Friday, December 2, 2011

Why is Red Jacket So Fascinating?

Based on results alone, Red Jacket might initially be considered as one of those historical figures who may have garnered a bit more attention than his achievements actually warranted. It appears as though Euro-American chroniclers who in most cases were either directly involved in or witness to negotiations over peace treaties, military alliances, trade agreements, or land sales involving the Seneca have paid particular attention to Red Jacket as a result of his sometimes eloquent, sometimes cynical, and always biting oratory in the face of the white man’s reason. Red Jacket was a known pacifist, but in many instances, the insurmountable logic of his words proved a far more formidable obstacle to the westward expansion of the white man’s culture, religion, and settlements than the combined threat of more than a thousand Seneca warriors.

Further emphasizing Red Jacket’s obstructive nature towards the white man’s inroads and trickery, the historian Arthur Parker states that “To the cunning land-grabber he was a tormenting obstruction and to the clergy he was a hopeless pagan.” At age ten, Red Jacket vehemently declared that “The white man shall not destroy the Indian in me, nor shall I let him spoil our way of living.” He spent the remainder of his long life doing everything within his power to prove that he meant it. Red Jacket used his uncanny wit and sense of reality to block the white man’s bombast regarding the benefits of civil society at every turn and on one occasion he warned his people that “If we [Native Americans] were raised among white people, and learned to work, and to read, as they [whites] do, it would only make our situation worse.” “We would,” argued Red Jacket, “be treated no better than Negroes.”

When confronted by the well-meaning advances of Christian missionaries in 1825, Red Jacket challenged the missionaries by arguing that “Your words are fair and good. But I propose this. Go try your hand in the town of Buffalo, for one year. They need missionaries, if you can do what you say. If in that time you shall have done them any good, and made them any better, then we will let you come among our people.” He continually monitored the activities and behavior of white Christians near Buffalo and upon the missionaries return, Red Jacket explained “We are told that you have been preaching to white people in this place; these people are our neighbors; we are acquainted with them, we will wait a little while and see what affect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest, and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said.” In as much as he saw the Christian missionaries as a threat to the Seneca’s traditional spiritualism, Red Jacket mainly distrusted Christian missionaries as the agents of the land-grabbers. He made this point evident when he stated to his people that “If we had no money, no land, and no country to be cheated out of, these black coats would not trouble themselves about our good hereafter.”

As a result of his unrivaled oratorical skills, Red Jacket attained for himself the same levels of both notoriety and respect among whites that only the greatest of Native American warriors such as Geronimo, Tecumseh, or Sitting Bull have otherwise achieved. Thomas Morris, the son of the wealthy land speculator and “Financier of the American Revolution,” Robert Morris, once remarked of Red Jacket that “He was well-made. His eyes were fine and expressive of the intellect of which he possessed an uncommon portion. His address, particularly when he spoke, was very fine and almost majestic.” He was, Morris concluded, “The most talented speaker that I have ever heard address an audience of any description.” This is high praise coming from a man who had been around during the Revolution and who had grown up in an around Philadelphia as the Constitutional Convention was hard at work. Following Red Jacket’s speech given in his own defense during a Seneca trial that was established to decide whether or not Red Jacket was a sorcerer, the then Governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton, remarked that “Perhaps the annals of history cannot furnish a more conspicuous triumph of the powers of oratory in a barbarous nation devoted to superstition,” which is ironic because the sorcery accusation against Red Jacket came as a result of his unworldly ability to outwit everyone – white or Indian – whom he came into contact with.

As a boy, Red Jacket was given the name, Otetiani, meaning “Always Ready” since it seemed that he was always ready with an answer or a rebuttal. He spent his childhood lost in imaginary situations where he might be called on to make a statement or to counter an opponent’s argument just as other young Seneca boys got lost in imaginary battles and continually honed their skills with the weapons of war. As a youth, Red Jacket would also practice speaking in imaginary councils while standing amidst the falls near Catherine’s Town at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. He not only liked the acoustical echoes of the high cliffs around the falls, but felt that competing with the noise of the falls helped him to enhance the inflection in his voice.

