Where are the Natives in Hamilton?

In Uncategorized by Adrienne K.16 Comments

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I have not seen the highly acclaimed, Tony-award winning, ground breaking, race-bending new musical Hamilton. Not due to lack of trying. I enter the digital lottery nearly every single day on my phone, though if I do somehow win it will mean the most panicked four hours of my life trying to get from Providence to NYC in time for the show. But that’s an aside. What I have done is listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times (not exaggerating), as well as listened to interviews of Lin Manuel Miranda on Another Round–we’re fellow Another Round alums!–and a couple other places.

I truly have had the soundtrack on repeat for months, including right now, except for “Quiet Uptown,” because sad. So, while I haven’t seen the show, I feel like I’ve consumed enough media surrounding the actual production to offer this review–or offer this question, really. But I will add these disclaimers: I have not seen the show. I have not read the HamilTome with insight from Miranda into the writing and production of the show. I have not read the Hamilton book that inspired the show. So, if I’m wrong or there are specifics I don’t know about, feel free to let me know (Or take me with you to see it? Please?).

But, I still feel qualified to ask: Where the heck are the Native people in Hamilton?

For those of you who have maybe been living in a cave for a bit, first of all welcome back, and secondly Hamilton is a broadway musical that follows the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. It’s a lot more exciting than that though. There is rapping and cypher cabinet meetings and duels. And, PLOT TWIST: The entire main cast, besides King George, are people of color.

However, there is not one lyric, one mention, one anything of the peoples whose land this is occurring on, or the ongoing clash of cultures during this time in American history.

There have been other criticisms of the show’s treatment of slavery (Hamilton is painted as a staunch abolitionist which isn’t completely true, and Sally Hemings is mentioned once as Jefferson asks her to open a letter, but it’s not unpacked or dwelled upon at all), and questioning the true subversiveness of having POC play patriarchal white supremacist douchey mc douche faces, among others. But even the most widely cited critique, by historian Lyra Montiero, doesn’t mention Native peoples once (besides Crispus Attucks, who I’ll talk about in a minute).

The thing is, Natives were a huge point of discussion, contention, concern, admiration, emulation, disgust, and more during this time period. Native representational democracies were also large part of the conversation in trying to build the new system of government.

Time for another disclaimer: I am not a historian. Apologies if I mess any of this up. Also shout out to my brilliant Brown student Emma H. (we had three Emmas this past semester!) who wrote one of her papers about this which got me really thinking, and provided a couple of these sources.

We’ll start with what’s widely accepted as the “first death of the Revolutionary War,” Crispus Attucks. Crispus was killed in 1770 during the “Boston Massacre,” and was Wampanoag and Black. So the first life taken for the revolution was a Native guy.

Leading up to the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, Native peoples were present at the Continental Congress–21 Haudenasaunee men attended nearly a month of the congress, and on June 11, 1776, the continental congress gave a speech to the gathered Six Nations members urging them to not take sides in the impending war, calling them “brothers,” and promising a future of peace “as long as the sun shines and waters run.” (LIARS!) But the speech, in full, is actually really interesting. The language is quite poetic, for all the lying. But it speaks of equals, of a partnership. The Native folks even gave John Hancock an Indian name after the speech.

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Knowing that such a large contingent of Native people were in the actual space of the Continental Congress so close to declaring independence tells us that the founding fathers were clearly thinking about and weighing the options of how best to deal with their Native neighbors. Native people, too, were obviously thinking through the implications of war between the British and Colonists–they knew it was a battle for Native land as much as a battle for freedom from British rule.

Then we have the Declaration of Independence itself, which I’m fond of pointing out every fourth of July on Twitter, contains the phrase: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

So despite that “brother” talk, our founders featured in the play thought of black folks as inferior and worthy of enslavement, but also that Native people were “merciless Indian Savages” who engaged in “undistinguished destruction.” Awesome. Wow.

