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Conversations with America: The American Indian

Updated on April 18, 2011

The American Indians

In 1492, there were approximately 1 million people living north of Mexico on the North American continent¹ divided into several linguistic groups2 and thousands of tribes.  North American peoples were united by a single lifestyle, universal culture, or overarching political or religious institutions.  The North American continent provided a large geographical area in which different resources and challenges were found.  Even close neighbors reacted to local conditions in a variety of ways, and the image of the Noble Savage, the same everywhere, is a European invention that silences the social and cultural evolution of Native American communities in an artificial static icon of European problems.  The Indian of literature is an invocation of European answers to European questions written on a primitivized human vessel frozen in ideal time.  It may be about a lot of things, but the one thing the Noble Savage is not about is any indigenous man, woman, or society.

Estimates of pre-contact Native American populations are very rough attempts to sketch a possible reality.  Certainly, there were more natives before the European arrival than after; the importation of foreign diseases alone devastated contact populations and traveled inland ahead of European settlers.  How large a population existed before the Europeans arrived, however, cannot be established with any certainty.  This does not eliminate the fact of post-contact damage to native communities, but it does make numerical evaluations of that damage dubious.

For most of our history, and in many popular works of history and social commentary today, Americans have been most interested in what they themselves had to say, and how they themselves (by which is usually meant a rather narrow interest group of involved elites) perceived the world.  Current tensions between conservatives and liberals, described by the media and various pundits as 'the culture war', appears to be impelled by a sense of defeat among conservatives, a conviction against all economic and structural evidence that during the 1960s and 1970s they lost very important battles and have not yet recovered.  Among the conservatives reigns the rage and disappointment of the post-war South, a conviction that the 'right' side lost due, not to its own incompetence or faults within its system, but to mass, to mere numbers, to a diabolical alliance of technology and fanaticism.  Real Americans, by which conservatives mean themselves, agree on the solutions to our problems, while others seek to destroy the nation, and have already corrupted and weakened it from within.  According to this position, paying heed to those Americans defeated or callously used in the drive to command the New World is a betrayal of America.

Not that many liberal views of history are any better.  They tend towards a romanticization of Native Americans in the service of a separate, non-native agenda.  The Native becomes a stick to beat conservatives with, and a vehicle for criticizing the mechanistic materialism of the modern world.  We are called upon to be more like the Native Americans, spiritual and safely dead, while living Native American are very much here and struggling with issues like health care, education, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and the long effects of unjust treaties, cruel treatment, and economic segregation.  Spirituality is all well and good, but questions of land and material sustainability are more important.  We are not going to bring the buffalo back, nor do liberal promoters of the spirituality of Native Americans seriously intend a return to the wilderness and the pre-Conquest cultures of the North American continent.  Would it not be better to cease this type of prattle and work in dialogue with living Native Americans in self-organized, self-led organizations to find the best means to realize their articulated goals and improve living conditions and youth possibilities?  AIM certainly makes more sense than paeans to the departed purity and spiritual depth of the Native American past, paeans predicated on the demise of that they elevate.

The key to attempting to re-evaluate the history of Native Americans is a rigorous attempt to remove it from bondage.  The North American Indian has been for so very long a vessel through which we speak of realities and fantasies that do not belong to the North American indigenous peoples that, even when we allow natives to speak, we recognize what they are saying within pre-established paradigms of spiritual superiority, nature-connection, and communitarian principles that may or may not be represented in what they are saying.  The uncomfortable truth is that the material past of the Native American Indian is prehistoric, in that there are few documents to provide us with a context for artifacts, and without context artifacts lead us just as often to false as to true facts. 

What can we say, then?  Leaving the field of artifacts and the interpretation of these into structures to the experts, we can say that the native peoples of the Americas adapted to local conditions in various ways, thereby developing complex, differentiated cultures.  They, by and large, applied social controls in conflicts where Europeans appealed to statutes, but this did not make their communities less disciplined than those of European immigrants, although immigrants insisted upon misunderstanding them.  It was to the benefit of European immigrants to misunderstand and denigrate the natives, and this conflict became most important and most meaningful over the question of land.

Some argue that Native Americans lacked a concept of land ownership, but that, I think, is a simplification of the conflict.  They did appear to lack a strong concept of individual ownership, and when they do speak of their relationship to the land, and their speech was recorded by contemporary white interpreters so that we may review it today, they articulate the relationship of people to land more as a sort of stewardship than in the terms of individual ownership and possession used by Europeans.  Native Americans spoke more to the question of tribal access and proper use of the land in question, citing traditional rights to hunt, fish, and farm, than to the individual's power over the land in his personal possession.  The fundamental problem between European immigrants and Native Americans on the eastern seaboard regarding land lay in the concept of land use and misuse, in access rights and in a substantive difference of perception regarding the wilderness they shared.

