23 February 2016
In her earlier young adult historical novels—The Way Lies North (2007), Broken Trail (2011), and Freedom Bound (2012), Jean Baxter explores the lives of the United Empire Loyalists, Native Americans, and African-American slaves during and shortly after the American Revolution. We follow the history of the Cobham family—among others—as they flee persecution in the United States, separated by the turmoil of the conflict. John Cobham and the eldest son, Elijah, left to fight for the British; the second son, Silas, later followed them; the youngest son, Moses, ran away and was found and adopted by an Oneida community; the only girl, Hope was a babe in arms as the family fell apart.
The White Oneida follows this exploration into the aftermath of political decisions made at the time, specifically those regarding the First Nations and land rights. The White Oneida is Moses Cobham, raised from the age of ten as Broken Trail. As the story opens, Broken Trail has been sent by Thayendanegea—known in history books as Joseph Brant—to Sedgewick School in Vermont, where promising young Native youths were being taught the White Man’s ways ostensibly to prepare them to “go forth to preach the Gospel in many tongues” (13). This, however, is neither Thayendanegea’s nor Broken Trail’s intent. Broken Trail is being educated explicitly to help forge alliances between the various First Nations, to gain a “gentleman’s education that will help prepare [him] to assist [Thayendanegea] in negotiations with white diplomats as well as with his plans to make a better future for native people” (5), and Broken Trail approaches his commission very earnestly.
In a twist on the Muscular Christianity “school novel” tradition, lacrosse plays a role in honing Broken Trail’s leadership abilities, but in the interest of promoting unity amongst the native peoples, not in the promulgation of Christian doctrine. This plot element draws also on historical allusion. The story, roughly told, is that at the outset of the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763, lacrosse functioned as a Trojan Horse: the First Nation warriors played lacrosse in the fields outside Fort Michilimackinac so often that the activity was considered harmless. When a ball was sent over the fort walls in a particular match between the Ojibwas and the Sauks, the British opened the door to return it; the natives surged through, decimating the fort. In The White Oneida, the metaphor of lacrosse as “the little brother of war” (49) functions on a deeper level. At Sedgewick School, the game, in traditional fashion, pits the Algonkian Shooting Stars (populated by students from the Mississaugas, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Shawnee, and Mohican nations) against the Six Nations Eagles (with students from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations: the the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayugas, Onondaga, and Tuscarora). Recognizing the politically divisive nature of this recreational rivalry, Broken Trail asserts that he will only play if he plays for the Shooting Stars; he is supported by Lean Horse–Abraham, a Mohican who crosses the floor to the Eagles’ team (109). This is Broken Trail’s first success as a leader: despite initial opposition, not only the students but two of the teachers are converted to his position that “with mixed teams we’ll feel more like brothers than rivals … that’s what we need if we’re ever going to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend our lands” (111).
Broken Trail comes to Sedgewick School as a firm acolyte of Thayendanegea, but his hero-worship is disturbed by his teacher, half-Mohawk Mr. Johnson, whose opinion of Brant is less idealized. Thayendanegea, Mr. Johnson tells Broken Trail, means “places-two-bets”: a fitting name for Captain Joseph Brant, who “gambled to become a fine gentleman in the white man’s world and a war chief in ours. He won both bets” (67). In 1784, Brant “won” for the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract: a grant of land stretching 6 miles either side of the Grand River for its entire length, 950 000 acres, give or take, in total. When Broken Trail comments that “the Haldimand Tract doesn’t belong to Captain Brant. It belongs to the people of the Six Nations,” Mr. Johnson derisively asks “Does Brant know that?” (67). Mr. Johnson further tells Broken Trail that Brant has been “selling off Six Nations land as if it were his own property” (139); it is historical fact that Brant did sell parts of the Haldimand Tract to white settlers. Later in the novel, Brant is given his own voice to respond to such accusations. Brant disillusions Broken Trail of his belief that the Haldimand Tract was granted to the Iroquois in recognition of their loyalty, explaining the military rationale behind the grant (220). He goes on to explain that the grant was “both too small and too large”: “too small for the Six Nations to live in the old way [but] more than what we require for farms. So why not sell land we don’t need in order to raise money for the things we do?” (221). By this point, we are willing to believe that Brant’s rationale is what he believes to be true, but it is to Baxter’s great credit that—like Broken Trail—we are not really sure that any of the versions we are given are actually truth.
In the context of the novel, the cynical Mr. Johnson has a valid perspective. This is another of the strengths of Baxter’s historicity: her fictional characters are constructed such that their knowledge and opinions are justified and believable. Brant, as a historical figure carries his own credibility, but the fictional characters seem equally “real.” Mr. Johnson, for example, is presented as “one of Sir William Johnson’s sons” (27) from his union with Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister. The Dictionary of National Biography verifies Baxter’s information about the Johnson family, should a reader choose to check. They likely wouldn’t: so much of Baxter’s information reads as historical truth.
(An interesting tangential note is that Canadian poet-performer, E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who adopted her great-grandfather’s native name of “Tekahionwake,” or “Double-Wampum,” was descended from Sir William. Twice widowed, in 1759 Sir William “married” Molly Brant, who bored him eight children. Johnson had 3 children by his first wife, Mary Wisenburgh, and an unspecified number by his second long-term liaison with a Dutch woman whom he married on her death-bed—hence Broken Trail’s classmate’s comment about Johnson making “good provision for all his children, whether their mothers were native or white” (27). In his will, Johnson calls Molly’s children his “natural children” (see Dictionary of National Biography entry, below). Broken Trail’s fictional teacher, Mr. Johnson, was one of these children, as was E. Pauline Johnson’s entirely non-fictional great-grandfather, Jacob George “Tekahionwake” Johnson.)
It is not the well-constructed plot of The White Oneida that renders it such a successful historical novel so much as the weaving together of the threads of political machinations surrounding the history of the Iroquois nations in Canada and the creation of the Six Nations Reserve in what is now Brant County. The objective history of negotiations and decisions is complex; through Broken Trail’s growing insight and ethical interpretations of what he learns, readers can begin to understand the motivations driving those decisions. More politically aware than Broken Trail, Margaret–Yellowbird tells him that she “doesn’t trust” the American tolerance of the Oneida rebuilding the villages destroyed in the Revolution: “Whenever they seem to be treating us better, they’re just softening us up so they can take more of our land. I think their plan is to push us into little reservations surrounded by white settlements, so each band will be cut off from the rest. That way, we’ll lose our power to act as a single nation” (43). This concern underlies Brant’s intent in sending Broken Trail to Sedgewick School. Broken Trail begins his educational journey believing that Brant’s vision is right, his motivations pure and just. As we leave him, we see that Broken Trail’s belief in the vision is just as strong, but he has a far more balanced and realistic view of the complexities of and contradictions in Brant’s—and others’—attitudes and actions. He has seen that too often “the bannock was buttered and spread with strawberry jam” (223), and he moves ever forward in his desire to negotiate the disparate yet entangled worlds he inhabits.
Sir Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, 1921–1922. Volumes 1–20, 22 (London, England: Oxford UP, 1921-1922) p. 939: