Sheehan – Indian As Noble Victim
Indian As Noble Victim
The Philadelphia Society, Saturday, April 13, 2002
White men have been
thinking about Indians since Columbus sailed into the Caribbean in the late
fifteenth century, but seldom in that
long period have they paid much attention to the real Indian.
They have, instead, been interested largely in themselves and as a
consequence most conceptions of the native people have been extensions of the
European and American imaginations.
Columbus saw the Indians as savages, an idea derived from ancient
thinking that has persisted into the current century.
From that early perception later generations have drawn a host of equally
wrong-headed notions of what constituted the native world.
The Indian, for example, has been seen as an agent of untethered
violence, a hapless victim, a member of a vanishing race, a moral exemplar, a
repository of ecological wisdom, a source of constitutional lore, and the
harbinger of a New Age. Needless to
say, none of these descriptions quite fits the real Indian and most of them are
far wide of the mark.
Thus no vision of the Indian has endured longer or been the source of as
much scholarly or popular mischief as the savage, in both its noble and ignoble
form. After the appearance of the
new world on the European horizon, Montaigne in the late sixteenth century
offered the most apt definition of the noble side of this creature.
He painted a picture of pristine innocence set against the common
features of European civilization. In
fact the picture was blank. He
described a native world devoid of letters, numbers, politics, property,
commerce, farming, and political order, in which humanity contrived to be at the
same time both idle and prosperous. In
the middle of the next century Hobbes reversed the image, describing its ignoble
form. Using most of Montaigne’s
categories (he added the absence of society which Montaigne had only implied),
Hobbes portrayed a scene of unrelieved human misery and viciousness presided
over by the grinding fear of violent death.
Neither conception added anything to anthropological clarity.
Human beings are not blank slates and the societies they construct are
not empty vessels doomed never to be filled.
American Indians inhabited a world strikingly different from the life
transplanted in the New World from Europe, but it was not a world without parts.
It was a genuine way of life and not simply an antic appendage of the
Although the idea of the savage in both its forms has pervaded European
and American thinking about the Indian, a rough division in usage can be made
between the two sides. The noble
savage has usually been the possession of the intellectuals, often enough those
who have experienced little contact with the native people.
The obvious exceptions support the generalization.
The ignoble savage idea proved more congenial to those people who lived
on the border between the two societies and hence experienced closer contact.
Rivalry for land and war no doubt fueled this attitude.
Thomas Jefferson’s career makes the point.
Although he never lived near Indian country or even visited it, when most
of the warriors joined the British in the Revolutionary War, he made his views
of Indian savagery clear in the Declaration of Independence and later
recommended their extermination. But
after the Revolution, in the quiet of his study, he often fell into the ways of
the intellectual and compared his own society unfavorably to the life lived by
the noble Indians. By the close of
the nineteenth century when the Indian wars had died down and the warrior was no
longer a danger, the ignoble savage gradually went out of style.
But the noble savage, with his claim to innocence and virtue, persisted
and has fed the twentiety-century appetite for victims.
One could hardly dispute the native people’s claim to victimhood.
After the arrival of European settlers the native population declined
precipitously, their land base dwindled, and eventually their cultural integrity
collapsed. In the last quarter of
the nineteenth century, the remaining independent tribes were confined to
reservations and became wards of the government.
No doubt part of this process could be laid at the feet of Europeans.
They intended to displace the Indians on the greater part of their lands,
and from the earliest years they sought the transformation of native culture.
It was not until the 1930s that the federal government abandoned
assimilation as the basis of its Indian policy and decided to preserve the
Indians in their native ways. But
by any measure the most serious factor in native decline, the catastrophic drop
in population from about seven million (the high estimate) north of Mexico at
the time of discovery to approximately a half million in 1900 could not be
attributed to the purposive actions of white men.
Instead it was the unwitting transfer to America of maladies, mainly
smallpox and various respiratory diseases, that Indians had never before
experienced, that dealt the most serious blow to native population.
Warfare, though frequent enough between the two societies, trailed as a
distant second. Many whites were no
doubt pleased at the drop in native numbers and some even suggested that the
process be encouraged, but the spread of disease could not generally be
attributed to deliberate actions.
Although victims of a sort and for long periods of time apparently on the
road to extinction, the Indians never quite vanished.
They fought with Europeans and among themselves at regular intervals, but
except in certain limited circumstances the death toll was never high.
In fact it was usually higher among the whites.
Of course white numbers could better afford the loss.
