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John Milton Earle and the Massachusetts Indians.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

John Milton Earle (1894-1874) must be spinning in his grave.

The man who devoted his whole career to helping the unfortunate and exploited of society is now being labeled as a politically incorrect obstacle to the aspirations of the Nipmuc Indians of Worcester County. He would have been amazed.

Mr. Earle was one of Worcester's most distinguished individuals. Born in Leicester to a Quaker family, he came to Worcester as a young man and opened a dry goods store near Lincoln Square.

Early on, he contributed articles to the Massachusetts Spy, the town's leading weekly. He was hired as a reporter and moved through the ranks. He eventually became editor, publisher and owner of the paper, which he converted to a daily in 1846.

He was a prime mover in the campaign to get a city charter for Worcester, which took place in 1848. He also served for years in the state Legislature, both House and Senate. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him postmaster of Worcester.

Full disclosure: John Milton Earle was my grandfather's cousin.

During his years at the Spy, Mr. Earle became known as one of the state's leading voices of reform.

He used its columns to promote the abolition of slavery, women's rights, including the right to vote, temperance and other worthy causes.

So it seemed natural in 1859 for Gov. Nathaniel P. Banks to appoint Mr. Earle Commissioner of Indian Affairs charged "to examine into and report the condition of the Indians and descendants of the same in the Commonwealth."

Some of the Indians had never been given full citizenship rights, but remained wards of the state. Mr. Earle was to find out if they were ready to become full citizens, with property rights, suffrage and all the rest.

His findings, in a report completed in 1862, pretty much discredited most Indian tribal claims in Massachusetts and recommended that, for the most part, Indians be awarded full citizenship in the state, just like everybody else. In his methodical way, Mr. Earle examined one Indian group after another, including the Nipmucs of Grafton and Webster. He concluded, "This tribe, having no common territory, but being scattered among other people of their respective communities, have, of course, no municipal, educational or religious organization, but their educational and religious advantages are the same as those of others among whom they live, and so far as is known, they avail themselves thereof about in the same proportion that other people do. Probably about one-half are citizens in the towns where they reside, while the remainder have retained their legal relation of wards of the state."

He continued: "Under the circumstances thus presented, no good reason is apparent, why the right of citizenship should not at once be granted to them, and they be placed on the same legal footing as other inhabitants of the Commonwealth."

It was the good, liberal progressive thing to do, and it was carried out a few years later. One hundred and thirty-five years went by. Then, in 1996, two groups claiming to be Nipmuc Indian tribes petitioned the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to be recognized as sovereign nations. The Nipmuc Nation, based in Grafton, and the Chaubunagungamog Nipmuc Indians of the region around Webster, both claimed to be part of a larger Nipmuc community historically located across Central Massachusetts and extending into Connecticut and Rhode Island.

But in June 2004, the Bureau of Indian Affairs declined to give tribal status to either group, on the ground that the Nipmuc tribe had long since lost its identity. The conclusion was based partly on the report that John Milton Earle had completed in 1862.

Advocates for the Nipmucs did not take that lying down. In the December New England Quarterly, Christopher J. Thee lists the mistakes that Mr. Earle had made in his analysis of the Indian situation in Worcester County. Mr. Thee is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross with an master's degree in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona. He is critical of both the Earle methodology and assumptions.

First, Mr. Earle "conflated biological with cultural Indianness." That means that Mr. Earle worked on the assumption that genealogical lineage was all-important. He didn't realize that "Indianness" was also a cultural phenomenon that could be passed along just like memories of warrior ancestors, even to folks who had no blood ties to the original Native Americans. When Mr. Earle noted that the Pegan tribe, which is related to the Nipmucs, had pretty much disappeared after generations of interbreeding with African Americans, he was only revealing his imperfect understanding of how things worked in the real world, according to Mr. Thee.

As professor Thomas Doughton, another advocate for "Indianness" has put it, the "Eurocentric science" of the 19th century "codified notions of red, black and white races in such a way that the only real Natives were racially distinct and `clear-blooded.'" He considers that a mistaken approach.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs pretty much accepts the Earle theory of tribal entity. In turning down the petition by the Dudley-Webster Nipmucs, the bureau noted, "The petitioner must have been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900, and a predominant proportion of the petitioning group must have existed as a community from historical times until the present."

That probably makes sense to most people not intimately involved in tribal politics. The point can be argued. At any rate, we can be sure that John Milton Earle thought he was doing the right thing in recommending that most of the Indians of Massachusetts be removed from their status as wards of the state and given full rights and privileges of citizenship.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.
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Title Annotation:INSIGHT
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 18, 2007
Words:972
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