“The Decline of Native Culture in America: Causes and Effects”
By Mark Wisniewski
On his earliest exposure to the Arawak people of the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus himself wrote, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Columbus).
The events that followed would prove that The Great Navigator had intentions beyond the altruistic and beyond discovery for its own sake. From the start, designs on conquering and displacing the original occupants of the western hemisphere were being formed, and contributing to those designs was the rapidly conceived notion that those occupants were vastly inferior.
This essay will explore the diminishing presence of the cultures of Native Americans during the years of settlement by Americans of European descent, with a focus on the contrasts between those Native American cultures and European cultures. Native American culture was far more advanced than it is commonly regarded as having been. Part of the reason Native American culture fails to receive adequate acknowledgement is that it disappeared so rapidly. This loss – and the loss of any moral lessons that could have been learned from an objective observation of the true American experience prior to 1492 – represents a monumental human tragedy.
Comparing “Us” and “Them”
Among the reasons many Americans view pre-Columbian Native American culture as primitive is the nature of the comparison that is generally used. For example, in modern times, western civilization, with all of its technology and individual liberty, is considered by many to be the most advanced civilization of all time. However, comparing eighteenth century Native Americans to twenty first century Americans is unfair. Rather, a balanced comparison of cultures in the same time period is more appropriate. If one abandons the idea that technological progress, population growth, and conquest are the uncontested hallmarks of an advanced civilization, then what is left is the observation of family dynamics, social support, nourishment, prosperity, and community (Belic).
Without an objective examination of what a harmonious society looks like in a new context, the introduction of one culture to another can immediately bring to bear ideas of how these “new” people are different, and how they are weaker, and how they are other. This visceral feeling of other-ness infects a population like a virus. Left unchecked, it leads to a new kind of doctrine that has a destructive force. Throughout history, there are multiple examples of the lengths to which members of a conquering society will go to convince themselves and others that the people they are subjugating are socially or genetically inferior, or have somehow triggered the invasion and takeover through their own actions. For example, author James Bradley reports that when Japanese leadership decided that overpopulation of the Japanese islands in the 1930s necessitated the conquest of China, Emperor Hirohito ordered the Japanese forces to think of the Chinese people as subhuman. As Bradley puts it, “A dehumanized enemy is easy to kill, and Japanese soldiers were instructed that they were not dealing with humans at all but kichiku, or ‘devils.’ The idea of treating the Chinese as beasts was not informal scuttlebutt but a command from officers whose directives had to be considered orders of the emperor” (55).
Religion has also provided an escape hatch from the moral conflict of dehumanizing a culture’s enemies. Near the end of the 11th century, European clergy convinced Catholics that any atrocity committed against Muslims in the course of what was to be called The Crusades was cause for entry into heaven. The fact that Christ preached tolerance and acceptance in the New Testament aside, stomping out Islam was offered as the primary goal of Catholic invasion, with the capture of the holy land from the Muslims taken as a fortunate consequence (Powell 666).
Similarly, in the Western hemisphere, religion provided Europeans with a reason to view the Native Americans as “other.” Since Europeans who settled America were nearly all Christians of one denomination or another, the discovery of Native Americans who had never been exposed to Christianity prior to 1492 provided Europeans with a quandary. Some chose to dismiss the incongruity as a natural consequence of American isolation from the landmass of the Christian holy land, while others concluded that Native Americans were savages, who had actively denounced the Christian God in a direct effrontery. None, however, seem to have seriously considered the possibility that Native American religions could be equal or superior to theirs. To fully explore this, it is important to consider the expansionist nature of some religions. Many denominations of Christianity and Islam possess a feature, either explicit or implicit, which provides significant reward to those who devote themselves to the spread of that religion, even by violence. One needs only to briefly scan images of war-tattered cities of Europe and Asia and the Middle East to see the effects that expansionist clauses in religions can have on people, and the planet they inhabit. Native American religion was rooted in harmony with all things, from the Earth itself to all its creatures. To explorers travelling across the ocean, a religion that did not promote its own expansion must have appeared both innocuous and inert (Johnson 1101).
Christianity has proven to be one of the most powerful substantiating forces for massacre in the Americas, such as in the case of Cortes’ Conquistadors and the Spanish Requirement of 1513, whereby the Natives were informed (in Spanish) that Spain had authorized them to take the land and subjugate its people unless they converted to Catholicism (Loewen 33).
