Diane Rothenberg: 'On the Insanity of Cornplanter' (part two) [redux]

Four Iroquois chiefs painted from life, circa 1710
Four Iroquois chiefs painted from life, circa 1710

[Part One was posted on May 31 and is available here.]

The existence of the content of Cornplanter’s visions is serendipitous.  A copy of the manuscript (or the original) was in the collection of the Cornplanter family aand was found and recopied by  a young man, Charles Aldrich, in 1849, and sent to Lyman C. Draper who had expressed an interest in collecting memorabilia relevant to a project on the Revolutionary War.  Aldrich offered himself as a reliable local scholar who had access to a series of documents in the possession of William O’Beale, one of Cornplanter’s sons.  Aldrich apologized to Draper for the legibility of the manuscript he sent because, he explained, he was rushed in producing it, but “it is about as legible from the ms from which it is taken.”

Cornplanter called on Henry York to interpret and transcribe his dictation of his visions.  Henry York was a Seneca living at the Cattaraugus Reservation where he was occasionally, but apparently not preferentially, called on to act as an interpreter.  We may assume that York was both bilingual and literate, but the chaotic form of the written document presumably produced by him is likely as much a reflection of his own limitations as it is of Cornplanter’s mental state.  Ethnohistorians are certainly aware of the problem of the intervention of interpreters and the reliability of their productions.      

 The manuscript entitled “A Copy of Cornplanter’s Talk February 12, 1820, it being 328 years after the discovery of America” is quite systematic in its presentation.  This is not the forum for presenting the manuscript in its entirety and so the following is a schematic description, including some explanatory remarks of my own.

 I. PREHISTORY:  Presents The Iroquois Origin Myth of Turtle Island, the origin of Good and Evil personified by the mythical twins, and the creation by the Great Spirit of natural abundance for the Indians.  The absence of intoxicating liquors in that natural abundance indicates that they should be excluded from Indian use.

 II. RECORDED HISTORY:  The section begins with the words that dramatically set the tone for the whole section: “The white man lies when they say that he (the Savior) ordered them to seek out the Island.”  The account that follows describes the coming of the British and French, the deceptions they practiced to involve the Indians in political conflicts that disrupted Indian life, and the distress, including personal family examples, that the Indians suffered from having allowed themselves to get involved in white men’s affairs.  In this section Cornplanter describes a conversation he had with a British general who reassured Cornplanter that he had no cause for remorse in having killed seven people during wars fought for British interests.  Cornplanter’s expressed retrospective conclusion was that killing and warfare were wrong, particularly when it was done to further European interests that ultimately resulted in Indian land losses.

 III:  RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION:   (These are the contents of the visions themselves, reported by Cornpanter as having been received from the Great Spirit for his own behaviorial modification, but also to be imparted by him to the Seneca community.)  a) Reject alcoholic beverages.  b) Destroy tokens of war and gifts from whites that were rewards for participating in and advancing white interests.  Significantly Cornplanter indicates that he was instructed that, “when you destroy anything by my voice (i.e. by my instructions) you must do it publically and not keep it secret, but let all know it …”  I think we are justified in suggesting that when Cornplanter destroys his sword, his French flag, his feathered hat, the documents giving him a commission of captain, and his wife’s family’s wampum, he was not engaged in a private act of madness, but rather in a prepared, public, political event replete with appropriate political symbols designed to influence public opinion and action.

 IV:  PERSONAL STATEMENT OF STRATEGIES FOR FUTURE BEHAVIOR AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE COMMUNITY:  a) Future separation of whites and Indians, particularly around missionary activity among the Indians.  He says, “I do not wish to forbid the ministers to preach among their own people for if I did it would strike them with confusion and might make them take their own lives and so it would be with us if we would quit our own way, we should get into confusion and something would happen or befall us so that we should lose our lives.”  b) No tax payments.  (Insofar as he was a holder of private property who was at that time being faced with tax assessments from which he had believed his property to be exempt, this instruction was likely more a personal declaration, which he repeated in his Warren, Pennsylvania. address, than it was at that time generally relevant to the Seneca community. As a general position with reference to Native American sovereignty, he was certainly being prophetic.)  He says, “They will support themselves and the white people must do that same thing.”  c)  To determine future action, Cornplanter says that he will follow the instructions of the Great Spirit as he understands it, “for I believe him to be my master and if he tells me wrong I cannot help it,” which certainly constitutes a convenient all purpose response to further missionary pressures that was directed not just to religious belief and practice but to all areas of social restructuring.  d) Indians should avoid drinking cow’s milk because it makes them sick, and the more they drink, the worse they feel.

 The recommendation for Indians to avoid drinking cows milk seemed, on its face, so bizarre that it frequently functioned as the clincher argument to prove Cornplanter’s derangement.  The historian, James Axtell, has suggested that cow’s milk may have been the only white introduced item without parallel in prior Seneca experience.  The substitution of hen’s eggs for wild eggs, raised meat for wild, metal tools for wooden or stone, cloth for skins would be acceptable because of the parallelism of the categories, but cow’s milk would be without an appropriate item to fill in its binary slot.  This is not an unattractive suggestion that provides satisfying cultural reasons for cultural behavior and that would probably be totally satisfactory if it were not that the consequences of drinking cow’s milk as described by Cornplanter seem to suggest that he has observed something physical happening to those who drink it.

 Needless to say, the drinking of cow’s milk is non-native in origin, although Cornplanter’s community had 14 cows and other livestock before the Quakers came in 1798.  The Quakers assisted them in accumulating more, but were very critical of their neglect of their cattle, particularly during the winter.  Under these circumstances, milk production must not have been abundant, but milk was probably at least sporadically available  During the nineteenth century cattle stock increased and, after 1860, when the coming of the railroad made possible the commercialization of cheese manufacture, Senecas participated with whites in supplying the milk for this industry. The importance of cheese manufacture for white markets is, however, forty years after Cornplanter singled out cow’s milk for special condemnation specifying that it was detrimental to children and cursed by Christ to revenge himself on the wicked who are blighted by drinking it.  And to repeat: the more of it you drink, the worse it is.

 In our contemporary age of milk substitutes  it is almost hard to believe that lactose intolerance was only first identified in the 1970’s, including the pinpointing of those rare communities that could tolerate dairy products.  The symptoms are familiar and distressing: diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, and excessive bloating.  They vary in severity from individual to individual and, for many years, were taken to be the irrational psychosomatic response of populations who rejected animal milk drinking for cultural reasons.  Certain Native American communities approach estimates of 100% malabsorbers.  Cornplanter described those symptoms and he might have concluded that what was good for white men was not appropriate for Indians no matter what the whites advised.

 The scholars who accepted Cornplanter’s temporary derangement and who were writing before the physical evidence was in looked at this strange injunction against milk-drinking as the confirming evidence to accept the missionary’s statements that his behavior at this time was irrational.  We can, of course, never really know, but I find it more productive to consider what he might have had in mind rather than to accept that he was out of his mind. He was a remarkable man and deserves at least this much respect.