Then there’s the undeniable influence of Iroquois representation governance on the US constitution. Lots of articles about that, I don’t need to belabor the point here. In the Constitution, we have three references to “Indians,” the most notable being the commerce clause: which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” (tribal sovereignty, what what)

Thomas Jefferson, one of the main characters in the play, also had a long history and relationship with Native peoples, he spent a lot of time growing up as an amateur archaeologist (ie grave robber), and “collected” artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition which were later displayed in his Monticello home. He had this dual thing where he thought Natives were noble and “in body and mind equal to the whiteman,” but still called us savages and was the mastermind behind Indian removal (Jackson carried it out, but Jefferson thought of it). He was a major proponent of assimilation (The “civilization project” as he called it) for Natives as well.

He also had a major interest in Native languages, and the year he became president (1800, also featured prominently in the play), he was deeply at work on dictionaries and grammar guides for several languages, and had to postpone his work until 1808. He apparently had over 50 dictionaries, including some from the Lewis and Clark expedition, which were lost into the Potomac when trying to move his belongings back to Monticello. Sadface.

(Shout out to this website for all the great info above, if you want a more in depth read on the relationships between Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine and Native communities read it!)

George Washington also had a long history with Native peoples, was acquaintances with a Haudenosaunee leader, who gave him the name “Conotocaurious” (Hanadahguyus), which means “town destroyer” or “devourer of villages.” It was originally a reference to Washington’s great-grandpa who quelled a Native uprising (massacred Native people), and was given the name, but then George lived up to his name in 1779 (still in the time frame of the play), when he ordered the Sullivan Expedition to destroy 40 Haudenosaunee villages who had sided with the British. Again, so much for that “brotherhood” talk.

You may know that Hamilton himself lent his name and support to (the school now known as) Hamilton College in NY, but what you may not know is the school founded in 1793 was originally called the “Hamilton-Oneida Academy.” Oneida, as in the Oneida Nation. It was started by a missionary, had assimilationist views, and very few Oneidas actually attended, but it apparently had a big opening ceremony with lots of fanfare and lots of Native presence, and Hamilton was a founding trustee (and, I mean, his name was on it.). He also overall advocated peace with the neighboring tribes, but also supported the military campaigns against them, so who knows.

I mean, there’s so much more. These are just a few basic points. So where are any references to these relationships in the play?

Some of you frequent readers might be saying, but Dr. K, didn’t you tell JK Rowling that she should have just left Natives out if she knew nothing about them and couldn’t do the research to represent them respectfully? How is this different? If Lin-Manuel didn’t feel confident writing about Natives, shouldn’t he have left them out, per your logic??? 

Oh snarky fake person based on real twitter people, let me explain: There is a small difference between a fictional, magical wizarding world, and the actual real life history of the United States of America. 

Hope that clears that up.

What could Hamilton have done to remedy this? Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected a Native main character, unless a historian can think of one that would have worked (let me know!). But just some acknowledgement throughout the lyrics that Natives exist, that this brand new United States is on Native land, and that African slavery is not the only racial injustice being perpetuated in the “New World.”

The reality is Native people are erased in nearly every representation in popular culture, so I wouldn’t have expected any different. But these moments add up, the erasure is real, both in contemporary society and historically, and has real implications. I, as a Native person who has been through 22 years of school, learned a ton reading up for this post (all those embedded links are really helpful for more info)–and that’s sad. We aren’t taught the history of Indigenous peoples in any real or meaningful way, and creators of media aren’t expected to engage with Native peoples in any real or meaningful way either. But we should be taught, and there should be an expectation that Native peoples be included and respected–you are on Native land, after all. We are still here, and are still a part of this United States of America you plopped on top of us without our consent, and deserve to be recognized. Especially in a show about our Nation’s history.

So to conclude I’ll channel my fave character Angelica Schuyler and say,

“You want a revolution? I want a revelation! We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, and when I meet Thomas Jefferson Lin Manuel Miranda I’m gonna persuade him to include women Natives in the sequel. (Work!)”

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I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time, because it’s sticky. Mostly, because I love the music and think the play deserves all the accolades it is receiving, and don’t want to take away from that. I also often struggle to find the line of criticizing work from POC, while not expecting other POC to be responsible for the labor of representing all people of color, and not getting into the politics of “but we had it worse!” So know that I’m aware of those complications, and tried to toe that line here. I’ve literally had this post in the drafts folder for months, mostly because I’ve gotten so much joy out of the Hamilton soundtrack that I felt hypocritical writing about it–but I was tweeting about James Baldwin the other day and remembered my fave quote, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.” So Lin-Manuel, this is out of love. In a non-creepy way. Swear.

