I am cheered to learn that this newspaper, to which I offer my periodic musings, has launched a program to incorporate the voices of the Indigenous population of this area into its contemporary news coverage.

I live on Old Mission Peninsula. That name begins to indicate why this program is so necessary, albeit long overdue. This peninsula became “old mission” when in 1852, the tribes associated with the missionary work of by Peter Dougherty chose to move across the bay and establish a “new” mission in what is now Omena.

That move was motivated by the fact that land across the bay was being made available for purchase by tribal members.

Let’s pause on that irony. In the 1836 Treaty of Washington, the tribes then resident in this and surrounding areas extending into the Upper Peninsula ceded some 14 million acres to the United States. So, in 1852, Indigenous people on Old Mission were granted the right to purchase land across the bay in what had been up to 1836 their home territory.

Those transactions, the ceding of territory and then the gaining of a foothold back in that same place, represents a more benign version of our country’s deep-rooted racist attitude toward the original inhabitants of this continent. All you need to know to see how deep those roots lie is to consider this passage from William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation,” in which the Pilgrim’s governor describes his group’s attitude in 1620 toward the Mayflower’s planned destination:

“The place they had thoughts on was some of those vast & unpeopled countries of America, which are frutfull & fitt for habitation, being devoyd of all civill inhabitants, wher ther are only salvage & brutish men, which range up and downe, litle otherwise then ye wild beasts of the same.”

Ignoring the quaint 17th century orthography, focus on the word “unpeopled.” Bradford meant this word literally. He and his Pilgrim associates had heard descriptions of the tribes encountered by traders. These Native Americans, from Bradford’s perspective, simply were not people in the sense that they were not “civilized” and therefore were closer to “wild beasts” than the European version of humanity with which he was familiar.

To extend this point just a little further, the more benign version of this thoroughly racist assessment of the people the Pilgrims expected to encounter and eventually displace, one way or another, was to offer them the opportunity to become “civilized ” — which in the 17th century meant convert to Christianity. In service of that goal, in 1661 John Elliot published his translation of the New Testament into the Algonquian language of the Massachusetts tribes, followed two years later by the addition of the Old Testament.

No doubt, Elliot had the best of intentions, at least from his point of view, but his underlying assumption that only by “raising” Indigenous people into Christianity could they be “civilized” is undeniably racist, if by which we mean, seeing some human beings as inferior. That assumption leads in a straight line to the missionary efforts of Peter Dougherty and the establishment of my current hometown as Old Mission.

Along that unfortunate line, there were countless more violent and mean spirited attempts to civilize the tribes that boiled down to two choices: assimilate or fight to resist that forced assimilation, which involved, for example, taking Native children and depositing them in boarding schools where they would be cleansed of their Native culture and language.

Sadly, Bradford’s view of Native Americans has been thoroughly absorbed into mainstream American culture. This newspaper’s new program is a sorely needed corrective, better late than never.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include three mysteries set in northern Michigan. Contact stevelew@charter.net.

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