Around this time of year, we often see a lot of posts about American Indians, Columbus, and various related subjects.
The general points that (1) the natives were greatly mistreated, (2) that Columbus and those who followed did a lot of horrible things, and (3) that native culture had a number of good points are quite valid.
However, people really tend to go overboard and pendulum-swing in the opposite direction.
No, we do not have evidence that Columbus approved of and participated in sexual trafficking of young native girls. The single quote supporting this conclusion, in its full context, is at worst neutral and is arguably actually criticizing the practice. Columbus’ 1500 letter to Doña Juana de la Torre (pages 434-435).
And, no, American Indian culture was not some perfect utopia, free of greed, selfishness, violence etc. Here is the latest iteration of these sorts of claims that I’ve seen:
Before our white brothers came to civilize us we had no jails. Therefore we had no criminals. You can’t have criminals without a jail. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a man was so poor that he had no horse, tipi or blanket, someone gave him these things. We were to [sic] uncivilized to set much value on personal belongings. We wanted to have things only in order to give them away. We had no money, and therefore a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by it. We had no written law, no attorneys or politicians, therefore we couldn’t cheat. We really were in a bad way before the white men came, and I don’t know how we managed to get along without these basic things which, we are told, are absolutely necessary to make a civilized society.RedHawk – Seeker of Visions (as quoted by the Intothewild Facebook page)
Just about every statement here is categorically false. I won’t argue the facetiously-articulated conclusion that natives were doing alright and were not in desperate need of Europeans to improve their societies (at least not among the North American tribes); that is a reasonable point. But all the supporting claims and evidence are almost entirely false.
Let’s start with matters of fact. As far as I know, it is true that the natives didn’t have prisons, locks, or keys. However, it is absolutely false that anyone who lacked things would always be given them. No one with even the slightest understanding of humanity could possibly believe such a thing without being blinded by ideology. In particular, the claim that horses would be provided to those without is particularly noteworthy, considering that horses were extinct in the Americas for thousands of years prior to Columbus. They could no more provide their poor with horses than we can provide our poor with Star Trek transporters. The claim that natives had no money can be considered true if you use a reasonably strict definition of money. The claim that they had no written law is, strictly speaking, false. Aztecs, for one, did have written law. However, the alleged speaker in this post is likely referring to the tribes of what is now the United States, and I couldn’t say whether they had written law or not, so let’s assume that’s true. The claim that they had no attorneys is arguable, but the claim that they didn’t have politicians is utterly false.
Now let’s move on to the arguments and reasoning.
It takes a special kind of ignorance to conclude the lack of prisons implies they did not have crime or criminals. This argument is particularly amusing to me since the people who post this sort of thing are often the ones most strongly criticizing the prison system (both with and without reason) and suggesting alternative forms of correction. Well, natives had plenty of alternative forms of correction. Some form of ostracization, shunning, or exile were common. And those who take issue with the prison system might want to know that other alternatives included torture and capital punishment. So, you know, there’s that.
Similarly, the lack of locks or keys does not imply a lack of thieves. Locks and keys exist because of thieves, not the other way around. “But,” one might say, “it’s still true that there weren’t thieves because they had no money and didn’t value property.” That argument is so ridiculous I can’t believe actual grown adults believe it. The idea that natives didn’t really concern themselves with property is just totally absurd. It might be true that they were less concerned with property than Europeans, but if so I would argue that has more to do with a narrower variety of property to own than anything else. And it’s seemingly true that they weren’t concerned with individual ownership of land, insofar as they had such a concept.
But the idea that they weren’t really concerned with property has no basis that I can see unless it’s a paternalistic, borderline racist conclusion based on the assumption that there just wasn’t much property worth being concerned about. Just because we don’t see native clothing, archery equipment, etc. as being particularly valuable, doesn’t mean they didn’t. And as for natives not being concerned about property at all, and being totally selfless with what they had, natives literally fought wars over territory and resources. These wars were certainly smaller-scale and less destructive than European wars, but that can easily be chalked up to differences in technology, geography, and population size (both overall and of individual “states”), not to some magical goodness inherent to natives. That’s not to say that natives were just as concerned with materialism as Europeans, but only to say that this asinine view of natives being as pure as the wind-driven snow is absolute drivel.
Next, the idea that natives couldn’t cheat is utter nonsense. With their smaller-scale communities, I don’t doubt it would be harder to cheat (or at least, to get away with it). Smaller social circles beget greater accountability, after all. But (a) it is absurd on the face of it to claim that any civilization throughout history lacked cheaters. And (b) it is even more absurd to claim that laws being oral would make cheating less common. One of the greatest features of written law is that anyone with enough literacy can, for the most part, understand what the law says. To illegitimately change the law without anyone noticing (in a democracy, anyway) requires a grand conspiracy, probably involving thousands of individuals. To illegitimately change an oral law could, depending on the law, conceivably be done with the cooperation of a bare handful (though as with the positive differences, this is also largely due to differences in scale).
Finally, let’s address the idea that a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by money. If a tribe or civilization did indeed lack money (i.e. currency), then this is true, strictly speaking. However, the implication that material possessions and wealth did not play any role in how natives viewed one another is ridiculous. Like every other culture on the planet throughout all of history, even including many, many animal “societies”, American Indian cultures had hierarchies. And as with literally every other culture, those higher in the hierarchy generally had more material wealth. It baffles me that educated adults could think it was otherwise. Perhaps it was less severe among American Indians than amongst Europeans, Africans, or Asians, but Red Hawk’s claims (assuming this is something he, whoever he is, actually said) of concern with material things being totally absent are pure fiction.
In conclusion, let’s treat American Indians, and other indigenous cultures, the same way we should treat everyone else: by considering them to be actual people who live/lived in the real world; neither ignorant savages who need guidance nor noble savages without failings.
- 2020-11-30 14:06 EST – In the interest of completeness, added “Africans” to the list of groups possibly more materialistic than American Indians