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King Tut Centennial (November 4) and American Indians

If you don't recognize this, where have you been the last century?

On November 4, 1922, the world of Egyptology changed forever. On that date Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, the boy-king. Egyptology hasn’t been the same since. The discovery of an intact tomb from the 14tth century BCE has provided splendors which continue to dazzle the general public to this very day. Tours of his artifacts are box-office bonanzas and now Tut is becoming part of the digital age. Every American school kid seems to know who he is.

But there is more to this Pharaoh than what dazzles the eye. Egyptologists are learning that he is not quite the two-dimensional figure he appears to be in the popular mind. Therein lies the tale. Two-dimensional human figures in the real world always end up being three-dimensional unless you choose not to look.


The first major chink in the image of the boy-king may be dated to the publication of Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest during Egypt’s Late 18th Dynasty by John Coleman Darnell and Colleen Manassa (2007).

A new book, “Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World” by Bob Brier (2022) has a section “Reimagining Tutankhamun as a Warrior” just published online by Smithsonian. Bob (whom I know) will be speaking in-person later this month to the American Research Center in Egypt, New York (I am Vice President), so there will be more opportunity to hear about how this beloved frail, sickly, boy-king, was not that figure at all.

The larger issue raised here is that Pharaohs were not, in fact, two-dimensional beings. They were at their core political leaders who maintained their position of political leadership through the death of others. Violence was a critical component of their rule even though it can be glossed over as maintaining maat or cosmic order. The act of maintaining such order involves the (ritual) killing of those who would disrupt it. It is as if all the people rebelling in Iran today were summarily executed in the name of Allah with the fig leaf of a trial.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney called her discipline to task in a publication last year, The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World.

I work in a field of apologists who believe in an Egypt of truth, beauty, and power … and in many ways, I am still an adherent to my chosen faith.

The beloved maat of ancient Egypt and modern Egyptologists ignores the fact that its practical application was as an authoritarian tool of control, a power to oppress. This self-admitted “recovering Egyptologist” has pulled back the curtain on the smoke and mirrors of Pharaonic violence. She faults Egyptologists for having bought into the Egyptian propaganda machine.

Although the parallels are not exact, it turns out that American Indians are not two-dimensional Disney beings either.


Indians were just as capable of exercising power as Pharaoh even if the means and scale differed. I became aware of this through some on-line lectures and book reviews I read during COVID and acknowledge that I am not a scholar in this area. Fortunately the people I listen to and read are. Although these examples are separate from each other, collectively they paint a pretty persuasive picture that Indians are people, too.

Example 1 Seceding from the Sachemship: Coercion, Ethnology, and Colonial Failure in Early Historic New England
Author: Peter Jakob Olsen-Harbich, The New American Antiquarian
Comment: Linford Fisher, Brown University

This paper considers coercive political practices among early historic southern New England Algonquians and their historical function in the success of early English colonies. In the spring of 1623, the [English] settlement of Wessagusset, a rag-tag band of starving would-be fur traders perched on the precarious northern edge of England’s nascent American empire, collapsed in a bloody struggle with its Indigenous neighbors, the Massachusett. This paper asserts that the failure of Wessagusset occurred partially because its inhabitants, unlike those residing in Plymouth Colony, neglected to observe, understand, and diplomatically engage with the coercive political practices of the Algonquian sachemship they abutted. The majority of this paper serves to explain this coercive characterization politics of Algonquian through a reexamination of early historic evidence of corporal and capital punishment practices.

According to my notes from this on-line presentation at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the dissertation contextualizes Algonquian practices at the time of the European arrival. Olsen-Habrich argues that coercion and not consensus lay at the center of the 17th center polities. He suggests that scholars have minimized the coercive practices employed by the sachems. He used archaeology, observation, ethnological data on the 1623 case study to arrive at this conclusion stating that people in the field need to think big and rethink old orthodoxies.

There was some discussion as to whether the graduate student was cherry picking the scholars who already actually were aware of the coercive side of the story. The question was raised if it was really true that the field has ignored coercive aspects. Such comments simply solidify the point that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, coercive action was a standard part of tool-kit for the maintenance in power. The problem then occurred with the new arrivals into the game of power. The people in the settlement at Plymouth had a better understanding of how the game of power was played than did the ones at Wesagusset.

Example 2 Redating the Iroquoian Histories through Archaeology, Jennifer Birch, University of Georgia

This on-line presentation to the Archaeological Institute of America, Westchester Society (I am the President), showed how a change in chronology can lead to change in identifying the participants involved in the conflict.

