February 2018

Technology and the Outcome of American Colonization

The acceptance of colonization as inevitable does not exist in a moral vacuum. For many scholars, the question of colonization’s perceived inevitability may seem like a moot point: historians long ago demonstrated that the success of colonization was by no means guaranteed, and rehashing old arguments simply distracts us from less superficial explorations of the past. If we choose not to engage with public discussions of colonization’s perceived inevitability, however, we effectively allow a pillar of racial power in the United States to remain standing.

If you haven’t seen Disney’s 2013 Lone Ranger reboot yet, don’t.

I probably don’t have to tell you that. The film’s producers essentially made it unwatchable before it was even released by casting Johnny Depp as the Native character Tonto, a decision that effectively dashed any hopes Disney may have had for creating yet another summer blockbuster by driving off white audiences who at least pay lip service to the idea of diversity. But, even without Depp’s presence in the film (as outrageous as it may be) any number of factors could have spelled The Lone Ranger’s doom at the box office, from poor dialogue to half-baked subplots. And, indeed, these factors did receive their due in reviews of the film. Still, one of the film’s most egregious shortcomings—its portrayal of the American colonization of the West—rarely made its way into reviews, perhaps because the fundamental idea behind that portrayal—that colonization was inevitable—is generally accepted by white audiences as historical fact.

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Johnny Depp as the Comanche character Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). Courtesy of opnlttr.com.

The acceptance of colonization as inevitable does not exist in a moral vacuum. For many scholars, the question of colonization’s perceived inevitability may seem like a moot point: historians long ago demonstrated that the success of colonization was by no means guaranteed, and rehashing old arguments simply distracts us from less superficial explorations of the past. If we choose not to engage with public discussions of colonization’s perceived inevitability, however, we effectively allow a pillar of racial power in the United States to remain standing.

How, then, do we topple the pillar? We chip away at the base.

In this case, the idea that American colonization was inevitable is built on perceptions of indigenous technological inferiority. Indeed, white Americans have long held that that presumed inferiority was the key factor in ensuring colonization’s success. Technological developments like the repeater rifle, railroad, telegraph, and steamboat are time and again held up as symbols of a national progress that entailed the ‘unfortunate but necessary’ destruction of ‘antiquated’ Native societies whose ways of life were antithetical to white conceptions of modernity. The entire plot of the Lone Ranger reboot, for example, is driven forward by the construction of a railroad on Native lands. In one of the film’s climactic scenes, a group of Comanche fighters approach a section of tracks with the intent to sabotage them, only to be gunned down by US cavalry troops using concealed Gatling guns. As bodies begin to pile up, the railroad tracks serve as a visual and literal barrier between the two groups—an impermeable technological barrier between the Native and white characters that makes resistance to colonization seem particularly futile.

There are echoes of this scene in much earlier films like John Wayne’s 1939 Stagecoach. Throughout the narrative, Native peoples are discussed as a looming threat; but, in a film centered on the yet-to-be-fully-colonized West, they appear in only one scene. In it, they chase after Wayne’s eponymous coach, never to reach it, gunned down by repeater rifles that serve as a devastating defense for the rolling technological island that separates the white characters from the Native ones.

The Western genre isn’t the only one that identifies technology as the key to successful conquests. It’s especially common in science fiction, which is perhaps not unexpected given that the genre is specifically rooted in discussions of technology and frequently borrows from Western themes, particularly the notion of the frontier (think space Westerns like Star Trek and Firefly). This is perhaps a natural combination. Science fiction is, after all, in many ways merely the flip side of Westerns: one seeks to grapple with the past; the other, the future.

The key difference, however, is that when science fiction borrows from Westerns, it more often than not is contingent on a role reversal. Take, for example, Aaron Eckhart’s 2011 film Battle: Los Angeles, which portrays the invasion of Earth by a technologically superior alien species. The trailer for the film drew deliberate parallels between the plot and American colonization, a disembodied voice intoning the doom of modern society: “When you invade a place for its resources, you wipe out the indigenous population. Right now, we are being colonized.” The words are meant, presumably, to strike fear deep into the hearts of white audiences by inverting their sense of place in the world.

