Family Separations, John Smith’s General Historie, and our Empathy Crisis

Halfway through John Smith’s General Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), the Powhatans and the English colonists exchange children. By this point in Smith’s text, the English have been customarily adopted into the Powhatan nation, a sophisticated polity that, before the arrival of the Virginia Company, consisted of more than thirty distinct peoples.

Smith describes the exchange as follows:

The next day [Christopher] Newport came a shore and received as much content as [the Powhatans] could give him: a boy named Thomas Salvage was then given unto [Wahunsenaca], whom Newport called his sonne; for whom [Wahunsenaca] gave him Namontack his trustie servant, and one of a shrewd, subtill capacatie. (p. 107)

In a forthcoming special issue of AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples — one dedicated to adoption and Indigenous citizenship orders, edited by Damien Lee and Kahente Horn-Miller — I discuss this moment in the context of Powhatan kinship and adoption protocols. This is just one of many scenes from Smith’s text that captures Wahunsenaca and the Powhatans in the process of solidifying social bonds that subsequent generations of colonists and Settlers should have had a difficult time breaking, had they at all understood or respected what was happening around them.

Time and again in Smith’s text, the English colonists struggle to glean or take seriously the implications of the Powhatans’ actions. Always teetering on the brink of starvation, the colonists remain frustratingly and, at times, absurdly oblivious to the able willingness of the Powhatans to demonstrate how to live happily and healthfully in Tsenacomoca.

Largely, my article is about the specific narrative process through which Smith disparaged, destroyed, and moved to supplant Powhatan kinship structures and obligations, consolidating patriarchal governance structures against existing Indigenous laws. When discussing the above mentioned scene in which the two sides trade children, I use sources from Mattaponi oral history, along with this excellent thesis on Indigenous customary adoption practices, to argue that through the exchange, the English entered into a common Powhatan familial arrangement — one that was generally reserved for close relatives, and one in which the needs of children and adults were weighted pretty much equally. From the perspective of the Powhatans, “a period of time living with another family member” would have been “a regular part of the upbringing and education of a child” (Trerise, p. 172). Such exchanges maintained and strengthened kinship relations within and across the diverse Powhatan polity, valuing and empowering children as useful and important diplomatic agents, building intimacy across distance and difference, and providing valuable opportunities for each community to learn more about the other through peaceful (or non-threatening) intermediaries.

Because I couldn’t discuss every aspect of this scene in my article, which, again, focuses primarily on Smith’s descriptions of Powhatan customary adoption practices, I wanted to explore another angle here — specifically, the idea that Smith, Newport, and the other English colonists would have been familiar with their own practice of exchanging children, and that their culturally specific practice might have been a significant part of what prevented them from understanding or empathizing with the Powhatans.

Briefly, in early modern England, family units were structured to uphold the power and authority of the state. Patriarchy infused and policed dominant social views, acting as what Stephanie Coontz calls, in her History of American Families, “the glue that bound individuals to households and households to communities” (p. 79). The primary function of colonial households was to mold children into subservient adults who would likewise reproduce the authority of patriarchal governance. In these structures, fathers — like political leaders — essentially had no hard and fast obligations to the people they ruled over. They were simply the authorities, and their households were the rigidly stratified, highly regulated environments that could train children to live obediently within the established hierarchies of English society.

This is why English families would commonly exchange children — not to forge or to deepen kinship relations or to empower children as important members of society but to actively circumvent parents’ natural instincts or impulses to respect or care tenderly for their own kids. Parents immersed in this political culture found it much easier to raise, train, and indeed abuse children who were not their own — children who they themselves did not love. Thus, for the good of the state and its structures, English children would be routinely separated from their families and sent to live among strangers. These separations would in turn help perpetuate the continuous and systematic reproduction of a society that, as a whole, lacked certain essential qualities — such as empathy.

[Here’s just one article about how childhood trauma and/or abuse affects empathy.]

Anglo-American colonial literature is in many ways the story of one society’s collective failure to extend empathy to another. But this legacy of childhood trauma also manifests today in the structures and functions of settler state bodies. In the context of contemporary U.S. political theory, the patriarchal family unit is in many ways similar to what George Lakoff describes as the “strict father” family model, which he locates at the “center of the conservative worldview.” In Moral Politics, he writes,

This model posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part of family life but can never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance—tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.

Once children are mature, they are on their own and must depend on their acquired self-discipline to survive. Their self-reliance gives them authority over their own destinies, and parents are not to meddle in their lives.

According to Lakoff, this model is where contemporary conservative morals come from, and it informs the way in which today’s conservatives view government. But Anglo-American Settlers of all political stripes have been using and abusing children to uphold, reproduce, and demonstrate the authority of this governance model since before Jamestown, and one of the most chilling ways in which we have always done this work is through the removal of children from their parents.