If any actual historians want to weigh in with other facts or historic figures that should have been included, let me know!

(Thanks to Emma H., Eve who gave me insight from actually seeing the show–lucky!, and Chris B., who sent me the first FB message pointing this out months ago that made me facepalm and say “oh, @#$%.”.)

PS- I resisted putting in like 10,000 Hamilton references and puns in this post so be grateful. Just snuck in a couple. haha.

 

  • Sigi Freud

    Thank you for writing this! It was difficult for me to read because I love Hamilton so much, and because I think Miranda is a pretty woke guy in general (ok, I have like the hugest crush on that man). But you’re right. It is so easy to gloss over Native/First Nations’ impact on history that we should keep talking-reading-writing about it, and not commit cultural erasure twice. Once was devastating enough. P.S> If I had a spare ticket, I’d definitely send you one!

  • Miz Opifex

    I’m not really a historian either, but I have read about 85% of the Chernow biography Miranda used as his source material (I’m still working my way through it). Miranda takes A LOT of liberties with the actual history in order to reshape the narrative mess of an actual human life into a more compelling narrative arc.

    Most notably he powers through the last section of Hamilton’s life without commenting on much of what Hamilton was doing during that time. Hamilton’s feud with Adams was far more protracted and vitriolic than the play lets on. The Whiskey Rebellion, the Jay Treaty, and Hamilton’s stint as Inspector General of the Army never come up despite being rather pivotal in his career. While I do agree with you that adding some sense of Native involvement in the history of the time would have been better, I suspect it was left out because Hamilton himself was never particularly noteworthy on the subject. All he really did for the Hamilton Onieda school was throw money at it. He didn’t attend the opening, and his friend General Steuben (who never makes it in to the play either despite being a great figure in American LGBTQ history) placed the cornerstone on his behalf.

  • herthoughts

    I don’t know all that much about the play, but I do admire its concept. It is too bad if Natives are shut out of the narrative.
    As far as the actors, would you be able to identify a Native if there were one in the cast? If we’re going down that road, we’d be like Donald Trump – “They don’t look like Indians to me”.
    Thanks for the info regarding Crispus Attucks – I didn’t know he was part Native. One of my ancestors by marriage, in 1876 formed what today would be called a neighborhood watch group of black men in St. Louis, and named it the Attucks Guard, after Crispus.
    It would be wonderful if the Native cultures were included regularly in social/political discourses in the U.S., but as you can see in this federal election campaign, only very rare mentions are made. This is why Native voices have to keep speaking up. If we don’t, our cultures will be forever trapped in the public’s minds in cliches from the past, and living members will be a distant afterthought.
    So thanks once again for your writings.

  • Addison

    It is a work of entertainment – not a history lesson. Write your own musical and feature Native characters.

    • zardeenah

      I got a bingo!

    • Calma Furiosa

      Take this discussion seriously and expand on your point, please. I’m curious to know on what basis you can separate ‘entertainment’ and ‘history’. Start with that.

  • MrMegiddo

    I see little difference in a fictional, magical wizarding world, and a fictional, dramaticized account of the life of one of the founding fathers. Hamilton didn’t involve himself much in the affairs of native peoples. (plus the play truly begins in New York in 1776, while the Revolution was already well under way)

    It’s important to note that Hamilton didn’t even support revolution until Hercules Mulligan persuaded him to join the Sons of Liberty. He’s a character that had a large impact in Hamilton’s life but is only briefly mentioned in the musical because he didn’t act on Hamilton’s for long periods of time.

    If this had been a documentary on the founding of the United States I would very much want to see more representation of native people. This however, is a musical loosely based on Alexander Hamilton. Someone who’s largest claim to fame is being shot in the street. Someone who until this show caught fire was going to be removed from the ten dollar bill because the average American had no idea who he was.

    That being said, I do enjoy the show. I, however, recognize it was created for entertainment and not historical accuracy. It’s a very thin slice of time that has little overlap with anyone that didn’t effect his life for long periods of time.