The English settlers looked upon the New World as a wilderness which they were going to turn into a proper garden.  The land was given them by God to be worked in a specific way, and their right to it was proven in their ability to Anglicize nature into a tame version of Eden. Eden, too, was a garden, not a wilderness, and, therefore, productive.  Native Americans on the seaboard lived by fishing, farming, and hunting, all in their season and on lands proper to them.  They did not stay on a farm all year long, every year, but their cropland was important to them in its proper season, as their hunting grounds were important to them and the waters providing fish.  This survival strategy served them well, but it did not change the landscape enough to satisfy English perceptions of proper use, and so John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, could claim the land around him a 'vacuum' to which the immigrants lay claim by the improvements they made, forming a civil right to the land, while the natives had only a natural right to the land they had long occupied, and, at that time, natural rights did not have legal standing3.  English settlers concentrated on dominating and subduing the land, and their activities disrupted and depleted the resources upon which the Native Americans relied.  The English settlers had an answer for this: civilize (become imitation-English farmers) or die.  As time passed and their own demands for land became stronger, fueled by new immigration, and as opposition to the English presence increased among native tribes, the settlers became more and more fond of extermination.

In physical confrontations between settlers and natives, the natives were, at the beginning of settlement, able to achieve victory and force concessions, but their ability to do so decreased with increased immigration and the movement of soldiers into the area, armed with guns, a technology the natives had not developed, but one they rapidly adopted.  The technological gap between natives and Europeans is a subject of some mystery.  Why had the Native Americans not produced manufacturing technologies and military technologies similar to that of the Europeans?  Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel looks at the technology gap between what we consider under-developed societies and the over-developed West in an attempt to understand what went 'wrong'; it is a fascinating read and I suggest studying it in the formulation of any answer to this unsettled question.  However it came to be, the technological gap was real, and natives adopted the weaponry of their newly arrived enemies, relying on white traders, often linked to one or another rival European powers active on the continent, for arms and ammunition.  The incorporation of skilled escaped slaves into native tribes may in part be due, in the early history of the English colonies, to the enslaved Africans knowledge of desired skills lacking amongst the Native Americans. 

Where Catholic countries settled in the Americas, there was often some attempt to reach out to native populations, however flawed and destructive their contact with natives might have been, and convert them to the Catholic faith.  These missionary actions competed, and were often incorporated into, the more self-interested goals of realizing wealth and gaining land, however, the recognition of a soul within the Indian provided a point of similarity from which reformers and zealous men of god were able to reason full inclusion of the newly discovered natives in the human race.  The Protestant Englishmen on the eastern seaboard were in no hurry to reach out to the natives, resembling Martin Luther who, when the Jews failed to convert, turned his rage upon them.  The natives frightened them by their appearance, their customs, and their claims to the land the English wanted to usurp.  They did not want the savages, as savages close to the devil, in their City on the Hill.  Wherever there are aspirations to purity, there is murder.  The achievement of the one cannot be achieved without the other.  When greed is justified within a framework of cultural purity, the murders can quickly spiral into genocide, and so they did in America, just as they did later in Turkey, Germany, Cambodia, China, the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Sudan.

The Native Americans were not ready for the Europeans arrival, even though they had heard of their existence from Indian captives such as Squanto of Thanksgiving fame.  He had been captured by a fishing vessel and this experience provided him with sufficient English to aid the Pilgrims and mediate between them and the other natives in Massachusetts Bay.  The Native Americans who did not succumb en masse to European diseases, warfare, and massacre, were forced to find new ways to fight or to accommodate themselves to the European presence.


  1. The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference, Macmillan, 1997, p.15.  The bulk of the native population of the Americas lived in Mexico and further south.  Estimates of the entire population of native peoples before the Conquest range between 15 and 60 million, a very wide range, indeed, indicating the insufficiency of present tools to provide an accurate representation of the pre-Conquest population of the New World.
  2. The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference, Macmillan, 1997, p. 2: There are more than 300 Native American languages in North America.
  3. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present, HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. p.13-14.


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    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Awesome! Looking forward to it!


    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you very much. I sure will check out his hub. I'll be doing more essays in the series over the next few months.

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Wow! Very intensive research here! I noticed you mentioned a quote from Jared Diamond. Throughout my travels on HubPages, I have come across some great writers. You are one of them!

      May I suggest that you check out fellow Hubber "Scosgrove's" Hub? ( He is a follower of Diamond's work and I think you might be interested in each others Hubs! Great job here!