Indians in American History

History 249


Indians Matter Too

When recounting the history of a particular era, it is a daunting task to create a comprehensive, unbiased narrative. By understanding these difficulties when analyzing evidence, hopefully a more all-encompassing image of the past may emerge. When interpreting the effect of Native Americans upon present day North America its not unexpected that their influence is dramatically down played since it was largely Europeans who wrote the narrative that has survived. The common misperception of European colonization of North America seems to be that the Indians were a small minority being overrun by the steamroller of European progress, when in actuality Indians played a very central, if underestimated, role in early colonial history and were often of the utmost religious, economic, scientific and diplomatic importance. Any narrative that interprets early North American history through the expansion of European societies must first recognize the extensive and advanced Native American societies, which dominated the history of the continent prior to and for quite some time after initial European colonization.

Often early expansionist histories downplay the intelligence, organization, sophistication, civilization, size, and military strength of Native Americans under “the common assumption and conventional practice of treating the history of early America as the story of English colonization.”[1] Maybe certain inferiorities are legitimate in particular cases but these statements should not be assumed to pertain to all Native Americans. Similarly “many histories, novels, and movies have informed us” that Native Americans were “a blood-thirst aggressive people.”[2] Again this is a common stereotype, which has often worked its way into mainstream American history. Frequently colonization centered histories do indeed group all Native Americans as one, ignoring the deep and numerous variations between societies. Although stereotypes are prevalent, unfortunately many histories may simply be largely ignoring Native Americans altogether.

This view makes it easy to forget who the dominant cultures of North America were prior to 1492 and for quite some time after. European colonists made up only a tiny fraction of the people in the Americas for many years after they started arriving. Another common misperception in a Euro-centric interpretation of North American history is that Native Americans were a relatively primitive minority waiting to be conquered. This view loses credibility when historians conservatively estimate that tens of millions of Indians lived in the Americas before any European colonizers arrived. Some historians such as Alan Taylor utilize estimates of up to 100,000,000 people in attempting to enumerate the various native people present before Columbus arrived.[3] With so many Native Americans present before colonization began, a plethora of different cultures could easily develop.

One of the reasons that we often forget or overlook the fact that there were still thousands of unique groups of Native Americans spread across North America when permanent colonization of the continent began is due to disease. Huge numbers of Indians died shortly after the first contact with the Europeans happened, and before many of the colonists even arrived as the spread of various pathogens from Europe to North America resulted in massive epidemics of diseases such as smallpox. [4] These epidemics started with the first European colonizers and continued to eliminate scores of Native Americans for centuries to come. It is estimated that more Indians died from European diseases than from European weapons, therefore its not surprising that many people today forget the predominance of Native Americans in North America.[5] Even the exalted “Pilgrims” of Plymouth, Massachusetts were naively grateful for the open fields and forests, which were cleared of most undergrowth, yet they seldom wondered how these wonderful farmable lands came into existence. In fact the majority of Indians who had inhabited and farmed the lands in Plymouth prior to the “Pilgrims” arrival had recently died out from an epidemic, which left them nearly forgotten.[6] This example shows that ignorance of Indian societies and of their importance clearly goes back for hundreds of years, and its not surprising that modern America may be negligent of Native America history.

Although the tens of millions of Indians in North America may have been lagging behind the colonists in weaponry and other iron products, the true sophistication of their civilization has been dramatically underrated in many texts. For example some past historians have essentially argued that allegedly uncivilized Indians were “lurking beyond the colonies in the wilderness.”[7] The Native Americans were not, however, simply one savage group of barbarians lurking outside their conquerors village, but instead thousands of complex societies, which often possessed even more advanced technologies than their European counterparts. Native Americans even experimented with botany and “developed certain wild plants into domesticated hybrids that were more productive than their Old World counterparts” and “measured as an average yield in calories per hectare…all trump the traditional European crops.”[8] In the area of agricultural science, it seems quite obvious that many Native American methods were often more efficient and advanced than European ones, and the colonists promptly utilized the superior crops that the Indians developed. With such important scientific and agricultural contributions to modern society as these, it is surprising that Indians are forgotten so easily.

Although modern Americans often neglect the importance of Native Americans in the history of America, many 16th and 17th century contemporaries did not simply shrug off the millions of Native Americans they encountered as random savages. Spanish explorer, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, emphasizes, in the 16th century, the variety and sophistication of the many Native American peoples he encountered along his journey across the continent.[9] Nunez even claims that one particular group of Indians were “as skillful in protecting themselves against their enemies as if they had been reared in Italy and in constant warfare.”[10] Clearly Nunez views this particular society as at least militarily equivalent to the greatest of the European nations, and its not surprising considering that certain groups of Indians enslaved Nunez along his journey. Even though Nunez realizes the military prowess of this particular group of Native Americans, he still emphasizes in his tale that many differences exist between the various native people who were spread across the continent, and not all Indians are warlike, indeed some are “very timid and dejected.”[11] By recognizing the variety of Native Americans, clearly a more comprehensive view of Native Americans emerges, which is important in understand multiple aspects of colonial history.

