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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The romantic side of assimilation


Relationships between European immigrants and indigenous people in the Americas have been complicated from the beginning.  Columbus and his henchmen squeezed the Caribbeans of gold, enslaved them, annihilated some tribes, and took the case of indigenous people’s “humanity” back to the Old World, where churchmen determined that the Americans had souls and were in need of Christian conversion.

The northern Europeans, coming out of the little ice age, started to get well on American potatoes, and the ones who made it to “New England” shores, still often scrawny and unfit, found corn and squash and beans and big strong looking Indians—the Indians who had escaped the diseases which had decimated the coast before the arrival of actual settlers.

A few of these strong good looking Indians were brought back to Europe, and they and stories of the Iroquois Confederation –the “civilized tribes”—reached philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and others to fuel a vision of “noble savages” and feed the Enlightenment. (see John White painting circa 1590 at left).

Alvin J said many times in many ways that, from the beginning, white relationships with Indians took three basic roads—all evident in my sketchy history above: 1. Indians should be killed and their lands and resources taken over by superior Europeans;  2. Indians should be converted and assimilated, should be made white. Most who espoused this view were good people who saw Indians as children in need of white parenting, and believed they could catch up with whites if properly cared for.

The third vision, what Alvin sometimes called the “romantic” vision of Indians granted the Indians a glorious “noble” past. These were the Indians brought back to Europe and paraded before royalty. Benjamin Franklin observed that Indians got on well without policemen and jails, and that the Iroquois nations had fashioned a kind of union that had lasted for generations, while a dozen European colonies were having a tough time forming any union at all.  These Indians inspired philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau to name them “noble savages.”  In the end this narrative of indigenous America also led to assimilation; you were once noble and free and part of nature, but civilization has caught up with you and now you must join it—us.  You are, in terms popular in the nineteenth century and in the title of a 1904 Edward Curtis photo, a “vanishing race.” (curtis photo below)

I think this vision is buried somehow in the collective American genome. In this view, we conquered the Indians and their lands, and are now treating them well—as “equals” really. So we grant them a noble past. They were, among other things, hard adversaries, sometimes ruthless, but in any case tough. (How else could they have defeated Custer!) We don’t want to recount the actual relationships of Indians and whites in our textbooks—scholars and amateur historians can play in that field—but we can still name things after Indian heroes and put statues of them in public places. (Indian writer James Welch told me that the Battle at the Little Big Horn is one of the top two or three American historical subjects in books and films; following the history of these histories is another way of tracking Indian-white relations.) The “Trail of Tears” is a phrase that has entered the vocabulary, though I doubt very many of us can trace its actual history. Indians are still mostly absent from our history textbooks. And the fact that Indians and tribes are still with us and are doing things other than casinos—things like restoring lands and fish and game populations, fighting diabetes and poverty, trying to integrate old ways and new ways—is not part of the current American conversation.

One could argue that the romantics have carried the day—Indians were once interesting and even noble, as are their old chiefs and stories, but Indians today, if they have not already vanished, are largely invisible to most Americans.

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