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Myths About Indians

WHAT THE HISTORIAN Robert E. Berkhofer Jr. has aptly called the “White man’s Indian”—the Indian of the Euro-American imagination—is as old as the continent’s discovery. The continent that Christopher Columbus stumbled upon in 1492 was, to Europeans, a terra incognita inhabited by a vast congeries of unknown, and virtually unknowable, peoples. There were literally thousands of distinct native societies, each with its own unique history, its own systems of ethics and aesthetics, and its own cosmology, each speaking a language that, as often as not, was completely incomprehensible to groups who lived just a few miles away. Few of them were organized in their modern tribal form, and fewer still were known to each other by the names that we associate with them today. Some were migratory hunters, others tillers of the soil, others fishermen, or communities of traders. Some inhabited cities that contained thousands of inhabitants; others scratched salt deserts for roots.

In an effort to explain to themselves this unexpected and bewildering human landscape, Europeans rummaged through the old trunks of their own mythic tradition. At times, Columbus seemed to believe that he had found the terrestrial paradise, and assured his patrons at the Spanish court that the New World’s inhabitants were “very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal.” A few years later, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera described the natives of the newfound lands as “living in that golden world of which the old writers speak so much.” As time went on, such fantasies became increasingly elaborate in the minds of Europeans who had themselves never visited the Americas. By the end of the 16th century, Montaigne had canonized the Indian for all time as the quintessential Natural Man, who had “no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superiorite; no use of service, of riches or of povertie; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle.”

The Indian became the archetype of mankind’s infancy at a time when European thinkers who hadn’t the slightest idea of the difference between a Hottentot and Hoopa were attempting to define the meaning of civilization itself. “In the beginning all the World was America,” John Locke asserted with stunning self-assurance. As time passed, the invented Indian was made to serve the arbitrary notion that man had been born noble and good, and had only been corrupted by monarchy and the constraints of sophisticated European society. “In proportion as he becomes sociable and a slave to others,” Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, “he becomes weak, fearful, mean-spirited, and his soft and effeminate way of living at once completes the enervation of his strength and of his courage.” By contrast, “savage man” was a paradigm of pure instinct, of unity with nature, pristine and authentic, a reproach to the artifice of cultivated life, living proof that humankind’s essential nature was one of instinctive harmony and good will. “If I consider him, in a word, such as he must have issued from the hands of nature,” Rousseau opined, “I see an animal less strong than some, and less active than others, but, upon the whole, the most advantageously organized of any.”

Like all versions of the “white man’s Indian,” Rousseau’s idealizing flattened out the multitudinous realities of actual Indian communities, blurring their individuality, and trapping them permanently in European fantasy:


“His imagination paints nothing to him; his heart asks nothing from him. His moderate wants are so easily supplied with what he finds everywhere ready to his hand, and he stands at such a distance from the degree of knowledge requisite to covet more, that he can neither have foresight nor curiosity. The spectacle of nature, by growing quite familiar to him, becomes at last equally indifferent. It is constantly the same order, constantly the same revolutions; he has not sense enough to feel surprise at the sight of the greatest wonders; and it is not in his mind that we must look for that philosophy, which man must have to know how to observe once, what he has every day seen. His soul, which nothing disturbs, gives itself up entirely to the consciousness of its actual existence, without any thought of even the nearest futurity; and his projects, equally confined with his views, scarce extend to the end of the day.”


This was not a description of a human being, but of a creature of the forest, a stag or a bear, a quarry.

There was a second, equally powerful, darker archetypal vision of the Indian. In counterpoint to the “gentle” natives who foreshadowed all the “noble savages” of later folklore, Columbus placed the terrible Caribs, who “go to all the islands and eat the people they are able to capture,” and whose name in one of its varied forms has given us the word “cannibal.” Neither Columbus nor any other explorer ever found the elusive Caribs, but they hovered for generations on the edge of early narratives, serpents in paradise, the very antithesis of Aracadian innocence. Upon this imaginative foundation, the British settlers of North America added a distinctly apocalyptic edifice of their own. A Virginia poet writing in the aftermath of the Jamestown colony’s war against the Powhatans, in 1622, declared the Indians to be irrevocably “Rooted in Evill, and opposed in Good; errors of nature, of inhumane Birth, The very dregs, garbage and spanne of Earth.” In New England, zealots like Cotton Mather encouraged the Puritans to regard the Indian as a principal actor in the cosmic drama that governed even the smallest details of life, a “spetiall instrument sent of God” to punish errant souls in the eternal stuggle between good and evil. In such a climate, killing Indians became not merely warfare, but the cleansing of sin itself. Although wartime atrocities were perpetrated against both the colonists and the Indians, those committed by whites were usually forgotten, while the natives’ were long remembered, and were attributed less to the awful nature of colonial war than to the moral failings of Indians as a race.


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