Friday, August 11, 2017

History Rewritten - 7

I travelled about five miles through old plantations, now under grass, but appeared to have been planted the last season; the soil exceeding fertile, loose, black, deep and fat. I arrived at Cowe about noon; this settlement is esteemed the capital town; it is situated on the bases of the hills on both sides of the river, near to its bank, and here terminates the great vale of Cowe, exhibiting one of the most charming natural mountainous landscapes perhaps any where to be seen; ridges of hills rising grand and sublimely one above and beyond another, some boldly and majestically advancing into the verdant plain, their feet bathed with the silver flood of the Tanase whilst others far distant, veiled in blue mists, sublimely mount aloft, with yet greater majesty lift up their pompous crests and overlook vast regions.
- William Bartram, May 1775




In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the British essayist Thomas Carlyle commended Bartram’s Travels for “a wondrous kind of floundering eloquence in it.”  Wordsworth and Coleridge were also captivated and inspired by the accounts of the Philadelphia botanist.

Now, in the 21st century, as someone who frequents the upper Little Tennessee Valley, I find it a great joy to see these same landscapes through the eyes of William Bartram.  The Cowee Valley, north of present-day Franklin, NC, was a highlight of Bartram’s visit to western North Carolina.

"Cherokees Are As Ignorant As We Are"

Bartram described in some detail the Cherokee village that sprawled along the river, and also the Cowee Mound, topped by a spacious town-house:

The council or town-house is a large rotunda, capable of accommodating several hundred people; it stands on the top of an ancient artificial mount of earth, of about twenty feet perpendicular, and the rotunda on the top of it being above thirty feet more, gives the whole fabric an elevation of about sixty feet from the common surface of the ground. But it may be proper to observe that this mount on which the rotunda stands is of a much more ancient date than the building, and perhaps was raised for another purpose. 

The Cherokees themselves are as ignorant as we are by what people or for what purpose these artificial hills were raised; they have various stories concerning them, the best of which amount to no more than mere conjectures, and leave us entirely in the dark; but they have a tradition, common with the other nations of Indians, that they found them in much the same condition as they now appear, when their forefathers arrived from the west and possessed themselves of the country, after vanquishing the nations of red men who then inhabited it, who themselves found these mounts when they took possession of the country, the former possessors delivering the same story concerning them. Perhaps they were designed and appropriated by the people who constructed them to some religious purpose, as great altars and temples similar to the high places and sacred groves anciently among the Canaanites and other nations of Palestine and Judea.

This passage is intriguing for what it suggests about the predecessors of the Cherokees in the Southern Appalachians, the comparatively late arrival of the Cherokees, and their role (or lack of a role) in the construction of mounds.

Did Bartram get it right?  Was his source qualified to speak with authority on such matters?  Beyond a certain degree, of course, the answers are unknowable.  And even when archaeology is paired with history as a tool of inquiry, post holes and pottery shards only reveal so much.

"From Time Immemorial"

After revisiting the preceding paragraph from Bartram I stumbled upon its counterpoint, attributed to Major John Norton, who travelled among the Cherokees ca. 1809:

Generally throughout the Nation, emigration was unpopular, and exchanging countries still more so. They said,  that to the country they now possessed,  they had an indisputable right,  from their ancestors who had possessed it from time immemorial . . .

I wish I could dig into the context for the Norton quote.  His journal was not published until 1970 and is not widely available (without shelling out ninety bucks for a copy).  I was not familiar with Major Norton, but he is an interesting character (see note below).  

His quote appeared as an epigraph on a brochure for a 2014 Cherokee ArchaeologicalSymposium.  As I examined the brochure, feelings of anger, sadness and nausea welled up.  Rather than launching into a rant, though, I’ll just say it bothers me to see archaeological expertise subverted to advance a particular political agenda.  

In that regard, the phrase “time immemorial” is of such significance that I will need to devote a future installment of this series to it.   

When influential people have a particular axe to grind, they’ll go to great lengths to manipulate evidence of what actually occurred in the past.  That’s certainly what has happened in the aftermath of a federal law enacted in 1990.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items (including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects) to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes.  NAGPRA also establishes procedures for the inadvertent discovery or planned excavation of Native American cultural items on federal or tribal lands.




