History Walden Facing East from Indian Country History Essay Response

  

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Richter,  Daniel  K.  Facing  East  from  Indian  Country:  A  Native  History  of  Early  America.  
Cambridge:  Harvard  University  Press,  2001.  
 
As  we  try  to  pierce  the  shadows  for  a  clearer  view  of  how  Indian  country  
made  sense  of  the  discovery  of  Europe,  it  helps  to  consider  what  written  sources  
and  oral  traditions  from  later  periods  tell  us  about  Native  ways  of  conceptualizing  
relationships  with  outsiders.  For  eastern  Indians,  the  world  was  a  morally  neutral  
universe  of  potentially  hostile  or  potentially  friendly  spiritual  forces  –  some  human,  
most  other-­‐than-­‐human  –  with  whom  one  had  to  deal.  People,  animals,  and  spirit  
forces  were  all,  in  a  sense,  persons  with  whom  one  dealt  in  much  the  same  way.  No  
one  could  go  it  alone:  human  persons  needed  to  band  together  in  families,  clans,  and  
villages;  they  relied  on  animals  and  plants  voluntarily  to  give  themselves  up  to  them  
as  food;  they  hoped  that  more  powerful  beings  such  as  the  sun  or  the  wind  could  be  
convinced  to  work  on  their  behalf  instead  of  against  them.  All  of  these  relationships  
depended  on  reciprocal  exchanges  of  goods  and  obligations,  material  or  ceremonial.  
Especially  when  dealing  with  beings  whose  power  was  greater  than  one’s  own,  it  
was  important  to  fulfill  ceremonial  obligations  that  demonstrated  not  only  
reciprocity  but  respect.  A  tale  told  among  seventeenth-­‐century  Mohawks  drives  
home  the  lesson.  Natives  canoeing  on  Lake  George  traditionally  stopped  to  burn  an  
offering  of  tobacco  at  a  rock  that  housed  the  other-­‐than-­‐human  person  who  
controlled  the  winds.  In  1667,  when  crossing  the  lake  with  some  Indian  
companions,  the  prominent  Dutch  colonist  Arent  van  Curler  drowned  in  a  storm.  
The  story  goes  that  the  tempest  came  up  in  retaliation  after  the  Dutchman  had  
mocked  the  tobacco  ritual  “and  in  derision  turned  up  his  back-­‐side  towards  the  
rock.”  
 
 
 
The  gifts  defined  the  givers.  Montagnais  people,  the  grandmother  said,  called  
Europeans  “woodworkers”;  elsewhere  in  eastern  North  America,  Indians  commonly  
described  them  as  “clothmakers,”  “metalworkers,”  or  “axemakers.”  The  gift  axe  that  
Cabot’s  men  may  have  left  behind  would  have  been  recognized  as  a  cutting  
implement,  for  in  size  and  shape  it  resembled  a  stone  celt.  Yet  the  hunters  who  
discovered  it  would  have  been  far  more  impressed  with  its  texture  and  colors:  it  was  
clearly  a  mineral,  in  its  blackness  something  like  the  spiritually  charged  mica  or  coal  
they  prized  in  long-­‐distance  trade,  in  its  rusty  patches  resembling  the  red  ocher  that  
many  Native  cultures  associated  with  death  and  burial  and  that  the  Beothuks  of  
Newfoundland  –  to  whom  our  hunters  may  have  belonged  –  daubed  liberally  on  
their  bodies  and  tools.  No  doubt  a  gift  from  powerful  spirit  beings,  the  axehead  was  
far  too  valuable  to  be  used  to  chop  trees.  And  so  it  slipped  easily  into  ancient  
patterns  of  long-­‐distance  North  American  trade,  steeped  in  spiritual  significance  and  
valued  for  its  raw  material  rather  than  for  its  culturally  irrelevant  finished  form.  
Whoever  the  bestowers  of  such  things  were,  they  seemed  –  initially  at  least  –  to  
come  from  a  world  quite  unlike  that  in  which  ordinary  human  persons  lived.  
 