Western films like The Lone Ranger and Stagecoach provide white audiences with a certain sense of comfort in the perceived inevitability of their society’s progress into the future by emphasizing the perceived technological advancement of white society over other societies in the past. When, on the other hand, science fiction films face the future and grapple with the possibility that our first contact with an alien society might place us at a technological disadvantage, maintaining that sense of comfort becomes somewhat more complicated. In order to cut through that complication, science fiction films tend to ignore the more worrying implications of encounters with technologically advanced societies. While white characters may find themselves on the receiving end of colonization in the imagined futures of science fiction, they almost never suffer the same fates as their Native counterparts in the imagined pasts of the Western genre. Instead, characters like Aaron Eckhart’s in Battle: Los Angeles manage to overcome their technological disadvantages and successfully fend off the alien invasion. They (like their Western counterparts) are meant to be viewed as possessing an innate racial superiority that can both foster technological advancement or fend without it. While science fiction may be willing to unsettle white audiences with a bit of racial role reversal, then, the genre is ultimately committed to reinforcing the same ideas of racial hierarchy found in Westerns, ideas that are fueled by conceptions of technology’s role in determining how that hierarchy takes shape.

If we choose not to engage with public discussions of colonization’s perceived inevitability, we effectively allow a pillar of racial power in the United States to remain standing.

That is not to say that technology didn’t play a role in the success of colonization. There is no way of getting around the fact that the technological innovations that occurred during the five-century period surrounding colonization helped to determine the character of the United States’ expansion across North America. In his 2007 book What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe identifies technological developments like the telegraph, railroad, and steamboat as key to unifying the United States east of the Mississippi River in the antebellum period, in part by increasing white Americans’ ability to mobilize on a mass scale and push indigenous groups westward.[1] Elliott West observes similar processes at work in his 2003 article on the post-Civil War era titled “Reconstructing Race,” arguing that the extension of the telegraph and railroad to the Pacific enabled white Americans to better coordinate their efforts to bring indigenous territories under their bureaucratic control.[2] But, while both might argue that white supremacism made the United States’ adoption of a colonizing project inevitable, neither would argue that the technological developments white supremacists used to pursue that project guaranteed their success.

The reason they wouldn’t is because it’s just not true. Contemporaneously advanced technologies like steam power or firepower may have helped propel colonization westward, but to suggest that they were the primary factor behind colonization’s success is downright disingenuous. Native groups that resisted colonization enjoyed considerable access to European and American technologies, and proved extremely adept at manipulating the exchange networks that stretched across North America to seize the technological upper hand in encounters with colonizers. Indeed, they were so skilled at that task that colonizers who encountered Native groups for the first time were often greeted with European weapons.

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Lakota leader Maȟpíya Ičáȟtagya (Touch the Clouds) holding a breech-loading Remington Rolling Block rifle and an 1873 Colt revolver, both coveted weapons by many fighters in the West.

Several years ago, for example, archaeologists at a 500-year old Native site near Toronto, Canada, stumbled across a carefully preserved axe head made out of Spanish wrought iron that had been buried almost a century prior to the arrival of Europeans to the area in 1615. That means that the indigenous group that occupied that space had access to European weapons before they ever actually encountered Europeans, and any colonizer that faced them might do so at the point of a European weapon. This pattern continued as colonization moved forward. Time and again, colonizers faced First Nations peoples who were better equipped than they were. Most famously, the Native followers of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn were equipped with 47 different kinds of repeater rifles obtained through trade with British colonizers in Canada. General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry, on the other hand, was equipped with single-shot Springfield rifles, whose copper casings were known to expand under the heat of fire and jam the barrel. Custer also refused to bring an offered set of Gatling guns along with him on campaign as too cumbersome, a decision that caused controversy after his defeat but wasn’t uncommon in the mountainous terrain of the American West.

