To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Diane Rothenberg: The Economic Memories of Harry Watt (Part Three)

The Commentary

[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. Copies of Diane Rothenberg’s book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, are still available through Ta’wil Books, joris@albany.edu. Another essay, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread," was posted earlier on December 5, 2008, & parts one and two of the present essay appeared on March 12 & 24. Part Two is from Harry Watt's oral autobiography, as recorded & transcribed by Diane Rothenberg.]

Had I been listening, I would have realized that what Harry Watt was describing in his own life coincided with my interpretation of what the Seneca Indians had been doing a hundred years earlier – that is, adapting as well as they could to changes being imposed by the colonizers, while attempting to retain social cohesion, some measure of significant cultural content, and a sense of control.

My own investigation focused on a reexamination of the interaction of the Allegany Senecas and the Quaker missionaries who arrived in 1798 in response to the Seneca invitation to establish a mission. The Quakers came to “civilize” the Senecas and understood by civilization the eventual necessary goal of a commitment to “distinct property.” From a matrilineal, communal society in which economic viability was achieved through a complementary division of labor, in which female horticulturalists produced subsistence crops while men engaged in cash derivative activities (we are, after all, talking about several hundred years of world market extensions into the American continent}, the Quakers hoped to forge a society in which men would farm private property to be inherited by sons while women would engage in household tasks appropriate to the “gentle sex.”

The Quaker goal of civilization through male agriculture and private property was not only an expression of an eighteenth-century agrarian idealism. It was specifically an imperialist governmental policy designed to open western lands for sale to settlers in order both to satisfy land hunger and to raise money to pay war debts. If Indians could be induced to farm, they would both be pacified and reconciled to drastic land reductions. But the federal government could not afford to fund the program, and so the Quakers undertook, as a private society, to accomplish these goals. I believe their willingness to do so was related to their need to restore their former position of influence, which had been diminished by their reluctance to participate in the American Revolution.

Because the Quakers were a birthright society proscribed from seeking converts, their emphasis was on assisting Senecas in this world rather than in the next. Their emphasis, like Harry Watt’s, was on appropriate work as a measure of human worth. They were critical of “idlers” and eager to reduce economic reciprocity and resource distribution. And they were very eager to move women into an exclusive domestic sphere. Harry Watt strongly objected to this orientation and used to say that he believed a scrupulously clean house would indicate that a woman had wrong values. He recognized the important contribution of women to the life of the community in general and to the management and continuation of the Longhouse, and he predicted that it would be the energy and effort of the women upon which a continuation of traditional Seneca life would depend.

The centrality of the nuclear family reflected in Harry Watt’s narrative was prompted by the Quakers and endorsed by the prophet Handsome Lake. The prophet’s visions established the terms of social restructuring that are now the foundation of the contemporary Handsome Lake Longhouse Religion and of the conservative “old way” among the various groups adhering to that religion. Unlike the Quakers, Handsome Lake encouraged the establishment of clustered settlements, following the older residence patterns, and he rejected the Quakers’ urging that the economic reciprocity be abandoned, a goal to be accomplished through dispersed agricultural homesteads. Developments during the nineteenth century resulted in what William Fenton has called a “rural neighborhood” pattern, with nodes of settlement occurring between dispersed homesteads. Osteological evidence from nineteenth century cemeteries indicates that these homesteads were patrivirilocal by contrast with the normative past of a matriuxorilocality which was probably situationally variable over time anyway.

The issue of whether males engaged primarily in agriculture as a result of the Quaker influence was a crucial point in my investigations. Harry Watt’s father Hiram was, in fact, a farmer, although, as the narrative indicates, “What money he got, he went to work for others for a day or so at a time.” According to his daughter Effie Johnson, Hiram Watt was a first generation farmer who as a destitute boy of twelve began to clear, and hence claim, available reservation land to support himself and his widowed mother. He did this after the 1860’s when dairy farming had become a viable industry for both whites and Indians. The coming of the railroads made possible the shipping of cheese produced in the local factories, which bought fluid milk. As Harry Watt says, “But he had milk and from the milk he had an income.”

The Quakers made much of the cultural inhibitions that men felt to farming, and the story of women mocking men who took up a hoe by themselves taking up a gun is often repeated. The evidence, however, reveals reasons more economic than cultural for men to resist farming. With an absence of access to markets for agricultural products, men could not generate the cash the community needed. Men engaged in whatever work they could find, which included farm work for wages – “it’s that payday.” Although dairy farming had become a viable cash activity, Hiram Watt’s almost total dependence on farming was unusual among the Senecas. Harry remarks this when he contrasts his responsibilities with those of his friends who “didn’t have the farm like we had.”