Later in life, Red Jacket was given a second name, Sagoyewatha, meaning “He Keeps Them Awake.” Red Jacket was given this second name by the Seneca because of his numerous warnings to his people against becoming involved in the white man’s wars; warnings that his people refused to pay heed with devastating results. The name, Red Jacket, was given to Sagoyewatha by the British during the American Revolution because he was seldom seen without the red military jacket that was given to him as a gift by the British for his service as a messenger. Red Jacket took great pride in the gifts and the attention that the British gave him. It was Red Jacket’s outward pride that combined with his sometimes tiresome advice and obstinacy in the face of consensus that led many of his fellow Seneca to see him as smug, ambitious, venal, egotistical, and contemptible. Despite being praised by the white man for his oratorical skills and intellect, many among the Seneca snidely commented that “Otetiani is too smart for his buckskins.” Along with the above mentioned uncomplimentary Seneca characterizations of their ‘great orator,’ came the injurious charges of cowardice and greed.

Following Red Jacket’s refusal to face General John Sullivan’s advancing American army in the late summer of 1789 at Canandaigua, New York the Mohawk War Chief Joseph Brant screamed in a rage to Red Jacket’s wife “Leave this man; Leave him, lest your children have a coward for a father.” It was well-known that Red Jacket did not believe in warfare, especially when it was bound to result, as he saw it, in the destruction of his people. Red Jacket was a firm believer in the “Great Peace” as laid out by Hiawatha and the Great Peace Maker and when chided by his fellow Seneca as to why he did not fight, Red Jacket answered with confidence “I fight for the Great Peace. Is it wrong to fight for what is right?” to which few had an answer. But as Red Jacket well knew, his quick wit and canny ability to argue his way out of most situations was not enough to win himself a position among the most revered Seneca sachems. He knew that at some point he must prove himself in battle if he was ever to win the confidence of his people.

Red Jacket would one day serve with distinction alongside the Americans during the War of 1812, but during the American Revolution he earned for himself his most debasing Seneca name, “Cow Killer,” after Red Jacket was found to have killed a cow and smeared its blood about his body and then later claimed to have killed American soldiers. Thus was his initial aversion to actual combat and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to avoid involvement in the Revolutionary conflict. His hesitancy to fight the Americans may have come from his belief in the Great Peacemaker’s message, but it also came from the strong conviction that the Americans would win the war. He saw the Americans as a determined people and this summation of the American resolve would eventually convince Red Jacket that the loss of his people’s lands was all but inevitable.

As a result of his disquieting convictions concerning the Americans, Red Jacket did the best that he felt he could for the Seneca people when negotiating the sales of their lands following the American Revolution. However, as a result of his backroom deals with white agents, Red Jacket earned the dissatisfaction of his people who believed he had sold them out in exchange for personal gifts. Following the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree that saw the Seneca people placed onto reservations representing a mere fraction of their former lands, Red Jacket was charged by the prophet Handsome Lake of negligence and greed. Handsome Lake told the Seneca people that during one of his visions involving the Four Spirits, a figure pushing a wheelbarrow filled with earth was pointed out to him by the spirits and as he looked closer, Handsome Lake saw that it was Red Jacket who was serving out his eternal punishment for agreeing to the sale of Seneca lands by moving an endless mound of dirt.

