By Melissa Rayner
Native American rights have been in the news quite a bit lately, especially as they relate to the Redskins controversy. That got me thinking: How were things back in our favorite century?
And what I found broke my heart, much in the same way reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison breaks my heart every single time (yes, normally, these blog posts are kind of hilarious, and I promise to return to hilarity next week).
My search turned up an autobiography by Joseph K. Griffis (formerly Tahan), Out of Savagery into Civilization, in which he recounts–and even dumbs down–his many adventures as a wild man of the plains and how he eventually found his place among learned, civilized society. Here, the introduction lays out his many experiences:
What fascinates me is this acceptance and perpetuation of racism by its victim. Much like in Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Tahan has chosen to believe that he and his people were savages in need of civilizing. The author of the introduction, however, sees this dilemma differently. Instead, he raises the eternal question of nature versus nurture, although it is full of “less-than” talk:
Tahan, himself, delivers to expectations in his autobiography, citing the need for the Red man to catch up to the White on the evolutionary scale:
This fits in nicely with the rhetoric of the day. Just look at these other sources from 1890 (The Indian Can No Longer Live by Hunting) and 1892 (How to Bring the Indian to Citizenship, and Citizenship to the Indian):
However, in the end of his account, Tahan proves absolutely brilliant. First, Tahan hooked his audience by meeting their expectations and desires, then he delivered a compelling tale of adventure, and–at the last–he take his stand and tells us the real reason for his journey “out of savagery into civilization”:
Tahan, while remarkable, is in now way unique. Check out the resources below for more on the intersection of Native and White life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And, if you have time, read more from Tahan’s autobiography–you’re in for a fascinating adventure, I promise!
Previous Posts in this Series:
- How would you have died in the 19th century?
- Time to enroll at ye old boarding school!
- Let’s visit the Indian Exhibition!
- Griffis, Joseph K. Tahan, out of Savagery into Civilization: An Autobiography. New York: George H. Doran Company, [c.1915]. Indigenous Peoples: North America. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
- “The Indian Can No Longer Live by Hunting.” The Indian’s Friend II.12 (1890): 4. Indigenous Peoples: North America. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
- Thorpe, Francis Newton. A constitutional history of the American people, 1776-1850 : illustrated with maps. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Bros, 1898. The Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises, 1800-1926. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
- United States. Superintendent of Indian Schools. Report of the Superintendent of Indian Schools. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903. Indigenous Peoples: North America. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
- Welsh, Herbert. How to Bring the Indian to Citizenship, and Citizenship to the Indian. Philadelphia: n.p., 1892. Indigenous Peoples: North America. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Melissa is obsessed with books, birds, and bonbons. She is a new mom and holds an MA in Applied Sociology. She also writes fiction and skips about the interweb as Emlyn Chand.