The Cape Cod village of Mashpee has been made eligible for emergency low-interest loans and other forms of economic assistance by the federal Small Business Administration. This small Massachusetts community of 3,000 persons hasn't been hit by a tidal wave, or nor'wester or a hurricane. Only by a lawsuit.
In August of 1976 a group of Mashpee citizens, representing themselves to be members of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, filed suit in Federal Court claiming all the land in the community was theirs. Although Indians have been selling land to non-Indians for the past 108 years, their claim is based on provisions of a 1790 federal law forbidding the transfer of any Indian-owned land without the approval of Congress. Until recent court decisions, it has been assumed the law did not apply to the 13 original states where large tracts of real estate had been bought, stolen and tricked out of Indian hands long before there was a Congress.
The upshot of the Mashpee suit has been to cast such doubt over the validity of titles and deeds that business in the community has been adversely affected. Hence the Small Business Administration disaster relief.
A few days ago a jury hearing the case decided that, while a Wampanoag tribe existed in a legal sense in 1834 and in 1842, no such tribe existed in 1790, 1869, 1870 and 1976, all dates crucial to the successful prosecution of the claim. No one has yet come forth to explain how a tribe could not exist in 1970 and then reappear in 1834. The answer may be that the law, as Dr. Johnson said, is an ass.
The rest of us aren't looking too good on the Indians question either. A number of other Indians in the sociological, if not the legal meaning of the word, have filed suit alleging breach of the same 188-year-old federal statute. Actions are pending elsewhere in Massachusetts, in Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut and Maine, where the Passamaquoddys and Penobscots are asking for about two-thirds of the states. Don't laugh. A referee appointed by President Carter has recommended that the Indians be awarded 25 million federal dollars and 100,000 acres.
There is something ludicrous about the United States trying to rectify the wrong of thefts committed 200 years ago while it backs Israel in thefts committed against Egypt two days ago. Time does not make a crime any less of a crime, but it does make it impossible to restore the stolen property without committing yet new and possibly worse crimes. That's why no reasonable person would suggest that the land taken from the Palestinian Arabs be returned.
At some point, bygones must be declared bygones. We can't make it up to the Indians or the orginial Americans, as it is becoming fashionable to call them for some unaccountable reason. History and archeology team with societies, peoples, languages and cultures that are no more. The Roman empire got offed by the Vandals and the Visigoths, so should the modern-day Italians use? All they can do is learn Latin as you can learn any dead language; they can't bring back Julius Caesar.
A similar situation exists with American Indians. Their culture cannot survive in a technological society where we play computer games in our living rooms. It's too bad because the blankets, the jewelry, the songs and the at-oneness with nature compel the admiration of Americans concerned about the future of the countryside and the wild places.
That does not make Indians a special case. The Pennsylvania Dutch farmers with the 16th-century culture are going too. Even culture in people who superficially look unchanged are utterly different today than from the way their ancestors lived in 1790. The Polish peasant who labored in serfdom for his lord now perhaps labors for his commissar, but it's a totally different serfdom.
For government policy to encourage Indians to remain culturally Indians to make them little better than tragic clowns. The suddenly oil-rich Indian in the high black hit with the pigtails driving a Cadillac is long since a stock figure in our ethnic comedy; the starving reservation Indian holding on to the papoose child is a stock figure for our tears.
With the enthusiasm for knowing one's roots, these may seem like harsh observations. But it is one thing for Kunta Kinte's descendants to study him, know about him, honor him, and quite another to go back to Africa and live like him. There is no time warp; a policy encouraging tribalism and half-forgotten normadic hunting and fishing cultures isn't going to give the Red Man justice or preserve his dignity. It's only going to make him look like a mannequin in a diorama or an actor in the Indian village section of some second-rate, imitation Disney World.