An Objective View of Native Cultures
The dehumanization of the occupying people of a land to be conquered is a moral expedient. In America, it led to the common belief among Europeans and their descendants that Native American culture was less advanced than that of Western Europe. The wild-fire character of the extermination of Native American tribes and their cultures constitutes a large part of the reason that such little evidence survives to this day of the complexity of pre-Columbian Native American cultures. However, what little we do know about the ways these people lived their lives and interacted with one another suggests that the values and societal structures on the American continents supported a lifestyle that was generally more harmonious, and more conducive to happiness than those on the continents that any subsequent invaders hailed from. Of course, there were wars between tribes of Native Americans prior to 1492, and the aim of this text is not to paint a picture of uninterrupted harmony and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere during pre-Columbian times; the point is that the back and forth battles over territory and sources of sustenance worked to keep life in balance, and the overarching theme was harmony.
Boldly asserting his views as contrasting those of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson voiced his own opinion clearly in his Notes on the State of Virginia. The published work includes numerous references to the courage and nobility of Native Americans, his opinions having been formed out of his own personal experiences with them. He even made a point to discount the European assertion that Native Americans were cowardly and dull-witted as uninformed conjecture and hearsay.
Their only controls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes a part of his nature. An offence against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns. Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them: insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves (58).
Notice how Jefferson explores the differences between Native American treatment of criminals and European criminal law. He seems eager to point out that Native American custom is less developed than that of European nations, but that it functions well to maintain a low crime rate.
Indeed, crime within Native American tribes was reportedly rare. Just how rare is impossible to discern with much accuracy, since any hope of accessing records would have vanished with the members of the tribes themselves. In any case, it would seem that the ability to dispense with complex criminal law, lengthy judicial practices, and burdensome prison stays represented a higher level of development than that to which it has been compared, not only because it was more streamlined and inexpensive, but also because it was more effective. Modern-day studies of town records of mid 15th century Europe reveal average homicide rates of about 35 per 100,000 people per year (roughly the same as New Orleans in 2006), with some areas calculated at over 100 per 100,000 (Dykstra).
Further, the matrilineal social hierarchy of Native American tribes was developed to support a family centered approach to raising children and supporting the elderly. It was the responsibility of every member of the tribe to see to the fulfillment of the needs of all those who could not provide for themselves. Maintenance of the status quo through generations was viewed by Native Americans as a way to avoid conflict and maintain balance. Conversely, white Americans had been divesting themselves of their attachments to their extended families in order to pursue individual achievement. European Americans viewed this as the trait of a more developed culture, but perhaps the Native American position against progress for its own sake was more on the mark, evidenced by the general level of harmony maintained on the continent prior to European settlement. Repeatedly, studies of happiness as a psychological condition have demonstrated that once someone’s basic needs are met, a strong sense of community and family involvement are the greatest keys to human happiness . In the centuries after Columbus landed in the New World, many European Americans sought to increase their economic holdings in order to elevate their positions, and they sought happiness through economic prosperity (Stockwell; Belic).
When discussing overall happiness in a society, another important consideration is disease, and what it says about population density. The conditions in many cities in Europe prior to the twentieth century were very dirty. Many cities had little or no way to effectively deal with waste. Religious beliefs forbade frequent bathing. People lived very close together. Disease in Europe was rampant. The bubonic plague alone decimated over two thirds of Europe during the fourteenth century. Smallpox, cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, and measles also wiped out huge segments of European population. Such diseases had not existed in the western hemisphere; attributable to the fact that Native American civilization was such that large cities were uncommon. This represents yet another distinct advantage that Native American culture had over European culture (Stockwell).
The Decline of Native Cultures
Everything began to change rapidly for the Native Americans once widespread settlement by Europeans began. Infectious diseases, to which nobody on this continent possessed immunity, spread quickly throughout the land. Huge numbers of Native Americans who had never even met a white man were infected and annihilated. When a deadly contagious disease infected a whole village, old and young, weak and strong, there was nobody to tend to the ill. There was nobody to bury the dead. There was nobody to farm. There was nobody to do the hunting. There was nobody to get water. Death tolls were devastating, as the social structure of village after village broke down, rooted as they were in a strong sense of community and brotherhood. Today’s modern understanding of germ theory and the effect that sociology has on the spread of contagious disease does much to explain what nobody could know at the time. Germs were being passed from person to person, and infected victims who would race to the next village to seek help or supplies would keep the germs moving across the land at breakneck speed. Squanto, a Pawtuxet man who had been forced into captivity by European settlers, and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean against his will, escaped and returned to his village to find it empty, and realized he was the only survivor of a plague that had spread through his village the year before (Adolf 247).
