From the Desk of Richard W. Pointer: Peace-loving Natives

Throughout the month of November we will feature books and authors from our list to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Richard W. Pointer is a professor of history at Westmont College. His books include Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America (Nebraska, 2020), Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion and Protestant Pluralism and the New York Experience: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Religious Diversity.

Recovering a Missing Piece of American History

The current season of political campaigns culminates this month but the conversations evoked recently about the fate of American democracy will likely continue. That’s healthy for any democracy and perhaps one of the reasons why in a few short years the United States will celebrate two hundred and fifty years of independence. Declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776 was a bold and courageous act, but it was only one step in the longer, more painful process of achieving political sovereignty, an essential precursor for the American experiment in republican government. A War of Independence had to be fought to secure the home rule that some colonists-turned-American citizens believed was necessary for them to flourish. Ever since American ideals and the American pattern of employing violent revolt to gain political freedom have inspired revolutionary movements around the globe. Surprise and even shock have accompanied those moments in world history when fundamental political change has occurred without prolonged warfare or the shedding of considerable blood; hence, the drama of 1989 with the sudden fall of Eastern European Communism and the hopefulness of the Arab Spring in 2011. Peoples seeking some measure of autonomy and greater say over their political futures have simply found it hard to imagine or realize a way forward that did not involve armed struggle.

That was certainly the sense most Indigenous peoples had in the era of the American Revolution. In the mid-eighteenth century, Natives east of the Mississippi River faced unprecedented pressures upon their lands and sovereignty as white settlers pushed westward, imperial rivalries intensified, and the racial divide widened. Under those conditions, the vast majority of Indians across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Great Lakes region chose to engage in a series of “wars of independence” from British and then United States rule between the 1750s and the 1790s.

Yet some Indian headmen sought to resolve conflicts or at least to protect their own peoples through strictly peaceful means. Indian peacemaking? Was there such a thing? Were there such people? By the time of the American Revolution, fewer and fewer Euro-Americans were inclined to think so. They were convinced that all Native Americans were warlike and cruel and what was needed was nothing less than the “universal extirpation of all Indians from the face of the earth.” Twenty-first century attitudes towards Indigenous peoples may fortunately be very different but vestiges of those late eighteenth-century notions have persisted. The typical impression in the popular mind continues to be that Indians everywhere and always (or at least until 1890) were warlike. Either by nature, cultural inclination, or political necessity, they had to be. But it turns out that most Native peoples across the long span of early American history avoided war whenever they could. Instead, they, more quietly, pursued peaceful ways to cope with the new realities facing them after the Europeans’ arrival.

Few did more or tried harder along those lines than Papunhank (c1705-1775). He was a Munsee Indian religious reformer in Pennsylvania. Following a personal spiritual awakening, he began preaching a message that emphasized a strict adherence to ancient Native customs, an aversion to white ways, calls to moral uprightness, prohibitions on liquor, warnings of divine judgment, and above all, an adamant opposition to war. Like other Indian prophets of his day, he believed that religious renewal could be an avenue towards community revitalization and survival. But as the French and Indian War broke out and bloody violence beset the American frontier for the next decade, Papunhank saw the need for a host of other strategies to keep his people alive. Geographic mobility, political neutrality, beneficial alliances, diplomatic service, and an eventual embrace of Moravian Christianity all squared with his deep pacifist commitments and proved critical pieces in his quest to secure a measure of self-rule and peace for his people, and by extension, for other Natives and whites. Throughout the middle decades of the eighteenth century, his labors repeatedly swam against a strong tide of opposition from most colonists and many other Indians, and in the end, could not prevent his people’s geographical removal to the Ohio country and after his death, wholesale massacre. Yet he still managed partial success, no mean accomplishment given the long odds he faced.

In reconstructing Papunhank’s remarkable story, Pacifist Prophet reveals a heretofore largely overlooked Indigenous peacemaking tradition and in the process, widens our vision of the possibilities and limits Native peoples encountered in pre-Revolutionary America. In other words, it recovers an essential piece of Native American heritage and American history. As we consider our own cultural moment, Papunhank’s leadership model of self-sacrificial, dignified, morally-grounded service may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.”

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