March 09, 2013

Blue Dolphins begins with massacre

Debbie Reese writes about Island of the Blue Dolphins in her American Indians in Children's Literature blog:

ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS is the all-time best selling Newbery Medal winning bookIsland of the Blue Dolphins is making a lot of money for its publisher, but should any teacher be using it as though it is a reliable story about anyone who is in the book? The Aleuts? The people of San Nicolas? Learning, as Jonker reports, that it is the all-time bestselling Newbery Medal winning book helps me understand why its publisher wants it listed on CBC Diversity's Bookshelf of "diverse" books. Having a "diversity" stamp on it gives it some credibility it does not deserve.I read Island of the Blue Dolphins as a kid, but I didn't remember how it started. Wikipedia gives us two versions of the story--the book's version and the historic version:

Island of the Blue DolphinsPlot summary

The main character is a girl named Karana, and that is her secret name. Wonapalei is her common name (everyone in the village has a secret name). Her people lived in a village called Ghalas-at, gathering roots and fishing to supply the tribe. One day, a ship of Aleuts, led by a Russian named Captain Orlov, arrived and persuaded the natives into letting them hunt sea otter in return for other goods. However, the Aleuts attempted to swindle the islanders and leave without paying. When they are confronted by Chief Chowig, Karana's father, a battle breaks out, and lives were lost on both sides. The tribe was annihilated by the battle and the Aleuts left the island, leaving little payment for the otters they hunted. Karana's father and many other men in the tribe died during the battle.

Later, the "replacement chief," Chief Kimki, left the island on a canoe for new land in the East. Eventually, he was able to send a "giant canoe" to bring his people to the jujjiand, even though he himself did not return. The white men came to Karana's village and told them to pack their goods and go to a ship. Karana's brother, Ramo left the ship to retrieve his fishing spear. Although Karana urged the captain to wait for her brother Ramo to return, the ship must leave before a storm approaches. Karana jumped off the ship and swam to shore, and the ship departs without them.
Juana MariaIn 1811, approximately 30 Aleutian hunters from Russian Alaska began scouring the California coast for otters, whose pelts were referred to as "soft gold." Under contract to the Russian-American Company, the Aleuts were hired to hunt for several weeks on San Nicolas. This outing grew into a year. The otter population was decimated, and a bloody conflict between the Aleutians and islanders (who opposed the hunting) drastically reduced the population of the local men. By 1835, the island's Native American population, which had once numbered 300, had shrunk to around 20. Some sources give the number as seven, all female except for one man named Black Hawk.

When news of the massacre reached the mainland, the Santa Barbara Mission decided to sponsor a rescue operation. In late November 1835, the schooner Peor es Nada, commanded by Charles Hubbard, left Monterey, California under contract to remove the remaining people living on San Nicolas Island. Upon arriving at the island, Hubbard's party gathered the Indians on the beach and brought them aboard. Juana Maria, however, was not among them by the time a strong storm arose, and the Peor es Nada's crew, realizing the imminent danger of being wrecked by the surf and rocks, panicked and sailed toward the mainland, leaving her behind.
The second version sounds more bloody and brutal than the first version, which sounds a bit sanitized. But both versions gloss over the Russians' role.

"Savage" vs. "savage"

As Reese notes, the Aleuts were Natives too, so Island of the Blue Dolphins describes a war between two groups of "savages." But a basic familiarity with history tells us the Russians probably pressed the Aleuts into servitude. No way did the Russians treat them as equals and let them act independently. Any conflict with the islanders happened because the Russians wanted it to happen.

A posting confirms this supposition:

1743-1867 Era of Russian ViolenceFugitive serfs, ex convicts, debtors--along with a few sailors--made up the crews of vessels in the new fur trade. All in all, the men heading to the Aleutian Islands were rough and brutal. They soon clashed with the Aleut inhabitants of the islands who were at first friendly but later attempted to repel the intruders.

As the fur fever increased, so did Russian violence and oppression. The fur seekers forced Aleut hunters to provide them with sea otter skins. Often they took the hunters' wives and children hostage to ensure the safe return of Russian overseers. The use of hostages had been common in Siberia at one time, but Tsarina Catherine outlawed the practice after she came to power in 1762.

She told her subjects to treat the Aleuts well, but enforcement of her decree was non existent in the new, far, corner of the Russian Empire known as Russian America. In 1763, the Aleuts rebelled against the Russians. Four of seven Russian ships wintering at Unalaska were destroyed and their crews were killed. In revenge, the Russians demolished Aleut villages on Umnak, Samalga, and the Islands of Four Mountains. They killed all of the villagers.

Other rebellions such as the one at Unalaska were also punished harshly. Disturbances became rare. As time passed many of the Russian promyshlenniki took Aleut women, had children, and adopted a Native lifestyle during their time, in the islands. When British navigator James Cook sailed into Southwest Alaska waters in 1778, he recorded in his journal that Russians and Aleuts at one of the outposts he visited prayed together and shared the same large barracks built in Aleut style." Russian control, however, resulted not from this but from three other factors. The Aleut population was dispersed in small villages on separate islands. The villages were on small islands vulnerable to ships' cannon fire. The Aleuts had no weapons adequate to resist the Russians' firearms. The Russians soon enslaved the Aleuts.
Reese's conclusion:One reason the book is a best seller is that it fits with what most people "know" about Indigenous people as warring savages who killed each other as a matter of course, but that's not the case.

There's always more to the story.
For more on massacres, see Northwestern Founder Oversaw Sand Creek Massacre and Putting US-Dakota War in Context.

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