A Time for Real Indians

This Thanksgiving shake off false notions of the nobel savage.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Thanksgiving Day is perhaps our favorite time to indulge our collective idealizations of the past. Who does not warm to that iconic scene memorialized in thousands of grammar-school decorations — doughty Puritans and noble Indians feasting together on the fruits of the New World earth graciously provided by the native hosts? That is how we like to imagine the Indian, as the “noble savage,” uncorrupted by the decadent Old World that the adventurous Puritans were themselves fleeing.

Thanks to the revisionist historians, of course, we all know that the myth disguises an unpleasant reality of exploitation, betrayal, land grabbing, and slaughter. We have heard the tale repeatedly, even in cartoons like Disney’sPocahontas, itself testimony to how mainstream and orthodox is the supposed revision of orthodoxy. Yet in setting the record straight, some revisionists have perpetuated an equally mythic picture of Indians, one that distorts and loses sight of their complex humanity.

From the very beginning of the European encounter with the American natives, the Indian has had to bear the burden of mythic expectations. Columbus himself saw in the Caribbean Indians the denizens of a lost Golden Age, that long-ago time when people lived in simple harmony with nature, knowing neither war nor property nor law nor greed: the Indians were “guiltless and unwarlike, very gentle, not knowing what is evil, nor the sins of murder and theft.” Increased contact with Indians soon disabused Europeans of these idealizations. For ages before Columbus, warfare, scalping, torture, and massacres of women and children were going on across the continent, as attested by the archaeological record. Nor should we be surprised. Like all human peoples all over the earth, Indians competed violently for scant resources with others who needed them just as badly.

By the 19th century, the Indian had become as well the embodiment of another Golden-Age motif — the human harmony with a maternal nature who freely bestows her gifts on her children. The Indian was transformed into the natural ecologist, communing with nature, careful not to waste the bounty a beneficent Mother Earth had provided. We all know that Plains Indians, for example, killed only the bison they needed, making use of every scrap of bone and gut. Then the whites came along, shooting bison from trains, driving whole herds to extinction. Thus in 1841 the painter George Catlin apostrophized the Indian and the bison as “the joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man.”

Today, the Indian as “noble savage” ecologist is firmly lodged in the national consciousness. Unfortunately, the Indian ecologist is a myth no more true than the picture of Puritan-Indian harmony. Like all peoples in human history, American Indians exploited their harsh environment in order to survive, limited only by small numbers and crude technologies. Pre-contact Indians used fire extensively to clear forests for farming, promote tree species more useful to them, and facilitate travel and hunting. Whole herds of game were driven off cliffs, with no regard whatsoever for modern ecological conceptions of waste or conservation.

Nor did Indians worship a bountiful Mother Earth. Contrary to modern Romantics who take for granted an adequate supply of cheap, safe food, Indians were practical realists who were concerned with survival and who depended on animal protein for nutrition. Nor did they worry about waste or extinction, concepts absent from their worldview. Indeed, in the religion of many tribes dead game was reincarnated — thus the more animals one killed, the more there were. Again, in this the Indians were simply behaving as all peoples have in human history, for whom the natural world was filled with fearsome, fickle, destructive forces indifferent to human survival. For all pre-modern humans, starvation and famine were concerns more important than whether or not their actions damaged the environment, threatened animals with extinction, or disrupted some presumed primal harmony with Mother Earth. They were worried about eating one more day.

Yet to point out that American Indians were no different from other human beings is to invite charges of racism, or at the very least of being insensitive to the real suffering European contact left in its wake. That the European discovery of the Americas was a disaster for the peoples living there is a truism, though we should remember that bacteria and microbes did most of the killing. Yet all human history is a tragic record of vast movements of people searching for resources, and willing to use violence against those who already possess them. The Persians, Romans, Arabs, Huns, Mongols, Turks, Bantu, Khmer––all wrought devastation on the peoples unfortunate enough to be in their paths. For the Indians, the European invasion of the New World was one more act in the tragedy of history.

Moreover, reducing the European contact with American Indians to a therapeutic melodrama of good and evil ultimately dehumanizes both sides. Loading the Indian with our mythic obsessions does nothing, of course, to change the past, and actively distracts us from solving the very real problems that too many American Indians face today, none of whom are served by our Golden-Age daydreams. No Indian benefits from Ward Churchill’s fake Indian identity, one that worked because it traded on the myths that have been enshrined in university Indian studies programs. No Indian benefits from the NCAA’s attempt to punish schools with Indian mascots — an act of monumental hypocrisy, by the way, given that the NCAA is an organization making billions from black athletes admitted to universities they are unqualified for and can’t graduate from. No Indian benefits when business projects that could bring economic benefits to a region are stalled because they might offend some Indian religious belief that in many cases is very likely a modern invention.

Most important, “noble savage” Indianism serves an identity politics that reduces individuals to some fantasy group heritage, one predicated on their grievances as victims, and then demands benefits for the group so defined. But such politics run counter to the fundamental premises of our government. Like everyone else, American Indians are individuals first: their rights are those our political system confers on individuals, and that is how they should be treated — as unique individuals, not as the mascots of some imagined idealized identity invented by whites to gratify their mythic longings.

A lie liberates and benefits no one. Instead, we should proceed with a clear-eyed recognition of the tragic complexity of history, with all its contradictions, failed good intentions, and mixed motives. And we should remember that in America at least, individuals, not fabricated group identities, are the locus of rights and responsibilities and value. So this Thanksgiving Day, rather than indulging our gratifying myths, let’s remember the hard truth of universal human evil and failure, at the same time giving thanks that despite all the suffering and misery of history, on this land a world was created were millions of individuals live free from the violence and hunger and tyranny our ancestors had to endure.

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