(This post may make more sense in conjunction with this post: http://www.unnecessaryg.com/blog/?p=1250 and this post: http://www.unnecessaryg.com/blog/?p=3347 )

Someone expressed a point of view that I am sure many Lakota and other native Americans felt during the argument over the Gathering, and I’m responding to it directly.

I hope to show that the history of the Native Americans is much, much too complicated and difficult to be amenable to any one form of inquiry, and that certain assumptions are based in their culture. I refer to this comment:

“the reason why some Indians have last names such as Brown ,or in your case White, is the Government after “giving” the tribes their Own reservation went down the line giving them last names.OK ,your black ,your brown,your White.etc. To strip them of their identity.Second if you can’t trace your blood to a tribe within one generation,your not Native. Native ways are kept secret for a reason.”

This represents the point of view of a surviving Native American tribe, almost certainly one on the western half of the continent. When applied to the history of the entire continent, it is not only incorrect. It is somewhat insulting to a large number of people.

I’m from the eastern half of the continent. For the natives of this area, reservations were not an option. They encountered the European invasion much, much too early to be able to forge even that level of detente. More importantly, they encountered European diseases much too early to survive. Although we do not yet have a clear picture of the devastation inflicted by smallpox and other Columbian diseases, it’s fair to speculate that the 90% death rate for the entire continent may have gotten closer to 100% near the points of contact on the Eastern seaboard. Without digressing into statistics too much, the difference between a 90% death rate and a 99% death rate is the difference between entire families and entire cultures dying.

After enduring the single worst disease event in human history, the natives of this side of the country were doomed. There was no resisting these sickly, pale things that crawled off of the ships, and perhaps the only mistake the natives ever made was in teaching them how to survive. The smallpox-syphilis exchange was no-one’s fault.

Now, I know my personal ancestry is going to come into this conversation at some point, and I do intend to address it. But I have to point this out and make it clear — to the best of my knowledge, I share no ancestry whatsoever with those early settlers. The parts of my personal biological history that are not silent were most emphatically not among the early adopters of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; in fact, the people sent over as “conquistadors,” “settlers,” “Pilgrims” and “indentured servants” were possibly the people that my ancestors were the most relieved to see gone. Europe did not send its best or its brightest over, especially at first.

Now, since we’re talking about approximately the year 1600, I would have had approximately 30,000 grandmothers and exactly as many grandfathers alive at that time. I am aware of the location of approximately ten of them, and only know two by name. It boggles the mind to believe that none of those 30,000 were Native Americans, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

I mentioned the part of my biological history that was silent. That’s important. The history of the Native American on the eastern side of this continent is largely silent. Sure, they were silenced by death — but every voice from 1600 is silenced by death. The history of their people was silenced by dying all at the same time, by not being able to nurture their progeny to remember them, by not being able to defend their cities and their homes. They were further silenced by the abominable racism of the early European invaders, and in case you’ve never seen this written out, or if it’s never crossed your mind, then yes. The answer is yes. The early Europeans invaders were absolutely among the most dreadful people that this species has ever produced. They are the champion all-time mass murderers.

They were driven mad by the smallpox-syphilis exchange, that killed two continents and made a third insane, and they came to America in possibly the greatest orgy of blood and horror that the world has ever known. Two entire continents worth of people died because of them. They persecuted and enslaved and committed pure raw bloody rape and murder on those who survived. When that was over, they kidnapped millions of Africans and dragged them over and did the same thing to them. The fact that they have not yet done it to themselves, and that no one else has done it to them yet, is proof positive of the glacial unfairness of life and the miraculous ability of the rest of the world to forgive.

Only one continent has killed three other continents. This is an unmistakable fact.

Many of those people who did that happened to look like me. Although the known part of my personal biological history does not include them, it is undeniable that they looked like me and I am inheritor to their excesses. The parts of my ancestry that I know stayed in Europe until far too late (if they could have or would have helped, I don’t know), and the parts that I don’t know could be anywhere. I don’t know any way to know when the first part of my blood touched this continent, although, as I mentioned, I strongly suspect that some of it must have been here all along.

