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Indian Highways

Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988

Indian highways
According to popular mythology North American Indians were
godless savages - bent on opposing the civilizing mission of white
Europeans. In fact they were more than willing to co-operate and
share with the newcomers. James Morrison reports on the early
interdependence between Indian nations and European traders.

On a rock by the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the young fur trader inscribed the words which were to make him famous: 'Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the 22nd of July, 1793'.1 The Scotsman's arrogance is typically European. He not only fails to mention the Metis (part Indian, part French) 'voyageurs' who helped him through the Rocky Mountains, he also ignores the Indians who guided him every step of the way.

Mackenzie wasn't the first white explorer to ignore his Indian companions. A Cree named Ochagach in the 1720s mapped a route from Lake Superior to the western prairies for the French trader La Verendrye. And a Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, led Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out of those plains into the Rockies in 1806.

The North American continent was a mystery only to Europeans. The rivers they travelled were Indian highways; the roads they built followed Indian trails.

Access to the interior depended on native goodwill. When Samuel de Champlain tried to reach the Great Lakes in 1613, he was turned back by Algonquin tribesmen who controlled travel along the Ottawa River.

A century and a half later British traders who had taken over French routes to the west discovered that the Indians were hostile. 'Englishman, although you have conquered the French, you have not conquered us' was the warning Minwehweh, an Ojibwe Chief from Michilimackinac on Lake Huron, gave the merchant Alexander Henry in 1761. 'These lakes, these woods and mountains, were left to us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance and we will part with them to no one'.2

Political reality forced the Europeans to recognize native sovereignty. Eighteenth-century maps show enormous stretches of the continent as French, British or Spanish possessions. In fact, their control extended no further than musket range of their settlements. But there were other ways for the newcomers to gain the upper hand. 'Our Business', the Earl of Shelburne reminded the British Cabinet in 1767, 'is to spread Our European Manners as wide as possible and by creating Necessities among the Indians, bring them in a manner tributary to Us'.3

Shelburne's observation is echoed by modern historians who argue that native North Americans quickly became dependent on foreign technology. Muskets and rifles replaced the bow and arrow; iron kettles replaced clay pots; woollens and textiles replaced the skins of animals.

But interdependence is a more accurate way to describe this relationship. Not only did European merchants move inland along native trade routes, they used indigenous technology like the canoe and snowshoe. And they followed Indian trading customs. Without the fish and wild game which natives brought to their posts, northern fur traders would have starved to death. In addition, the products of native horticulture, maize, beans, squash and tobacco, were to revolutionize world agriculture. No wonder the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, thanked both the Lord and the Indians for helping them survive those first hard winters in America.

In fact, as consumers of manufactured goods, the native tribes were more important to Britain than the land-hungry colonists. A Proclamation issued by King George III in 1763 (which banned interior settlement and ordered white settlers off unceded Indian lands) was one of the causes of the American Revolution. Leaving inland parts of the continent only to fur traders did not sit well with Anglo-American politicians like George Washington, a leading land speculator in the newly-zoned Indian country.4

In the Ojibwe language, the word for American is Kitci Mokoman, which means 'Big Knife'. This was an apt term for Frederick Stump, a German settler on the Pennsylvania frontier who in 1768 murdered an Indian family of six, scalped his victims and hid their bodies under the ice. When a local militia officer arrested Stump, a party of 70 armed men forced the jail and freed the prisoner. It was the militia officer who ended up moving to Philadelphia for his own safety.

Here we have the dark side of American history - a struggle which began in the late 1500s when Walter Raleigh's English settlers on Roanoke Island off the Atlantic coast attacked the Indians who had first befriended them. Our image of the conflict has been affected by Hollywood films: Geronimo, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Cochise, Apaches, Sioux, Comanches, Arapaho, Blackfoot. Brave pioneers firing from the shadow of their wagons at painted warriors circling on horseback. Yet the greatest defeat Indian people inflicted on the United States was not at Little Big Horn in 1876 - when General George Armstrong Custer and his 250 cavalrymen perished at the hands of the Sioux. South of Lake Erie in November of 1791, a confederacy of woodland tribes attacked an American expeditionary force under General Arthur St. Clair and killed more than 600 of his soldiers. The General had been sent by Congress to burn Indian villages on the Maumee and Wabash Rivers and drive their inhabitants west of the Ohio River.5 Like the Sioux, these Miami, Pottawatomi and Huron were trying to defend their homelands, not to discharge some sort of primal bloodlust.

In Canadian and American school textbooks the Indian nations, overwhelmed by the flood of settlement and by superior military force, disappear from history in the 19th century. If they surface again, it is as remnants of once proud peoples, scratching out a living on the margins of the dominant society. The disappearing Indian is symbolized on the official seal of the State of Minnesota, drawn by the artist Seth Eastman in 1849. The seal shows an Indian riding off into the sunset vast a farmer with his plough.

But Eastman's native North Americans didn't vanish, they tried to adapt to a changing world. On both sides of the upper Great Lakes, Indians and Metis remained an important part of the regional economy until well into this century. They signed treaties which guaranteed at least some of their rights. They guided surveyors, prospectors and lumbermen. And they sold vegetables, maple sugar, fish and game to mining camps and railway crews.

In more ways than one, North America was developed on the backs of its Indian population.

James Morrison is an ethno-historian and a consultant to Canadian Indian bands.

. W Kaye Lamb (ed). The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Cambridge Univ Press, 1970;
. James Bain (Ed), Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories between the Years 1760 and 1776 By Alexander Henry, Fur Trader. Hurtig, Edmonton, 1969;
. 'Remarks, upon which are grounded the Minutes submitted by me (Lord Shelburne) to Cabinet in summer 1767: National Archives of Canada Shelburn Papers;
Jack M Sosin, Whitehall and the Wilderness: The Middle West in British Colonial Policy 1760. 1775 University of Nebraska Press, 1961;
5. Reginald Horseman, The Frontier in the Formative Years 1763-1615, HoIt, Rinehart and Winston. 1970 and E A Cruikshank (ed), The Correspondence of Lieut. Gov. John Graves Simcoe, The Ontario Historical Society, 1923.

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New Internationalist issue 186 magazine cover This article is from the August 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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