American Indian Biography: Crispus Attucks, Revolutionary War Leader

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American colonists, unhappy with the English tax laws, attacked a detachment of British troops in Boston in 1770. The soldiers fired into what they viewed as a rioting crowd. One of their primary targets was the leader of the group – a man known as Crispus Attucks. Ultimately, five colonists, including Attucks, were killed.  

There are many who view this incident – often called the Boston Massacre – as the first battle of the Revolutionary War, a battle fought more than six years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The man who led the colonists is considered to be the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War.

The battle started when a British sentry stuck a boy for complaining that a British officer had been late in paying a barber bill. Anger escalated and the townspeople hurled snowballs at the soldiers. Then a group of men led by Crispus Attucks approached the government building (now known as the Old State House) with clubs in hand. Violence erupted when a soldier was struck with a thrown piece of wood-thrown, according to observers, by Crispus Attucks. The soldiers opened fire and Attucks took two bullets in the chest. He was the first of five Americans to be killed in the battle.

It should also be noted that some people feel that Crispus Attucks was not a leader in this attack, or even a participant. There are those who feel that he was simply collateral damage: a bystander who happened to get killed.

Two of the British soldiers would later be found guilty of manslaughter and were branded on their thumbs. In defending the British soldiers on the premise of self-defense, John Adams called the crowd:

“a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”

Two years after the event, Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, dubbed it the Boston Massacre and Boston artist Henry Pelham created an image of the event showing a dark skinned man (Crispus Attucks) with chest wounds. This image was copied and distributed by Paul Revere.

Boston Massacre

There are many history books which claim that Attucks was African-American. In the strange view of American racism during the two centuries following the Revolutionary War, a person was considered to be Black if they carried a single drop of Black “blood.” Under this notion, Attucks was indeed Black. At the same time, he was Indian, as his mother was Massachuset (the tribe that gave the state its name). At the time of his birth, she was living at the Christian Indian settlement at Natick. The surname “Attucks” was common among the Praying Indians in Massachusetts and appears to be an Anglo version of an Alongonquian word “ahtuq es” meaning “little dear.”

Crispus Attucks was a direct descendent of John Attucks, an Indian executed for treason in 1676 during the King Philip War.

Crispus Attucks symbolizes the dilemma faced by many Indian people over the past two centuries. The problem is not just that of having a genetic heritage from more than one “race”, but that the fuzzy notion of race inherent in American racism assigns an individual to only one race. In addition, the old notion that “inferior blood dominates” means that many people of Indian heritage were considered Black by the dominant society. Today there are some who feel that mixed blood people should be able to celebrate all of their heritage, not just part of it.

In 1888, the Crispus Attucks Monument was erected on the Boston Common. This monument should serve as a symbol for Americans to celebrate their diverse heritage. The five who fell at the Boston Massacre were buried at the Granary Burying Ground and there is a stone marker today showing the grave.

Crispus Tomb

American Indian Biography: Attakullakulla, Cherokee Chief

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Ask some non-Cherokees to name some prominent historical Cherokee leaders and there are three names which frequently come up: (1) John Ross, the chief who led the Cherokee during the first half of the nineteenth century, (2) Sequoia, the genius who created Cherokee writing, and (3) Wilma Mankiller, the well-known twentieth century chief. There are, however, many other prominent Cherokee historical figures and there were powerful chiefs before John Ross. One of these was Attakullakulla.  

Attakullakulla was born into a prominent Cherokee family. During his youth he was trained by the elders to assume a position of responsibility. As an adult he became well-known for skills at oratory, diplomacy, and negotiation.

In 1730, Attakullakulla was among the Cherokee leaders who were taken to England to meet with King George. At that time, he was the head warrior of Tassatchee and was known by the name of Oukah Ulah (also spelled Ookounaka and Oukandekah). The English, blissfully unaware of Cherokee government, simply assumed that he was the “King” of the Cherokees.

Upon meeting King George, the Cherokee presented him with a number of gifts, including the “crown of Tannasee” (a crown made from opossum tails), scalps from their enemies, and five eagles’ tails.

During their four months in England, the Cherokee were grandly entertained, taken to fairs, and given gifts. They also competed with the King’s archers and were entertained by plays which included sham fights and acrobats. They also negotiated a treaty of friendship and trade with the English.

After his return from England, Attakullakulla maintained a strong friendship with the English. When the French approached the Overhill Cherokee towns in 1736 to open the doors for peace and trade, Attakullakulla refused to attend the meeting.

In 1738, Attakullakulla was captured by the Ottawa who were French allies. He spent more than six years as a captive.

