Authors: Barry O’Connell, James E. Ostendarp Professor of English; Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Professor of American Studies and English and Faculty Advisor to the Center for Community Engagement, and Chair of American Studies; Lisa T. Brooks, Associate Professor of English and American Studies; Kiara M. Vigil, Assistant Professor of American Studies.
In just the last year, in many public moments — a cartoon in an Amherst publication, a poster in an academic space, a speech in Johnson Chapel — Lord Jeffery Amherst’s order to spread smallpox among the Indians with infected blankets has served as a familiar witticism. Such jokes may be intended lightly, even have been meant as a critique of Amherst’s problematic past, but they entail a failure to recognize the history of genocide and ongoing violence against Native people. What Lord Jeffery Amherst did was not simply long ago. Jeffery Amherst intended to eradicate Native peoples by whatever means could be devised, including smallpox. A 1763 letter to Colonel Bouquet written in Lord Amherst’s own hand, makes this genocidal goal perfectly clear. See image below.
“You will Do well to try to Inoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Inexorable Race. I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them Down by Dogs could take effect.…”
Before and after Lord Jeffrey’s written confirmation of his intent to eliminate Native people, the colonial and later American governments made many systematic attempts to dispossess Indian peoples of their lands and culture.
For Native people, genocide is not in the distant past, but ever-present. We might remember the extermination of over six hundred Pequot people in 1637 or the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the President to remove Indian peoples “residing in any of the states” across the Mississippi and resulted in the death of some 8,000 Cherokee people alone during the forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma in winter time. We might consider the 105 women and children and 28 men who perished at Sand Creek in 1864 when the Reverend Colonel Chivington led more than 700 heavily armed men to attack the camp, where a white flag of peace and an American flag were supposed to protect the families. The Dawes Act, which Theodore Roosevelt called “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” left families and lands divided even as children were being taken from their homes, so that federally supported Indian boarding schools could “kill the Indian but save the man.” Remember, too, the countless numbers of Abenaki families whose futures were cut short by sterilization, authorized by a 1931 Vermont law, or the more than 3,000 Native American women sterilized between 1973 and 1976 at Indian Health Services hospitals. Experienced firsthand, passed on through oral tradition or found in federal and state documents, these events are part of a brutal tapestry of continuing colonialism that Native people must face every day.
Yet, despite these fierce realities and the colonial stories that have perpetuated a myth of “disappearance,” we are truly in a time of regeneration. Amherst College has the opportunity to be part of that process of renewal and restoration.
“We often hear of wars breaking out upon the frontiers, and it is because the same spirit reigns there that reigned here in New England; and wherever there are any Indians, that spirit still reigns; and at present, there is no law to stop it. What, then, is to be done? Let every friend of the Indians now seize the mantle of Liberty and throw it over those burning elements that have spread with such fearful rapidity, and at once extinguish them forever…We want trumpets that sound like thunder, and men to act as though they were going to war with those corrupt and degrading principles that robs one of all rights, merely because he is ignorant and of a little different color. WILLIAM APESS (PEQUOT), EULOGY ON KING PHILIP, 1836
Last semester, Native people came to Amherst College, from the region and beyond, gathering to honor the legacy of Pequot author and activist William Apess. Born in Colrain, Mass., Apess’s reach was felt far and wide, most especially to those of us who have benefitted from the recovery of his works. On Dec. 6, Cole Assembly Hall was alive with Apess’s potent words. We left vitally energized by the possibilities inspired by our exchange. If our guests had remained one more day, like many of us here, they could have encountered one of these “jokes” and with it a gut-wrenching sense of despair, a sense of how little had changed since Apess’s time.
In 1836, Apess reminded his audience of New Englanders, crowded into the Odeon lecture hall in Boston, that “Natives” were their neighbors, living and working beside them, not the “remnants” of a “vanishing race,” frozen in the past. Today, we could passively make jokes about an act of genocide, which we assume is safely relegated to the past, or we could, finally, do as Apess implored his neighbors: “seize the mantle of Liberty” and value “principles that give everyone his due,” including our contemporaries, the members of over 500 Native American nations that continue to struggle for rights and recognition amidst the United States. We could begin by listening to “the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival,” in the words of Muskogee poet Joy Harjo, “those who were not meant to survive.”
Those among us who are especially bold and brave could, as Apess urged, “act as though we were going to war with those corrupt and degrading principles” that continue to “rob” us not only of rights, but of knowledge and clarity about our own past, our own shared space of the present and our real hope for a just future.
It is worth thinking and talking more about the issue of invisibility that pervades the Connecticut River Valley. Many of us may not physically recognize Native people, but they and their history remain alive throughout the country.
All of us at Amherst may not want to carry such a past nor know how to bear this burden today. Nonetheless, as members of Amherst College we have a particular responsibility because of our namesake to know this history and to tell it responsibly. We need to learn the history of Native Americans in New England and across the continent. “We Are Still Here.”