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Scots and the American Indians

Scots society was destroyed much the same way as its Indian counterpart

On Thursday 6th April 2000, by way of paying tribute to Scotland's impact on America, the US celebrated Tartan Day. Among the contributors to a Tartan Day forum held in Washington's Smithsonian Institution was historian and writer JAMES HUNTER, who also chairs the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. His theme is by no means the standard one of Scots making good in the New World.

On June 25, 1876, in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana, the American Army's General George A Custer and 224 of his troops were killed by a force of Sioux and Cheyenne fighting men - fighting men whose capabilities Custer had grievously underestimated - led by chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Because it was easily the most spectacular victory by Native Americans in the course of their many conflicts with whites, the Little Bighorn battle's immediate outcome is well-known. What's less well-known, perhaps, is the way in which the ensuing war dragged on; into the fall; into the winter. But with the United States Government in a position to deploy infinitely greater resources than its Indian opponents, this war's outcome was as predictable as the Little Bighorn episode had been unforeseen. Eventually, Crazy Horse surrendered to the American military, while Sitting Bull, for his part, crossed the border into Canada. There, on what was then British territory, Sitting Bull found safety of a sort. There he established an encampment.

Far to the west, meanwhile, another Indian people, the Nez Perce, in what was now the summer of 1877, had become embroiled - as a result of white incursions similar to those which had caused Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull to take up arms - in their own war with whites. Having defeated or eluded the soldiers sent against them, the Nez Perce, whose war began in Idaho, embarked on a still-remembered trek: crossing the Bitterroot Mountains; entering Montana where, beside the Big Hole River, they repulsed one more attack; heading south into Wyoming, then east and north again on to the Great Plains; fording the Missouri; looking, hundreds of miles into their epic journey, to link up with Sitting Bull in Canada.

Just 40 miles south of the Canadian border, the Nez Perce - their fighters accompanied and encumbered all the while by women, by children, and by old folk - were caught by US troops. After holding off the Americans, despite the latter having brought up artillery, for several days, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce agreed to surrender, famously telling the US Army's General Nelson A Miles: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

But another Nez Perce chief, White Bird, refusing to give himself up, took advantage of a night-time blizzard - winter having again descended on the plains - to break through the Army's lines. With 100 or so of his people, White Bird made for Canada. Days later, he was in the camp of Sitting Bull. There White Bird was joined by a young man who was the chief's close relative, a young man who was later to write up the story of the Nez Perce war from the Nez Perce point of view. And the name of White Bird's youthful kinsman? It was Duncan McDonald.

I came across this name when researching links between the Scottish Highlands and the United States. Naturally, I was intrigued. Here was a man, Duncan McDonald, who thought himself to be, who was, Nez Perce, but whose name was as redolent as any name could be of the Highland part of Scotland. I tried to find out more. I established that Duncan's father, Angus McDonald, had been a fur trader who'd crossed the Rockies in the 1830s and who'd married into the Nez Perce. I discovered the names of some of the places, mostly in the Columbia River country, where Angus had bought furs on behalf of his Hudson's Bay Com-pany employers.

As it happens, I have a good friend in those parts, a man called Jim McLeod who teaches at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene and who, because his own forebears were Highlanders, has taken a close interest in the Highland-born traders who were prominent among the first whites to reach the trans-Rocky region now known as the Pacific North-west.

I arranged to spend some days with Jim. We agreed we'd visit a number of the localities where Angus had been based. And there the matter would have rested, but for a telephone call Jim now got from a colleague: a colleague who'd been at a forestry conference in Montana, a colleague who'd met there a young Indian forester from the Flathead Indian Reservation, near Missoula. This man is Tom Branson. And he'd mentioned to Jim McLeod's colleague that he's part-Scottish by descent. So Jim called Tom Branson. "My great-great-grandfather," Tom told Jim, "was a Scottish fur trader, and his name was Angus McDonald."

In December 1994, with Jim McLeod, I made the first of several trips to the Flathead Reservation. There we met Tom. And there Tom introduced us to his great-uncle, sadly dead now, but then one of the Flathead Reservation's leading tribal elders. This was Charlie McDonald, grandson of Angus, nephew of Duncan - who Charlie, when younger, had known well and who, as mentioned earlier, spent time with White Bird in the camp of Sitting Bull.

Afterwards, starting with what's known of Angus by the present-day McDonald family on the Flathead Reservation, which is a great deal, I traced this Rocky Mountain trader's Highland ancestry; to Torridon, where Angus was born in 1816; to Glencoe where, in the later eighteenth century, Angus's grandfather, another Angus McDonald, lived in a place called Inverigan. This Angus, as a teenager, was a soldier in the Highland army that, in 1746, was broken at Culloden. And this Angus's father, John MacDonald, when a small boy, had fled into the snow-covered Glencoe hills on the night, in February 1692, when Scottish government soldiers massacred his McDonald clan.

What happened then to the Glencoe MacDonalds can be compared, I guess, to what happened to the Nez Perce. So it's of more than passing relevance to this story that John MacDonald - running for his life into the snowy darkness of that Glencoe winter's night - was the great-great-great-grandfather of Duncan McDonald who met with Chief White Bird in Sitting Bull's camp.

