In the comments to my last post, Lori Hahn wrote: "So, what I'm wondering is what the big hackle-raising town trauma is and how it ends up in a tourist book." I began to respond, and when I finished, I realized that I had actually written a whole new post. So, this is it. (I'm being deliberately vague about the Native American tribe and the place and all in the interest of pseudonymity, but maybe this is recognizable to people who are familiar with the events in question.)
The town trauma took place over a statue.
About three, almost four, hundred years ago the town that I am writing about was a Native American village, probaby one of the first pallisaded villages of that tribe in the region. At the time, this particular tribe was building its own sphere of influence between the English colonists on one side and the Dutch on the other.
Through a series of fairly complicated events, the English colonists went to war against these Native Americans (who had also pissed off a few of the other Native American nations around them, which happened often and was exploited by colonizers). The English explicitly stated that they intended to fight a total war against this Native tribe; and at the end of the war, the English drew up a treaty that all but eliminated this tribe from the face of the earth. Some scholars have called this the first case of intentional genocide in what became the United States.
In the course of this war, the English militia attacked the village on the site of the modern day town. They surrounded the village, set it on fire and killed anyone who tried to escape. The descriptions, written by the militia captains, are flat out chilling not just for the destruction that they describe, including the killing of children and elderly people, but also for the soldiers' expressions of deep conviction that they were doing the work of god. There is actually a famous engraving of this massacre that served as the frontispiece to one of these accounts.
In the following decades, the town was settled by English colonists, and developed a racially homogenous citizenship. Centuries after that massacre, in 1876, the descendants of the settlers decided to commemorate this bit of their history. By the 1880s, they had raised enough money to erect a statue to the English leader of that massacre, with words to the effect that he was this great and wonderful hero who cleared the land for Anglo settlement. The statue stood near the place believed to have been the location of the earlier village, with the English leader reaching for his sword as if advancing to battle.
A century later, that Native American tribe, which then had about 200 members, all of them of mixed ancestry, petitioned for tribal recognition and opened a casino on their reservation. There was quite a bit of controversy about them becoming a tribe, due to that mixed ancestry (I should note that most of the people claiming descent from the first Anglo settlers to the town have just as "mixed" an ancestry, as will happen over three centuries). One person has told me that really, none of the residents of the reservation are Native American at all. That person, of course, had a vested interest in them not being Native American, and when I asked where I could find documentation of that, he dodged my question. (Incidently, I'm a bit biased against him personally because he was a bit of an asshole to me. I have written about him before as being a person who has a vested interest in my book not actually being published.) In any case, legally, they are a tribe, identify themselves as Native American, and seem quite committed to researching that particular tribe's culture and history.
In the 1990s, this Native American tribe protested the statue of that English solder, and asked the town to take it down and destroy it. The townspeople (and to say "white townspeople" would be redundant) became enraged. From all accounts, people called each other names and almost got into fistfights at town meetings. While I'm sure the language from both sides was confrontational, I do know that in situations like this, where local legends and versions of history are questions, any critique is seen as a personal insult.
To many of the townspeople, this wasn't just a re-examination of the English policy toward Native Americans, taking into consideration the Native American point of view. This was a wholesale attack on their ancestors, both those who had served in the militia that attacked the village and those who had erected the statue. To the Native Americans, of course, the statue glorified an act of genocide and defiled the graves of their own ancestors.
The town appointed a commission to investigate the history behind the statue and make a recommendation for action that would be amenable to everyone involved. The commission investigated original event back in the 1600s, questioning whether or not the expedition against the Native Americans was really a massacre (!) or a justified act of war (!)--concluding that "maybe, maybe not, we will never really know"--and recommended that the statue be removed to another town.
Now, there are no markers at all to tell what happened on that site. This is in a region in which every town claims to have a site on the Underground Railroad, a bed where Washington slept, a connection to the Mayflower, a first one damn thing or another, or some combination of the above.
When I first visited the town seven years ago, I really wanted to know where this village had been, but could find absolutely no one and nothing to tell me. Imagine my surprise when I found out, while researching the book, that the whole time the site had been right outside my boarding room window, and that I had walked right past the site of the statue and right under the site of the village when I went out to excercise.
When I started to research this book, and would talk with people about the things that I was finding, I was really shocked at some of the outright racist attitude toward the Indians in that area. (Remember, I come from the south, and I know from racism. Then, again, the racism that I encountered in the north is a subject for another post.) The word "savage" was actually used. I had thought all of that had ended in 1950s movies.
A lot of anger on the part of the townspeople has to do with the fact that the casinos do so well. The casinos attract more of the tourist business than the historical sites, attract more of the service employees (which is the biggest pool of labor), and lead to a lot of social problems that go along with gambling and the like. As a separate nation, the reservation is free from any outside regulation. Also, the tribe makes a lot of money, so they are able to buy up a lot of foreclosed or for sale land adjacent to the reservation, thereby expanding their territory. The symmetry is rather poetic. Just don't point that out off of the reservation. The statue controversy -- like a lot of fights that seem silly -- allowed a lot of these tension to erupt. Now, among some people, you can't even mention the events that took place 400 years ago.