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Chapter 8 Victory and Defeat
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The Demise of Bent's Old Fort

After the brief, abortive uprising in 1847, there was never again a serious challenge to American political control of New Mexico. New Mexico society had been poised on the brink of modernity for some

time before 1846, with much of its populace eager for the plunge. The

lack of resistance during the Mexican War in New Mexico evidenced a willingness to take "initial steps away from a traditional politics of piety and proverb" and to get on with a modern agenda, which would include "the overthrow of established ruling classes, the popularization of legitimacy, the rationalization of public administration, the rise of modem elites, [and] the spread of literacy. and mass communications," as Clifford Geertz has said of the movement of society from a grounding in religion to one in ideology.[1] A middle class soon developed there, the New Mexicans having learned from their trade with the Americans many of the skills of modernity, along with the ideology that would drive them to employ and further hone these skills. All of this would be maintained because the basis for continuing exchange was now assured.

Ironically, victory for the United States brought ultimate defeat to the two groups that had probably played the largest role in the transfer of political power in the Southwest. The successful conquest of New Mexico by the United States, which Bent & St. Vrain, particularly Charles Bent, had worked so hard to assist, opened the area to new interests that would destroy the company and drive out William Bent's adopted people, the Cheyenne.

The principals of Bent & St. Vrain Company were not completely


responsible for either their success or their undoing. Equally, they were neither the masterminds nor the pawns of a conscious scheme to produce the domination of more traditional cultures by a more modern one. In their behavior they were as opportunistic as a biological species as it interacts with its environment. They were not merely traders in fine furs or buffalo hides. They were involved with every sort of economic activity available to them: selling oxen to immigrants for their wagons, selling provisions to the military, buying horses from the Cheyenne and other Plains groups who had stolen them during raids in New Mexico, selling goods in their stores in Taos and Santa Fe, trading Navajo and Mexican blankets to the Cheyenne, bringing Mexican silver to St. Louis, and so on. They were also involved in every sort of social arrangement available to them: they took Native American and Mexican wives, acted as guardians for children of friends, were active in secret societies, did all they could to make and influence powerful friends in Santa Fe (evidenced by Charles Bent's frequent letters to Alvarez), and cultivated similar associations with sources of credit and politicians in the East.

In this range of behavior, we see the somewhat frenzied activity of the "Big Man," an example taken from a "primitive" society found among the tribes of New Guinea that Mary Douglas identified as being high-grid, low-group, and ego-centered (as is, of course, modern society).[2] Big Men have no authority other than moral. They live in a society that has neither hereditary nor formally elected chiefs. The organization of the society is accomplished in large part by the efforts of Big Men to "make moka," that is, to cajol, convince, or coerce other members of their society into participating in ritual pig feasts and the elaborate preparations for such feasts. Said Roy A. Rappaport in his classic study, Pigs for the Ancestors, "Big men tend to be wealthy, tend to be shamans, and tend to be in possession of knowledge of rituals concerned with fighting."[3] But since they are self-appointed and have no formal status as leaders, their lives are not without frustration. Rappaport told of one aspiring Big Man who, unable to inspire a following and after working alone for three days on the building of a ritual structure, complained "bitterly to those who passed by about the worthlessness of Tsembaga men, their sole interest being gardening and copulating."[4] As this example suggests, they are often frustrated, but nonetheless work ceaselessly in order to be a "player" in the important dramas of their world, as the current phrase has it.

The Bents and Ceran St. Vrain were not unlike Big Men, in some obvious ways. They held no power other than what they negotiated by means of ceaseless business and social activities and what I would suggest to be


their intuitive deftness with ritual. In these ways, nonetheless, they helped greatly to inculcate the modem order in the Southwest.

Their talents were not magical, however, and they could not see into the future. They could not see that the networks of kinship and fictive kinship they had established would be coopted by the central forces of the United States. Aligning their interests with those of the federal government surely appeared sensible. The government would be a powerful ally. Moreover, they probably believed in the values associated with the United States. And, to be accurate, it was almost certainly not the U.S. government's intention to bring tragedy to the principals of Bent & St. Vrain Company and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies.

Politicians in the government, backed by business interests, wanted to expand the boundaries of the United States for a variety of reasons. Some of these were probably not well understood by even those who stood to gain most, at least from our modern point of view. Economic, political, and ideological motivations were perhaps only slightly less mixed than what Marcel Mauss would have described as the "total social phenomena" characteristic of "traditional" societies; this is well expressed in the phrase "Manifest Destiny."