Other Europeans in different parts of the continent at different times also remained fully aware of the various Indian cultures and their complex transportation and communication systems. In New France, for example, some Jesuit priests tried to convert members of the Iroquois and neighboring Indian societies.[12] Many of these priests lived amongst the Indians and learned their languages, attempting to convert these Native Americans to Christianity. Clearly the persistence that clergy members showed in attempting to bring the Indians into their faith indicates that some Europeans viewed the Indians as at least important and human enough to join their faith. Therefore, in colonies where spreading European religion was a part of everyday life, Native Americans were also an integral part of everyday life.

Some Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam also viewed Indians as important or at least useful enough to be their most important trading partner in North America. Although, the Dutch lacked the aspirations of religious imperialism found in their northern colonial neighbors, they conducted a hugely profitable fur trade with the Native Americans. In exchange for these furs, the Native American traders received valued Dutch trade goods. The Dutch remained for quite some time in a position of military inferiority, and economic inferiority, compared to their Native American trading partners and therefore their survival as a colony was almost completely based on remaining on good terms with the powerful Native American societies in the area such as the Iroquois.[13] English colonization in North America involved similar trading alliances with other groups of Native Americans. In the Chesapeake region, New England and the Carolinas, English colonists traded with their Indian neighbors for food and furs, in a way comparable to the Dutch. Without their trading alliances with Native American tribes, it is unlikely that any of the colonies would have attracted as many European investors and colonial history may have evolved in at a much different pace.

Contrary to many modern stereotypes, which often depict Indians arbitrarily attacking colonists, the Iroquois largely attempted to peacefully bring the Dutch into their intricate confederation, which was symbolized as massive longhouse containing many different allies.[14] Although Iroquois diplomacy probably did not succeed in the long run, the complex attempts at an alliance and the sophisticated Iroquois society should not be simply overlooked as insignificant. Even though the Iroquois are only one group they exemplify the advanced diplomacy that many groups of Native Americans enacted towards the Europeans and other groups of Native Americans, in an attempt to make peace with allies rather than war with enemies. If Native Americans had not attempted to make diplomatic ties and instead waged immediate war upon the colonists it is doubtful that many colonies could have survived and colonial history in North America would have had a much different face.

Although, many symbiotic relationships existed, tension arose between the European colonists and the Native Americans surrounding them, as the colonists pushed outward. The largest hurdle vehemently standing in the path of European expansion was essentially the Native American occupation of the lands surrounding the European colonies. Though, the Indians did not possess traditional European titles to the land, there were thousands of complex societies bordering colonial outposts in North America, which had been in place for hundreds if not thousands of years prior to colonization. These were not just a smattering of natives to be dealt with before colonists could claim ownership of the lands, but tens of thousands of sophisticated societies, which had to be largely forced or coerced off their native lands in order for expansion to continue. Systematically removing millions of sophisticated peoples was not easy for the colonists, and to ignore the role that Native Americans played in everyday life in colonial North America is to lose a huge piece of the puzzle.

Clearly the influence of Native American societies is often underrated in a history of North America simply through the expansion of Europeans overseas, and often Indians are not recognized as the populous, dominant societies that they once were. The common misperception of all Native Americans as a small, uncivilized minority remains inaccurate, and the Native Americans were not simply driven out by a huge number of Europeans in the the beginning of colonization. Indeed, Native Americans played a very integral role in colonial North America. While it’s easy to largely overlook Native Americans as a sideshow to the greater movement of European colonization, they must not be forgotten because of their religious, economic, scientific and diplomatic importance in colonial North America. After all its not surprising that Native Americans are still largely viewed as a sideshow, since the main show, Europeans and their descendants, wrote the history which has survived for the most part. By recognizing this fact, hopefully a more comprehensive historical narrative will begin to take shape, which includes Native Americans as an essential player in the early colonial world. Its not surprising that bias exists in records, but it is surprising that this bias has gone largely unchecked for such a long time, and that inaccurate stereotypes still are commonplace. Although, it is probably an impossible task to tell the unbiased history of anything, hopefully such retellings will continue to improve in the future.

[1] Matthew Dennis, Cultivating A Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America (Cooperstown, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 3.

[2] Matthew Dennis, Cultivating A Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America, 6.

[3] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of America, 40.

[4] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 42.

[5] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of America, 42.

[6] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of America, 44.

[7] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of America, xi.

[8] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of America, 45.

[9] Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1993),.

[10] Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways, 80.

[11] Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways, 106.

[12] Matthew Dennis, Cultivating A Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America, .

[13] Matthew Dennis, Cultivating A Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America, 120.

[14] Matthew Dennis, Cultivating A Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America, 60.


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