Thursday, April 12, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 2


I’ve been talking about this western reading project of mine for a couple months now, and one thing that inspired it in the first place was finding Robert Morgan’s Lions of the West while browsing the shelves at the library. I thought the format of this book is pretty cool. Morgan tells the story by focusing on ten different individuals who had an impact on western expansion. There’s just something about “the West” that grabs my interest—this adventurous spirit, the lifestyle of survival, the melding of peoples and cultures. I immediately wanted to read this book, but I thought it’d be a lot more interesting (both for me and for you!) to read it alongside someone so we can discuss.

So I approached Aarti over at Booklust to see if she might be interested in joining me. In the past couple of years that I’ve read her blog, I’ve noticed an increasing interest in nonfiction, and she is always great with finding points of interest within a text. I thought she’d be a great reading partner and luckily, she hopped on board! We’re going to be reading Lions of the West chapter by chapter over the next few weeks. Aarti started the discussion on Chapter 1, about Thomas Jefferson, on Tuesday, so catch up now if you haven’t already!

Chapter 2, Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory at the Bend

Aarti: This chapter is where the chronology that Robert Morgan forced himself into really bothered me. It seemed like a cop-out to me that he focused on Andrew Jackson before he became President, especially considering that Jackson earned the name “Indian Killer” during his tenure and was the mind behind the Trail of Tears. I understand that Morgan focused on a major battle between Americans and Native Americans, and that he chose the one in which Jackson earned his stripes, as it were, but I thought there was too much focus on the battle and the military tactics themselves than on Jackson and his mindframe.

In a sense, I understand this. I don’t know much at all about Andrew Jackson except, really, that he was called the Indian Killer and that he forcibly removed many Native Americans from their lands and drove them further and further west. I didn’t realize that he had such a striking personality as well. Here again, we have a very ambiguous and complex man whittled down into several pages. It’s not fair of me to complain that these chapters aren’t longer, but I do complain that so much of Jackson’s chapter was given over to battle tactics instead of to a higher-level strategy and description of his overall character.

Kari: Having grown up in Nashville and taken many a school trip to Jackson’s home outside of Nashville, The Hermitage, I was particularly interested in reading this chapter because despite this, I don’t actually know all that much about him. I knew he was around for the War of 1812; I knew he fought some Indians; and I knew he had a wife named Rachel. It’s not like the state of Tennessee automatically painted a Tennessee President in a positive light; he wasn’t really painted in any light when I was learning about him in school. He was just from Tennessee, and we learned the basic facts mostly without bias. It wasn’t until I came up to the North that I heard such strong opinions about Jackson one way or the other (though mostly the opinion that he was brutal and ruthless against the Indians).

Aarti: Haha, as I grew up in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, I think I know what you mean. We LOVE Lincoln here. Though admittedly, I think Lincoln very worthy of lots of love 😉 But also a very complex man, and I didn’t realize how complex until reading Team of Rivals a couple of years ago.

Kari: I actually found his story and background completely fascinating. I had no clue about his childhood and adolescence—his early encounter with the British and the early death of his mother and brothers that left him on his own at such an early age. He was a bit wild as a youth (to say the least!); he practiced law (no idea!); and he had no formal military training when he was named commander of the Tennessee militia. Again, Morgan gives us such a small bit of what is clearly a complex and often contradictory individual, especially depending on who is writing the history and from what perspective.

Aarti: I know! I wanted so much more. I admit I wanted WAY more on his marriage to Rachel, particularly as there were hints that perhaps it was a bigamous marriage. How interesting, too, that he was fine terrorizing people in multiple arenas, but was so gentle and kind to her. She must have been something! It piqued my interest to learn that she was “frantic” and “hysterical” in her letters to him, urging him to come home- I would have thought that would get annoying after a while to someone in the militia, but it seems like Jackson never lost his temper with her. I also would love to learn more about his relationship with his adopted Indian sons.

Kari: And all the military talk was pretty snooze-worthy—and I think that is my fear about reading a full biography on any of these historical figures. At least these segments are pretty short!

Aarti: However, it was utterly compelling to read about the Creek tribe and the way they were set up. I really eat up anything that gives me insight into Native American culture, because we have so little. I don’t know where I read it, but one fact really stands out so profoundly to me about Native American history- when Americans first start talking about the Indians, they are specific to point out tribe names, and there are very distinct differences that everyone call tell between each tribe and the people. But somewhere along the way, we messed all of that up, and now we group all the tribes together (possibly because so few people are left) and act as though they all have the same history and culture and beliefs when they absolutely do not. I don’t think there can be a more damning and heart-breaking way to describe the history of Indians in the US – that they went from having proud and distinct identities to being grouped together as one general group.

That’s why it was so great to read about the Creeks specifically and learn about how their culture worked. How interesting that they have white (peace) and red (war) villages and draw leaders according to the type of village they come from! I’ve never encountered anything like that before and am so fascinated by the repercussions of that- does it mean that people learned different skills in different villages? That a leader could be deposed or set aside depending on the current circumstances? I wanted to know so much more!

Kari: This is something I also think is pretty tragic but also fascinating to read about. This whole western reading theme I’ve had going on has really led me recently into exploring a lot about Native American history. It’s something that has always intrigued me since I was a kid, but I’ve decided lately to start learning more details than the generic history that we’re taught in grade school. [Check out PBS’s five-part American Experience called We Shall Remain if you’re interested in American Indian history (available instantly on Netflix!); I recently watched it and it actually served as a nice background to several events mentioned in these chapters.]

Aarti: [Ooh, I just watched a different American Experience documentary today on the Great Famine in Russia, but I will definitely watch We Shall Remain – thanks!]