To the extent that grave robbers desecrated native burial sites and showed something less than respect for human remains, the intent of NAGPRA was worthwhile.  But like other well-meaning legislation, NAGPRA has had unintended consequences. 

Problems With NAGPRA

At best, repatriation of cultural items under the law becomes a cumbersome and costly bureaucratic process.  And there’s this:

The statute attempts to mediate a significant tension that exists between the tribes' communal interests in the respectful treatment of their deceased ancestors and related cultural items and the scientists' individual interests in the study of those same human remains and items….

Archeologists are concerned that they are being prevented from studying ancient remains which cannot be traced to any historic tribe. Many of the tribes migrated to their territories at the time of European encounter within 100–500 years from other locations, so their ancestors were not located in the historic territories….

Fears have been voiced that an anti-scientific sentiment could well have permeated politics to an extent that scientists might find their work to be continuously barred by Native Americans rights activists….

Compliance with the legislation can be complicated. One example of controversy is that of Kennewick Man, a skeleton found in 1996 near Kennewick, Washington. The federally recognized Umatilla, Colville, Yakima, and Nez Perce tribes had each claimed Kennewick Man as their ancestor, and sought permission to rebury him. Kennewick, Washington is classified as part of the ancestral land of the Umatilla.

Archaeologists said that because of Kennewick Man's great age, there was insufficient evidence to connect him to modern tribes. The great age of the remains makes this discovery scientifically valuable. As archaeologists, forensic specialists, and linguists differed about whether the adult male was of indigenous origin, the standing law, if conclusively found by a preponderance of evidence to be Native American, would give the tribe of the geographic area where he was found a claim to the remains. New evidence could still emerge in defense of tribal claims to ancestry, but emergent evidence may require more sophisticated and precise methods of determining genetic descent, given that there was no cultural evidence accompanying the remains.

One tribe claiming ancestry to Kennewick Man offered up a DNA test, and in 2015 it was found that the Kennewick man is "more closely related to modern Native Americans than any other living population." In September 2016, the US House and Senate passed legislation to return the ancient bones to a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes for reburial according to their traditions. The coalition includes the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids. The remains were buried on February 18, 2017, with 200 members of five Columbia Basin tribes, at an undisclosed location in the area.

It is understandable that any tribal organization wishing to claim custody to skeletal remains in their proximity would want to build the case that they have occupied the area for thousands, rather than few hundred, years. 



A Bone to Pick


It gets complicated. 

An essay by Janet Levy in Anthropologists and Indians in the New South describes her experiences as an archaeologist in the Carolinas, both pre- and post-NAGPRA.  While conducting rescue excavation necessitated by construction at a Yancey County  junior high school in 1990, Levy witnessed the problems that can arise:

A burial had been recovered at the site, and negotiations legally mandated by the 1981 [North Carolina] Burial Bill had taken place.  However, a group of individuals who had identified themselves as Indians had gathered in the town to protest the excavation of the site overall, claiming it was sacred ground….None of the protestors were Cherokee tribal members; some were from outside the state, and as far as we know, none were members of another federally or state-recognized tribe.  Nevertheless, they were quite successful in garnering positive media attention and support from some other, non-Indian, groups in the region. 

It is probably lucky for me and archaeology in North Carolina that I was not the person responsible for interacting with the protestors.  My anger and frustration levels were very high…
Although, during this encounter, various threats were made to stop archaeology in North Carolina forever, little came of those statements.  None of the remaining suspected burials were excavated, and later the one excavated burial was reburied under the mandates of the Burial Bill.

Levy went on to describe events at a Macon County site being prepared for an industrial park in 1995.  

Though the Eastern Band of Cherokees was contacted and expressed no objections to the excavation, a religious faction within the tribe protested the work.