Harry Watt’s remarks about horses (“I wanted them because if I had big horses I could do this and that. If I had big horses I could go and skin logs, go and haul lumber; I could go and haul wood…”) reflects a long tradition of the use of horses in the Seneca community. It was an ongoing source of friction with the Quakers. They encouraged livestock production but complained that cattle were neglected in the winter when men were away hunting. They also complained that horses proliferated in a way that was of no use to the community. Horses were of no use in such numbers if men were to concern themselves with agriculture, but they were of great use if the men were to engage in lumbering. Much to the Quakers’ disapproval, this was what men did after 1812 and what the first white settlers did as well. The Seneca word for horse translates as “he hauls logs,” and such crops as men raised, e.g. oats and hay, were associated with horses. The activities of the Indian and white loggers were intermeshed both in terms of labor and of access to the natural resource. Jurisdiction over the sale of logs from communal reservation land became a source of tension within the community, and conflicts over authority to alienate both land and natural resources were central to the displacement of the traditional political system of lifetime chiefs (elevated to their position by clan mothers) by the creation in 1848 of the Seneca Nation with its elected government (and with women disenfranchised.)

Harry Watt’s experiences as a laborer in western New York at the beginning of the twentieth century reflect the history of that region. Settlement of the area began late and slowly and relied on lumber. The convergence of three railroads, the Atlantic and Great Western, the Erie, and the Rochester and State Line, established the conditions for more rapid growth of the area around Salamanca after 1860. It was the route by which local products could be transported out and also the conduit through which oil from Pennsylvania was distributed (Ellis 1879.) Employment was available not only in laying and maintaining track, but also in the repair shops, the car shops, and in the stockyards maintained by the railroads. Small factories with loading platforms facing the tracks were established. Although the area had been deforested by the late nineteenth century, bark stripping for local tanneries continued to provide work in the former forests. Wage labor employment was available in the expanding economy. Seneca women, using the skills they had learned at the Quaker School, were employed as domestics by local families. Indian workers provided a steady and reliable source of cheap labor. More highly skilled work paid better, but this was rarely available to Indians. As a result, many young adults left the local area to seek employment elsewhere and frequently returned, if at all, only after retirement. Harry Watt’s life followed this pattern, and while he didn’t get to speak about it in his narrative, he returned to the Seneca society as a retired man who felt a need to commit himself to Seneca cultural preservation.

When Harry Watt remarked that he regretted that he hadn’t gone back to school. he did not add what he so often did, that he also envied those who had never gone to school. In his later years, he came to believe that school learning was a distraction from learning the intellectual content and practice of the traditional Seneca culture and particularly of the religion. He could speak Seneca, although not as well as he would have wanted, and he would note that speaking Seneca was a punishable offense at the Quaker school.

A formal school for children was established at Tunesassa, the Quaker farm, in about 1816, and there were problems and opposition to it from the beginning. The school became the central symbol around which fundamental divisions in the community expressed themselves. The situation became so tense that by 1821 the schoolmaster felt his life threatened. There were several abortive openings and closings and locational shifts until the middle of the 1840’s, when the Quakers concluded that only a boarding school would reduce community and home influences on students and permit the program of acculturation they were advancing. This school was a significant experience in the lives of many now elderly Allegany Senecas, remembered with both the pleasure and pain of most Indian boarding school experiences.

Finally, Harry Watt’s experiences with representatives of the white world were ongoing and varied. So it has been from the inception of the reservation in 1798. The reserved land is a strip forty miles long and half a mile wide on each side of the Allegheny River. Although they did not stay, emigrants passed through on the river on their way west, and the Senecas used it as a highway to bring trade goods to Pittsburgh and other centers. The shape of the reservation made the Seneca country all boundary with no interior, affording no place to avoid contact with whites and the influences of white society. Harry Watt’s early observations of the automobile and the desires it provoked in him is an example of that influence. The Quakers looked with favor on Allegany as the site of a mission, because they believed it stood outside of the area of white influence, and Handsome Lake had hoped to shape his people into an encapsulated and protected community. Both views were shortsighted; there would be no place to escape white expansion. Colonization from the beginning necessitated continual readjustments. That the Senecas have remained a vital social unit for so long is a testament to their adaptability.

But Harry Watt was always concerned with the loss of cultural content, a loss which he saw intensifying with technological development and language loss. The viability of the social unit itself he felt to be tied to and protected by the intellectual content of the culture. He used to say that at that time when white men come around asking what it is to be a Seneca and no one can tell them, then that will be the signal for the reservation to be terminated. For Harry Watt, the final defense of Indian life depended on what people had in their heads and in their hearts.