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Ned Blackhawk and the Indigenous West of Mark Twain

Here's another, shorter paper I wrote last year in my Native American studies class at UCSC. I attended a lecture and wrote this for extra credit.

On Thursday, March 03, 2011, a room-full of students and professors gathered in Humanities Building 1, Room 201 to listen to Ned Blackhawk speak about famous American writer Mark Twain, his “overland narrative” Roughing It, and what his representations of the western United States during and after the Civil War have to do with Native peoples, imperialism and anthropology. Blackhawk is the author of Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. His lecture was based on a section of his book about Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens. Twain’s Roughing It tells the story of his journey west with his brother that began in 1861, right when the Civil War was beginning. The two traveled through what Blackhawk said is ethnographically called the American Great Basin between the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the Utah-Nevada borderlands, the brothers encountered the Goshute Shoshone Native Americans. He describes them in his books as the “wretchedest type of humans” he “ever encountered.” In his view, they were the most inferior race of humans, and the only other race that came close to their low rank was the Bushmen of South Africa.
American writer Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) viewed Native Americans, particularly the Shoshone, as an inferior race
Similarly, anthropologist Julian Steward studied the Goshute Shoshone and had a view that aligned with Twain’s. His “legacy looms large over this region,” and over the descendants of the people Steward studied and classified. Blackhawk remarked that Steward’s work also tells us a lot about the history of the field of anthropology. At a time when cultural relativism was beginning to take hold in the field, Steward directed his students away from it, though his advisors were such anthropologists as Alfred Kroeber. Like Twain, Steward believed the Goshutes to be unlike the romantic image of the “Indian” that he expected them to be and championed against their federal recognition, arguing that to recognize them as a tribe would be “antithetical” because such a recognition would “baffle” the Shoshone. At the time that Steward was studying and regarding these people in this way, John Collier was working to make changes that would help Native Americans. The Merriam Report and the Indian Reorganization Act took place during this time. The IRA was created to provide recognition and land bases for Native Americans, but Steward was denying this to the Goshutes, whose treaty agreements with the United States were unfulfilled. Collier consulted with anthropologists like Steward, who were supposed to know the Native peoples best. Clearly, these anthropologists were viewing the Native Americans through a narrow lens that was measuring them according to a European standard that led to representations of them as “savage” and uncivilized.
John Collier was a American social reformer and Native-American advocate.
Blackhawk commented that we have to look beyond the “primitive” classifications and representations of Native Americans in order to historicize and see the complicated historical transformations that were taking place during the Civil War and later during Reconstruction. The Native peoples that Clemens and Steward encountered had endured violence and disruption from the Spanish as early as the 1500s. There had been European influences, such as a Mormon settlement, in this region for a long time before the major wave of Anglo-Americans settled there and before these views were created by people such as Clemens and Steward. Blackhawk also discussed Clemens’s experiences in Hawaii and how his visit there under the direction of his editors is significantly linked to Reconstruction, which influenced expansion of the United States at that time into Hawaii. 


  1. Wonderful post. This was very interesting!

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