Because we have no government

American Progress

American Progress

We spent last week visiting Maine, where a relative recently moved into assisted living.

My father-in-law combed through papers, photographs, trinkets, cabinets and boxes at our relative’s house, while neighbors sorted through memories to save and give away.

We found many treasured books–including first editions–that we tucked away for the journey home, now saved for the grandchildren–who found a treasure for me.

Published in 1904, the book belonged to my grandfather-in-law, who likely read it as a history text three years after its printing.

The book covers the settlement of North American territories, and begins with a chapter about the East Coast Indians.

The author describes how the settlers tried on a variety of governing vestments, hoping to figure out what models would fit best.

In one case, a group of homesteaders in a southern territory hired a scholar to create a template for local civic guidance. Turns out the document was so complex it was abandoned altogether.

The Eastern bands of Indians had no government, the book claims. Instead, each band or village had a “democracy,” the author writes.

The democracy comprised all the men of the village, and each had a opportunity to speak during group meetings.

Although the elders and well-respected kin were most likely to speak, everyone had an opportunity (women and children weren’t included, according to the textbook).

Tribal bands typically had a leader (a status earned by his mother’s political standing) who, in concert with the elders, made decisions, but governance was loose and informal.

The author failed to see the irony in his chapter, where local tribes offered a promising starting point for settler governance.

The indigenous system of democracy was described as no government at all.

Is that because scholars and settlers bought into the myth that Indians were uncivilized and therefore lacking in self-governance?

Did they fail to recognize the reality of native life because their preconceived ideas blinded them?

American Progress, painted by John Gast about 1872. Photo in the public domain


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, framing, human origin, Indian, Indian relocation, manifest destiny, native american, native press, Native Science, propaganda, race, Redskins, repatriation, rhetoric, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Because we have no government

  1. Perhaps the idea of actual democracy was frightening. I am also curious about the invisibility of women in the text. Anyway, am glad you had a good and rewarding week in wonderful Maine.


  2. Always a pleasure to hear your thoughts. Hope to write a bit more on this topic and perhaps address some of the issues regarding women. In another text the author (non-Indian) described the women as mere slaves–unsure which tribes, but likely an overstatement about all tribes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s