Over the long term alcohol, which Indians in North America had never
possessed, spread devastation. It
became indispensable in the Indian trade and all measures by both the British
and American governments to curb its sale proved futile.
From the beginning the Indians found European products attractive, but
they tended to adopt them to their own uses.
In time, however, this transfer of cultural artifacts worked subtle
changes in native life. Indians
became more and more dependent on trade with the whites to supply the goods they
required to make their way in this new environment.
To take one example, the Indians soon discovered the efficiency of
muskets in hunting and war. But
they had no tradition of metallurgy and thus depended on white gunsmiths for
repair of these fragile instruments. Nor
could they make powder themselves, which gave the Europeans a critical measure
of control over Indian activity.
Neither the British empire nor the American government sought the
extermination of the native people. On
the contrary from the beginning assimilation had been the intention.
Though not without its successes, assimilation never seemed to fully
triumph over Indian resistance and the deleterious consequences of European
presence in America. Decline in
population, a shrinking land base, chronic alcoholism, and growing dependence
all undercut much of the hope for the incorporation of Indians into the white
man’s world. By the first half of
the nineteenth century, collapse and malaise seemed far more characteristic of
the tribes east of the Mississippi than assimilation.
Within the next half century the process largely repeated
itself west of the river, though intermarriage, government schools, missionary
efforts, and migration into the cities once again afforded a measure of success.
In the twentieth century policy moved from assimilation to preservation,
turning great numbers of Indians into welfare clients.
It is important to observe that societies do not disintegrate simply
because they are assaulted by powerful external forces.
They collapse to some extent because of internal weakness.
Indians faced an aggressive European culture with stone-age technology,
weak political organization, extraordinary susceptibility to disease, low
resistance to alcoholism, and finally an animism that left them a limited
capacity to accommodate adversity. They
depended on shamans to mediate between the spirit world and the immediate human
With the coming of Europeans, shamans found it increasingly
difficult to stave off the risk of pollution.
For many Indians the very order of reality lost its stable core.
In the late twentieth century this doleful story caused much anguish
among intellectuals and reformers, who unhappy with their own world were
prompted to stress the responsibility of Europeans and to exaggerate the virtue
of the native people who had endured so much suffering, thus raising the level
of the white man’s guilt. As
Johann Huizenga described the process: “A
culture wishing to be free of itself experiences a perpetual longing for the
uncivilized.” As a consequence
many historians, Wilcomb Washburn and James Axtell come to mind, sought evidence
of noble savagery in the native way of life.
They didn’t find quite the social void that Montaigne had led them to
expect, but they did discover a number of traits that matched liberal
moral and social ideals.
Indians, they contended, were free, equal, democratic, pacifist,
feminist, sexually uninhibited, ecologically blessed and, curiously, happily
communal and in touch with the primal energies that rule the universe.
As anthropology the project is largely worthless.
Only the last point has much merit.
The native people were indeed communal and believed themselves to be in
league with the spirit forces that governed the universe.
Most Indians were organized socially into clans and small villages,
united by kinship. But that is
about all that can be said for these recent interpretations.
Take the other supposed native traits in turn.
Indians might have been free before the European encounter in the sense
that they were generally not dominated by a foreign power.
But it must be noted that in the seventeenth century the Iroquois in the
northeast held sway over the remnants of a dozen or so conquered tribal groups,
as did Powhatan in Virginia and the Natchez on the lower Mississippi.
Otherwise Indians were not free in the way that European
settlers in America were to try to become after the eighteenth century.
They remained bound by communal and kinship obligations, very different
from the contractual arrangements that increasingly characterized the lives of
their white neighbors.
Equality, of course, involved a similar set of definitions.
It implied individualism, the separation of the person from organic and
historical ties, a personal autonomy quite foreign to Indian conceptions.
Although native societies were not steeply hierarchical as were European
before the late eighteenth century, they were organized vertically.
Authority often rested loosely in family groups and could be
hereditary. Although land was
communal, personal property was not. Even
the potlach, which ended in the distribution of property, required a preliminary
accumulation and, of course, established the prestige of the person responsible.
Thus talk of freedom and equality among the Indians as though they were
qualities of a life unencumbered by social boundaries makes no anthropological
In the sense that democracy required individualism, the Indian tribes
were hardly democratic. The issue
here usually centers on the Iroquois League.
This arrangement had been created in the late fifteenth century by the
five Iroquoian tribes that lived in what was to become New York in order to end
the strife that had been constant in the region.
In the future instead of fighting among themselves, the Iroquois would be
free to subjugate their neighbors. It
was an alliance among independent groups and exercised no governing authority.
