An Interview with Matt Jennings, Author of The Flower Hunter and the People
With the recent release of Matt Jennings’s The Flower Hunter and the People: William Bartram in the Native American Southeast, we thought it a good idea to tap the author for some insights into the book. Here’s what Dr. Jennings had to say:
1. What were the differences between Bartram’s view of Native Americans and that of most British colonists?
Most British colonists, and the Americans who succeeded them as the would-be masters of eastern North America, took a dim view of Native Americans. At best, Native Americans represented people trapped in an early stage of civilization who might benefit from exposure to Protestant Christianity and capitalism. At their worst, the continent’s first nations represented evil and savagery, and they deserved whatever violence the European invasion and subsequent expansion of the United States might unleash. William Bartram was not willing to admit a basic social equality with Native Americans, but he did believe that Native people had histories and cultures that merited serious study and understanding, and that alone set him far ahead of most of his contemporaries on this issue.
2. Who was the audience for William Bartram’s writings and how did they fit in with colonial and British culture?
Bartram was plugged into one of the most vibrant scientific communities in the British Empire (and the most vibrant scientific community in the early United States in Philadelphia). Principally, he wrote for his colleagues. However, during Bartram’s time, the study of natural science was not just the province of elites, or university-trained scientists. Well-read amateurs also contributed their findings, and Bartram’s writings blend cutting-edge eighteenth-century thought with writing that, even today, is fairly accessible to laypeople.
3. How did Bartram’s Quaker faith affect his view of nature and Native Americans?
Bartram’s Quaker beliefs influenced him profoundly. At several points in his studies, he invoked a “Great Monitor,” a divine force that oversaw all of nature, including Native and white people alike. Like all Quakers, Bartram also supposed that everyone carried around an aspect of the divine within her or himself, sometimes known as an “Inner Light.” And all people had access to this Inner Light.
4. How would William Bartram view today’s environmental policies?
This is a tough question to pose to a historian. Historians preach repeatedly that we must avoid judging historical figures by current standards, and pulling people of the past out of their historical context. On the other hand, why study the past if you believe it has absolutely no bearing on current affairs? As a student of Native American history, I’m also particularly wary about putting words in the mouths of the people whose stories I try to interpret. Having said all of that, I’m fairly certain that William Bartram would be dismayed by the callous disregard that our policymakers, and we as a society, have shown for our environment. Climate change is one part of it, but I think that William Bartram would be dumbfounded by our inability or unwillingness to wean ourselves from fuel sources that are clearly detrimental to our environment, and he certainly would disapprove of any policies that threatened to limit the diversity of species that he probably viewed as embodying some piece of the divine.
5. Most Americans probably still hold some “noble but primitive” view of pre-colonial Native-American culture. How do scholars’ views differ?
Another tough question. I’m wary of using pre-colonial, pre-contact, prehistoric, or any such descriptor when referring to ancient North America, and I’m just as wary of drawing lines between categories like “scholar” and “Native American.” since the lines are quite blurred. For a long time, historians and archaeologists wrote as if Native Americans could be easily consigned to some past age. To be blunt, in the West, history and archaeology evolved to serve the very states that committed genocide and dispossessed Native nations. Native activism and more sensitive scholarship have helped to improve this situation, but you’re right. Most non-Native people have a limited understanding of Native-American history, and it often rests on half-remembered racist history-class lessons and pop-culture stereotypes based on Hollywood films, to say nothing of the “tomahawk chop,” the use of Native mascots, and other such tomfoolery. I must also point out that most non-Native scholars have fairly limited experience in Indian Country, and, as such, they risk repeating stereotyped or inaccurate images of the type you asked about. For what it’s worth, these images are really old in Western society. Columbus himself praised the simple, yet attractive Taínos, and denigrated the “savage Caribs.” We are not likely to erase these caricatures overnight, but recognizing they exist is a step in that direction. For non-Native scholars, trying to forge connections with Native communities is crucial. At its best, the scholarly community (largely non-Native), takes Native voices seriously and incorporates them into an inclusive, even-handed narrative of early American history.
6. What are the main things you hope readers get out of The Flower Hunter and the People?
Well, I think it’s important to recognize that William Bartram was both firmly rooted in his own time, and yet, his vision managed to transcend that time. He advised the American government as it plotted to extend its dominion over Native nations, and that can’t be overlooked. He also failed to fully understand, or wasn’t granted access to, the full flowering of Native-American knowledge. But in the same set of texts, Bartram laid forth a vision of Native America as a diverse people, an ancient people, and a people that deserved consideration and respect. Like a lot of great nature writing, Bartram’s words reflect his own time, but they also carry a certain timeless quality. Bartram’s passion, along with his fairly accurate renderings of Native-American culture, allow his writings to reach us in our own time.
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