Throughout the 19th century, a gypsy-like tribe roamed Indiana and other states of the Midwest. Known for their music and dancing – but despised by main-street society – the so-called “Tribe of Ishmael” was ultimately broken up by authorities, and the clans disappeared. Now a century later, a musical group called the ishmaeLites has emerged to reclaim that history with a new CD, “Comin’ Home to Indiana,” and a bold call for cultural renewal.
This alternative epic of Indiana features 22 songs tracing the forgotten history of the Tribe of Ishmael, a triracial nomadic population of Scots-Irish, mixed with some Native Americans and escaped slaves. Their caravans traveled in an annual triangular route that went by the Indiana villages of Mecca and Morroco and the Illinois ville of Mahomet, wintering in Indianapolis. But society looked down on the Ishmaels, calling them semi-barbarous half-breeds – depraved, polygamous, thieving, murderous, etc. A real Ishmael girl taken away from her family was the original Little Orphan Annie, subject of the famous poem by James Whitcomb Riley. In 1907, the growing eugenics movement pushed through Indiana’s infamous Sterilization Law, which targeted for elimination the Tribe of Ishmael and others who could be typed as inferior, unfit, or mentally weak. (A book about the tribe called Inventing ‘America’s Worst Family’ came out this year.)
Now the ishmaeLites, a band of descendants and others, are singing this story with “Comin’ Home to Indiana.”
In their CD, country, folk, and bluegrass mingle with reggae and rap. Such luminaries as James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, and Eugene Debs appear, and their little-known connections to the Tribe of Ishmael are revealed. The finale, “Comin’ Home to Indiana,” is not just the CD’s title song. It’s also a tribute to Hoosier songcraft and a manifesto for a renaissance that includes the return of the caravans, the growth of the Tall Grass Prairie, and a concert to be played in or near Mecca, Indiana.
1. Ishmael: The first Ishmael was in the Bible, and this is his story. The last verse introduces the Ishmaels of the American Midwest.
2. Ben & Jenny Ishmael: The first patriarch and matriarch make a pitch, after the American Revolution, to head out for the unknown Prairie and leave behind the troubles of so-called settled life in the mountains and valleys of Appalachia.
3. James Fenimore Cooper: Writing “The Prairie” in Paris, Cooper depicts the Tribe of Ishmael as “worse than Indians.” His character Natty Bumpo escapes overcrowded New York State but finds he must struggle against a clan of “evil” Ishmaels when he gets to Indiana.
4. Tecumseh: The Shawnee chief tries to unite Indian tribes to fight the “Long Knives,” welcoming refugees from defeated Indian confederacies in the East. But some refugees join the Tribe of Ishmael, which remains neutral.
5. Indianapolis: The “capital in the woods,” a crossroads, a trading post, a receiving center for Indians coming from the Eastern wars. On the bank of its White River, Ishmaels wintered. They’d be “starting from Indianapolis in the spring” in their annual triangular route.
6. Abraham Lincoln: Harvard historian Perry Miller compared Lincoln to members of the Tribe of Ishmael. Like them, Lincoln came out of Kentucky, grew up in Indiana, and went on to Illinois. He was from the wilderness – a “wild man” like Ishmael.
7. Herman Melville: When he was a boy, Melville read Cooper’s “Prairie” novel, with its Ishmael characters. Ishmael became the narrator of Melville’s great novel “Moby-Dick.” Was Ishmael one of us, from Indiana?
8. Mary Alice Smith: A little gypsy from Indiana’s wild country, and the original Little Orphan Annie. At 12, “Allie” was taken from the Tribe of Ishmael and bound away as a hired girl at the boyhood home of James Whitcomb Riley in Greenfield, Indiana. Once married, she became Mary Alice Gray. But her name was changed once more: in Riley’s poem “Little Orphant Annie.”
9. Bodysnatchers: In Riley’s poem, Annie tells children that body-snatching goblins will get them if they “don’t watch out!” It was more than a ghost story: The new social engineers of civilization could take you away, too.
10. Centennial: The 100th birthday party given for the USA in Philadelphia, the Centennial Exhibition was the first World’s Fair in America. Middle Eastern and other ‘Oriental’ attractions were popular, along with white-supremacist “science” in the halls, an Ol’ Plantation concession, and a George Washington robot.
11. Strike: The hangover to the party of 1876: Economic depression, a stolen presidential election, and the Great Railroad Strike, which led to riots in cities across the country.
12. Oscar C. McCulloch: A “Social Gospel” minister, McCulloch read “The Jukes,” a field study of “hereditary pauperism,” and in 1877 decided to study the “gypsies” in his own town of Indianapolis. His work turned Ishmaels and others into “The Ishmaelites.”
13. Jail Duet: An imagined conversation between Eugene Debs and an Ishmaelite woman. He was then the French-American City Clerk of Terre Haute, Indiana, which had a burgeoning “tenderloin” district. She was in his jail; “Ishy” women were often snatched by cops for walking in the street.
14. James Whitcomb Riley: Twenty years after Mary Alice Smith came into his home, the poet writes a tribute to his childhood muse. The printers change her name to Annie. “Little Orphant Annie” is a hit for Riley, a former step-right-up man who sold medicine oil from a traveling wagon.
15. Eugene Debs: This song covers 20 years: Debs serves a term in the Indiana Legislature, then fails to prevent Senator Harrison from becoming president. After the Indian wars, a few survivors are invited – just for show – to the Chicago World’s Fair, where the growing influence of eugenics is on display. Running for president in 1904, Debs ridicules eugenics and capitalism.
16. Booth Tarkington: His brief but eventful term as an Indiana legislator ends early due to illness. Tarkington goes to the isle of Capri to write a novel about a fictional Hoosier town. “The Conquest of Canaan” is about a conspiracy to drive Gypsy river folk off their land.
17. Master Race: Personified here as a worried, powerful white guy. Not long after Senator Beveridge of Indiana urges the subjugation of “savage and senile peoples,” Teddy Roosevelt warns of “race suicide.” Eugenics research is concentrated at Cold Spring Harbor, NY.
18. The Sterilization Law of Indiana: The 1907 law didn’t happen overnight. A chronicle of the steps leading to the eugenicists’ legal eradication of the Ishmaelite-ish. It ends with a doo-wop version of the law, which was emulated by others, including Nazi Germany.
19. Exodus: Some Ishmaelites flee Indiana after the passage of the Eugenics Law. The Raggedy Ann doll is born through the mating of Riley’s two most famous characters, Little Orphan Annie and the hired hand of his poem “The Raggedy Man.” Orphan Annie storybooks spread her fame. Meanwhile, Tarkington returns to Indiana and puts a Gypsy in his children’s classic, “Penrod.”
20. Harold & Annie: Harold Gray sees the last caravan of Ishmaelites go by his hometown of West Lafayette, Indiana. His “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip begins the year Mary Alice Smith, the original Little Orphan Annie, dies: 1924. His strip ends in 1968 with Annie the mistress of an old plantation full of Ishmaelite-ish white-trash squatters.
21. AnnieCorp: The real-life Annie died, but “Annie” can never die. Copyrighted merchandise keeps the fictional person going, and corporations -- under US law, “citizens” who never die – profit endlessly through comic strips, radio shows, movies, musicals, and more.
22. Comin’ Home to Indiana: This ishmaeLite manifesto is also a collage of allusions to other Hoosier-oriented songs and musical artists, from Cole Porter to Michael Jackson.