Obviously, since white Americans were ultimately able to achieve their goal of spreading across North America, there was a tipping point in the history of colonization. But, acknowledging the existence of a tipping point is not the same as believing that the success of colonization was inevitable. The key to understanding this is in determining when and where we locate the tipping point. Most historians locate that point relatively late in the history of colonization, when the bureaucratic apparatuses of the US government became more sophisticated and were better able to direct the resources at their disposal toward the project of white supremacy.[3] Those apparatuses did not arise in a vacuum. It took a long and destructive process of trial and error for white supremacists to mold them into something that could achieve their aims. Aside from the fact that white supremacists chose to pursue those aims through attempted conquest, very little about that process was inevitable.

Contemporaneously advanced technologies like steam power or firepower may have helped propel colonization westward, but to suggest that they were the primary factor behind colonization’s success is downright disingenuous.

Those who identify technology as the foundation of colonization’s success, on the other hand, locate the tipping point somewhere in the ether of pre-contact, thus making the outcome of European and American encounters with Native peoples a foregone conclusion.[4] To do so fails to appreciate the roles of Native groups and colonizers themselves in the outcome of colonization. More often than not, our society and culture tend to portray technological developments in our past as something that was beyond the bounds of human control, a characterization that naturally lends itself to associations with both a perceived inevitability and lack of responsibility. If technological progress was both inevitable and key to colonization’s success, the theory goes, colonization itself was inevitable and therefore something white Americans from the past could not possibly prevent. In reality, however, colonization was a much more complicated process, one that was shaped by human actions and human choices. Colonizers used technology to affect their aims, and Native groups used technology to thwart those aims.[5]

Modern white Americans’ refusal to accept this has real-world implications for the lives of First Nations peoples today. Modern media and political discourses routinely portray Native groups as backward and regressive (or, even worse, already extinct). In these portrayals, Native peoples are shown as clinging to outmoded ways of life that presumably ensure the continued economic decline of indigenous societies. This is particularly true of portrayals of reservations, which serve as a visible confirmation for white audiences that the key to Native improvement is assimilation into a more ‘advanced’ society that enjoys unencumbered access to present-day technologies and conveniences. By embracing such portrayals, white Americans maintain their rationale for wielding power by avoiding responsibility for past and present misdeeds. Colonization was bad, but it couldn’t be helped, the theory goes, and all Native groups had to do was accept a more ‘advanced’ way of life; reservations are bad, the theory goes, but all Native groups have to do is accept a more ‘advanced’ way of life; either way, it’s no fault of white Americans. There’s no room in such a theory for discussions of institutional racism, structural exploitation, or systemic violence, historically or otherwise.

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Top results on Google Image Search for “life on Indian reservations.”

As historians, we have a responsibility to better communicate the nature of colonization as a process directed by human actions rather than the fates. As consumers, we have a responsibility to reject cultural portrayals of Native peoples that reinforce the perceptions of historical inevitability and cultural inferiority that undergird racial hierarchies in our society. Films like The Lone Ranger should never make their way onto the silver screen. No one should have to sit through something like that.

Basically I’m still upset about how bad The Lone Ranger was.

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Notes

[1] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” The Western Historical Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 6-26.

[3] See, for example, Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] See, for example, Francis Parkman, A Half-Century of Conflict (France and England in North America) (Toronto: Musson Book, 1892).

[5] For an exploration of this dynamic, see David J. Silverman, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016).

I am the founder of The Activist History Review and one of its executive editors. I am currently a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I am conducting research for a doctoral dissertation on the 1775 American invasion of Quebec, entitled “Divided We Stand: The American War for Independence, the 1775 Quebec Campaign, and the Rise of Nations in the Twilight of Colonial Empires.” I received my MA in history from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and my BA in history and Spanish from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. I recently contributed a chapter to the two-volume series Violence in American Popular Culture entitled “From Knights to Knights-Errant: The Evolution of Westerns through Portrayals of Violence.” I can be followed on Twitter at @nwuertenberg.

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