Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fear of Indians

I keep trying to write about “assimilation,” because I know that Alvin considered it—the ways in which the white power structure has “zigzagged,” as he put it, with policies and actions aimed at “making Indians stop being Indians and turn themselves into Whites”—crucial to understanding the history of America. But I keep finding gems of understanding that seem to precede the concepts of assimilation, and extermination for that matter.

And this week it is fear, and not physical fear of Indians, though I am sure that those scrawny Dutchmen and Englishmen who came ashore on the Atlantic  Coast  in the early 1600s had some of that kind of fear and trepidation, but a deeper kind of fear. Alvin described it in a speech on “Fisheries and Native American Rights” given at the University of Michigan in April of 1979, and later published in The Indian Historian, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 1979.

Along the Atlantic Coast… the Dutch and English traders and settlers carried on the legacy of the Spaniards and immediately established the heritage of misunderstandings, stereotypic thinking, and conflicts that still pervade White-Native American relations within the United States. The first of these again, was that the Indians, being different, were inferior. But that inferiority often translated into fear, the religious and cultural fear that the wilderness man, the Indian, with his free, seemingly simple, and unChristian way of life would corrupt the European settler and the society the European had come to erect in the New World.

He goes on to deal with issues of land and natural resources, which are what we generally think about when we think about westward expansion and the displacement of Indians, but he puts this “religious and cultural fear” first, and that is worth thinking about.

I think it was in Ben Franklin’s writings about Indians that he talks about the Indians who have been taken in by whites most often wanting to go back to tribal ways, while the occasional white taken in by Indians sometimes did not want to return to white settlement.  I know that the French trappers were encouraged to blend with Indians, and many did so. (Some of the English trappers did as well, but theirs was a more measured blending. The HBC forbid intermarriage, though some of its prominent factors openly practiced it.)

“The French were more benign [than the Spaniards]. Though many of them also viewed the Indians as inferiors, in fact as children of nature, and converted and asserted dominance over them, the dynamics of the fur trade demanded dependent, but relatively content, Indian fur suppliers… the French made the greatest efforts to see the world as the Indians saw it.”

And of course it was the French philosopher, Jacque Rousseau, who famously talked about the “noble savage.”

Peter Rindisbacher, War Dance
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and another character Alvin wrote about, Peter Rindisbacher, the boy artist who arrived on the Canadian prairie in the1820s and made the first painting impressions of Fox and Cree and Chippewa, paintings that were turned into lithographs and widely distributed in Europe, has over 100 pictures that are worth 1000 words each. (“The Boy Artist of Red River” in American Heritage, February 1970, and The Artist Was a Young Man, a 1970 book.)

It was the handsome, vigorous Indians that earlier artists had brought to Europe that put thoughts into Rousseau’s head and fear into white Christian hearts. Rindisbacher, the first portraitist of the Plains, continued the unease. How could they be that way without the Gospel? Do we have it right?

The traditional way to strengthen faith among many religions is to send practitioners among the unfaithful and untouched, to preach the Gospel (or the Koran or the sacred text and/or beliefs of any evangelical religion). So it is a short step to say that this cultural and religious fear was early translated into the missionary movement in the New World, first informally, but gradually becoming more institutionalized and substantial.  Assimilation, extermination—that is what followed.

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1 comment :

  1. Sam Houston, I note, was a good example of a guy who was more comfortable with Indians than with his white compatriots -- interesting considering his legenadry status as Texan -- what if Texas today, and the USA as a whole, actually worked like it admired the virtues of the first peoples here, while moving past the violence that infests both traditions?