But those who rushed into the newly acquired territory did not engage in the same sorts of ritual interactions between Native Americans and Anglos as had been an essential part of the fur trade. Without such continuing ritual, there was no way to reconcile different values and beliefs, or work out common meanings. As we shall see, without a means by which to humanize the Native Americans to the newcomers who streamed to Colorado and New Mexico after the Mexican War, the Native Americans remained foreign and worse: They were the demons of this strange and unformed land.

Richard White, in his recent book about the fur trade in the Great Lakes region from 1650 until 1815, emphasized that when Native Americans and Europeans first met, they "regarded each other as alien, as other, as virtually non-human."[5] The point of his history is that over the course of their involvement together, they developed "the shared meanings and practices of the middle ground."[6] White saw both the formation and the loss of the "middle ground" as aspects of a power struggle. He said, "The real crisis and final dissolution of this world came when Indians ceased to have the power to force whites onto the middle ground. Then the desire of whites to dictate the terms of accommodation could be given its head. As a consequence, the middle ground eroded."[7] What the Indians lost here was the ability to claim "a common humanity in a shared world."[8]


Establishment of the grounds for a shared humanity is a part of the essential orientation of each individual to the world, which is really, from a phenomenological point of view (and from a sociological one, I might add), the world of human events. Deciding just who is not human, who is, and to what degree, is a preoccupation among all peoples. This is reflected in many ways, beginning with the fact that virtually all linguistic groups have as their name for themselves a term that they, themselves, translate to something similar to "the humans" or "the people." A few examples among a very great number include the Y'amana (meaning "men" or "humans") of Tierra del Fuego; the Cheyenne, who call themselves tsis tsis' tas ("the people"); the Kapauku Papuans of New Guinea, who refer to themselves as Me ("the people"); and the Innupiat (meaning "the genuine people") tribe of the Eskimo.

As A. R. Radcliff-Brown observed about the aboriginal tribes in Australia, "in western Australia the first question always asked of a stranger is who is your father's father?"[9] The fact that lineage is a virtual obsession among "primitive" peoples is unchallenged by anthropologists. This is so because it is among the most basic ways of ordering the world. It determines what one's responsibilities are, what one's role is, and what one's proper behavior should be toward another. This acts to fix one's place within the social universe.

Fictive kinship, established by ritual, is important precisely because it makes the unknown known. It transforms the unformed, potentially dangerous other into an ally and a known quantity: a fellow human. The aborigine's question, recorded by Radcliff-Brown, is a clue as to how this is accomplished. Ritual provides the opportunity for joint participation in the reenactment of the behaviors of the ancestors or gods. If one's father's father turns out not to be the same as that of the other person's, a mythological ancestor will serve as well to establish a kinship relation—in this case a fictive kinship relation.

Richard White's argument concerning the development of "shared meanings and practices" does not explicitly present a social mechanism by which this is accomplished. I offer ritual exchange as just that mechanism. As described previously, the calumet ceremony established fictive kinship relations, set mutual obligations, and often generated the affective response that encouraged internalization of shared values and beliefs within the traditional culture. I see participation in exchange ritual, on both the Native American and the Anglo sides, as less a matter of contending for power than of grasping a perceived opportunity for enhancement of "self" in the two increasingly individualistic and "ego-centered" cultures.


What eventually transpired between the Plains Indians and the Anglos arriving in the southwestern Plains from the eastern United States in the middle of the nineteenth century has been called by some a tragic misunderstanding. It was this, but it also was simply a fatal overreaction on the part of the newcomers. The misunderstanding and subsequent hysteria resulted from erosion of what White aptly termed the "middle ground" that the individuals involved with Bent & St. Vrain Company had established. This area of understanding could not be maintained in the absence of ritual interaction, which disappeared with the fur trade. Severe problems between Anglos and Native Americans arose with the war. The increased military activity of the Mexican War had been unsettling to the Plains Indians, and after its successful conclusion, they could see that the way had been paved for many more newcomers, with whom they would not relate as they had with the Bents. The unrest among the Native Americans provoked an increased U.S. military presence, which, perhaps because the military was especially inept, further upset the Native Americans.

The cholera epidemic of 1849, along with the deteriorating conditions for trade, prompted the abandonment of Bent's Old Fort in that year. The stability. that had been maintained on this ritual ground for almost two decades was gone. In this chapter we look carefully at these events and, especially, the apocalyptic end to the relationship between the Anglos and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes brought about by the attenuation of ritual interchange between the two groups.

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Chapter 8 Victory and Defeat
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