Hard to know, because so much of history is silent.

Especially on the East Coast. At least 90% of them died before they even got the chance to meet a European, and then the European man and woman (who was just as responsible for this as the man) enslaved them, attacked them, pushed them away from their homes and took their history and threw it in the dirt. The Europeans (and it’s tough not to say “we” here, because I am definitely part of and reside within the culture they built here) took their history, but they didn’t keep it. They destroyed it. It’s just gone. We just don’t know anything about them. In the Red River Gorge of Kentucky, which is where I grew up, Indian tribes had been living so long that archaeologists suspect they independently developed agriculture there. But we don’t know the names of a single one of them. All we can do is look at the sandstone walls where something must once have been written, long ago, before the Europeans gave them diseases and drove them off and cut down all the trees and hollowed out the cliff houses that once were their homes.

Kentucky comes from the word Eskippakithiki, the name of a Shawnee encampment only a few miles from where I grew up. There is nothing there now, it is only a big field with a road running through the middle. Most people don’t know that that particular field even has a name. I know quite a few people who are mostly, or maybe even all, Shawnee. They all have English last names.

Now, me personally, I’m from New Jersey. My parents met in New Jersey, their parents lived in New Jersey. In the case of my mother’s mother, also from New Jersey, both her parents came over from England, so that part of my ancestry’s really easy to figure out (and it’s also the only part that can be traced back to the 1600s).

In two generations in New Jersey, my family managed to become both Italian (my aunt married into a strongly Italian family) and Jewish (as it turns out, we had been Jewish all along, because my mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish. Even though she lived her life completely as a gentile and to the best of my recollection was Christian, she was “ethnically” Jewish, which means that we are too (Judaism is apparently traced through the mother), and the only reason we know that is because we hung around New Jersey long enough to figure that out).

I’m sure you’ll agree that my preceding example illustrates that cultural diffusion is both immediate and complex.

It is immediate. I grew up very close to where Daniel Boone lived, at Boonesboro, the first outpost of European culture on this side of the Appalachians. Daniel Boone was noted for the ease with which he lived with the Shawnee. He absolutely had Shawnee wives, and most likely had Shawnee children. He also had European children, some of whose descendants I know quite well.

On July 14, 1776, Daniel Boone’s daughter almost certainly ran away with her Indian boyfriend. Most people think she was kidnapped, but I’ve read the testimonials from the pursuit party, and it’s patently obvious what happened: one of the Callaway girls was pregnant with an Indian’s child, and the three ran away with the Shawnee, and Daniel Boone tracked them down and murdered their boyfriends. All three of those girls were married off within days of returning home.

So this brave girl had a Native-European child in 1776, the very first generation of contact. But I bet you anything that that child was raised as white as white could be. So half her personal biological history is silent.

Direct preservation of identity, of history, was not possible on the eastern half of the continent. Some survivors chose to adapt.

The Red River Gorge is an enormous, wonderous valley in Eastern Kentucky that stretches all the way to the eastern edge of the state.

It’s sort of like the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon was covered with trees.

The cliffs above it are thickly forested and deeply crenellated, and there just aren’t many roads that way. There’s only one way in or out — straight up the banks of the river. It’s always been that way. There’s a whole world up there, and it’s not real tame. Before the invention of the airplane, it only had one entrance and exit.

That’s why Eskippakithiki was put where it is — because that’s the mouth of the canyon. Good place for a trading post.

Eastern Kentucky is full of enormous, isolated canyons like that, but the Red River Gorge is my favorite.

We don’t really know how the people who lived up there lived or died. We know there was continuous occupation for thousands of years. I suspect that they mostly died of disease — I suspect that the canyons of Eastern Kentucky were no better for genetic heterogeneity of the natives than they have been for the Europeans.

This is what I meant by that.

This is what I meant by that.

I bet that everybody who lives in a canyon ends up mixing blood, and when a terrible disease comes through those are the populations that tend to suffer the most.

