The Highland connection with native America. A Scottish poet finds cultural links in history and language between Gaels and American Indians
IMAGINE Creek and Cherokee chieftains with names like MacGillivray and Ross. Imagine further these part Colonial-Scots pleading the ``Red Skin'' cause at the highest courts in the land. Indeed, historical windows like these provide contemporary Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail with evidence to link Gaeldom with other minorities, especially Americans Indians. ``I'm sure,'' says Mr. MacNeacail, born on the Isle of Skye, ``that many Scots, like other white men, treated Indians as savages. However, there is evidence to suggest some were the opposite.''
Many Highlanders, evicted from their homelands so landlords could raise sheep, emigrated to the New World and identified closely with native American culture. Some married into local tribes. And in some cases, offspring - bearing the Gaelic names of their forefathers - became leaders of their Indian society. Alexander MacGillivray, described as a shrewd 18th-century chief, was one such leader. His mother was a Creek princess, while his father came from the Isle of Mull, off Scotland's west coast. In 1790, MacGillivray led a deputation of 28 chiefs to New York where they signed, with President George Washington, a treaty that ceded to the Indians all disputed territory.
John Ross, whose father was a Highlander and whose mother was part Cherokee and part Scot, also pleaded the cause of the native people. Ross was a dedicated and powerful political campaigner, writes MacNeacail in an article entitled ``Red Gaels.'' ``Like Alexander MacGillivray before him, he put his white man's skills to the service of his people. In Ross's time the Cherokee had much need of such skills and leadership.''
Ross's pleas to save the homeland of his mother's people were unfortunately in vain, and the Cherokee were forced to move west on a journey that killed one-quarter of their nation. By coincidence, this evacuation, later referred to as the Trail of Tears, came at the same time as the brunt of the Highland Clearances, when many clansmen were evicted from their native lands.
Cultural links between Gaels and American Indians are not limited to historical events. As a craftsman of words, poet MacNeacail sees similarities between the two societies through their language. For instance, among Indians and Gaels there is a tremendous identity with the environment. Another correlation between the two groups is their feeling about land possession.
``The Gaelic concept of ownership is every bit as strong as it is elsewhere,'' says MacNeacail. ``But ownership is not seen as an individual thing. In Gaelic you cannot grammatically say, `I own the land.' The closest you can translate to is, `The land is with me.'''
Likewise, Gaelic and American Indian tongues were always spoken, never written until relatively recently. Both are rich in imagery. ``If you have strong, visually arresting phrases, you remember them more and you get that in oral tradition,'' says MacNeacail.
Language is tied in with elements of culture, according to MacNeacail, who is most interested in folklore and in ``the creative impulse that has traversed the centuries.'' As he puts it, ``You need to know your language in order to understand the immeasurably important nuances of your culture. I find on my bookshelves [Gaelic] stories hundreds of years old that are still contemporary today.''
Similarly, American Indians are realizing the importance of their mother tongue in teaching native culture to their children. For example, Mohawk language classes are being taught on the Akwasasne reservation near Massena, N.Y., and among the Passamaquoddy Indians of eastern Maine.
Some people wonder why money and time are spent encouraging struggling cultures. But Aonghas MacNeacail sees the situation positively. ``A variety of minority languages and societies,'' he says, ``increases the sum of human diversity.''