 
 
The  seamless  way  in  which  the  new  trade  goods  slipped  into  familiar  cultural  
patterns  may  at  first  have  obscured  the  deep  changes  that  they  caused,  but  by  no  
means  were  all  those  changes  negative.  One  of  the  most  important  of  the  familiar  
uses  to  which  the  new  items  were  put  was  as  tools.  For  Indian  men  and  women,  any  
 
1  
Richter,  Daniel  K.  Facing  East  from  Indian  Country:  A  Native  History  of  Early  America.  
Cambridge:  Harvard  University  Press,  2001.  
number  of  everyday  tasks  became  much  easier.  Something  as  basic  as  firemaking  
was  radically  simplified  not  just  by  axes  that  made  firewood  more  readily  
obtainable  but  by  flint  and  steel  “strike-­‐a-­‐lights,”  which  made  the  cumbersome  
practice  of  carrying  smoldering  coals  in  specially  treated  tortoise  shells  obsolete  
outside  the  ceremonial  realm,  where  it  continued  to  be  used  to  kindle  ritual  council  
fires.  Similarly,  more  easily  started  blazes,  along  with  metal  ladles  and  kettles,  
transformed  cooking  technology.  “Now  they  generally  get  kettles  of  brass,  copper,  or  
iron,”  New  England  superintendent  Daniel  Gookin  wrote  of  his  mid-­‐seventeenth-­‐
century  Native  neighbors.  “These  they  find  more  lasting  than  those  made  of  clay,  
which  were  subject  to  be  broken;  and  the  clay  or  earth  they  were  made  of,  was  very  
scarce  and  dear.”  Brass  kettles  were  not  only  stronger  than  earthenware  (or  the  
hollowed-­‐out  wooden  troughs  also  previously  used  for  cooking),  but  they  could  be  
easily  transported  almost  anywhere  and  be  placed  directly  over  flames.  It  was  no  
longer  necessary  to  heat  rocks  on  coals  and  then  to  place  them  carefully  in  a  heavy,  
fragile  pot  to  raise  broth  to  a  boiling  point.  At  home,  soup  could  simmer  almost  
untended  in  a  kettle  hung  directly  over  a  fire  all  day  and  night.  In  a  hunting  camp,  
hot  meals  became  regularly  available  for  the  first  time  once  both  kettles  and  fire  
became  easily  transportable.  
 
New  tools  and  new  materials  made  life  not  only  easier  but,  in  countless  ways,  
aesthetically  richer.  Beadwork  of  all  kinds  flourished  with  the  influx  of  glass  baubles  
and  the  needles,  thread,  and  cloth  needed  to  mount  them.  Anything  carved  of  wood,  
shell,  antler,  bone,  or  soft  stone  achieved  hitherto  unimagined  realms  of  complexity  
once  iron  knives,  chisels,  and  awls  replaced  their  flint  predecessors.  Animal,  human,  
and  other-­‐than-­‐human  forms  could  be  rendered  in  unprecedented  detail.  The  
difference  in  effect  upon  even  such  a  mundane  item  as  a  decorative  hair  comb  was  
dramatic.  Among  northern  Iroquoians,  combs  that  had  had  no  more  than  five  thick  
teeth  and  had  been  ornamented  with  simple  abstract  images  blossomed  into  works  
of  art  with  as  many  as  twenty-­‐five  thin  teeth  and  elaborate  zoö-­‐  or  anthropomorphic  
designs,  some  of  which  apparently  memorialized  a  specific  event  in  the  owner’s  life.  
Much  of  the  new  artistic  energy  unleashed  by  imported  tools  went  into  artifacts  
associated  with  the  spiritual  realm:  ritual  masks,  ceremonial  pipes  and  staves,  and,  
most  notably  of  all,  the  entire  complex  of  ritual  and  practice  associated  with  sacred  
wampum  beads.  
 
