It was severeal days ago in the car on the way home from the gym with the radio tuned to NPR's All Things Considered that I decided this whole subject needed a little illumination.
What subject? Read on.
Mardi Gras had finally arrived in the Big Easy, and one question weighed heavily on the minds of Americans who watched Katrina swallow New Orleans in 2005 with as much fervor as they did the OJ Simpson trial in 1994. "Have the drunken revelers been returning in droves this year? Their prostitutes haven't worked in weeks. They need this."
NPR reporter Michelle Norris wanders through what sounds like considerable crowds of the raucously drunk and randy while ethereal tribal drumming pours from the back- to the foreground. This particular celebration in the New Orleans district of Tremaine, she explains, is different and somewhat more focused than those on Bourbon St. These partygoers are in search of the "Big Chief" of the Congo Nation as part of a longstanding tradition in which black residents don handmade costumes which resemble ornate and exaggerated Plains Indian headdresses. These Mardi Gras Indians fill neighborhoods all over New Orleans, although the origin of the tradition is somewhat shrouded in myth.
Michelle Norris throws out the possibility that it dates from the time of slavery when native americans harbored runaway slaves. The black residents adopted the tradition as a way of honoring that fact. Elsewhere on the NPR website there is a speculative claim that perhaps the practice stemmed from early Mardi Gras celebrations, from which freed blacks and slaves were prohibited. Those who could circumvented this by dressing as Indians and the tradition stuck.
Whether one of these is the right reason, or there is another shrouded in the haze of history, one thing is certain - for those who currently celebrate the tradition it embodies a brotherhood forged by the mutual suffering of both black and native americans. Fueled by manifest destiny, colonial whites plowed through the continent massacring native tribes, annexing their lands, and erecting on them plantation houses with giant balconies from which to examine the waves of African slave labor they had so inexpensively acquired.
European colonists were privy to advantages that made their murderous quest across America possible. They carried guns and disease to which native peoples had no resistance. They were organized and determined to conquer and convert the pacifistic noble savages that populated the land. Native americans, occupied with their peaceful worship of the earth while peacefully sipping the cool water from the stream, never saw the musketballs coming.
That view is just dead wrong.
It comes as a near-fatal blow to those who still have romantic liaisons with the idea of the noble savage, ignorant of the evil lying dormant within him that was released by contact with corrupt and malicious European colonists, that before Christopher Columbus ever made contact with the first Island Arawak, American Indians were constantly at war. Pre-colonial America was not a unified collective of tribes living humbly off the virgin land, it was a hotbed of regional conflict, bloodshed, and - quiet, please - slavery.
Not to be confused with what was to come, the humane slavery practiced by nearly every tribe in pre-colonial America was that of war captives, who were used for "small-scale labor and in ritual sacrifice" according to www.slaveryinamerica.org. In Aztec society, the treatment of slaves was quite different from the European style. Slavery was not hereditary, so a slave's children were free and could indulge themselves in the right of owning property, which included having slaves of their own. Now that sounds a little more capitalistic, doesn't it?
When European colonists came and wiped and their asses with every treaty they forced Native Americans to sign, they also taught them some useful lessons in human degradation. The colonists needed throngs of hands and feet and were paying top dollar ($27 bucks a head!). Even the halcyon natives could not resist the urge to sell off their slaves to the Europeans. This represented a fundamental change in the nature of the slave for Native American tribes; the evolution of slave from person to commodity.
The colonists could not satisfy their colossal desire for labor from native peoples alone and began importing slaves from Africa. By 1750, the Indian slave trade all but collapsed thanks to the saturation of the market by inexpensive African labor. Here's where the lightbulb went on in the minds of the tribal chiefs who realized, "Wow, if they're that cheap, might as well pick up a few myself!" That's right, Native American tribes owned African slaves.
After the Revolutionary War, it was George Washington himself who encouraged the Cherokees to grow cotton and flax and sent agents to aid in the setup of a plantation complete with looms, spinning wheels, plows, and black slaves. It worked so well that in 1824 the Cherokee had over 1200 black slaves. The Cherokee weren't the only tribe who owned black slaves, as evidenced by the forced march in the 1830s and 1840s of southeastern Indians to present-day Oklahoma - the Trail of Tears - by the American government. The various tribes brought with them as many as 15,000 black slaves.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution officially outlawed slavery in 1865, although as we all know outright racism and bigotry was well within the law until, well, the early 21st century. A year later the Cherokee nation signed the Treaty of 1866, which abolished slavery in their lands, which of course were not their lands at all but some arid plot of useless land in Middle America.
How are we supposed to deal with all this? Should we create a Heirarchy of Immorality with white Europeans at the top, Native Americans in the middle, and black Africans at the bottom? But wait, black African entrepreneurs in Guinea made fortunes selling their countrymen to the Europeans. At the peak of the slave trade, Guinea's market of slaves, gold, and ivory was bringing in 3.5 million pounds sterling per year, which is no paltry sum in the 19th century. The process of choosing who goes where in this Heirarchy is riddled with historical caveats. Are we resigned to come to the appalling conclusion that well within all of us is the willingness to abandon our moral convictions when it comes to making a quick buck?
Aut more importantly, who are the Black Indian revelers at Mardi Gras supposed to listen to now?