Ethics and issues

Ethics and issues

How to revive Massachusetts’ first language,” an article about the Wampanoag Nation’s efforts to “resurrect” their native language,  appeared in the Boston Globe a few days ago. It’s a fascinating look at their dedicated efforts over the last few decades.

One line in particular stood out to me: “What happened to Wampanoag was an act of violence, a cruel chapter of Massachusetts history that is rarely discussed.” And when it is discussed, it is a heated debate, to say the least. Historians try to sort out the responsibilities and actions of the varying groups, from the Puritans to the Pilgrims. It is problematic and simplistic to conflate the actions of certain groups and    characterize all Puritans as one way, just as it is problematic and simplistic to assume that all Native American tribes were similar.

When I teach Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, many of my students have never heard of King Philip’s War, which raged from 1675-8. We don’t know the true death toll, but estimates suggest that somewhere between 40-80% of the Native American population was affected. They died in battle, or of starvation or disease. Some were sold into slavery, while others left to join other tribes.

But even after the physical violence ended, the cultural genocide continued. In the next century, Wampanoag families were forced to indenture their children as servants in white households in order to repay debts. In the process, they lost most of their native culture, including their language.

The article doesn’t mention how popular culture, like literature, impacted cultural attitudes that allowed this to continue. Nineteenth-century fiction writers either ignored Native American characters, portrayed them as sub-human, or predicted their demise. In that way, they normalized and justified what was happening.

So how ethical is my project? Why should we study these texts that promoted racist views that contributed to real suffering?

Writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe are celebrated for the impact they made on society. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while a powerful anti-slavery novel, is also inherently racist. Stowe was not in favor of full equality for the races. She supported colonization in Africa as a solution to race problems in the US. David Brion Davis argues that the goal of this project was to replicate American colonial structures, including the idea that the “savages” needed to be civilized and Christianized.

So in other words, even strong abolitionists were in favor of eradicating African culture, and supported the same cultural genocide enacted on Native Americans. The goal was to recreate the world in their own English, Christian model. In that model, other cultures were a problem.

The writers I’m studying contributed to this ideology. Groups like the Mashpee Wampanoag are still trying to undo the damage it caused.

In part, that’s one reason why the Pilgrim/Puritan story has been challenged and condemned in the last few decades, and rightfully so. If the story is going to have any resonance in the future, it is imperative to acknowledge that.

About Kari Miller

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