A tireless advocate of the American Indian in the late 1800s and a long-time resident of Great Barrington, Charles C. Painter has slipped through the cracks as both an important figure in American history and as an accomplished Berkshirite. Author, historian and educator Valerie Sherer Mathes addresses this situation with the new book “Charles C. Painter: The Life of an Indian Reform Advocate.”
By the late 1880s, Native Americans had largely been beaten into submission in a series of bloody actions and herded together on reservations. The United States was left to wrestle with the so-called “Indian problem,” which amounted to figuring out what to do about those whose way of life had been torn from them and who were often seen as in the way of white settlers and the state governments that supported them.
Enter Painter, a native Virginian who graduated from Williams College and took up residence in Great Barrington where he experienced “the rigors and beauties of the Berkshires” as was said at his funeral service at the Great Barrington Congregational Church. An ordained Congregationalist minister, Painter’s reformist instincts came to the fore when he overcame the assumptions of his Southern upbringing and worked for the cause of African Americans. From there, writes Mathes, it was a smooth transition to the cause that became his life’s work.
His efforts were in large part accomplished through the Indian Rights Association — a white social activist group that promoted citizenship for Native Americans and acculturation — and involved writing pamphlets and newspaper articles and lobbying for legislation to fund educational programs for Native Americans. Today, scholars view the organization's assimilation practices negatively, including the Dawes Act, which striped Native Americans of 90 million acres as a result. The IRA also lobbied for and helped enact legislation that removed Native American children from their families, reservations and tribal environment; forbade them to speak their native languages and educated them according to the "Western model."
At the time, Painter was an unapologetic assimilationist. He found favor with President Chester Arthur, but warred regularly with unsympathetic congressmen. “I do wish that some asses could be suppressed,” wrote the clergyman after an unhappy encounter with elected officials.
Painter (“I cannot be idle”) would not be desk-bound, however, and the book’s strength is in chronicling his travels to reservations across the nation. An opponent of reservations and an advocate of citizenship for Native Americans, Painter left Great Barrington on excursions from the Dakotas to Florida, and west to California to see that Native Americans were being treated fairly and given an education so they could move beyond reservation life. Considerable time and effort was devoted to the Mohican Nation Stockbridge–Munsee Band of Wisconsin, whose roots lay with the Mohicans of Stockbridge.
The Piegan of Montana were literally starving to death when Painter arrived on the scene. White hunters decimated the Buffalo herds the tribe depended upon while the state government, like that of many states, looked the other way in the hope that Native Americans would be cleared from the state. Painter and fellow reformers succeeded in at least keeping the tribe from extermination.
Mathes explores in depth Painter’s efforts over the years on behalf of the Mission Indians who were living in Mexico until the Mexican-American war left their land in California. The tribe was exploited mercilessly by land-grabbers, unethical companies and their allies in government, and over the years, Painter’s combination of righteous outrage, knowledge of the law and tenacity were instrumental in preventing the tribe from being driven into history.
Mathes acknowledges early on that little is known of Painter’s personal life, largely because few letters exist between Painter and his wife, Martha, a native of New Marlborough. It does leave a gap, but Painter fills it in part with occasional self-assessments. “It requires all the native and acquired sweetness of my calm temper to derive as a sort of Soothing Syrup, all my firmness, which my wife calls stubbornness, to hold the parties to mere facts,” he says of one of many confrontations with Indian foes.
Mathes, through copious research, has painted a detailed portrait of a remarkable reformer, and in the process added to the literature chronicling the shameful treatment of Native Americans by those who came along well after them.