Blogs > Jim Loewen > Slandering Native Americans this Spring

May 9, 2017 1:30 pm


Slandering Native Americans this Spring

tags: Native Americans, Indians



Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

             Across the U.S. over the last two decades I have asked audiences, "What was the most important purchase in the history of the U.S. ever made for the exact sum of $24, in fact for $24 worth of beads?"

            Across the U.S., they chorus, "Manhattan." Asked, "Did you learn this 'fact' in college? in graduate school?" they chorus, "No." Most think a teacher first exposed them to this information back in elementary school.

            Acquaintance with this fable is hardly limited to the East Coast. The creators of the newspaper comic "Mother Goose & Grimm" know this; their strip for March 28, 2017, relies on Americans knowing it.

            In a sense, the comic offers a fresh take on this stale tale. Natives are recouping something by charging a lot for drinks at their casino. In another sense, however, it's one more put-down of American Indians by a "settler culture" that has been putting them down for more than 500 years.

            What is wrong with this little fable starts with the price. So far as I know, the $24 figure turns out to be arbitrary and bogus.[1] Schoolchildren have learned it for decades anyway, even though it becomes stupider every year. Consider: Abraham Lincoln bought his home in Springfield, Illinois, in 1844, for $1,200. He did add a second story to it, but the original home would probably sell today for about $100,000 — 83 times as much.[2] If $24 was the price of Manhattan in 1844 dollars, it would have been maybe $2,000 today. This $24 is the only price in the Western World that has never been touched by inflation!

            Then there are the beads. So far as historians can tell, beads and trinkets were not involved. What the Native Americans wanted and could not make themselves were mainly five items: steel axes, steel knives, metal kettles, which they used as kettles but also as a raw material for other things, guns, and brightly colored woolen blankets. For perhaps $2,400 worth of such trade goods, the Dutch bought the rights to Manhattan, probably from the Canarsies.

            You can go to New York City today and take the subway to Canarsie.  If you do, you will find yourself in Brooklyn, indeed east Brooklyn, at the end of the line. That's where the Canarsies lived.

            Why wouldn't they sell Manhattan?

            No doubt the Canarsies were as pleased with their deal as the legendary New Yorker who sold Brooklyn Bridge to some later hapless tourist, for they got paid for something that wasn't theirs in the first place.

            The Dutch didn't really care. They used the transaction to legitimize their presence to the next English ship that came by. The deal also made allies of the Canarsies, who otherwise might have joined with the British or other nearby American Indians against them.

            The Weckquaesgeeks, who actually lived on Manhattan, were not so pleased.[3] They warred sporadically with the Dutch for years – hence “Wall St.” Finally, around 1644 in Kieft's War, perhaps with help from the Canarsies, the Dutch exterminated them as a tribe. Survivors fled to what is now Westchester County.

            Almost no Americans know the Canarsies/Weckquaesgeeks story. On the other hand, so many of us know the nonsensical $24 myth that cartoonists can count on a laugh by invoking it. Why nonsensical? Well, consider what you'd do if you were the man on the left in the photograph below. Would you sell your share of your village, gardens, fields, your burial ground, and your gathering and hunting rights throughout and around Manhattan, in exchange for a few strings of beads? If you think you might, consider what you would then do the next day. Pack up and move, of course, but to where? New Jersey? People already live there, so you'd have to fight or negotiate with them before moving in. Then what? You'd face at least a year of hard work — clearing new fields, building new houses, planting new gardens ... all for a few beads?

In Battery Park at the lower tip of Manhattan, at the exact spot where this deal never took place, stands this monument. It's hard to believe that one scene can get so many things wrong, from the headdress to the difference in dress to the beads.

            The obvious falsity of the $24 story raises a question: why do teachers persist in teaching it?