The deeply religious settlers instantly deduced that the diseases were divine providence, clearing the way for the white man, and the massive death tolls were evidence that the Natives were ungodly, and undeserving of the land they occupied. Truly, such conclusions would have been self-evident among those who had begun their interactions already believing that Native Americans were inferior, possibly even to the extent that they were not the same species. Add to that the fact that Jesus Christ himself was completely unknown to Native Americans prior to 1492, and it is not hard to imagine Europeans thinking that God was sending disease to remove all possible obstacles to their settlement (Stockwell).
While the theory of massive population loss by genocide has been generally discredited, it is documented that Native American women routinely chose not to have children, after witnessing what might become their fate. Many women even chose to abort their fetuses or drown their infants, knowing they could neither provide for them nor protect them from danger. Consequently, generational population decline was precipitous. It is estimated that in the eighteenth century, the population of Native Americans on the continent was only about ten percent of what it had been in 1491. Those who did survive the many plagues were witness to entire communities having been decimated and dismantled. Tribal leaders had died, support systems collapsed, and social structures began to fall apart immediately. Tribes had to move and combine with one another in order to survive. Many individuals were displaced to other tribes, and had to acculturate to the tribe they had become part of. The erosion of Native American culture began early, and this new idea of tribes being forced to move and combine with other tribes would continue for centuries, constantly wearing away at individualism and the Native Americans’ sense of self (Zinn 3; Loewen 77).
Native and European Cultures in Conflict
Native American society had much to teach about tolerance, survival, mutual beneficence, harmony, and the human spirit, as they contribute to overall life happiness. These are lessons that many of us living in the twenty first century could benefit from, perhaps more than anyone at any time in history. Unfortunately, though, over a few hundred years, the role of Native Americans in what is now the United States of America went from that of curious observers, as in the Arawak people who Columbus met upon his arrival in the Caribbean, to friendly ambassadors and willing participants in the European expansion that would eventually lead to their demise as a society, as in Squanto at Massachusetts and Sacagawea on the Lewis and Clark expedition, to guerillas defending their future from annihilation, as in the Ohio tribes in the French and Indian War and the Cherokee tribes in the Cherokee Wars of the eighteenth century. The journey would come to a near end as Native Americans found themselves a largely marginalized and displaced people, relegated to prostrate positions on reservations and dependent upon the white man for subsistence, and fighting alcoholism and frighteningly high suicide rates. A sharper and more tragic multigenerational decline in an entire civilization of human beings is difficult to imagine (Adolf 247; Copeland 185).
To a people who had inhabited the continent for thousands of years in relative harmony, the expansion and oppression by the European Americans was difficult to understand, and would have been impossible to predict. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, up and down the East coast of North America, colonies were being established on land previously occupied by Native Americans. These colonies were generally tolerated, and often supported by the Natives. As a reward for the support given to the struggling colonists, thousands of Native Americans were kidnapped, abused, enslaved, raped, murdered, robbed, displaced, marginalized, and demonized. The culture of harmony, amity, and sympathy that had served their populace for longer than anyone could remember would betray them violently. It was the same betrayal they had experienced when the strength of their community turned incidental germ exposures into massive casualties throughout the hemisphere; these were lessons hard-learned, and not to be forgotten. This is another example of a major culture shift among the Natives at the hands of the Europeans. Violence and distrust amongst the tribes escalated to levels not seen before colonial settlement, and violence against the colonists sprung out as well. It seems difficult to blame them. Many Native Americans chose to accept American pressure to assimilate to European American culture. They cut their hair, learned English, attended American schools, and converted to Christianity. Some who chose this path assimilated well, but most were not fully accepted by white Americans, were not given the same rights as white Americans, and could not fully integrate into white culture, nor could they return to Native American culture (Zinn 5).