In truth, Red Jacket did apparently, “Serve the Seneca as he served himself,” as Alan Taylor writes, but he did so out of a strong conviction that the loss of their lands was inevitable. Iroquois sachems had traditionally received personal gifts from whites and other Native Americans during councils, but Red Jacket had powerful enemies among the Seneca. The Seneca War Chief Cornplanter and his brother Handsome Lake both despised Red Jacket and so detested the amount of influence such a “coward” held among their people that the two time-and-again made it appear as though Red Jacket was involved in activities that were self-seeking. Red Jacket’s hesitancy and sadness associated with the sale of Seneca lands might be seen in his drinking to excess during negotiations as well as in his point blank discouragement of Seneca attempts to put a positive spin on the deal that they had concluded with Thomas Morris while at Big Tree. Red Jacket challenged his fellow sachem’s half-hearted optimism when he argued that…

“What has been promised by the trickery of words cannot be fulfilled. Do you believe we shall have all that was promised by the agents? We shall never get it. Our kettles will be worn out, our cloth will be rags, the women’s cows will have turned skinny and have died, and our jewelry will have turned green before many days. When the last slab of bacon is gone, we shall have found out that we have eaten up our land. But we may hunt as before, you say? That, too, is a promise that will not be honored, for the settlers will have hewn down the forests and frightened away all game.”

It is true that Red Jacket was a signatory to the Treaty of Big Tree, but only reluctantly. Red Jacket signed the treaty only after all of the other Seneca sachems had done so since it was expected that when a majority decision was reached, all must show support for the decision. As a sign of his pride, Red Jacket also signed the Treaty of Big Treaty out of a fear that upon reading the parchment without his name affixed, President Washington might believe that Red Jacket had lost influence among the Seneca and this loss of prestige from so great a man was something that Red Jacket could not live with. Red Jacket had held President Washington in high regard ever since the early 1790s when Washington had given Red Jacket the peace medal that he would wear with great pride up until his death decades later. Nevertheless, the Peace Medal, as with his red military jacket, may have caused a bit more exasperation from his people since they did not believe that Red Jacket’s rank among the Seneca warranted such a prestigious gift.
As his life neared its end, Red Jacket remained as always among his people. He was obstinate until the end and during his final speech given at council at Buffalo Creek, Red Jacket lamented that…

“When I am gone, my warning shall no longer be heard, and the craft and avarice of the white man will prevail. Many winters have I breasted the storm. I am an aged tree and I can stand no longer. My leaves have fallen, my branches have withered, and I am shaken with every breeze. Soon my aged trunk will be prostrate, and the foot of the exulting foe may be placed upon it in safety. I will have none who will be able to avenge such an indignity. Think not, my people, that I mourn myself. I go to join the spirits of my fathers, where age cannot wither; but my heart fails when I think of my people, who are soon to be scattered and forgotten.”

Whether or not he was in fact proud, cowardly, greedy, ambitious, venal, smug, or contemptible as some of his chroniclers and contemporaries argued he was, Red Jacket – it must be said – loved his people and his only wish was to return his people to a better time when they might roam freely over the vast expanses of their lands unmolested by white traders, missionaries, or land-grabbers or hemmed in by farmers fences or invisible boundaries drawn on maps.

As for the white man’s apparent obsession with Red Jacket, it can only be assumed that Western Society has always held great orators in high esteem. Arthur Parker places Red Jacket within a class of fellow unheeded classical orators such as Socrates when he states that “Like all leaders in thought, he [Red Jacket] found himself looked upon with awe, but as a thing apart. The callousness of his-own generation is typical of the disregard of all prophets.” The nineteenth-century artist George Catlin also speaks of Red Jacket and his oratorical skills in the classical sense when he writes that “Poor old chief - not all the eloquence of Cicero or Demosthenes would be able to avert the calamity that awaits his declining nation.” As Catlin’s comment might also suggest, our Christian background might also cause us to empathize with an individual who remains resolute in the face of overwhelming odds. How many times do we find ourselves celebrating the martyr or the individual who stays the course despite the constant enticement to do what is not only easiest, but may also benefit the individual over the community? Not only was Red Jacket’s ability to speak commendable, but apparently his steadfast resolve to never completely sell-out to the white man has made him a martyr; if not in his own people’s eyes, certainly in the eyes of at least a few of his white chroniclers who lamented Red Jacket’s and the Seneca people’s inevitable fate, which was to become the rival of any Greek tragedy.

So what do you think? Why is Red Jacket so fascinating?

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