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Indian As Noble Victim

Bernard Sheehan
Indiana University
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 European experience.

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 situation. 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 sense.

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 ways.

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 whites.

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 the villages.

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 savage.

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 discontent.


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