            One way to answer this question is to think about what the story accomplishes. Sometimes how a cultural element functions is more important than whether it is true or false. The $24 story mythologizes much more than the taking of one small island. Manhattan is a synecdoche that symbolizes the taking of much of a continent. Indeed, like the Dutch, European Americans repeatedly paid the wrong tribe or paid off a small faction within a much larger nation. Often, like the Dutch, they didn't really care. Fraudulent transactions might even work better than legitimate purchases, for they set one tribe or faction against another while providing the newcomers with a semblance of legality to stifle criticism.

            The biggest single purchase from the wrong tribe took place in 1803, when Jefferson "doubled the size of the United States by buying Louisiana from France," as all the textbooks put it. And just like Manhattan, what a bargain! Just $15,000,000! Recent scholarship by Robert Lee [4] shows that the United States spent at least $2.6 billion in today's terms buying Louisiana from the Natives who owned it. All we got from France was the European rights to negotiate with them.[5] Nevertheless, Natives drop out of the textbook accounts of the Louisiana Purchase and off the maps of Louisiana Territory.

            The $24 myth has at least two important effects. First, it makes Native Americans look stupid. As the cartoon implies, $24 won't even buy two mixed-drink Manhattans at a nice bar today. Those idiotic Indians! They didn't know what they were doing! Second, it legitimizes the taking. We didn't really take the land or invade the continent; we bought it, fair and square. It didn't cost much, either! Thus the $24 myth sets us up to believe that acquiring Native lands was never very problematic.

            In reality, how European Americans got the country remains problematic. The U.S. and its predecessor colonies took other people's lands, uprooted their cultures, and in some cases moved them hundreds of miles. Then we kept them from acculturating and succeeding in our society. It can be hard to face these facts. The $24 tale is much more comforting.

            Surely these functions and the sense of entitlement and moral and intellectual superiority they engender help explain why the $24 story still gets passed on, even though it's so obviously absurd. At this point, however, it's important to consider who is "we" in the previous passage. Literally, it is everyone but Native Americans.

            Racism means treating people unfavorably because of their racial or cultural group membership. Sociologists identify three types of racism: individual, institutional, and cultural. Most Americans are familiar with the notion of individual racism — David Duke, for example. Institutional racism — unfavorable treatment by a social institution of a group of persons, based on group membership — may have no racist animus behind it. That would be true for the SAT, which uses a statistical process to discard items favorable to African Americans — but not on purpose.

            Perhaps most deep-seated of all, deeper even than the psychic racism of a KKK leader like Duke, is cultural racism. This is the ideology that one race is superior to others, expressed in etiquette, religion, law, in terms built into the language, and in countless other elements of our culture. The $24 story is an example. Soft-pedaling the invasion intrinsically entails making fools of Native Americans today. How could they be so dim-witted as to give away Manhattan for $24 of beads? The creators of "Mother Goose & Grimm" this spring took their stupidity for granted as the foundation upon which they based their strip.

            The butt of the bridge joke is always the naïve tourist, who does not realize that the seller has no rights to what he sells. Here, that would be the Dutchman. The Dutchman is not the butt of the $24 story, however. That would be the naïve resident, the Native, who does not realize that he is being swindled. What gets defined as funny and whose behavior gets defined as hapless depends on who holds the power today.


    [1] I review the evidence in "The $24 Myth," Chapter 7 of Teaching What Really Happened (NY: Teachers College Press, 2010), and "Making Native Americans Look Stupid," in Lies Across America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

    [2] Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Abraham Lincoln Online.

    [3] Although many writers call the Natives who lived on Manhattan Weckquaesgeeks, like most pre-contact American Indians in the East, they lived in villages only loosely organized into tribes. Some were called "Manahattans," variously spelled. Some may have been members of still smaller groups, such as the Reckgawawancs who were tributaries of the Weckquaesgeeks. The latter also lived in what is now the Bronx and Westchester County. No Indians may have been living on the southern tip of the island, for the Dutch moved in with no difficulty and lived there for a year with no treaty with anyone.

    [4] "Accounting for Conquest: The Price of the Louisiana Purchase of Indian Country, Journal of American History 103 #4 (3/2017), 931.

    [5] We also got the land France did control — much of the present state of Louisiana.

Copyright James W. Loewen 




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