These separations help carry our empathy crisis into forever. And so we respond to refugees by closing our borders or by ripping babies from their families. We find new and creative ways of illegitimately removing Indigenous children from their communities and kin. And we live quietly under laws like the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees only up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, systematically frustrating breastfeeding efforts and/or confounding the production of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for the regulation of “social memory and cognition, emotion recognition, empathy, and attachment.”

Settlers urgently need to step back from their lives and think about the kind of world they want to live in. We do not understand what we are doing to others and to ourselves and why, what our governments are doing and why, or how much violence and suffering stems from our refusal to face or heal from our own suppressed histories.

Could a better understanding of those histories help us finally stop treating others so shamefully? I don’t necessarily know the answer to this, but it’s what I want to try.

 

Why comparing “local alternatives” cannot defend the colonization of Canada

In a recently published Macleans piece, Mark Milke argues that “We should celebrate Canada’s British influence, not denounce it.” Milke is a former senior fellow from the Fraser Institute, a conservative policy think tank based out in BC. I first noticed this article when Derek Simon posted about it on Twitter. His thread focuses on some of the article’s primary contradictions and failings, and it is well worth a read.

My favourite line from the article is its first conclusion — that “when looking back, one should always compare to local alternatives available at the time.” I totally agree. So what “local alternatives” were in place at the time of the Euro-Western colonization and settlement of Turtle Island?

To be sure, early colonists and Settlers harbored ideas that were very different from the beliefs that were held and put in practice by Indigenous peoples. The Anishinaabe scholar Niigaan Sinclair recently described “Turtle Island in the 16th century” as

a village made of thousands of villages, a nation of nations. Not perfect by any means, this was a place of large and small governments and communities who worked collaboratively and competitively, trading and warring and sharing and migrating over the seasons and with many reasons. People were travelling all the time, meeting new people, tasting new tastes, witnessing new ways of being, adopting and changing, and so on. It was this way for millennia.[i]

In the integrated landscape that Sinclair describes, villages were fluid, mobile spaces, continuously changing with the passage of time in form and function as peoples travelled in groups across and sometimes beyond their territories, moving between and among distinct subsistence bases and erecting and dismantling their dwelling-places as they went.

The sophisticated nature of early Indigenous village sites had been intentionally and thoughtfully developed across centuries as a means of “[reducing] potential strains on any particular segment of the ecosystem,” thereby “keeping the overall human burden low.”[ii] The palisaded longhouse villages of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, which were described in some detail by Cartier and then again, decades later, by Champlain, were themselves periodically dismantled, moved, and rebuilt to protect the integrity of the soil and to ensure the people’s continued success in agriculture.[iii]

Fundamental differences in early colonial and Indigenous dwelling practices are well documented in the Euro-Western archive. In sixteenth- and seventeenth- century European imaginaries, villages were generally envisioned as immobile structural units – as self-contained, permanent settlements consisting of entrenched, immovable buildings. In around 1675, when the Recollect missionary Chrestien Le Clercq advised a group of Mi’gmaq that “it would be very much more advantageous for them to live and to build [their villages] in [the French] fashion,” he immediately attracted the ridicule of a man identified by Le Clercq only as the “leading Indian” among those present:

“I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which thou hast just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwams into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. . . . My brother, hast thou as much ingenuity and cleverness as the Indians, who carry their houses and their wigwams with them so that they may lodge wheresoever they please, independently of any seignor whatsoever? Thou art not as bold . . . as we, because when thou goest on a voyage thou canst not carry upon thy shoulders thy buildings and thy edifices. Therefore it is necessary that thou preparest as many lodgings as thou makest changes of residence . . . As for us, we find ourselves secure from all these inconveniences, and we can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere.”[iv]

By recommending French settlement expertise to the Mi’gmaq, Le Clercq indeed betrayed an “astonishing” lack of “cleverness.” After more than a century spent watching colonists struggle (and often fail) to keep themselves alive through the long winter months, the Mi’gmaq, like the other Indigenous nations of northern Turtle Island, were skeptical of any suggestion that they might emulate the “French fashion” of village life or settlement. To be sure, the French who had fared best in the Native northeast were those, like the Jesuit missionaries, who had grudgingly embedded themselves with Indigenous groups, adapting, for a time, to their cultural practices and seasonal movements.

I agree with Milke that “when looking back, one should always compare to local alternatives available at the time.” But when we do that in good faith — when we really compare what EuroWestern peoples brought to bear on this landscape with what was here before — we are led to produce altogether different think-pieces.

Notes

[i] Sinclair, Niigaan. “Kanata 150+, not Canada 150.” UM Today News, June 30, 2017.

[ii] Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 48.

[iii] According to Champlain, “they sometimes change their villages at intervals of ten, twenty, or thirty years, and transfer them to a distance of one, two, or three leagues from the preceding situation.” Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, Volume 3, 1611-1618. Translated by Charles Pomeroy Otis. (Boston: The Prince Society, 1882): 161.

[iv] Le Clercq, Chrestien. New Relation of Gaspesia: With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1910): 103-104.