Free Essay About Daniel Richter’s Facing East From Indian Country: Success Or Failure?
Weaving together cultural, environmental, economic, religious, and agricultural history with archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology in his promising new monograph, scholar Daniel Richter examines how Native Americans perceived of their own lives, religion, society, and culture both prior to European contact as well as in the aftermath prior to 1836. Daniel Richter proffers a work that encourages readers to reorient their historical vision so that they can see the waves of European adventurers, missionaries, and colonists from the perception of the subaltern Native Americans rather than articulating a narrative from a Eurocentric perception. Richter constructs his narrative through six chapters as well as an epilogue he titles “Eulogy from Indian Country” in order to address the subversive nature of William Apess’s “Eulogy for King Phillip” regarding the history of the Piquot natives. As such, such a daring objective called for Richter to reframe all too familiar narratives of American colonial history from the perspective of the Native American while also adding nuance to the story in order to lend it credence. As a result, Richter has emerged as one of the most revered Native American historians who has succeeded in crafting a narrative about the wilderness described by Frederick Turner Jackson in a way that renders it impossible to embrace the Eurocentric vision of American “wilderness” discussed by Frederick Jackson Turner that has proven hegemonic in the grand narrative of U.S. history. Richter asserts that he sought to “try to hear Native voices when they emerge from surviving documents” (Richter 9). Richter is to an extent successful in eschewing the grand narrative by questioning the facts, interpretations, and hegemonic discursive paradigms in order to underscore the reality that the dominant perspective is indeed naïve and distorted. However, there are still a litany of shortcomings in his synthetic narrative that do not fully re-conceive of the dominant perception of the landscape and contours of early America because he does not address the nuances of borderlands history that render or graft the Mississippi and the west as part of early America. As such, despite the promise and exciting and highly original monograph, the dearth of evidence available to Richter to effectively proffer an alternative perspective renders his narrative problematic in many ways.
In a sense, Richter’s new history merely perpetuates the grand narrative rather than give voice to the muted subaltern Native Americans. Instead of extending the scope of his research to a larger area in order to truly understand the nuances of early America and the fabric of indigenous life, Richter opted to embrace quite a limited scope by focusing on the areas to the east of the Mississippi in what largely has become known as British America. Moreover, it seems that Richter predominately relied on European sources such as John Eliot’s missionary tracts as well as the travel writings preserved from de Soto’s voyages in order to construct a narrative that is all too well-known to a European and Euro-American audience. One example is in chapter three when Richter analyzes three renowned figures in the grand narrative: Pocahontas, the Algonquian princess whom has been re-imagined time and again throughout American history; King Metacomb, or King Philip, who boldly yet futilely waged a war against the British colonists; and Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois convert. Although Richter sought to reframe these familiar accounts of these figures, Richter’s account lacked depth despite the fact that the chapter is entitled “Living with Europeans.” As such, he fails to successfully subvert and/or debunk the hegemonic narrative by offering a reformulated synthesis of the historical evidence that is available in order to reclaim the voice of the indigenous peoples who lived during that tumultuous epoch.
Nonetheless, it is unequivocal that Richter establishes the indigenous cosmogony of the world prior to grafting the European and African cultures, personalities, and ethnicities into the narrative that he articulates. Richter clearly articulates that the majority of scholarship on the interaction between the Indian and the European in early America focuses inland from the Atlantic, thereby embracing a western view of the indigenous people (Richter 3). Thus, Richter establishes a methodology in which he alternatives between the voice of the Native Americas and the “objective” voice of authority in order to underscore how the European encounter and voice has shaped the grand narrative and history of the Native Americans. In order to effectively debunk the grand narrative about Native Americans, he points out the discrepancies and political underpinnings of language used by Europeans and Americans in order for the white man to appear hegemonic and more civilized within a Eurocentric framework. The author points out that language and discourse has played a prominent role in this nefarious process. Political language and binary thinking that has so dominated Western scholarship has pitting the Americans, or the white man, against the so-called Indians, or what they are more commonly referred to as “savages.” Indeed, the master narrative has largely remained European focused as the words “conquest” and “invasion” are ubiquitous (Richter 8). Despite such efforts, however, Richter’s statements about peripheral issues in a narrative focused on the subaltern experience nonetheless are revealing. When considering the histories proffered by other scholars about this epoch, Richter critiques that of Apess, asserting that “Apess remained silent on the racial beliefs and practices of the slave-owning Washington (248). Such a dismissal of one’s account for omitting such information merely appears as an incendiary and unsubstantiated critique of an account that eschewed the role that Washington played in dismantling slavery during the nineteenth century.
Unfortunately, the desire to recreate the tale of early America from the indigenous perspective renders the narrative as more of a tale of morality rather than a historically backed account that has credence. Indeed, Native Americans still are portrayed as noble and happy while the Europeans are exploitative and unforgiving. These facets are blatant in Richter’s discussions about the Roman Catholic theology of traditions and sainthood as well as when he considers the burgeoning ideology of American republicanism during the foundational years of the nation. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that Richter has moved the Amerindians from the periphery to the center, so republican theory proffered by European colonists must remain peripheral in his discussion. What truly plagued Richter’s monograph is the lack of documentary evidence regarding the Amerindian perspective, which thus meant Richter, like many other scholars studying the subaltern subject, to rely on oral testimony that can only be evaluated through a grain of salt. As Richter reiterates throughout his monograph, despite the efforts of some progressive Europeans to translate indigenous texts and speeches, the European understanding of words starkly differed from their indigenous counterparts. Richter attempts to provide a corrective for this obstacle in his research by discussing case studies in which he attempts to imagine how the indigenous would have felt and reacted. As such, imaginations of a scholar cannot truly account for reality, thereby posing a serious methodological problem of historical speculation. Nonetheless, Richter’s daring monograph is still an intelligent, cogent, and novel work that weaves in frontier and indigenous studies with the grand narrative of America.
Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.