Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England
By Jean M. O'Brien. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010; 269 pp., softcover, $25.00.
Public historians and cultural resource managers are familiar with the dusty and yellow-edged 19th-century local histories written by "amateur" historians. In these works, important and select historical facts are chronicled and worthy citizens are memorialized in anecdotal biographical sketches. However, these antiquarian volumes have other important stories to tell as well. Rather than casting them aside, cultural resource practitioners today should regard these histories as valuable primary sources for understanding the evolution of American attitudes and values.
For Jean O'Brien, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a member of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe, local histories from the 1820s to the 1880s are evidence of how people in southern New England viewed and treated American Indians. Her subsequent findings are presented in Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England.
O'Brien uses the word "firsting" to refer to the belief of many Euro-American settlers that they were the first people to establish civilization in North America. The "lasting" refers to the final status of American Indians, who were depicted as the "last" to pass from the scene. In O'Brien's view, local histories were written by mostly white, middle-class authors, who were preoccupied with the Anglo-Saxon origins of the nation. The writers relegated Indians to "lasting" status because Indians as a people and cultural entity were deemed to be incompatible with modern civilization.
O'Brien uses hundreds of local texts, most of which contain references to Indian history. Using this abundant written material, the author examines how communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island depicted the "extinction" of Indians as well as how the Indians actually resisted and survived.
In her exhaustive examination, O'Brien develops her study through a number of themes. "Firsting" focuses on the claims about the primacy of English culture, institutions, and lifeways, with native peoples contributing a vague primordial and inferior preface for true "history" yet to come. For Euro-Americans, authentic history began with the gathering of European peoples in a place and their transformation of former Indian homelands. Tens of thousands of years of Indian histories and destinies counted for nothing. Non-Indians depicted Indians as rooted in nature, tradition, and superstition. New Englanders saw themselves as symbols of the civilized order of culture, science, and reason. Firsting implied sole legitimacy of New England ways, inherently superior and modern. Their singular focus claimed that European New Englanders erected the first houses, institutions, politics, and economics in America. Repeatedly, the texts argued that Indians were mired in an ancient and inferior past, and therefore were incompatible with superior cultures from across the Atlantic. To them, Indians who changed, evolved and/or intermarried were no longer authentic and forfeited their "Indianness." For all practical purposes, in the minds of American New Englanders, Indians vanished from New England. In reality, of course, Indians still survived.
"Firsting" alone did not claim the Indian place in America. "Replacing" addressed the process by Anglo-Saxons of the construction of an alternate reality that effectively rendered powerless the history of the American Indians. Euro-American commemoration of the Indian through monuments, selectively retained place names, and relic collecting—all served to relegate the idea of the Indian to fantasy and myth. Because these local histories presented a linear progression of civilization, they depicted a process of physically and imaginatively replacing Indians on the New England landscape. Indian history was replaced by a New England history of allegedly just relations and property transactions rooted in American diplomacy. The replacement narrative can be read in five different types of locations: erection of monuments to Indians and non-Indians, celebration of historical commemorations of various sorts (in memory of…), the excavation of Indian sites, selected retention of Indian place names, and claims non-Indians made to Indian homelands. These locations attest to simultaneous presence of Indian history in New England places even while Indians were declared only to be found in the past. Monuments to non-Indians became the replacement narrative that honored New English claims to first peoples, places, and events. In this way, the newcomers seized Indian identity for themselves while excluding actual Indians. To them, Indians were located in the ground and on the landscape as evidenced by Indian artifacts, graves, and place-names.
"Lasting" refers to Indian extinction in New England through stories of the last Indian and their disappearance. "Lasting" relegates the Indian to the past by suggesting that they were inherently passive and static and incapable of contributing to a contemporary reality and future. The continual noting of "last Indian" or "the last of the race" implied the demise of both Indian autonomy as well as Indians themselves. According to these narratives, tribes broke up and became entirely extinct under the pressure of superior culture. Local history narratives often focused on a solitary Indian survivor and denied Indian descendents a future. Once Indians intermarried with non-Indians, they were denied their "Indianness" and were not considered authentic Indians. To be Indian required cultural stasis and blood purity, in contrast to attitudes concerning African Americans, who were seen to retain their inferior status even with only one drop of African American blood. These histories presented a relentless message that the New England Indians had either ceased to exist or that their prospects for the future had dimmed to extinction. According to these writings, Indians had been extinguished by disease and wars, or they had moved elsewhere.
Finally, the author examines "Resisting," the persistence of Indians in New England, despite the best efforts of non-Indians to deny their survival into the modern period. In actuality, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Indians continued to work their land in New England, keep livestock, and hunt and fish. They participated in the general market and wage labor economies. Indians steadfastly defended their land, identity, and place as modern people in New England against tremendous odds. O'Brien underscores the example of William Apess (1798-1839), a Pequot Indian and a Methodist minister who, through his prolific writings, demonstrated Indian persistence. In his writings, Apess argued for full citizenship for Indians as well as autonomy for Indian nations. O'Brien considers the literature of Indians, including those of Apess, as "stunning acts of resistance" as they "continued to shape and reshape their lives as Indian people into the future whether or not non-Indians chose to recognize them as such" (p. 190).
O'Brien concludes her study with a condensed chapter on the contemporary subject of recognition. She recounts the results of the 2000 Census where a "total of 16,333 respondents residing there [in Southern New England] who…proclaimed their Indianness." She briefly summarizes the ongoing struggle for official recognition of Indian nations, including those in Southern New England. In her opinion, recognition "involves an impossibly rigorous bureaucratic" requirements that use a "deeply flawed and incomplete documentary record" crafted from documents that were meant to bureaucratically make Indians disappear—in essence, a continuation of the same process that created the original paradigm of cultural exclusion and destruction (p. 204).
Many people shaped the American landscape in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Readers of this book cannot help but have a heightened appreciation of American Indian history in New England and the quiet, heroic survival of Indians and Indian identity in spite of ongoing efforts by mainstream America to erase it. This book inspires historians and others to reassess our opinions of 19th-century local histories. As O'Brien shows, they serve as major sources regarding the origins and evolution of American attitudes towards Indians. Their covers may well contain many other fruitful topics worthy of analysis concerning the American past.
Antoinette J. Lee
National Park Service