Sunday, August 22, 2010

More on Fur, Fortune and Empire

Just a couple more thoughts on Fur, Fortune and Empire.  After writing my previous post and before returning the book to my dad I decided to take a careful read of the footnotes.  I had skipped back to them while reading the book when something caught my attention but I wanted to give them a thorough read. 

Sometimes the footnotes can be more interesting than the actual book or, at least, can provide separate items of interest.  This was the case here. 

As I said before, the scope of this book was different than I expected.  I would have preferred to have read about the actual trading itself but this was really a history of Americans.  In the footnotes he points out the following, which I think is very true:

“One of the difficulties in writing about the American fur trade, especially during the colonial era, is that almost all the historical documents were written by the white people who interacted with the Indians rather than the Indians themselves.  Thus it is nearly impossible to say with certainty what the Indians thought about their participation in the trade, and how they perceived the people with whom they were trading.  Still some documents do exist, and historians have used them, and have also carefully analyzed the broader contemporary literature written by whites, to create portraits of the fur trade, and in particular Indian involvement, that are as accurate and balanced as possible.” (p. 328 fn. 18).

Unfortunately he doesn’t give any specific examples of those historians in that citation.  But I think he’s correct.  They say that history is written by the victors and that’s true. But it’s also true that history tends to be written by those who can write.  The oral tradition of the Indians doesn’t make their histories any less valid than the written histories of the whites with whom they traded but it does make them more difficult to access. 

One of the best quotes in Dolan’s footnotes, though, is from Professor Jennifer Brown, of the University of Winnepeg:  “European records made a big thing of how impressed the Indians were with their trade goods; Indian oral tradition tells the reverse – how impressed the Europeans were with the furs that the Indians didn’t value particularly highly.”  (p. 328 fn 20).

And this sounds true.  It especially sounds true when you know exactly what the colonial traders were trading for. Dolan had some very good sections about the anatomy of the beaver and how beaver skins are used in the making of hats.  The beaver has two types of fur – long coarse outer hairs covering the soft warm inner fur.  Plucking out the outer hairs was time consuming but necessary to get to the fur they wanted.   The most profitable furs were, therefore, furs for which this process had already taken place.  Indians tended to create robes with the fur on the inside and as they wore them the outer hairs would wear away leaving only the soft inner fur.  Fur traders valued these “worn” garments more highly than new unused furs.  I’ve always thought the Indians must have thought the Europeans were slightly crazy to want to buy what the Indians saw (quite rightly) as their smelly used clothes. 

In return for their old clothes and some animal skins, the Indians got mettle goods like kettles. In a later footnote, Dolan quotes historian Ian K. Steele:  “Historians have been irrationally embarrassed by Amerindian economic interests evident in the fur trade of the north and the deerskin trade of the south.  Earlier portrayals of naive Amerindian victims of underpriced furs and overpriced European goods have righty been superseded by more plausible accounts of discerning Amerindian customers able to demand exactly the kind of kettles, blankets, knives, or guns they wanted.” (p. 330 fn. 31).

All of this is to say that some of the things I may have complained about in my post yesterday as lacking were not lacking because Dolan was unaware of them.  Clearly he had his own viewpoint that he was trying to get across and these things were outside the scope of what he was trying to accomplish.  But the footnotes make it clear that he was well aware of these other issues. 

It also is a way of leading up to a quote that he gives in the footnotes from an interview/discussion between Richard White and William Cronan on why the Indians valued kettles:  “Indians wanted kettles partly because you can put them on a fire and boil water and they won’t break.  That’s nice.  But many of those kettles didn’t stay kettles for long.  They got cut up and turned into arrowheads that were then used in the hunt.  Or they got turned into high-status jewelry.  Indians valued kettles because they were such an extraordinarily flexible resource.” 

It’s a great quote but he also gave a a web address for the citation to the quote which took me to an interesting article:

This article is a discussion between Richard White and William Cronan that took place before White published his seminal work The Middle Ground.  In it they talk about the Indian’s use of animals and I was very much reminded of the discussion that took place when I read and blogged about Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.

R[ichard] W[hite]: What’s hardest for us to understand, I think, is the Indians’ different way of making sense of species and the natural world in general. I’m currently writing about the Indians of the Great Lakes region. Most of them thought of animals as a species of persons. Until you grasp that fact, you can’t really understand the way they treated animals. This is easy to romanticize—it’s easy to turn it into a “my brother the buffalo” sort of thing. But it wasn’t. The Indians killed animals. They often overhunted animals. But when they overhunted, they did so within the context of a moral universe that both they and the animals inhabited. They conceived of animals as having, not rights—that’s the wrong word—but powers. To kill an animal was to be involved in a social relationship with the animal. One thing that has impressed me about Indians I’ve known is their realization that this is a harsh planet, that they survive by the deaths of other creatures. There’s no attempt to gloss over that or romanticize it.

W[illiam C[ronan] There’s a kind of debt implied by killing animals.

RW Yes. You incur an obligation. And even more than the obligation is your sense that those animals have somehow surrendered themselves to you.

WC There’s a gift relationship implied …

RW … which is also a social relationship. This is where it becomes almost impossible to compare Indian environmentalism and modern white environmentalism. You cannot take an American forester or an American wildlife manager and expect him to think that he has a special social relationship with the species he’s working on.

WC Or that he owes the forest some kind of gift in return for the gift of wood he’s taking from it.

RW Exactly. And it seems to me hopeless to try to impose that attitude onto Western culture. We distort Indian reality when we say Indians were conservationists—that’s not what conservation means. We don’t give them full credit for their view, and so we falsify history.

It’s a very interesting interview all around and I encourage everyone to read it.  And as Richard White says: “We can’t copy Indian ways of understanding nature, we’re too different. But studying them throws our own assumptions into starker relief and suggests shortcomings in our relationships with nature that could cost us dearly in the long run.”