It was with increasing distress that I watched the two-hour documentary film Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West, shown Oct 30 in O’Donnell Hall. With such a title, I fully anticipated the film’s central objective would be Daniel Boone, but I was not expecting the egregiously one-sided, settler-centric portrayal of this “opening,” or the lack of archaeological knowledge on Kentucky’s Indian presence. And most certainly not the stereotypical, outdated depiction of bloodthirsty Indians. As an anthropology and archaeology professor at EKU I feel obligated to share my objections with the campus community.
First, indisputable archaeological evidence places a large, indigenous, (i.e., non-Shawnee) native population in this region before and during Boone’s “opening.” They were small scale farmers whose cultural roots stretch back millennia. Of various ethnicities, their politically autonomous villages dotted the landscape of central Kentucky. They had tribal names lost to modern ears because their ethnicities were so varied that none survived intact in any significant numbers in the face of infectious European diseases that spread down the Ohio Valley before and during Boone’s “opening.” The survivors of these indigenous (i.e., non-Shawnee) peoples were absorbed by the Shawnee (and others), forming much larger, multi-ethnic villages. It was these coalescent communities that Boone encountered.
Why is this important? Because it is too easy to rely on the tired rhetoric that Kentucky was simply a hunting ground—that Indians didn’t live here. The film accurately states that the Shawnee had only recently arrived in the Ohio Valley, but the reason for their late arrival remains unaddressed. A balanced film would have noted at least in passing that late Shawnee arrival is itself a product of European settlement, as tribe after tribe were, like dominos, forced west as a result of increasing immigration on the eastern seaboard, and one that encroached ever inland. My concern is that by not addressing the reason for late Shawnee arrival, the film quietly suggests their territorial claim was so temporally shallow as to be spurious. As well, as noted above, Shawnee villages were coalescent communities whose members included the survivors of the indigenous peoples through whom temporal possession of the land would have stretched long indeed. By not addressing such issues, the myth remains firmly entrenched that Boone and others did not dispossess any Indian from any homeland. As well, since Indians only ever hunted here, surely they could just hunt somewhere else.
At no place in the film were viewers offered the opportunity to put the conflict into historical perspective, one of fighting to retain possession of the land in the face of Boone (as well as many other earlier and later long hunters’) trespass and taking—in large numbers, with no compensation—of deer hides, which by the mid-1700s had become valuable commodities in the deerskin trade. Native peoples of the Ohio Valley were doing what all peoples at all times have always done: trying to protect their own interests.
We see lots of crouching Indians with knives in their mouths. We see lots of scalping. In long and gory detail viewers hear how first one and later another of Boone’s sons was tortured and mutilated by Indians—fingernails ripped out one by one, skin sliced into strips—before finally being killed. Never would I argue that native warfare followed anything resembling the Geneva Convention, and nor should I: it was what it was and it was brutal. So, indeed, was most if not all warfare of the era, in most if not all places of the world. My point is that the film deliberately pulls at viewers’ heartstrings with respect to the plight of the settlers while simultaneously refusing to place native actions in cultural or temporal perspective. Enemy mutilation can best be understood as a tool of intimidation and revenge for the many Indian deaths, boding dispossession of land by Indian peoples whose history already was one of dispossession, as well as the thousands upon thousands of uncompensated deerskins that accompanied the “opening of the American West.” My goal is not to offer an apology, but making an effort to understand human behavior in cultural context is of vital importance and is a central facet of anthropology.
I understand that a film about Daniel Boone and The Opening of the American West will mostly be about Daniel Boone. But the part about “The Opening” is what troubles me most. Two major cultural actors were engaged in that conflict and both their stories matter. Certainly at a length of two hours, I believe some time, however limited, could surely have been found to place that conflict in a cultural and temporal context that allows viewers to understand westward expansion in a broader, more culturally-aware, more compassionate manner that respects the tragic stories of all Americans. I’m embarrassed that in 2014 it was not. If you’d like to learn more about such things, take ANT 300 American Indians, offered each semester (fills an Element 6 General Education Diversity requirement).
Kelli Carmean, chair of the
Department of Anthropology,
Sociology and Social Work