Dr. Adrienne Keene at Native Appropriations has tacked a tough question: where are the Natives in Hamilton? Indigenous people were, naturally, a very large presence during the actual time, and within the framework of the play everyone loves.
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.
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).
There’s much more at Native Appropriations, and it’s an excellent read. Yes, it’s a good thing people of colour were elevated in Hamilton. It would be a better thing if us Indians weren’t erased at every turn.