I suspect that after the smallpox came through, they were ghost towns. The population fell well beneath replacement levels, and the cities fell where they stood. The survivors probably saw those canyons as haunted — this may be part of where the legend that Kentucky was a “dark and bloody ground” came from. This may be why Eskippakithiki was established where it was, where no other native settlement had been in memory, but still there long before Daniel Boone saw it.

Into this vacuum stepped a people known as the Melungeon. The Melungeon were a combination of Indian, black, poor white, and anybody else who wanted to avoid the rampaging assholes down on the plains. They went way up in a valley or two (sorry, don’t know which ones), and did whatever the hell they wanted to for hundreds of years. When people asked them if they were black or white or Indian, they just said, “We’re Portugese.” And that settled it, and nobody bothered them much.

In the process, they intermixed with a lot of settlers from Boonesboro and now they all have European last names. I’m friends with one family of Melungeon descent with the last name of White. I’d bet at some point in their family history, somebody wanted other people to think that he, and his kids, were white.

But we don’t know for sure.

Because history is silent.

So I guess that this is the Native American privilege that you expressed. That all natives survived long enough to make it to the reservation. That you get to know your own history.

It bothered me, because during this recent argument over the Gathering I read so many native commentators accusing people of not being native American. And that bothered me, because I know many, many people at the Gathering who were part of one tribe or another, or descended from one tribe or other. And I know the history of this continent, and I know it is complex. I’ve always been under the impression that Native American was the second-biggest ethnic group in the Gathering, but I’m not sure. Because it’s pretty rare for anybody to make a big deal about their ethnicity. And when they’re wearing the same clothes, Native American and Americans look about the same. I can’t just look at somebody and tell what kind of Indian they are. We aren’t color-coded like that.

Me, half my history is well-known. I can trace my mother’s mother and my father’s father back for a long, long way, way back before their post-Civil War appearance on this continent, way back until they disappear into ancient Europe. The other half, nobody knows. My mother’s father’s father was adopted, their life was scattered, they can be described as nothing other than “New York City.” My father’s mother’s parents likewise assembled themselves mysteriously, one from a woman named Sarah Brown who somehow appeared in Kansas, her father was named John but he was a different John Brown, not the abolitionist one. There’s no pictures, he could have been from anywhere. The other side of her parentage was a man who came from Iowa and didn’t care to talk about where he came from.

In my experience, when people don’t want to talk about something, there’s generally a reason.

It boggles the mind to think that I have no Native American ancestry. I have had ancestors on this continent for at least a hundred and sixty years. That’s sixteen grandfathers and sixteen grandmothers, and I only know the names of three or four of them, and the only thing they all have in common is that they ended up in America.

Racism’s best trick is in making people ashamed to be themselves. If any one of those thirty-two ever felt that they were anything other than white, they didn’t mention it. And now, a hundred and sixty years later, nobody knows.

So when you accuse an entire group of people who are really seriously interested in their own Native American history, the history of the land that they belong to since they have never been anywhere else to belong to, the history that is silent because one half of their ancestry tortured the other half of their ancestry to death, you’re not helping.

You’re dismissing the people inside the group who really are exactly what you demand — traceable to a documented Native tribe within the first generation. You’re telling them they don’t exist, which is never fun to hear.

You’re telling all the rest, with the voice of authority (because we really do respect you, and we are listening hard to hear our own heritage, and your voice is very loud), that we are not of this place. That we are only invaders. That part of our blood doomed the rest of our blood, and there is no reason to look further or listen harder. That the silent history of our home must remain silent.

Look at what you’re telling me. I’m by no stretch of the imagination native enough for you. You have no interest in having me around when you want to talk about “Native American ways.” You have nothing to teach me.

All these things that I have learned, a lifetime of listening and studying and looking. They mean nothing to you.

I could tell you a lot about your cousins who lived in the Red River Gorge. I would rather they could speak for themselves, but they can’t. I’m here.