Excavations continued but were interrupted and modified by ongoing demands and negotiations; again, there were some verbal challenges to excavators, many of them community and student volunteers.  The situation was complicated by ongoing political competition within the tribal government and by the political needs and concerns of the county government, which was sponsoring the industrial development.  Ultimately, significant parts of the site were cleared and mapped, but not excavated.

After discussing other experiences and her hopes for positive outcomes from the federal law, Levy observed:

NAGPRA shifted the distribution of power in the discipline of archaeology in North America….Problems arise because of factionalism within, and competition between, Indian communities, including local, non-local, and pan-Indian organizations….And there are ongoing tensions in some situations between federally recognized tribes and state-recognized groups….Ironically, perhaps, NAGPRA has encouraged archaeologists to become better anthropologists, because we now have to struggle to understand the cultural values, social organization, and political structure of communities other than our own.

Lost Clues

When the mounds and associated sites in the Southern Appalachians were plundered in the 19th century, we lost many clues to understanding the past.  In the name of cultural sensitivity, NAGPRA has mandated the “return” of the human remains of approximately 32,000 individuals, nearly 670,000 funerary objects, 120,000 unassociated funerary objects, and 3,500 sacred objects (to date).  How does the loss of this evidence impede our ability to understand the past?  And who’s to say that some of these items, surrendered to various tribes per NAGPRA, haven’t been diverted for sale on the black market?

Sometimes, being able to see the world through the eyes of a William Bartram is a very good thing indeed.  It certainly inspired one of Coleridge’s best known works:

Kubla Khan

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.




In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

   A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


John Norton

Note on John Norton – To make things easier on myself, my note on Major John Norton is drawn from Wikipedia:

John Norton was likely born in Scotland in the early 1760s to a Scottish mother and a father born Cherokee in Tennessee and raised from boyhood in England. His father had been rescued as a boy by British soldiers when his hometown of Keowee (Tennessee) was destroyed during the French and Indian War, the North American front of the Seven Years' War. The boy was taken back to England and raised in an English family. John Norton was likely educated as a boy in Scotland…

He served an apprenticeship as a printer, but ran away to join the army. He was assigned to Scotland… Next he was stationed in Ireland… In 1785 he was assigned to Lower Canada (Quebec) after the end of the American Revolutionary War….




While stationed with his regiment at Niagara (Upper Canada) in 1787, Norton deserted the army and was discharged. For a time, he taught at the Mohawk settlement of Tyendinaga on the Bay of Quinte, west of Kingston, Ontario. In 1791 he traveled through the Ohio region as a trader, establishing many contacts….

During this time, he became increasingly involved with the Iroquois Six Nations of the Grand River. In 1794, he returned to Fort Niagara, where he served as an interpreter for the British Indian department. He became known to Joseph Brant, the prominent Mohawk people leader who became his mentor. In his early 30s, Norton was adopted into the Mohawk, with Brant as his uncle….

He was given the Mohawk name of Teyoninhokovrawen to mark this passage…. 

He married Catherine, a woman from one of the six Iroquois nations….

Later he was appointed a "Pine Tree Chief," in a public ceremony, according to Iroquois custom. This was an honorary position and was not within the hereditary line….

In 1809-1810 Norton had a lengthy trip to the American Southeast, where he traveled through the still extensive Cherokee territory, in part to try to find his father's people. He did meet relatives and was accepted as Cherokee. The people were under pressure from land encroachment by settlers and state governments, particularly Georgia. He kept detailed accounts of what he saw and described Cherokee towns and culture in his The Journal of Major John Norton, 1816…..

Norton led a handful of Six Nations warriors into battle in Tecumseh's offensive in 1811 against the Americans at Tippecanoe. When the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States began, Norton was quick to join General Isaac Brock at Detroit, despite the official neutrality of the Canadian Six Nations. Following Brock's success at Detroit, more Six Nations warriors joined the British forces as allies. Their timely arrival at Queenston Heights, under the leadership of Major Norton, John Brant (Joseph's son), and Lieutenant Kerr of the Indian Department, was crucial to British victory….

Norton's final years are a mystery. There were suggestions that he had left Canada and moved as far as Laredo, Mexico. His date of death is unknown but his last mention in records was in 1826.


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