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.
I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time, because it’s sticky. Mostly, because I love the music and think the play deserves all the accolades it is receiving, and don’t want to take away from that. I also often struggle to find the line of criticizing work from POC, while not expecting other POC to be responsible for the labor of representing all people of color, and not getting into the politics of “but we had it worse!” So know that I’m aware of those complications, and tried to toe that line here. I’ve literally had this post in the drafts folder for months, mostly because I’ve gotten so much joy out of the Hamilton soundtrack that I felt hypocritical writing about it–but I was tweeting about James Baldwin the other day and remembered my fave quote, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.” So Lin-Manuel, this is out of love. In a non-creepy way. Swear.
— Dr. Adrienne Keene, Where are the Natives in Hamilton? (Native Appropriations)