After the past few days of Trump-crazy spin, from both sides, blaring across American media, I spent some time thinking about a sad Conrad Richter novel, A Country of Strangers, written in 1966, which I read last month.
The Richter novel was set in the American colonial period, at the time an agreement between colonials and the Ohio Tribes, consisting of several related Algonquin peoples, required the return of all white captives. Richter’s story was written from the viewpoint of a young Lenni Lenape woman, Stone Girl (Mary Staunton), who was a white child captured by a Lenni Lenape (Delaware Indians) tribe when she was very young. She has only a few memories of her white family and a few bits of information an older white woman captive kept repeating, reminding her of her English name and parents. Stone Girl’s belief system and identity is completely Lenape. To compound her alienation from her white heritage, she does not speak English.
Stone Girl married a warrior in the tribe and has a young child, so when the return of captives agreement becomes known, her husband takes her and their child further into Indian territory, hoping that will keep her safe from being forcibly returned to a white family she doesn’t even remember. Stone Girl and her child are forcibly returned. While Richter’s story disappointed me a bit, overall it left me feeling, not only sad for Stone Girl and her child, but sad about how so often political decisions made with the best of intentions, end up causing immense anguish for powerless individuals caught in the middle.
My father’s German ancestors settled into northeast PA, moving north of the Blue Mountain, in 1762. That area had been an ancient Lenni Lenape (Delaware Indian) village, called Meniolagomeka. Moravian missionaries had spent a few years in the 1750s erecting a mission in the area to attempt to convert the Lenni Lenape villagers to Christianity, before the Delaware were pushed out and white settlers moved in. The French and Indian War, from 1754-1763, took a very heavy toll on the Lenni Lenape, from repeated forced relocations, disease and the ravages of this war.
The plight of Native Americans in the European settlement of America still haunts our American conscience, but so often we try to see these troubling situations in black and white, trying to choose a side, when in very personal terms, the larger political decisions, even well-meaning ones, sometimes inflicted enormous personal suffering on many individual people, on both sides, caught up in them.
I found an interesting 2001 article, Redeeming the Captives: Pennsylvania Captives Among the Ohio Indians, 1755-1765, by Matthew C. Ward, at JSTOR. This article was originally published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 125, No. 3 (Jul., 2001). Ward writes that in this 10 year period in the mid-1700s, the French and Indian War had left the frontier border, especially in Pennsylvania, dangerously unprotected and exposed.
Ward explains that during that short decade, the Ohio Tribes waged an escalated campaign of taking white captives as a political and strategic effort, resulting in the capture of nearly two thousand white settlers – men, women and children. Many of these captives fully-integrated into the Ohio tribal societies and despite the forced return of white captives at the end of the French and Indian War, many of these captives fled back to their Indian tribes or refused to leave their tribe. In the Conrad Richter novel, Stone Girl finds out her Indian warrior husband has died in a battle and then her young son is killed, so the spoiler alert is she flees back to the Indians with a former captive, white man she has met, who, like her, had completely acculturated into Indian tribal life.
This phenomenon of white captives voluntarily returning to live with the tribe has been well-documented in early American historical accounts and was very common. The European settlers, who considered the Native Americans uncivilized savages, were mystified by the frequency with which white captives chose to “go native” and stay with the Indian tribe. The Delaware tribes adopted white captive children into their families and fully-integrated white captives, even adults, into their tribal social structure.
And that brings us to our modern politics and the frequent warnings of the dangers of tribalism, where sadly America, in a real sense, often truly feels like a country of strangers.
Interestingly, Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, Goldberg mentions this very situation in our early American experience:
“In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger recounts how the English colonies in North America were vexed by a bizarre problem: Thousands of white Europeans colonists desperately wanted to be Indians, but virtually no Indians wanted to be Europeans. “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,” Benjamin Franklin explained in a letter to a friend in 1753, “if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” However, Franklin added, when whites were taken prisoner by the Indians, they’d go native and want to stay Indians, even after being returned to their families. “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
As Junger observes, this phenomenon seemed to run against all of the assumptions of civilizational advance. And yet it kept happening thousands of times over? Why? Because there is something deeply seductive about the tribal life. The Western way takes a lot of work.”
Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, Jonah Goldberg, page 13
The Western way, indeed, does take a lot of work to keep our diverse and complex society united for any common purposes and with the rise of populist and nationalist sentiments, and the deepening factionalization (tribalism), often fueled by obscene identity politics, America seems more and more like a nation of screeching tribes, on a 24/7, media-fueled verbal warpath, rather than a nation united by any common beliefs or bonds.
So, where does America go from here? How do we begin to heal the divides and unite our nation under even a few common beliefs? How do we begin to neutralize the damage inflicted on American unity, by this malignant, 24/7 scorched earth spin information war, that only works to fuel outrage and mass hysteria? Is there hope for our rabid American partisan to find some calmer middle ground and begin to work together to unite Americans around a few common beliefs and causes?
America began as an unique experiment – a project – that requires commitment from each generation of Americans to thrive and succeed.
There’s been another Trump-incited debate in recent days about what American immigrants owe America and JK posted a link to the National Review podcast, where Charles Cooke and David French debate whether American citizens, who immigrated here, owe America more gratitude than native-born American citizens
My personal belief is it’s not so much about showing “gratitude”; it’s that our republic needs more individuals making the personal choice to commit to the American project’s most important civic belief – treating our fellow citizens, regardless of which “tribal group in our diversity soup” they identify with, with respect.
I agreed with some points on both sides of the French/Cooke debate, but for me, debating who owes more “gratitude” misses the most important point. It’s not about picking a group who owes more to America, it’s about ALL American citizens should decide whether they want to put in their oars and row, in working toward some common goals.
I believe the first core belief America needs, to even form an American team, that can function, is demanding, not “gratitude”, but demanding we all commit to treating each other with respect. Focusing on judging other Americans, based on their displays of “gratitude” or how they show respect for America, which President Trump will surely hype in his 2020 campaign, as he wraps himself in the American flag and works to polarize and incite more divisions, gets us nowhere. I say this, even though, I am struggling with negative feelings toward Omar’s anti-Semitic remarks and her comments that I perceive as anti-American. Still, working hard to treat other people with respect, here we go from the PA girl, is our keystone belief. It’s our American central principle, if you will. Pennsylvania is the Keystone State, just had to throw that in.
Our political leaders spend more time fueling divides and anger, with too many orchestrating and participating in personal smear campaigns.
A few weeks ago, I listened to the audiobook Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country, a book written by Senator Tim Scott and former Congressman, Trey Gowdy. The book explains their friendship, but in the process, both offer many examples of how to build a relationship between two people from very different backgrounds. They both talk about how they worked hard to build trust in their relationship and that required being willing to, not only listen to each other’s differing perspectives, it meant trying to understand them. Their friendship took commitment, like all trusting relationships do. On a larger scale America needs leaders committed to building trust across partisan lines and leaders who will put the national interest above their personal or partisan interests.
In his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal, Senator Ben Sasse, relates this very point:
“Over the last year, I’ve had occasion to meet with a number of senior Chinese officials, and they’ve always been quick to point out — a kind of diplomatic trash talk — how young the United States is compared to China’s forty-five centuries of history.
Fair enough. We’re babes, historically. But (as long as we’re trash talking) age is not always what it’s cracked up to be. And, besides: doesn’t this discussion miss the point? China is a nation in the classic sense. It is blood and soil. It’s great wall, a fascinating people, an extraordinary long-lived culture.
But America is something different. America is an idea — it is a creed.
The American idea is a commitment to the universal dignity of persons everywhere.”
Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal, written by Ben Sasse, page 134.
I agree with Sasse about “universal dignity of persons everywhere”, but being a homemaker, I believe we should work to clean up our own house, first, starting in our daily lives and hopefully our elected leaders and those with a public platform will commit to cleaning up our own political house, instead of just talking about which side is worse.
Frankly, I am ashamed of our American scorched earth spin information war, even though I am just a homemaker, with no political power. The elected leaders in America represent all of us… and most of them, on both sides, are committed to this appalling spin war, where vicious, orchestrated smear campaigns and petty media spin games – to incite, belittle, disparage each other – have become their default form of politics. President Trump, AOC & her squad, and many other elected leaders, political operatives, and the media remain completely committed to waging this spin war.
This scorched earth spin information war is a national disgrace. We should all commit to end it.