You Can't Heal What You Refuse to Acknowledge: Essay on "In a Barren Land" by Paula Mitchell Marks

Updated on August 29, 2018
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Arby has been a professional writer and researcher for over 10 years, and her areas of interest are shamefully diverse.

Native American people were treated as obstacles standing in the way of God's plan for white settlers.
Native American people were treated as obstacles standing in the way of God's plan for white settlers.

The early relations between indigenous peoples and settlers in colonial North America are examined closely in Paula Mitchell Marks' incredibly powerful and well-written book, “In a Barren Land.”

Marks shows how the native people rather quickly became entangled with the newcomers, as they possessed resources that were of great use and value to the white settlers.

When white Europeans first arrived en masse on the eastern shores of what would later become the United States, they were ill prepared to sustain themselves. The natives, however, were adept at hunting and at cultivating such crops as corn, beans and tobacco. Colonists and natives formed a relationship based on trade – mostly of fur for cooking pots and weapons. This dynamic afforded the native people some political value and a measure of respect with colonists.

As wild game became severely depleted, the native people saw any power they had in the white society begin to slip away. However, they still maintained a monumental bargaining chip that afforded them some measure of clout among the whites. This, of course, was land.

With game numbers down and tensions high over issues of land, the scene was set for white intervention in native affairs. "Indian Agents" were appointed to serve as a sort of liaison between whites and natives. Early on, most native groups were allowed to choose whom they would have represent them in negotiation with white people.

However, that liberty was soon stripped and white politicians began selecting these agents themselves. The job of an Indian Agent was to represent the native group to which he was assigned in matters of land disputes with the colonial (and later U.S.) government.

More often than not, these agents catered to the desires of the whites and not the natives whose interests they were supposed to serve.

Manifest Destiny: The Epitome of Ethnocentrism

Since—by the native people's own beliefs—no one person or tribe owned any piece of land, much turmoil was created in deciding who was qualified to represent a given piece of land when it was up for discussion with the whites.

Many natives had adopted the defeatist yet realistic idea that if they did not sell or trade land to the whites, it would be taken by them anyway. As a result, bargaining with the whites seemed a sad but logical necessity.

Of course, there were instances of natives bargaining away parcels of land to which they had no reasonable claim, and the whites made no effort to ensure that these people had legitimate jurisdiction over said land as long as the deal was made. Inevitably, such occurrences increased friction within native groups who were already divided on the issue of whether to cooperate with the whites at all.

Treaties were agreed upon, whether legitimate or not, and native people began to move from their ancestral lands. Annuities and goods were promised as payment on such treaties, most of which were slow to come if they came at all. Displaced natives became dependent on their government annuities and rations to sustain themselves.

Native people who chose not to sell out to the whites were forcefully relocated and received little or no compensation for the land they were made to vacate. The government provided to these people meager rations that (if they were received at all) were often spoiled by the time they reached the reservation.

Those who survived the relocations were often left sick and weak from foreign illnesses, unfamiliar or unsuitable food, and poor living conditions. Many had turned to alcohol (the introduction and effect of which would warrant its own lengthy essay) as a refuge from the reality of their condition, further diminishing the strength of natives as a collective people.

The indigenous people of this nation had been transformed into pitiful beggars, at the mercy of their Anglo “big brothers”.

It is important to note that many eastern tribes were eventually able to thrive in the west, sometimes combining with tribes who already lived there. These instances were always short lived, however, as “Manifest Destiny” drove whites onward toward the Pacific until all native peoples were either “assimilated” or pushed onto the most undesirable portions of land available.

Native children were rounded up by the thousands and placed in boarding schools where they were subjected to unforgivable indignities and horrendous abuses. Much of this was done openly, as a means to "civilize" the "savage" children.
Native children were rounded up by the thousands and placed in boarding schools where they were subjected to unforgivable indignities and horrendous abuses. Much of this was done openly, as a means to "civilize" the "savage" children.

Coming Back to the Fire; Can You Heal the Wounds of Genocide?

In time, virtually all native tribes and people were made to bow at the foot of Uncle Sam and grovel for their handout. The consequences of this hostile takeover are beyond words.

This dynamic continues today, as Native American nations continue to be political and social subordinates to the U.S. government. Nearly all treaties struck with indigenous tribes have never been honored by the United States, and most reservations are in the most inhospitable areas.

It is interesting to note also that Native Americans today have very high rates of obesity and diabetes, paralleling the fact that two of the main food items rationed to them by our government are white flour and sugar.

It is easy to trace the systematic subjugation of the native people by the U.S. government throughout history, a relationship that has never been healed. The lasting consequences of the mistreatment of our indigenous people are achingly apparent in the way that they are regarded in society today.

At best, their culture is treated as a novelty. At worst, perhaps the fulfillment of a stereotype. You know the one. It's about alcoholism and poverty. The suffering of so many nations written off, scoffed at, by the progeny of the very people who created the situation in the first place.

There are no easy answers here. We cannot undo the horrendous wrongs visited upon these people by our forefathers.

We can, at minimum, begin to truly recognize the reality of how things came to be the way they are today.

We can be genuinely respectful, instead of condescending.

As long as we aren't too badly injured getting down from our high horses, this will be a good thing for us all.


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    © 2018 Arby Bourne

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