Nor was it democratic. The
Grand Council of the league contained unequal representation from each of the
tribes, some of the members were hereditary and some appointed.
Could such an institution have served as the archtype of the
Constitution? A number of
historians think so. In the late
eighties Congress thanked Iroquois for their contribution to the nation’s
founding and in 1996 the William and Mary Quarterly devoted fifty of its pages
to the subject. Not only did the
argument in favor of the thesis prove to be extraordinarily thin, but the
founders it turns out knew little about the structure of the League.
The League itself bore no resemblance to the Constitution.
If the founders had chosen to duplicate it, the American republic would
certainly have been a very different kind of political order.
The significance of this curious episode lies in the continued effort of
many intellectuals to find what obtained among the Indians superior to their own
There can be little doubt that Indian warfare, mainly because of the
improvement in technology, became more destructive after the European arrival.
But, at the same time, it is clear that native life before that date was
fraught with violence. Young men
gained their manhood by proving themselves in hunting and war.
The Indians lived by the law of blood.
Every injury required redress. Compensation
might sometimes be made in goods, but more often it involved murder and mayhem.
As a result native life was far from peaceful.
In the wars of empire that engulfed the eastern half of the continent in
the eighteenth century, neither the French nor the British had trouble finding
Indian allies. In fact, the long
history of conflict in North America seldom involved simply Indians against
As for feminism, native culture did conform to one branch of the modern
feminist movement. Women occupied a
separate sphere. Village and
domestic life belonged to them. But
native societies were not matriarchal. They
were, however, generally matrilineal east of the Mississippi, which gave to
women, invariably older women, considerable influence in clan affairs.
Sometimes this role spilled over into the political arena as,
for example, in selecting the membership on the Grand Council of the Iroquois
League. Clan mothers exercised a
veto on membership. But they did
not serve on the council, and they did not wield formal political power, even in
If Indians were sexually unrestrained, they would certainly be an
exception among primitive people. Lack
of inhibition seems more characteristic of civilization, or decadence, than of
native cultures. It is true that
early explorers found an ample supply of what they called trade women, but this
practice was probably more indicative of the requirements of hospitality and the
status of women than any tendency toward excessive sexual freedom.
In truth Indians lived by strict rules concerning sex.
They were monogamous and punished adultery by women severely, sometimes
with mutilation. The menses held
sacred meaning, and women at that time of month posed a serious threat to the
future success of hunters and warriors. Although
warriors from the eastern tribes regularly took female captives in their raids
on both whites and Indians, they did not engage in rape, not because they had
any particular respect for women but because of the taboo that attached to
sexual activity during periods of conflict.
Clearly Indians did not live by the sexual rules that bound Europeans,
but neither did they enjoy the mythic promiscuity attributed to the noble
Do the Indians deserve their reputation for ecological wisdom?
Certainly they made a less significant mark on their environment than the
Europeans who came after them. For
one thing, their numbers were far fewer. Some
seven million stone-age people living in the vast stretches of the continent
north of Mexico were not likely to greatly change the character of the land.
Yet it remains true that any human population, no matter its size, will
leave traces of itself. The
Indians, for example, made generous use of fire, sometimes with salutary
consequences but frequently in order to slaughter great numbers of animals or to
defeat an enemy. And east of the
Mississippi, in the Southwest, and in California they farmed the land.
Early settlers in New England describe extensive acreage under
cultivation. Native villages could
hold numbers above a thousand with the attendant consequences for the
surrounding landscape. The
continent was far from an untouched Eden when the Europeans made their landings.
The argument for the ecological Indian hinges in great measure on the
native belief in the sacral meaning of both animate and inanimate nature.
This belief did require native people to hunt and to farm with care for
the ceremonial niceties of their animism. But
it did not keep them from cultivating expansively and moving on to new lands
when they had worn out the old. Nor
did it keep some tribes from using a Buffalo jump in hunting, or fire for mass
kills, or stream poisoning to increase the take in fish.
The ceremonial Indian was not necessarily the provident Indian.
In truth late twentieth-century interpretations that treat the Indians as
an ideal may be a long way from Montaigne and Hobbes.
The noble savage is but a pale reflection of the existential void so
evident in the early years of discovery and settlement.
For the current generation that venerable figure has become merely a
convenient pawn against which to measure their own world.
And in the process they do a great deal of violence to the real Indian.
He is reduced to a parody of their own unfulfilled longings, a perverse
kind of ideological imperialism that detaches the native people from their own
culture and absorbs them into the white man’s struggle to be free of his own