Written Assignments

Interpreting Native American Stories, Part Two


Web Resources for This Assignment

The Native American Anthology
A collection of texts: religious, creation stories, and mythology from traditional Native American cultures.
Jackson, Second Annual Message
George Catlin, The Story of Wijinjon

The Theories Behind Tragedy   The history of the clash between Native Americans and European-Americans is an ugly and tragic history. Not to put too fine of a point on it, the conquest of America by European-Americans is one of the most sordid chapters in European history that is equal to if not more sordid than the history of the Third Reich in the twentieth century. We are still, unfortunately, pursuing policies laid down in the eighteenth century.
   Although I'm making a moral judgement on the history, I'm always loathe to do so. For history is not about the things people do, it is about what they think they're doing. The conquest of America was, in most people's minds, a perfectly logical and moral affair. There were numerous justifications for it, but behind all public discussion, both among European-Americans and Native Americans, lay a single theoretical question. That question was: can Native American culture and European-American culture survive side by side, or were they so fundamentally incompatible that there were only two alternatives: a.) the eventual extinction of the technologically less developed people or b.) the integration of Native Americans into European-American culture and the eventual extinction of Native American culture (but not the extinction of Native Americans) or c.) the segregation of Native Americans from European-Americans so that they could maintain their culture independently (the reservation system). I need to stress that this theoretical discussion took place on both sides; almost everyone, though, including Native Americans, saw as inevitable the conquest of America by European-Americans. Many Native Americans in the nineteenth century believed that both the culture and the people were doomed to extinction; many "Indian haters," such as Andrew Jackson, believed the same thing.

Which is it?   This is going to be one of the hardest questions for you to answer this semester, but I want you to try to tackle this theoretical question. Can Native American and European American cultures survive side by side in regular commerce with one another and still maintain the integrity of each cultural system? This question will take the form of a debate. Half the class will assume the world view of nineteenth century European Americans, and half the class will assume the world view of Native Americans. Half of the European Americans will construct a "no" answer to the question and justify it by primarily relying on the two American texts, Jackson and Catlin, that they've read for this unit. Half of the European Americans will construct a "yes" answer to the question and justify it by primarily relying on the two American texts, Jackson and Catlin, that they've read for this unit. Half of the Native Americans will construct a "no" answer to the question and justify it by primarily relying on Native American texts that they've read this semester or that they find in the Native American Anthology. Half of the Native Americans will construct a "yes" answer to the question and justify it by primarily relying on Native American texts that they've read this semester or that they find in the Native American Anthology.
   The purpose of this assignment, then, is to argue all sides of this question in order to understand how all the parties involved thought about the matter. Once you've figured out all these points of view, the history itself will make more sense. After you've made your argument, for extra credit you can submit your views as to how we might address the current situation in the relationships between Native Americans and European Americans.


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