The change in culture is further evident in the story of the Treaty of New York, wherein George Washington met with Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray, in order to establish an agreement between the young United States and the Creek Nation to end the advance of Georgian settlements into Creek territory. Alexander McGillivray, a half Scottish, quarter French and quarter Native American plantation owner, was a slave owner and Chief of the Creek Nation. He spoke English, Spanish, Creek, and French. He was a shrewd politician, and advocated fiercely for the rights of the Creek people to keep their land. Despite his efforts and the efforts of George Washington and Henry Knox in concert with the United States Congress, Georgian settlers were advancing over the border into Creek territory and violating the treaty within two years of its signing. Washington discovered that legislation could do nothing to stop the flow of settlers moving westward. The collective power of an expanding population to defy law and pursue their dreams at the expense of Native people cannot be overstated. McGillivray’s status as a slaveholding statesman within the structure of European American politics evidenced a dramatic culture shift for Native Americans, and the ultimate fate of the Creek nation as scattered to pockets of the continent in southern Florida and Oklahoma triggered further culture changes, as thousands of Native Americans had to rebuild their lives again (Ellis 160).
Years later, in 1829, Georgia would pass the Indian Code, a law abolishing all Native American rights and claims to independence. With no ability to defend their claims to rights as independent nations, Natives across the country would be left to choose between assimilation and relocation to reservations. Either option would rob them of their culture (Brill 28).
In 1830, President Jackson addressed Congress, outlining his plan of Indian removal to the sparsely populated areas farther west. His explanation for how this solution was beneficial for the Native Americans as well as for the white Americans betrays an overarching disregard for the preservation of Native American culture.
It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community (1).
Jackson seems unaware of the unlikeliness of happiness after casting off one’s habits, religion, and homeland. This displacement to reserved land was offered up by government as a charitable loan, to be repaid by the Native Americans after a period of time, during which they should have ample opportunity to develop a variety of profitable exports.
While there can be no official record of how many Native Americans lived in North America prior to 1492, estimates usually average around ten million. The United States Census Bureau conducted a census in 1860, the details of which are available on the Census Bureau’s public website. The census reported the number of “Indians” living in the United States and its territories, broken into two categories: Civilized Indians, totaling 44,020, and Indians retaining their tribal character, totaling 296,369. One can only deduce that “retaining tribal character” refers to Native Americans who were not assimilated into white culture or living among white European Americans, but it seems doubtful that most of the nearly 300 thousand counted would have agreed that they were “retaining their tribal character.” In any case, the total counted in the census, including both classifications of “Indians” was 340,389 persons (U.S. Dept of Commerce 15).
Beyond “Us and Them”
For many of us, there is one universal roadblock to the achievement of an unbiased understanding of history. Tragically, this roadblock may prove to be the greatest obstacle to a true discovery of what the long-deceased Native American people had to teach us about how to live our lives. The roadblock is the “us and them” factor. When studying or discussing American history, it is tempting to refer to the prominent players in past events using terms that identify them with ourselves. We use words like “we” and “us” when referring to people to whom we feel a bond, and we use words like “they” and “them” when referring to people we consider “other.” In truth, nobody who died before we were born is one of “us.” We have had zero influence over their behavior, and are therefore not entitled to feelings of pride for their accomplishments, nor condemned to feelings of guilt over their transgressions. We simply study and observe the actions, motivations, successes, and failures of people who lived in the past, all of whom are “them.”
The consequences of such reflexive behaviors are anything but innocuous. They cause people to distort their views of the past, and then to distort the facts. People generally do not wish to believe that they have done wrong, and it is human nature to downplay the negative aspects of ourselves, and display more prominently that which would make us appear most accomplished or beneficent. When we look upon the players in human history as “us,” we unconsciously set upon a journey toward manipulating the facts to suit the way we see ourselves.
We must stop doing this, and we must encourage others to stop doing this as well. We will never truly learn the lessons of American history in a productive way until we can acknowledge that the mistakes that have been made were made by humans, and those humans have given us a gift by recording their mistakes. The evidence of the marginalization of a whole culture of “others” exists, and to suppress this evidence harms every single one of us living today. All of us can learn better ways to live more enjoyable lives, and to be kinder to those with whom we share the planet.
Mark Wisniewski is a critical care registered nurse from upstate New York. He is currently enrolled in his final year of undergraduate studies at Ashford University in the Health Care Administration program. His interests include history, education, fitness, travel, nutrition, and of course, health care. His reading interests are primarily focused on nonfiction, including political history and military history. Mark plans to pursue a master’s degree and advance in leadership in his nursing career.