Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Can Bring Down Your Entire Civilization With A Single Word... No, Wait... Ten. Ten Words. Just Ten

As I noted in a recent edition of the Rapid-Fire Book Club, one of my recent acquisitions is Killing the White Man's Indian, a 1996 title by Fergus M. Bordewich. In the 1990's, tribes across the country were asserting themselves culturally and politically, and had a kind of clout that they had not known with the white man (as you can see from the book title, that is the term that gets used) for their entire history. Treaties that had any legal teeth whatsoever, many of them newer ones that tribes had negotiated while the white man had barely noticed, were now being turned around and enforced, with non-Indians and even governments finding to their dismay just how little power they actually had in the face of them.

This includes the very first anecdote in the book, where the Seneca tribe in 1991 had given the white man a 100-year lease on land including the city of Salamanca, a lease the locals had completely forgotten about except for the part where they were paying very low rent. Then the lease expired, with the Senecas showing zero interest in renewing it. Salamanca, New York was out of nowhere to become part of an Indian reservation, with all land owned by the tribe. They would be the only city in America with this arrangement. The locals were uproarious with anger. There were protests. There were appeals to government. There were lawsuits. But in the end, 15 households of Salamanca were evicted by the Senecas for refusing to agree to the new terms. (Or 16, depending on the source.)

You need only glance at this thread to see the acrimony that continues today.

The book captures the mood in this moment, detailing the history of various tribes, how each of them went into decline, what was taken from them, what if any bloodline current tribe members still retain (and many of them really don't; with some tribes only surviving through creative interpretations of what exactly it means to be a member of the tribe- another central theme of the book in itself), and the tribes as of the 1990's, some trying to take back what was theirs, some trying merely to survive or gain recognition, and all dealing with misconception upon misconception from people that have this idea that they all still live in tepees or that many of them lived in tepees in the first place.

Some tribes did not make it into the book. First, Bordewich wanted to avoid the book becoming a dry and dreary tome, and says as much. Second, some tribes didn't survive at all. When tribes were under siege, there sometimes was just no way to win. And in at least one case, a tribe died by nothing more than pure bad luck.

The Karankawa tribe lived in southern Texas and northern Mexico, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the online resources have them as dying out in 1860, right before the Civil War. The links provided in this paragraph give a primer on how they lived, but we're here today to note how they died. And their effective death came a few decades prior to 1860.

As told by Noah Smithwick in The Evolution of a State: or, Recollections of Old Texas Days, at the time of the Texas Revolution of 1836, the Karankawa had a good relationship with Captain Philip Dimmitt. (Whose name gets spelled a lot with one T, including in the name of the county named for him, Dimmit County, Texas. No real way to figure out which one's right, so we'll just arbitrarily go with 2 T's here and apologize to Phil if we're wrong.) Dimmitt had a ranch towards the mouth of the Lavaca River; Port Lavaca is probably the closest modern-day city.

They needed the help. The tribe had frequently had to fight settlers brought in by Stephen F. Austin in 1823. Dimmitt was one of these settlers, but he was a valued and needed ally.

At one point, Dimmitt left to fight in the war. The Karankawa, however, knew nothing of this. Dimmitt had a policy of sharing beef with them any time they dropped in, so when one day they showed up at the ranch and Dimmitt wasn't there, they didn't think it would be a problem to simply help themselves. It came as a little bit of a surprise, then, when some Mexican soldiers appeared and demanded to know what the Karankawa were doing there.

But they didn't think it too much of an issue. "Oh, it's all right; we're Captain Dimmitt's friends."

Wrong answer. The passage is vague on the specifics, but it does say that the Mexicans charged, killing some of the tribe and scattering the rest. After they regrouped, they soon came across another group of people. They still had no idea what in blazes was going on, but they did know that they didn't want to be attacked by Mexicans again.

So when they met this second group, the first thing out of their mouth was "Viva Mexico!"

Wrong answer, part two. This second group was American. The Americans, now having Mexicans on their hands in a war with Mexico, attacked the Karankawa, who this time were slaughtered past the point of no return. Only a fraction survived the assault, fleeing once more, and those that did survive were unable to repopulate the tribe. Little record is available of the final decline, only noting that the last member died in 1860. 20 years later, a record of the language that died with them was published. There's skepticism about its accuracy, but it's all that was able to be recorded.

The place where the tribe most lives on now is in the 1996 book, The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change, by Robert Arthur Ricklis.

It'll have to do.

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