   “With  this  wompomeage  they  pay  tribute,  redeem  captives,  satisfy  for  
murders  and  other  wrongs,  [and]  purchase  peace  with  their  potent  neighbors,  as  
occasion  requires,”  said  Gookin;  “in  a  word,  it  answers  all  occasions  with  them,  as  
gold  and  silver  doth  with  us.”  Archeological  evidence  indicates  that  beads  made  with  
shells  of  the  whelk  and  the  quahog  clam,  respectively  white  and  “black”  (actually  
purple)  in  color,  were  highly  prized  in  much  of  eastern  North  America  long  before  
European  contact.  The  relatively  rare  pre-­‐European-­‐contact  beads  came  in  many  
sizes  and  shapes,  but  “true  wampum”  –  small  tubular  beads  finely  drilled  for  
stringing  –  became  possible  only  with  the  introduction  of  iron  tools.    
 
 
 
2  
Richter,  Daniel  K.  Facing  East  from  Indian  Country:  A  Native  History  of  Early  America.  
Cambridge:  Harvard  University  Press,  2001.  
There  is  little  evidence  from  the  early  to  the  mid-­‐seventeenth  century  that  anything  
resembling  the  acquisitive,  individualistic,  profit-­‐seeking  values  of  Western  
European  capitalism  became  widely  sanctioned  in  eastern  Native  America,  where  
traditional  economic  patterns  remained  strong.  Individuals  who  engaged  in  openly  
acquisitive  behavior  encountered  social  disapproval  rooted  in  almost  universal  
Native  attitudes  toward  property  rights,  which  emphasized  need  and  use  rather  
than  possession  and  accumulation.  Food,  clothing,  tools,  houses,  land,  and  other  
forms  of  property  belonged  to  individuals  and  families,  but  only  to  the  extent  that  
they  could  make  active  use  of  them.  Conversely,  excess  or  abandoned  property  
should  be  made  available  to  those  without.  To  hoard  goods  when  others  needed  
them  was  one  of  the  most  extreme  forms  of  antisocial  behavior.  In  this  context,  
status  and  authority  went  not  to  those  who  had  the  most,  but  to  those  in  a  position  
to  give  the  most  away.  When  headmen  wore  copper  and  wampum  or  otherwise  
exhibited  markers  of  wealth  and  power,  therefore,  it  was  less  to  show  what  they  
possessed  than  what  they  were  able  to  provide  for  their  people.  “The  chiefs  are  
generally  the  poorest  among  them,”  explained  one  Dutch  colonist,  “for  instead  of  
their  receiving  anything…  these  Indian  chiefs  are  made  to  give  to  the  populace.”  But  
of  course  such  chiefs  did  have  to  receive  the  goods  they  distributed  from  somewhere  
–  from  nearby  communities  that  owed  them  tribute,  from  control  of  vital  trading  
connections,  from  contributions  members  of  their  extended  families  made  to  the  
collective  resources  of  their  clans,  and  from  villagers  at  large,  who,  at  least  in  some  
Algonquian-­‐speaking  societies,  owed  a  sort  of  tax  in  labor  or  food  to  replenish  the  
stores  from  which  chiefs  demonstrated  their  largesse.  
 
There  is  little  evidence  that  any  of  these  basic  values,  with  their  emphasis  on  
reciprocity  and  redistribution  of  goods,  changed  in  most  seventeenth-­‐century  
Native  communities.  What  did  change  in  major  ways,  however,  were  the  kinds  of  
individuals  and  groups  who  controlled  the  redistribution  of  resources.          
 
 
 
REFLECTION  QUESTIONS:  
1. In  what  ways  does  the  author  differentiate  Northeastern  Indigenous  culture  
and  practices  from  European  culture  and  practices  of  the  sixteenth  century?  
More  specifically,  how  did  they  differ  in  their  understanding  and  usage  of  
“things”?  
2. What  impact(s)  did  Europeans  have  on  Indigenous  society  at  this  time?  
 
 
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