In 1753, the governor of Carolina called for a meeting with the Cherokee for the purpose of concluding a treaty of peace between the Cherokee and the Creek. Attakullakulla informed the governor that when he had met with King George in England that the king had asked him to avenge the English lives taken by the Creek. When the governor tried to insist that he now spoke for the king, Attakullakulla simply told him that he would go to England again and meet with the king. Attakullakulla’s personal experience with the king plus his knowledge of the treaties with England enabled him to negotiate a favorable agreement with the governor.

In 1755, the governor met with 506 Cherokee chiefs, headmen, and warriors in Saluda near the present-day Greenville, South Carolina. Attakullakulla stood before the group with a bow in one hand and a sheaf of arrows in the other and acted as the principal spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation. The English accounts of the meeting describe Attakullakulla as having “the dignity and graceful action of a Roman or Grecian orator, and with all their ease and eloquence.”

At the meeting Attakullakulla presented a child to the governor saying:

“I have brought this child that when he grows up he may remember our agreement this day and tell it to the next generation that it may be known forever.”

Attakullakulla also asked that the proceedings of the meeting be written down so that it could be kept forever. In this way, he acknowledged both the Cherokee oral tradition and the English practice of writing.

Attakullakulla then gave the governor some earth and some corn and asked that they be sent to the king as a symbol of Cherokee recognition of English authority. Then he raised the bow and quiver over his head and told the governor that this is all the Cherokee have for their defense. He then asked for guns and powder so that they could fight those who were enemies of the English.

Following the meeting, Attakullakulla became the most powerful Cherokee leader of the time and through his influence he held the Cherokee to their ties with England. To demonstrate Cherokee loyalty to England, Attakullakulla with Cherokee war leader Oconostota led a series of raids against the French and their Indian allies on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

In 1759, Attakullakulla, Oconostota, and other Cherokee leaders met with the Governor of North Carolina. While they were originally met with peace, the leaders were soon imprisoned and forced to sign a new treaty under duress.  

In 1760, Old Hop, the Cherokee Beloved Man (supreme chief) died. Instead of Attakullakulla, Standing Turkey was named as the new Beloved Man. Attakullakulla’s support of the English had eroded his support among the Cherokee. The Cherokee then went to war against the English traders and colonists.

The following year, the Cherokee sought peace with the English. Attakullakulla served as one of the primary negotiators for the new treaty.

During the next 20 years, Attakullakulla helped negotiate numerous treaties and agreements with the English. As a result of these treaties, the land controlled by the Cherokee shrank as the English hunger for land seemed to be endless.

Attakullakulla died around 1780 (he was about 80 years old) and the leadership of the Cherokee passed to a younger generation including Dragging Canoe (Attakullakulla’s son) and Bloody Fellow.  

American Indian Biography: James Welch

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In 1966, Richard Hugo was teaching a poetry class at the University of Montana. One of his students was James Welch who had been born on the Blackfeet Reservation and raised on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Hugo realized that Welch knew nothing of poetry, but he encouraged him to write about what he did know: life on the reservation. As a result, Welch began to write about the reservations and the people on the reservations. These writings resulted in Riding the Earthboy 40.

James Welch was a part of the renaissance of American Indian literature. When he began his writing, Indian authors were unknown. He later noted that D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded was out of print at this time and that the other major Indian authors that are widely studied today were just beginning their careers.  

Welch’s first novel was Winter in the Blood. In this book, the nameless protagonist is the grandson of a woman who survived the Baker Massacre in which the army had attacked a peaceful Blackfoot camp. Reactions to the book are mixed: non-Indians find it depressing, while Indian readers feel that it is very funny and an accurate representation of reservation life in Montana. He continues his descriptions of contemporary reservation life in Montana with his second novel, The Death of Jim Lonely.

In Fools Crow, Welch’s third novel, he sets the story in the nineteenth century. In the Blackfoot world at this time, the animals communicate with the people and people changed their names as their personalities grow.

With his fourth novel, The Indian Lawyer, Welch returns to the present day, but necessarily to the reservation. The hero, Sylvester Yellow Calf, is a contemporary man who simply happens to be an Indian. In this work, Welch breaks into the mystery genre, an area dominated by non-Indian writers even when their main characters are Indian and the mysteries are set on reservations.

During the last part of the nineteenth century, a number of American entrepreneurs, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, organized Indian and Wild West shows which toured in Europe. Some of the Indian performers in these shows got “lost” and did not return home. In The Heartsong of Changing Elk, Changing Elk gets sick in Marseilles and winds up alone in Europe. He has no money, he does not speak any European language, and he has no hope of returning home. The Heartsong of Changing Elk is Welch’s final novel.

Like D’Arcy McNickle, James Welch also wrote non-fiction. Killing Custer is an Indian view of the Indian wars in a historical context.

James Welch died in 2003.