Cultural Assumptions Flummoxed White/Indian Affairs

February 7, 2003
Morris Arnold
Morris Arnold, a judge on the 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, spoke at the Law School Feb. 5.

American Indians thought of fathers foremost as providers, not as bosses, and so were perplexed by how whites behaved after pacts using the term father were agreed to, according to Morris Arnold, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and a pioneer in the field of intercultural legal history. Indian and white notions of what terms meant were often at variance, Arnold told the Federalist Society Feb. 5.

In confused attempts by both sides to establish orderly relations, whites thought they were civilizing Indians and "Indians saw themselves as 'Indianizing' whites," Arnold said. White notions about fathers included his authority to discipline. Indians, when they swore oaths to accept a white "father" as chief didn't conceive of chiefs as having the same range of command that whites presumed a chief to have. Indians thought the deals put whites under an obligation to provide goods for them. They thought they had signed on with better providers. "They didn't want paupers for fathers," Arnold said. When an agreement called for Indians to "listen" to their "father," all that meant to Indians was literally to hear out white leaders respectfully, Arnold explained, not necessarily to act as the whites told them to.

In another example, the murder of a white man by two Indians caused white authorities to pursue both Indians. Indians maintained that only one should be punished because only one white was killed. Ultimately only one killer was turned over, "a victory for Indian law," said Arnold.

Arnold, the author of Unequal Laws to a Savage Race, a groundbreaking study of intercultural legal arrangements, and Rumble of a Distant Drum, researches the colonial history of Arkansas under French, Spanish and finally American rule. The Quapaw Indians, called the Arkansas by the French, were rational actors, Arnold said. "They were dealt cards, they knew how to play them and they played them." That said, relations between the Indians and the various white governments that tried to assert control were complex and nuanced, Arnold said. He said one of his aims in writing was to show efforts by different cultures to cooperate. Contemporary history writing tends to be "Balkanizing" and asserting that groups can't understand each other, he said. The Quapaws did not suffer in their relations with the French and Spanish, who had no designs on their land beyond seeing it as a containment zone for the English colonies, but when Americans pressed west to settle and farm, the Quapaws were forcibly moved to Oklahoma and nearly became extinct.

Professor Barry Cushman delivered a response to Judge Arnold's talk and noted that Indians often thought that by emulating white ways they could deflect white encroachment, but whites tended to see such behavior — such as the Cherokees adopting a roman alphabet or copying the Constitution — as another Indian assertion of sovereignty. Indians were never considered protected by the Bill of Rights, he said, because that would cause the machinery of manifest destiny and later imperialism to grind to a halt. Picking up on Arnold's point about the collective versus individual bias of the two cultures, he pointed out that if one white man were to kill five Indians, the Indians would expect five whites to die to repay the loss, not just the culprit. Indians and whites also had fundamentally different ideas about property and theft and about the causes of events rather than guilt for them. 

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