Chronologies fundamentally underpin all other aspects of archaeological thought. When our timeframes shift, so to does the historical interpretive framework or scaffolding upon which we build our explanations for how past events unfolded. In this talk, I will briefly summarize work completed to date by the Dating Iroquoia project. Our aim has been to construct a more refined regional chronologies for select Northern Iroquoian sites and community relocation sequences through radiocarbon dating and Bayesian chronological modelling. Our focus is the ca. AD 1480-1610 period and the beginning of European contact. We use novel approaches for clarifying the calibration curve from the radiocarbon dates. The development of enhanced date estimates for specific sites in this period has allowed us to re-plot the date of events. The results have shifted our thinking about Northern Iroquois polity development and population movement. This includes rethinking the nature and timing of the historic enmity between the Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee nations and processes of population movement between ancestral Huron-Wendat communities in south-central Ontario.

The shift in chronology due to the redating of the archaeology means a change in the traditional narrative of conflict due to the Europeans. The lessons to be learned here are that conflict existed both within the Wendat and Iroquois peoples individually and then between them prior to the arrival of the Europeans. When the Europeans arrived, initially in small numbers, they did so as new players in an existing game of power and then took sides.

Example 3 The Mohawk

Both examples of the Mohawk come from book reviews. The first is by Laurence Hauptman of Iroquois in the West by Jean Barman (I have not read the book) (American Historical Review 125 October 2020). The book examines the impact of the Mohawk and the Iroquois in general who migrated west and influenced a vast region from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

Hauptman criticizes Barman for not mentioning that some Mohawk ended up in a reserve “that included a sizable number of Algonquian refuges and Indian and non-Indian captives from New England and New York.” In other words, rivalries and hostilities among people from New York and New England had been transported west. Hauptman writes, “It might be suggested that the Mohawk ability to deal with Indigenous peoples in the West was based on their long relationship with and at times domination over others in the East, a factor that might have contributed to their sense of self-confidence, superiority, and nationalism.”

Mohawk violence back east where they earned the sobriquet “man-eaters” was the subject of two blogs on a book review by David Silverman of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Lisa Brooks [Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode (September 20, 2020) and Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) (September 23, 2020)], particularly the second one.

The point of these examples is not to single out the Mohawk for their warrior proclivities. It is not unusual to find Klingons who are more closely associated with violence within a larger cultural group than other segments. The Prussians in Germany, Spartans in Greece, and Benjaminites in ancient Israel all gained reputations as warrior peoples within their respective cultures.

The intent instead here is to reject the clichéd two-dimensional Disney racial stereotype that white people have applied to Indians in the 21st century. Many scholars know better whether it is about the American Indians or Pharaohs like King Tut. We are better off if recognize the humanity of both groups which includes the place of power and violence in these societies.

The issue of division within the non-two-dimensional people was raised by Rebecca Kugel in “Factional Alignment among the Minnesota Ojibwe, 1850-1880” (American Indian Culture and Research Journal 1985). She challenged the view that pre-contact “factionalism” was minor to Indian history, that it was a post-contact development. She questioned the failure by scholars to examine the internal political workings of Indian societies [an equivalent to ignoring the War of the Roses].

Kugel observed the longstanding political division between the civil leaders and the warriors. Such leadership division was common to Woodlands peoples. When I read about her separating the civil leaders who tended to counsel peace and the warriors or “young men” who advocated war, I couldn’t help but think of the same situation Gilgamesh faced in Uruk thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia or the older councilors who advised King Rehoboam to listen to the people regarding the heavy yoke Solomon had laid upon them while the younger ones supported doubling down. These examples reflect the danger in thinking a situation is unique to a given people when it may, in fact, to reflect a universal constant in human life.

Kugel’s description of the “young, rash, hot-headed, and inclined to be combative and coercive in interpersonal relations” bears an eerie resemblance to the very people Tut and the other Egyptian leaders killed for disrupting the social order.

We have now come full circle. Once we pull back the curtain of smoke and mirrors, we see the humanity of the people involved. With Pharaoh, it means liberating ourselves from one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in human history to recognize the violence that was essential to their rule. With the American Indian, it means not letting the two-dimensional image of people living in peace and harmony with each other and in nature cloud our understanding because culturally we are a people who left the Garden of Eden and want to go back.