But the Scottish roots, both of Duncan McDonald and of the present-day McDonalds on the Flathead Reservation, go back much further than 1692. They extend, by way of Glencoe's McDonald chiefs, to Aonghas Og, Angus McDonald of Islay who, in the course of Scotland's fourteenth-century War of Independence, was a key ally of King Robert Bruce. They extend beyond Angus of Islay to Somerled, the twelfth-century warrior prince who founded, in effect, the Lordship of the Isles. They extend, ultimately, to Somerled's earliest authenticated ancestors, such as Gofraid, son of Fergus, who came to the Highlands from Ireland in the year 835.

Today's Montana McDonalds - Indian people, as they call themselves, not Native Americans - are separated from Gofraid, son of Fergus, by thousands of miles, hundreds of years, and nearly 40 generations. In the McDonald family tree, most of those generations are represented by folk who lived in the Highlands. And the Highlands - where, incidentally, I live myself - are very different, it's important to stress in an American context, from the rest of Scotland. Our society, unlike that of the Lowlands, stuck with the Gaelic language into modern times. Also, unlike that of the Lowlands, our society was based, until the eighteenth century, on clans and clanship. Our society, in other words, was tribal - just like the Nez Perce society Angus McDonald married into.

Northern Scotland's tribal society was destroyed, in much the same way as its Indian counterpart was destroyed, as a result of episodes such as the Massacre of Glencoe, the Battle of Culloden, and the Highland Clearances - the latter being the forced removal of thousands of families in the period around 1800 when Northern Scotland's landlords, who'd replaced our earlier chiefs, deliberately depopulated locality after locality in order to make way for sheep.

Many refugees from those Highland upheavals made their way - in the later eighteenth century and subsequently - to the present-day United States. To them, this was a land of liberation; a country without landlords, as it's said in Gaelic songs composed here in

America; a country where Highlanders could get farms they could hold on to; a country where Highlanders could prosper in a way that was impossible back home. A Highlander of this type features in Hector St John de Crèvecoeur's late-eighteenth-century account of America. Andrew he was called, this Highlander. And on his departure from Scotland in 1774, he had extremely little, it appears, in the way of money, goods, or position.

Crèvecoeur leaves "honest Andrew" at the end of the Scotsman's fourth year in America; "become a freeholder possessed of a vote"; appointed "overseer of the road"; accustomed to serve regularly on local juries; the possessor of six cows, two breeding mares, and various other livestock, to say nothing of wheat, pork, beef, wool, flax, and miscellaneous agricultural implements. There could be no more eloquent testimony, Crèvecoeur concludes, "to the happy effects which constantly flow in this country from sobriety and industry when united with good land and freedom".

In the achievements of this Highland emigrant of 1774, then, we have an early evocation of what would afterwards be called the American Dream: the enduring conviction that, once liberated by American residency from the restraints and oppressions of Europe, there was nothing to stop any halfway competent individual gaining the material and other rewards which were denied to the majority of mankind by less progressive, less enlightened social systems than America's democracy.

And, yet, from a Highland standpoint anyway, there remains something deeply ironic, maybe even tragic, in the extent to which American democracy (a democracy which antedated Scotland's by many years) was built, to some extent, on the ruins of societies (Indian societies) by no means dissimilar, as noted already, to the society whose destruction led to folk such as Crèvecoeur's Andrew being in this country in the first place. Which makes it appropriate, perhaps, that a number of Highlanders, in a way few other Europeans did, lived among, and set up home with, America's original inhabitants.

Duncan McDonald, the man whose name I came across in accounts of White Bird's time in the camp of Sitting Bull, was the product of such a relationship. So, a little earlier, was Alexander MacGillivray, the Creek chief who negotiated personally with President George Washington. So was the Cherokee chief, John Ross, who, in the 1830s, led his people westwards along what they called their Trail of Tears, that corpse-strewn trail which stretched from their lost lands in Tennessee to the reservations awaiting them in Oklahoma.

Those connections - those Scottish-Indian connections - are worth remembering, I believe, in relation to America's Tartan Day. They make the point that Scotland's influence on America and on Americans has been extremely complex; that such influence has extended into many social, many racial, groups; that the story of Scots, and especially of Highlanders, in America is no simple tale of people who invariably made good in the United States mainstream. And this story, I want to register finally, is one that, both in America and in the Highlands, is still being added to.

In the northern half of Scotland where, as it happens, I currently chair the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, our regional development agency, we're only now putting right what started to go so badly wrong two centuries ago. At last, we're expanding and diversifying our economy. At last, our population (which fell continually for 120 years) is on the way up (by 20% in the past 30 years). At last, our ancient Gaelic culture, once officially despised and denigrated, is being regenerated, taken seriously.

And out there, on the Flathead Reservation, a place with problems worse than any we confront back in the Highlands, they're also looking to make a new beginning. Among the more important contributors to this new beginning is the reservation's Salish Kootenai Community College - now giving hundreds of young Native Americans the chance to gain professional qualifications in a teaching environment that's sympathetic to their heritage and background.

The president of the Salish Kootenai Community College, himself a Salish tribal member, is Dr Joe McDonald. He's a great-grandson of the fur trader Joe calls "the old Scotchman". And two or three years back, Joe came to the Highlands. There I was able to show him something of the places where his Highland ancestors lived. And at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, a Skye college where, for the first time ever, Highlanders can obtain degrees taught through the medium of Gaelic, Joe McDonald gave a presentation on the work - the very similar work - of his own college in Montana.

The story told here, I've remarked, is one with no real ending. But that day at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, listening to Joe McDonald talk of his Highland and his Indian background, I felt a circle of some sort had been completed. - April 1

* The themes touched on here are explored in more detail in James Hunter's books, Glencoe and the Indians and A Dance Called America (Mainstream).

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