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„Covered with Night. A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America”, Pulitzer Prize-winning book of Nicole Eustace is the gripping narrative of the brutal murder of Sawantaeny, a Seneca hunter, amid the wintry landscape of Conestoga, Pennsylvania in 1722. While the pages of the American Weekly Mercury may have been silent on the countless deaths of Blacks and Native Americans, this particular murder case illuminates a range of circumstances and people interwoven in its narrative.
We begin with the central character, Sawantaeny, a member of the Seneca tribe known for its deep warrior ethos and complex cosmology which held great reverence for animals in local cultural practices. Sawantaeny's deadly conflict with the English fur traders becomes an essential piece of the overarching puzzle that makes up this narrative.
Within the spectrum of those involved in the crime, we learn more about the accused: two brothers, John and Edmund Cartlidge, driven by their fervent desire to procure fur from Sawantaeny at a lower price in exchange for the alluring rum. But behind the brothers' story lies a broader narrative that reveals the lives of English colonists who settled among indigenous communities and used the local knowledge they had acquired to manage and manipulate interactions with Indigenous peoples.
As we delve deeper into this complicated story, a variety of individual testimonies emerge, all guided by their own interests and expectations. One such figure, known as "Captain Civility" of the Susquehannock tribe, played a crucial role as a mediator. He bridged the gap by protecting the Natives on one side and negotiating with the colonists on the other. Captain Civility's actions embodied a delicate balance between protecting Native interests and navigating the complex terrain of dealing with colonial powers.
Among the English colonists we meet George Rescarrick and Richard Saltar Jr. from New Jersey, both of whom have different motivations. In addition, an experienced Frenchman named Peter Bezaillion plays an important role, as the offer to assist in the case and possibly act as an interpreter is one of the few opportunities for him to insert himself into the web of Anglo-American colonial society. Above all, the wives of the accused murderers and of the victim herself give us a poignant insight into the intricacies of being a woman in colonial America. Their narratives illuminate the multiple challenges women faced on various fronts, including abandoned British women and Native widows who struggled with the effects of the disrupted gender dynamics that resulted from the events surrounding this case.
We could discuss further the various actors involved and their individual and collective attitudes and expectations about the final decision of the process, but at the heart of this story is the deep contrast between two different conceptions of justice: one as perceived by the British and the other as expected by Indigenous peoples.
Pennsylvania, under the governance of Sir William Keith, an English aristocrat and colonial administrator, adhered to the traditions of English penal code. Within this legal framework, the "anger" factor played a special role in assessing the seriousness of a crime. In this context, the intensity of one party's anger could diminish the guilt of the other party.
But what did "justice" mean to First Nations? It was not simply a matter of Hammurabi's law code — an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Instead, in their perspective, justice was closely tied to the concept of receiving condolences and the ability to mourn. The Iroquois storytellers eloquently described the ceremonial rituals and mourning process, portraying the Native experience as if they were "covered with the night and wrapped in darkness" (p. 4). The continuation of peace depended on whether the case was based on misunderstanding rather than hostility, illustrating the profound difference in legal perceptions between the British and indigenous peoples. (p. 141)
This scenario played out against the backdrop of a particular situation, amid intense debates about the irrevocable changes that were taking place in the indigenous way of life. These changes included harrowing experiences of violence, the ravages of disease, forced relocation, and the relentless transformation of the natural environment, while at the same time colonial expectations of property rights and economic gains were rising. Meanwhile, discussions were ongoing to redefine the boundaries between Native American lands and colonial territories, an issue of great importance that culminated in the Albany Treaty of 1722, shortly after Sawantaeny's death.
Eustace, Nicole. Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America. Liveright Publishing, 2021.