Thursday, August 30, 2012

' their several fires...'

I am lukewarm on Thomas Jefferson's politics. Apart from the fact that he kept slaves while 'yelping' (Samuel Johnson's word) for liberty, he regarded himself first and foremost as a Virginian and I always take advocacy of States' Rights with a grain of salt. States' Rights - the cri de coeur of those who would hide from 'a decent respect to the opinions of mankind' (if I may quote TJ's Declaration of Independence right back at him), especially with regard to reforming injustice. Just look at the Civil War and Jim Crow.

I also consider that Jefferson was disloyal to Washington - while serving in the guy's cabinet as Secretary of State! And I reckon he was the godfather of Indian Removal (shunting the Eastern tribes across the Mississippi), although I concede that there might have been some sort of idealism behind his theory that if the Indians could be taught agriculture they would need less of their forest domains, thus freeing up land for the starving of Europe who would soon be seeking refuge in the New World. I remember seeing a jotting of Jefferson's on the Library of Congress website to the effect that life's ideal is for each man (sic) to have a few acres of his own to work. And I do like the fact that many of the American founders were farmers and close to nature; that they would conclude a letter on matters of state with, say, 'asparagus has now come to table'.

In fact, I much prefer Jefferson as a writer, a coiner of immortal phrases. And I am very moved by the fact that late in life, he (the third president) and John Adams (the second), despite having been political foes around the turn of the 19th century, resumed their friendship and re-commenced a correspondence that is now one of the glories of American Letters.

My favourite passage was written from Monticello (the retired Jefferson's home on the hill) on 11 June, 1812. In reply to Adams' questions about Indians, whether 'there [is] any Book that pretends to give any Account of [their]Traditions..,', Jefferson replies:

'So much in answer to your enquiries concerning Indians, a people with whom, in the very early part of my life, I was very familiar, and acquired impressions of attachment and commiseration for them which have never been obliterated. Before the revolution they were in the habit of coming often, and in great numbers to the seat of our government, where I was very much with them. I knew much the great Outassete, warrior and orator of the Cherokees.

An illustration of the three Cherokee leaders who went to London in 1763. Outtasete [Outacity] is on the left.
'He was always the guest of my father, on his journeys to and from Williamsburg. I was in his camp when he made his great farewell oration to his people, the evening before his departure for England. The moon was in full splendor, and to her he seemed to address himself in his prayers for his own safety on the voyage, and that of his people during his absence. His sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated action, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration, altho' I did not understand a word he uttered.'

Jefferson went on to say that the Cherokees and Creeks are now well advanced in agriculture and that the Cherokee are now instituting a regular representative government. But those who are not shaping up will fall prey to the British and we will have to drive them into the stony mountains, securing 'our women and children for ever from the tomahawk and scalping knife'.

But the description of Outassete's oration reminds me of another oral tradition. In January 1976 I went to visit some friends at Pipalyatjara in far northwestern South Australia, about a 250 kms southwest of Uluru (Ayers Rock). This was one of the first outstations set up by Australian aboriginal people in order to get out of government settlements. Back then, the only structures at Pipalyatjara were a couple of caravans, a radio shack, store, and a shower 'block' (made of timber). The people lived in wiltjas, their traditional structures. Three years later I went to Kintore (Walungurru) on the Western Australian border and the wiltjas there were made of hessian bags and corrugated iron. Not so in Pipalyatjara then. They were the traditional wood and bark structures. (I've mentioned this before, in the blog about the Lenape wigwam in Inwood Hill Park, New York.)

One day my friend and his new wife had an argument out in front of the store. Most of us standing around, including myself, made themselves scarce, and finally my friend's wife got into their car and drove off.

That night we slept outside. Up till then we had slept inside a caravan. Suddenly a huge argument started in the camp. We coudn't see anything. It was dark, but we could hear a youngfella raising his voice, others joining him in agreement and dispute and finally the booming voice of an old man, one of the tjilpis, several dozen yards away across the wide expanse of the camp, laying down the law.

His speech was rich with serial verbs and I remember particularly the repetition of the word 'walypala' [whitefella] - 'walypala, walypala, walypala, walypala....' Ushma Scales, a Pitjantjatjara speaker, was with us - he'd come across from Amata, 150 miles to the east, for a visit. We asked him what the argument was about. The old man was telling the young people to behave like Pitjantjatjara, not like whitefellas, who had provided him with an example of behaviour he disapproved of today.

But what really got me was how Ushma went on: 'This sort of discussion goes on every night,' he said. 'It's "the news". It's been going on like this in front of people's wiltjas every night for aeons.'  This was what really impressed me.  People discussing the day's events, the old men such as this one this night delivering ornate, almost baroque speeches 'altho' I did not understand a word he uttered'; all this coming at us in the dark, across the wide diameter of the camp while 'the people sat at their several fires'.

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