Change vs. Exchange

I am reading the Baron Montlezun’s Voyage fait dans les années 1816 et 1817: de New-Yorck à la Nouvelle-Orléans, et de l’Orénoque au Mississippi, although only the part about his visit to Orange County, Virginia (perhaps I might read the rest later). He had a conversation with President Madison, at the latter’s house, where they swapped stories about American Indian boys who were taken into European or European-American communities, educated, and then invariably (in the context of the conversation) returned to their “savage” communities.

There is one translation of Montlezun, published in parts in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1945. The footnote for this conversation adds “For a parallel case taken from North American history, we refer the reader to Smyth, who says that Indians educated at William and Mary in colonial days returned to their savage life, as soon as they went back home.”1

What strikes me is the assumption that the American Indians would stay. Historically, I understand the perspective of the Baron and the President, and even the mid-20th-century scholars, who knew that the European lifestyle was far better than the savage one in the wilderness. It was folly, to them, to abandon it. The actors in their stories who took or invited American Indian boys (because they’re all men in this instance) to “civilization” were probably trying to improve them.

From a modern perspective, however, the first thing that springs to mind is undergraduate year abroad. You go somewhere strange, learn about this other culture, then go home and share your experience with friends and family. Many of the native individuals in the story went at least semi-willingly (the young boy who went to France with General Lafayette was sent by his father, but who knows how he felt about it?). What better way to learn about your allies than to live among them for a while? It’s a strategy which also works with enemies.

There’s not a huge point to this post, merely an observation. Some people may expect foreign students who come to study in the US to become Americanized and remain, but it’s not surprising to us (I hope) that they come, learn, and go home again.

1 L. G. Moffatt and J. M. Carrière. “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53 (1945): 206.

1 comment

  1. The Chinese graduate students who lived with us for 4 years was reluctant to admit to us that she really hoped to be able to go home and get a decent teaching job, either upon completion of doctorate, or after teaching here for a while. She seemed to think we’d be offended that she didn’t want to stay and become a US citizen. I reassured her that I totally understood that as much as she likes it here, home is home, and China is home. She seemed relieved that I understood. I wonder if other Americans with whom she talked felt differently.

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