Swans Commentary » swans.com April 11, 2005  



Genetic Or Cultural?


by Milo Clark





(Swans - April 11, 2005)  Among variables consistent with history may be humankind's inhumanities, not just to other humans, but toward every aspect of the systems within which we live.

We, meaning us, are killers, destroyers, exterminators and terminators. Other than that, we, meaning us, can be nice folks now and then, even much of the time.

Paradox remains the core of actuality. Ambiguity is the only sure thing in human experience.

Toward the end of his years, my father spent much time constructing a Clark family genealogy. By letter, phone and personal contact, he tracked Clarks from colonial Virginia westward over the Appalachians through Kentucky and into most of the other states-to-be east of the Mississippi. Later, time diffused Clarks throughout the emergent and once United States of America. Early standout Clarks are brothers George Rogers (1752-1818) and William (1770-1838).

William Clark's life encompassed much more than the three years he spent with Meriwether Lewis trekking from the Mississippi to Columbia Rivers (1803-1806). He went on to be governor of the Missouri territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the vast territories in part opened up by the Louisiana Purchase (1803).

Few probably remember or know that the Louisiana Purchase stopped at the Yellowstone River, covering only parts of Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. Idaho would be over the boundary into the Northwest Territories then claimed by Great Britain.

Beyond the Yellowstone, the Lewis and Clark expedition was exceeding the nominal boundaries of the United States of the time. The expedition succeeded primarily because most of the tribes encountered either helped or didn't seriously contest passage. William Clark ended up very ambiguous about tribal peoples.

On their return, Lewis (1774-1809) soon spun downward, killing himself three years later. William Clark went on to personify and to encapsulate critical years in America's early thrusts westward. In a very phallic sense, America thrust westward then and thrusts in every compass direction today.

"The fact is that for most of his life, Clark embodied the contradictions and hypocrisies of the federal government's Indian policy." (William Clark and the Shaping of the West, Landon Y. Jones, Hill and Wang, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-8090-3041-1. page 285.)

The tribes gradually lost ground passing from abundance to subsistence to starvation. The pressures from settlers and land speculators accelerated after the War of 1812, started by an act of the US Congress.

Unrelenting pressure for settlement led to an extended series of treaties, all eventually violated, taking huge tracts of land (millions of acres at a time). Similar to "buying" Manhattan Island for the mythic $24 worth of beads, little compensation was offered or finally paid.

Battles, raids, mutual mutilations, massacres large and small came to pit peoples at ruthless extremes. As settler resistance and aggressions moved from unorganized levies to rag-tag militias to regular army, the tribes were subjected to removals, decimation by disease, destruction of hunting grounds, extinction of the once-hunted species and, finally, extermination of tribes as policy and practice.

"The option never seriously considered was acculturation allowing Indians with agriculture-based economies to live side-by-side with whites while retaining tribal identities. (p. 280)

"In the span of his public life, Clark had been a primary architect of a form of what is now called ethnic cleansing. He personally signed thirty-seven separate treaties with Indian nations, more than anyone in American history. He helped the United States extinguish Indian titles to 419 million acres of land. . . .

"His ostensible goal was not the elimination of a people, but rather the acquisition of their land. But the foreseeable consequences were just as devastating. . . .

"The case for removal rested upon several widely shared assumptions. . . Indians were culturally inferior . . . stood in the way of progress. . . foot soldiers for America's international competitors. . . hunting grounds were unused space. . . needed for expansion and security. . . removal offered protection and time to learn white man's skills.

"These convictions required what now seems to be a wholesale suspension of disbelief. Clark and his peers ignored the contradictory evidence that Eastern Indians were hugely successful agriculturalists whose cultivated gardens and fields were equal to those of whites. Both William and George Rogers Clark had participated in military campaigns whose primary objective was to destroy the agricultural economy of the Indians. . . ." (p. 326)

"But after the War of 1812, . . .the nation's attitude hardened toward the Indians as did Clark's. His increasingly uncompromising behavior in treaty councils reflected his personal conviction that only the threat of overwhelming force could influence the tribes to see that their best interests lay in melting away before the advance of American civilization." (p. 327)

History moved forward to the 1838 "removal" of the very successful agriculturalist Cherokees in the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma Indian Territory and to the Dred Scott decision (1857) which affirmed that a Negro descended from slaves had no rights as an American citizen and no standing in court (Concise Columbia Encyclopedia p. 241). Next, history lurched into a most vicious and ruthless precursor or introduction to modern warfare, the American Civil War.

Other than changes of names and places, the dark side of American history still drives national policies and practices sometimes more strongly than others. At every juncture, some decry and others extol whatever happens, whomever suffers, whatever is destroyed in the name of "progress" or "ownership."

Paradoxical ambiguity?

Genetic or cultural flaws?

Consistent in any case.

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Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 11, 2005