Summary of “‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History”
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In the essay “‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History” written by Jane Tompkins, an English professor at Duke University, the author criticized the history writers and described the issue of problems that are often created by different perspectives from the history on the topic, European -Indian relation, that cannot be determined from right or wrong. Many problems contain one main fact behind it. However, people have different perspectives of that particular fact, and those perspectives are not always the same. These differences have created textualism problems for the later generations, which make it very difficult for us to learn about history.
Throughout this essay, Tompkins main goal is to send a message to history writers that if they can’t formulate the problems of history with their moral decisions, they will never be able to resolve those moral problems. As a matter of fact, those same moral problems will be repeated in the future. Therefore, the study of history will be worthless. As a student loving to learn about history, by reading Tompkins’ essay I feel like students are being misinterpreted about their country’s history due to the biases of historians writing history themselves. In my opinion, if historians cannot see the facts behind history, how can later generation students find out those facts and make an ethical judgment about our history itself.
As a kid, Tompkins learned from school about the facts about Indians who made her feel like they were inferiors to her because of their ignorance of the value in the Manhattan Island they sold to Peter Minuit. In order to be like them, she wanted to pursue an “exciting, romantic life in the forest” (Tompkins 102). She was proud to be living on a land that these adventurous native people used to live. When Tompkins decided to do a research about the relationship between Indians and the European settlers, one of her main question changed from what happened to the relationship between them to what are the real facts of history based on the accounts given by different historians.
Although there is only one main fact about European – Indian relation, there are many different reports about their past relationships. Tompkins decided to go from secondary to primary researches with a hope of finding more reliable sources of information about European – Indian relation. She ends up with all of the biased accounts, which contain different perspectives of each writers and not facts. As a result, she wanted to end her research in “relativism” (115). Even though she came across contradictory in her researches, by using relativism she can decide for herself which information is well supported her reasoning. She then can eliminate the extreme biases, and combine all these perspectives together to form a comprehensive description of history.
Tompkins’ first secondary research was about Perry Miller. Through his book, _Errand into the Wilderness_, Tompkins criticized Miller for using white supremacy when he writes about the history of America as well as Central Africa. According to Miller, the jungle in Central Africa and the “vacant wilderness” of America are mirror images of one another (104). Under his eyes, he can’t see the Blacks and Native Americans populating in these two countries. Not only Miller but Governor Winthrop also considers Indians as non-existence. In addition to the first secondary research, Tompkins found to be very disappointed when three out of other four historians have used Eurocentric views to write about the history of America.
Alden Vaughan referred Indians as inferior human compared to the Puritans because of their cultural backwardness. Francis Jennings blamed the settlers for their exploitation on Indians. And Charles Hudson used his European economical view to explain for the fur trade between European and Indians, which had led to massacre of Indians. In contrast to Vaughan, Jennings, and Hudson, Calvin Martin, the author of “Keepers of the game,” has used his Amerindian views to explain the fur trade. He argued the act of exploiting the animals is not caused by Indians’ desire for the fancy goods sold by Europeans but a spiritual game between them and the animals.
To explain for the different descriptions about the history of European-Indian relation, John Higham states that “the sociocultural upheaval of the sixties” (106) has caused the change of the ways people view and write about history. That is the reason why both Jennings and Martin in the seventies seem to take side on Indians by attacking the English settlers. All events that happened in the past belong to the past, and nobody can change or modify history; but due to the different points of view shaped by different cultures of each historian, each of them has written about history based on his/her own perspective and cultural belief. To compare the difference and asymmetry among the secondary sources, Tompkins went on with more researches on primary sources.
Tompkins thought by looking at primary materials of an imprisoned narrative would give her real information about the relationship between Europeans and Indians. She found herself to be disappointed again with her research. In the book, _The Sovereignty and Goodness of God_, the captive, Mary Rowlandson, has used her Puritan views to describe about Native Americans. Her complaint of the act of smoking in Indian culture indicates the Puritan value Rowlandson uses in narrating about Indians. On the other hand, other primary researchers, James Axtell and William Wood described Indians as people with superior and humanity traits, while Norman Heard and Alexander Whitaker interpreted them as humans with savage nature. Employing Eurocentric view, Karen Kuperman clarified that English men didn’t discriminate against Indians because of their race. They just looked down on Indians who decorate themselves as ordinary people, which give them a title of low ranked people in the social class. Robert Berkhofer explained the divergent of these historical accounts by stating that different authors will have different purposes when they write about Native people. As a consequence, the writers of these primary sources also record the history of Indians based on their own cultural aspects.
As Tompkins described in her essay, the conflicts between the reports of secondary and primary resources have induced her to end her research in relativism. Nevertheless, it is not easy to end in relativism since the facts she needs to use to make moral judgment on what happens to the relationship between Europeans and Indians, which led to the mass murder in Indian population, and still remained unknown. I believe moral decision couldn’t be made if there isn’t any moral judgment about the issue. Through the essay, Tompkins also criticizes the academy individuals for their indecisiveness. Instead of making a commitment in relativism and finding out the truth about the history to help Indians, they just talk about their ideas and wait for the truth to come out by itself. Hence, history still repeats in the world of Indians. We learn history to avoid the problems people have made in the past. But it seems like the problems are still remained unsolved with the study of history. Consequently, due to the lack of moral decisions and judgments, Native Americans are still going through what they used to go through in the past.
I believe that people tend to build their opinions based on their cultural backgrounds and their society. Nonetheless, saying this doesn’t mean I agree with the historical accounts given by the authors Tompkins has mentioned above. Throughout history, no one can distinguish the right and wrong perspectives about European-Indian relationship because most of the perspectives apparently are developed by each author’s interpretation of the event. The researchers can’t escape the limitation that their cultures limit them to see. I think every person in this world is curious about their origin. If we can’t depend on historical resources to learn about our past, how else can we learn about it? Therefore, I really hope that each academy writer, whether a historian or a narrative from the history, can use his/her neutral view to write about the history. If there is no history to learn, there is no better future for later generations to build from it.
Tompkins, Jane. “‘Indians’: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History.” Journal Storage 13.1 (Autumn, 1986): 101-119.