    • Karen

      Well, Hercules Mulligan is more than “briefly mentioned.” He’s a character throughout Act 1, portrayed by Okieriete Onaodowan, who plays Madison in Act 2.

  • Tim Cooper

    As an 18th-Century history nerd, I would love to see one or more plays focused on various aspects of native experience at the time. There’s plenty of material there to do some really good work. Looking at it in reverse, though, my first thoughts on the shapes of those plays would be that they basically wouldn’t include Alexander Hamilton. He’s just too much of an urbanite, and one generation too young for much interaction with natives on the east coast. Some of the Iroquois are still around, but they’re much less politically important than they had been 30 years prior, and Sir William Johnson who consistently pushed diplomacy with them for decades is recently dead. By the time Hamilton shows up the Delawares and others have not only been forced into Ohio but out of it again. Unlike Burr, Hamilton is basically unacquainted with the west. Part of the reason he’s been less well-known than some of the other founders was the limitation of his scope. And he doesn’t survive into the Andrew Jackson era, so we don’t get to see his response to some of the worst practices ever perpetrated by the US government.

    • Fred Shaw

      You have identified a new play, “The Haudenosaunee and Sir William Johnson.” Strong characters, including women. Now, who can write it?

  • frog4gtc

    Given the musical’s use of casting non-white actors to be in and of itself a commentary on not only early US, but present-day US politics and racial/cultural issues, I think it would be fascinating and extremely powerful to see, say, an all-Native cast perform this work. It still wouldn’t solve the issue of a lack of representation in the actual written canon, but I think visually and culturally the impact would be immense. I would love to see that production.

  • Kathryn

    Thanks so much for writing this! I also love Hamilton, but the lack of any mention of Native peoples has also bothered me. The only time I’ve heard Lin-Manuel Miranda mention it was in one interview (unfortunately I can’t remember where) when he was discussing how much had to be left out in shaping the narrative and that any narrative is necessarily only telling one part of the story. He brought up the fact that he doesn’t tackle the Native American issue as an example of that. So at least he’s aware of it. But I agree with you that even given the limitations of telling a specific part of a narrative, I wish he would have at least acknowledged the existence of Native people in the lyrics to avoid portraying Revolutionary era America as if they weren’t even there.

  • Beverly Slapin

    Thank you so much, @Adrienne, for writing this! If you look closely at the graphic, which was drawn by John Fadden (I believe), you’ll see several Mohawk women mixed with the men, as they were. There were also children, and I was told that one of the Mohawk leaders asked the “founding fathers”: “Where are your women”?

  • Ruchama

    I’ve been reading Chernow, and Native Americans are mentioned a few times. (I just looked up one mention, because what you said about the school made me remember that I’d had a bit of a “Huh, really?” moment when I read that passage in the book.) This all comes at the end of a couple of pages about his interest in education, and he supported a bunch of colleges, and some quotes from his letters to his kids telling them how they should focus on their studies. Page 337, it gives some background and quotes from him, that he “championed a humane, enlightened policy toward the Indians.” A few quotes from him telling Washington that the government has to do a better job at protecting Indians from being massacred by settlers, and a letter to Governor Clinton saying that expulsion would be “as chimerical as it would be pernicious.” Then comes the part about the school, which isn’t too interesting — Hamilton gave money and his name to it, but never actually visited — but the part that made me pause a bit was that it says that the Indian kids were to be educated in both English and their native languages, which wasn’t what I thought was the norm for schools at the time. (But I’m really not a historian.)

  • Ennui

    It seems that the play centers around African-Americans and White Americans(Which is not a problem), although I agree that adding Native People to the play could only enhance it. As a Black person this post really makes me feel like I don’t matter since Native people aren’t in the play–there also aren’t Latino or Asians either.

  • Brockland A.T.

    Why the heck would natives want to be in this play about America’s first bankster who helped fuel the rampant land speculation that drove the Conquest? This guy set up the first central bank and Wall Street.

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=15091

    https://www.mpls.frb.org/community/student-resources/central-bank-history/history-of-central-banking

    https://mises.org/library/founding-father-crony-capitalism

    This play intends to celebrate Hamilton, not condemn him.

    Its a sad statement on how far Native Americans have been imperialized that they want to be a part of a propagandistic celebration of that history.