Shells, furs, and propaganda
I’m taking a MOOC from the University of Alberta called Indigenous Canada, and it’s the perfect history class for anyone who is curious about the way colonization really works. Native Studies professor Dr. Tracy Bear and her colleagues do an amazing job covering the past 500 years of relations between First Nations and the immigrants from Europe who eventually created a settler nation called Canada. It’s easy to see why over 200,000 students have taken this class. What’s been fascinating for me is learning about how so many violent encounters were precipitated by European misinformation campaigns that today we’d call fake news.
In the early 1600s, Europeans were fur crazy. They’d killed off most of the European beavers, whose pelts were used to make fashionable felt hats, and they were awed by the abundance of beaver in the Americas. The Dutch traded with coastal tribes for the furs, and made treaties with them that included provisions for things like safe passage on the rivers of the Hudson Valley, and deals to exchange goods. A famous example of this kind of treaty is the Two Row Wampum, a deal struck between Dutch traders and the Haudenosawnee (the confederacy of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas).
The Haudenosawnee and other indigenous groups had a long history of international relations, having made peace agreements and wars with their neighbors for millennia. Wampum belts were a ceremonial and pragmatic way of recording these relationships, using twine to weave purple and white shell beads (wampum) into symbolic patterns. In the Two Row Wampum, the two purple lines represent the Dutch and the Haudenosawnee, living alongside each other in peace and without interfering with the other’s business. Though the Dutch were used to doing things the European way, by scribbling with quill and ink on parchment and sealing it up with wax, they accepted the indigenous-style peace and friendship treaty.
Hearing about the Two Row Wampum, I flashed back to what I learned about the colonization of the Americas when I was a kid in the States. I distinctly recall my (White) teacher explaining to the children that “Indians didn’t understand” treaties and therefore they naively traded shell beads for their land. How had the actual existence of a mutually-agreed upon treaty turned into this noxious myth?
In the centuries between the Two Row Wampum and my crappy elementary school class, European settlers cooked up a series of justifications for seizing land that clearly wasn’t theirs. Inspired by tales of bucolic indigenous life during the 17th and 18th centuries, French and English storytellers popularized the noble savage myth, which portrayed First Nations people as anarchic innocents roaming the continent’s “virgin land.” Over time, these stories became so widely accepted in Europe that new settlers expected to meet childlike servants in the Americas, rather than people like themselves from complex civilizations with a documented history of international treaties.
Wampum belts were used for a lot more than treaties. People taking their canoes into foreign territory could hoist a wampum belt to show that they were part of a peace agreement. They were used to record tribal histories, and to send letters between distant settlements. Calling wampum belts “beads and shells” is like calling the Declaration of Independence a fish wrapper decorated with curly symbols. This fantasy dehumanizes the Haudenosawnee, and all the tribes who made similar agreements over the next 400 years, by suggesting that they were too simpleminded to strike a real bargain.
It’s also a good example of why fictions come to seem more truthful than actual, physical evidence staring us in the face. Many wampum belts survive to the present day -- indeed, the Onondaga Nation hosted a renewal ceremony of the Two Row Wampum treaty in 2013 -- and yet American kids are still being taught a fantasy version of history. Acknowledging the reality would mean honoring all those agreements. And that’s something the Canadian and U.S. governments are extremely reluctant to do.
The wampum fabulations get me especially steamed up because I write a lot about archaeology in the Americas, and I’ve read academic papers about various pre-contact indigenous groups who supposedly had no written language. Now I’m forced to wonder whether this is actually true, or if these groups had wampum, or something like the Inkan khipu (language written down in the form of knots and colored patterns in a textile). In other words, perhaps they had writing, but it didn’t look anything like European script on paper. So it was ignored -- or mistaken for beads, rugs, and jewelry.
It’s an unsettling feeling.
other stuff I’m thinking about
Speaking of wars that involve a lot of propaganda, my pal Alex Stamos has a great article in the Washington Post about the Russian hacks into U.S. government agencies. Alex is director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, and he always cuts through the bullshit to offer some solutions.
If you want a good listen, Sean Rameswaram interviewed Amanda Shendruk on Today Explained about climate sanctuary cities, places where people might flee when their cities are hit by fires and floods from climate crisis. Shendruk created an amazing work of futurist journalism for Quartz, telling the story of an imaginary sanctuary city called Green Haven -- she explains how it might be founded, and what it might evolve into over the next several decades. It’s a great work of speculative fiction, as well as a hopeful idea.
Are you looking for a graphic novel that will soothe your soul and keep you cozy on these long winter nights? You must read Jessi Zabarski’s Witchlight, the story of a young witch and her new friend, on a quest that goes from swashbuckling to tragic to romantic -- and back again.
Plus, there’s a new episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, the podcast I host with Charlie Jane Anders. This week, it’s all about why pop culture has recently become overwhelmingly obsessed with cuteness.
My next book is Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. It's coming out in February 2021, and you can pre-order it now. You can find information and ordering links for my other books on my website, helpfully organized into science fiction and journalism. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram — or listen to Our Opinions Are Correct, the fortnightly podcast I co-host with Charlie Jane Anders. If someone forwarded this email to you, you can subscribe to it here.