Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The end of vernaculars

In the early 1770s, East Tennessee was a tinderbox waiting to explode into warfare. Settlers and traders from the Carolinas and Virginia were moving into the country of the Cherokees. Some leaders of the tribe had been invited to Charleston, and had even visited London. They were well aware of the overwhelming material and technological superiority of the Europeans. For these tribal elders, resistance to the whites seemed futile; better to make the best deals one could manage and get on with it. The young warriors, however, were not so sanguine. They saw the erosion of their traditional way of life, the usurpation of their lands, and the threat to their rich hunting grounds in central Tennessee and Kentucky. They chose resistance. Dragging Canoe, son of one of the old chiefs, became the leader of the resisting faction.

But there was a catch. Attacks on the white settlements would mean a withdrawal of British trade, and without trade the young braves would soon run short of the implements of war -- muskets, powder, iron. No Cherokee, not even the most avid traditionalist, was willing to return to bows and arrows and flint-headed tomahawks. Once having tasted the fruits of European technology, there was no going back.

And so they were caught between ease of life and quality of life, between future and past, between homogenized technoculture and the customs and faith of their ancestors.

The rest of the story, of course, runs to its foregone conclusion, ending in the forced expulsion of the Cherokees to the western prairies along the tragic Trail of Tears. And so my hometown, Chattanooga, which had been the center of the resisting Cherokee nation, became instead a node in the vast network of railway steel that soon spread across the land.

And so are we all, caught between ease of life and quality of life, between future and past, between homogenized technoculture and the customs and faith of our ancestors.