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The White Man's Indian

Updated on January 16, 2012
Indians, according to Whites
Indians, according to Whites | Source

Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present

The White Man's Indian, by Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., deals with the perception of otherness, dating back to 1492. Among Columbus's first impressions was that Indians were unfit to use iron weapons. Amerigo Vespucci noted that they were Epicurean rather than Stoic, and Captain John Smith that they were easily intimidated. Obviously, these observations say more about the observer than the observed. Since then, perceptions and misperceptions have continued to shape or, in cases, mangle individual and collective thinking. Some perceptions may have approximated the truth, but most tended to reinforce stereotypes, prejudices, and fears. Thomas Hobbes (1600s) regarded Indians as brutes. Few Whites disagreed. Many were stumped by the fact that Indians were not mentioned directly in scripture. Carl von Linne described Homo sapiens Americanus exactly the way Whites saw them. Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, thought that Indians were "mentally subpar". Is it any wonder that Indians, overwhelmed by condescension, succumbed to disease and alcoholism? Having done so, however, amounted to confirmation for Whites that they really were degenerate.

In 1854, Types of Mankind, by J.C. Nott, declared that Indians can be characterized by "stupidity, indolence, immobility, [and] savagism." It was in 1859 that Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, one of the most troublesome books ever. In 1871, Edward Tylor founded Anthropology. From these points on, the disapproval of Indians as imperfect, inferior, and worse, was placed on a scientific level. Science and racism achieved a very unscientific alliance in such dubious studies as craniology, which deals with brain size, shape, and a number of absurd ratios. Eventually, cultural pluralism, relativism, and functionalism displaced at least as many fraudulent pseudo-intellectual disciplines.

Nowhere, it seems, was the destructive advance of White civilization seen as a negative. In retrospect, it is obvious that White did not make right. Is there, then, something innately reprobate about the White mind? How did Whites consistently employ an excess of force, psychologically and physiologically, and yet retain a lofty sense of mission in keeping with the fiery preachings of the Cottons and Mathers? In Robert Montgomery Bird's novel, Nick of the Woods (1837), a peaceful Quaker evolves into an Indian killer. Certainly, Indians stood in the way of progress, as articulated in the various biased histories of the time. But again, these are based upon deeply flawed perceptions.

Strangely, Europe played a significant role in the formation of the contrary idea of Native American nobility. It was incorporated in Karl May's late 19th century Old Shatterhand novels. As the disappearance of Indians became inevitable, American leadership was careful to keep them from the French, Spanish, and English. Unfortunately, the early American Army rarely inspired peace, and, occasionally, stirred up more trouble than existed in the first place. In the courts, moreover, Whites were never convicted of having injured Indians. Naturally, the systematic mistreatment of Indians could never have been accomplished without a relentless propaganda campaign aimed at diminishing Indians in the sight of all mankind. White Man's Indian is unpleasant reading, but useful, if not indispensable, for individuals who want to restructure their minds toward the right side of an ongoing historical struggle. In the end, if there is any justice, malicious perceptions across the board will simply die out.


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    • resspenser profile image

      Ronnie Sowell 

      6 years ago from South Carolina

      On top of all this, Hollywood perpetuated the stereotype for my generation. As an adult, I know better but still I wonder if we will ever evolve as we should? Enjoyed the hub.


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