Land of liberty?

Two volumes offer an important starter course on this history of Native Americans
By ELLEE DEAN  |  July 13, 2007

Viewed from a plane, the state of Michigan spreads out like a patchwork quilt — green and tan squares of land stitched together, and demarcated, by roads. My grandparents live in central Michigan on a road that runs parallel to the wide, sand-bottomed river named Chippewa after the Native American tribe. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe now owns and operates the Soaring Eagle Casino, considered to be the one of the largest casinos in the Midwest. The casino is built on the 217.617 square-mile Isabella Indian Reservation, where my great-great grandmother, part Mohawk, part Dutch, emigrated from Mohawk Valley, New York to live. Sometimes, when I visit my grandparents, we go to the casino, each of us with 20 dollars.

Before European colonists divided the land, Native Americans like the Chippewas (also known as the Ojibwa), Cherokees, and Shawnees didn’t “own and operate” land. The first two volumes in the new Penguin Library of American Indian History describe the Cherokees and Shawnees as people who identified with the land; they saw it as both a physical and spiritual environment. The Shawnees, for example, believed that North America was an island supported by a giant sea turtle, floating in a giant body of water. They, along with the animals and the plants, were chosen to inhabit the island by the Great Spirit. Humans, animals, and plants, therefore, all lived in balance. When the Euro-Americans began to settle the same ground in the late 16th and early 17th century, the way Native Americans defined land, and consequently themselves, changed.

Though the Cherokee and Shawnee people were similar in their understanding of their environments, the two tribes exemplify diverse struggles for independence. Where the Cherokees were regarded as complying “Indian” politicians, the Shawnees waged the Sixty Years’ War against those who wanted control of their land and identity. When Americans won their independence from the British in the 18th century, the Cherokees and Shawnees were just two of the Native American tribes that lost their autonomy — in a fight that Colin G. Calloway, author of The Shawnees and the War for America, concludes, “continues as Americans struggle to accommodate visions of America, and of the world.”

The story of the Shawnee Native American Tribe ― with its one-eyed prophet Tenskwatawa, and string of A-list heroes like Cornstalk, Blue Jacket, Black Hoof, and Tecumseh — is a dangerous one, and Calloway tells it in tomahawk-and-skinned-corpse detail. The first missionaries who tried to “civilize” the Shawnee people met with disagreeing counsel. As Shawnee chief Othaawaapeelethee (or Yellow Hawk) explained to Reverend David Jones in 1773, “When God, who first made us all, prescribed our way of living, he allowed white people to live one way, and Indians another.” But when Americans and British alike threatened the Shawnee Ohio-Valley homeland, some Shawnees fought for their freedoms, earning reputations for holding Daniel Boone hostage and scalping settlers, though scalping was a method employed by both natives and the settlers.

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