Saturday, September 6, 2014

1. The Legacy of Conquest


1.  Patricia Nelson Limerick's

                                The Legacy of Conquest, the Unbroken Past of the American West (1987)

      One of Patricia Limerick's goals in Legacy is an investigative evaluation of the roles of non-whites in forging western frontier history (6).  She takes aim at Frederick Jackson Turner's emphasis on "ethnocentric and nationalist . . . white men stars" as the definitive characters in the making of the West (21).  Limerick breaks through that barrier expansively, including Indians, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese and others.   Nevertheless, she occasionally lapses into the trap of viewing ethnicities through the less-than-objective white lens.  While she draws attention to minority cultures, points of view and development, she sieves them through the apparatus of white motivations.

       I am fascinated by her interpretation of Native American culture and of the Indian response to white intervention in Chapter 6, "The Persistence of Natives."  Limerick attempts to step into figurative moccasins to better understand the Indian perspective (181).   She articulates that Indians were not, as whites viewed them, tabulae rasae in need of Americanizing.  She validates the presence of long-held Indian cultural beliefs while demonstrating ways in which whites -- unable or unwilling to accept them -- persisted in foisting white paternalism upon the native population.  With magnanimity, whites maintained the pretense of "helping" indigenous people by removing them, setting them apart, providing them with minimal government subsidies, and constantly changing the "rules."   Whites rationalized this as benign and positive compared to the horrendous conditions white southerners imposed on black slaves and ex-slaves.

      Yet Limerick seems to backtrack at times, reverting to white narrative rather than pursuing the Native American viewpoint.  Again, the white voice speaks louder than the Indian's.  Perhaps playing the role of devil's advocate, Limerick explains how whites considered tribalism, not white intervention, "the main force of oppression in Indian life" (196).  To counter Native American "obstinacy" and to bring forth Indians' latent but desirable "inner white man,"  Limerick describes how the US Government plunged ahead with lopsided propositions like the 1830 Removal Act and the 1887 Dawes Act.  She delves into the consequences of these actions on whites, but wastes little ink on the beliefs of Indian advocates like Chief Joseph or Crazy Horse.  Instead, she devotes three-plus pages to white reformer John Collier.  Collier, a would-be friend of the Indian, promoting the retention of their traditional ways, nonetheless swings the emphasis back to whites: Americans, he wrote, suffered when they didn't "put Indian people back on their feet [to] instruct and redeem their conquerors" (201).  In fairness to Limerick, Indians (like slaves) left far less written evidence of their ideologies than prolific whites.  She leaves open a gap for interpreting Native Americans in much the same way we study slaves, using resources like narratives and oral histories.  Post-1987 research hopefully contributes to more balance.

      Despite my concerns, The Legacy of Conquest fulfills its ambition, starting a new conversation in the examination of minorities in the West.  Almost thirty years after Legacy's publication, that dialogue continues.



  1. Great point about Native American history--and indeed, from what I understand Native American history has advanced by leaps and bounds since 1987. Historians are recovering a lot more voices--but also saying how it's still, and probably will be, exceedingly difficult. Pekka Hamalainen's Comanche Empire, which we'll be reading later this semester, is a prime example of this--you can almost sense his excitement when he has a direct, primary source on what was happening in Comanche territory. I wonder how that rise in scholarship would change a future version of this book... Great point!

  2. Hey Diane, You’re right- Limerick does emphasize the importance of multiple points of view but she doesn’t necessarily allow those voices to speak very loudly in this text. I suppose her point is less to rewrite the history of the West from each perspective than to make us aware that other persons and other points of view did indeed exist? And that these points of view matter? We may have to look elsewhere to find the native’s voice- or that of the Chinese laborer or the Mexican migrant- but at least we know what we should listen for.