conceptual frameworks in economic, legal, and political manners. Indians often joined “praying towns” by accepting Christianity and “adopting English ways entirely, including the keeping of domestic animals” (604-605). At the same time, Anderson notes the tension inherent in this kind of acculturation: animal husbandry “challenged native spiritual beliefs and practices” and “ran counter to a power [native] hostility to towards domestic animals” and English property demarcations (607). Over time, once Phillip and his people were unable to achieve remedy or justice in English courts (Anderson notes how trespass cases were referred to selectmen of towns so natives “would have to seek justice at the hands of the very people who might well own the offending beasts” (619)), Phillip waged war against the English over “concerns about sovereignty, land, and animals” (621). Thus, we again see an instance in which the various conceptual frameworks brought to points of potential conflict by Indians and their European counterparts created in each group expectations which could not be fulfilled, a result of both a lack of “creative” solutions and ingrained legal and political practices that did not easily translate across cultural boundaries.

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