Kari: The thing I just can’t get over is the overarching mentality of imperialism that defined the birth and growth of America. I mean, people lived here already. Millions of people with highly complex cultures and histories. And the Europeans (and then Americans) just viewed this entire land mass as open for the taking.

Aarti: Have you ever seen the Eddie Izzard sketch on conquest by flag? It really puts the ridiculousness in a sad but true context.

From what I have read and learned, the Americas did support huge populations of people before the Europeans arrived- and then they were wiped out by disease in huge, unimaginable numbers. So that when the Europeans started coming for good, there were just so many fewer of them left to defend their lands and their rights, and they just were trod upon.

Kari: From our modern day perspective, it just sounds like the equivalent of going to Australia and setting up camp, declaring that all current inhabitants are inferior and unfit to rule the land.

Aarti: Which basically *is* what happened in Australia, too…

Kari: Haha, you’re right, but I was meaning going to some “far off land” (and Australia was the go-to in my head) today in 2012 and just deciding, “Well guys, we’re taking over. Sorry about your current life.”

It just sounds insane. It makes me wonder why this land; why was this region viewed as up for grabs? When did Europeans discover other nations across oceans (Eastern Asian, for example) and why did they not try and conquer those lands and those peoples? What impression did the Americas give that this land, despite already being inhabited, was available for settlement?

Aarti: I think I disagree with you on this point. Europeans (and many other civilizations through history) really did go and conquer other lands and other people, throughout history. The Romans did it throughout Europe, and then as time went on, all the Europeans did it to much of Africa and Asia and the South Pacific. The same thing happened with Attila the Hun, Saladin, Alexandar the Great, the Mughals… really, so much conquering throughout human history. People seem to have this compulsion to spread and to “conquer,” as though that is some sort of great win for them, and then they consider themselves better or different than the people who were conquered and, as we all know, that just leads to a lot of heartbreak. I think what made it so much more devastating for the Americans (and much the same with the Aborigines in Australia) was that they had never encountered foreign people before and so were ill-equipped to deal with totally foreign cultures and diseases.

Kari: You’re totally right; I guess I was just viewing it from the perspective of this particular moment in history. Every land has been “conquered” at some point in history, some lands many times. I was just thinking about an event like when Europeans discovered China (just using this as an example)—why did they not try to conquer that land and settle there? (And maybe they did, and I just need a refresher in European history!) Europeans “discovered” China during the Age of Exploration, but this opened up trade; they didn’t conquer and settle. And this is the point I was trying to get at—I wonder about the different decisions of Europeans in what they will do with the countries they “discovered.” (I say discovered, because this is from a Euro-centric perspective.)

You talked about how unfortunate it is that all Native American tribes get lumped together as one group of people, but would things have been any different if all native peoples had been united as one long ago instead of many distinct and unique tribes?

Aarti: It is easy to think “What if?” in American history- or in all history, I suppose. But it’s so heart-breaking to see instances of Native Americans fighting each other, not even across tribes, but within different factions of the same tribe. There was just so little unity, and I feel like if they had been able to communicate and band together and negotiate as one force, then maybe they’d be able to keep more of their rights. But really, maybe it just would have delayed the inevitable.

And what if the Native Americans had had white skin? I wonder if that would have changed things.

This discussion segues really well into the commentary on Tecumseh in the Jackson chapter. WOW. I did not know any of that stuff about Tecumseh! I thought he was just this really amazing war leader. I didn’t know he was so extreme in the goals he set out to achieve. It’s so interesting that he had such a spiritual element to his leadership- and I think this is something that is present in many Indian leaders. He really inspired people to follow him not just through his battle skills but because he made them believe in this very far-fetched idea that if they just came together for a little while, they could get rid of all the Europeans.

Kari: [One episode of that We Shall Remain series is all about Tecumseh, so you should definitely watch!]

One tiny little sidenote that I thought was interesting was how Morgan mentioned in the Jefferson chapter about how the US Treasury right after the Revolutionary War was empty; the country had no money. And that just kind of indicated how much it all is really about money. A country is like a business and the intent is to profit. Sure, some Puritans headed here early on for religious freedom, and the US prides itself on its foundation of natural rights, but eventually it’s just all about the Benjamins.

Aarti: Right. And money as the route to power, which in its infancy, the US really needed in order to be taken seriously by the Europeans powers. I laughed to read that the US declared war on Britain in 1812 with no army or navy and very little money- and yet, we still consider the war a win. It makes so much more sense, now, why we NEVER learn about the War of 1812 in school! Probably because we don’t come out looking very well…


Aarti said…

Yay, two chapters in and so much left to discuss!  I actually just read this book On the Origin of Tepees that discusses westward expansion as a clash of Old World vs. New World ideas, and that Old World ideas won through an evolutionary process.  It was very interesting (though I disagreed with that point), and you may enjoy it.

Really enjoying doing this together 🙂

zibilee said…

I also find it sad that the Indians have been all lumped together in this huge amorphous mass, and that a lot of the individuality between tribes was trampled on and lost. I think aside from the boring battle descriptions, that I would find this book incredibly enlightening. The things that you two have uncovered and discussed have really made an impression on me, and the fact that there is so much here that goes beyond the black and white of western expansion is really interesting to discover. Also, I am not liking Jackson very much right now! Terrific part 2. I am looking forward to more! 

Kari said…

Darn it, I did not foresee this as being an issue with this reading project….but it is adding SO MANY MORE THINGS to my to-read list!

Kari said…

Luckily, the battle descriptions have only (so far!) popped up on a few of the Jackson pages, and I'm into chapter 4 now. Hopefully they are few and far between, so it shouldn't scare you off!