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Native American and Non-Indian Relations
Indian-white relations in the period following the arrival of Columbus can be seen variously as the continuation of a normal process of migration by humans from one part of the world to another, as a genocidal assault by more powerful intruders upon weaker, more "primitive" peoples, or as the process by which Western civilization and Christianity were transferred from the Old World to the New. Whichever perception is adopted will be in accordance with one's cultural, epistemological, and emotional preconceptions.
The Europeans who followed Leif Eriksson's Norsemen at the turn of the tenth century (and gave us the first recorded account of European relations with the native peoples of North America) and those who followed Columbus at the end of the fifteenth century were greeted warily by the native population (in a friendly fashion in the case of Columbus's first voyage), but relations soon turned to hostility and war. In the Spanish case at least, the source of the hostility was Spanish cruelty and greed spurred by the realization that those living in the Caribbean basin were unable to defend themselves from the technologically superior newcomers. This conclusion derives from the evidence provided by the Spanish themselves, however much these accounts were exploited by Spain's rivals in the New World, whose hypocrisy often concealed similar cruelty and greed.
Spain and Portugal had a century's head start on France, England, Holland, and Sweden in establishing relations with the peoples of the newfound world; thus the two countries had first choice of which lands to conquer, colonize, and exploit. Although we tend to think of Latin America today as a poor third world area, in the sixteenth century these lands were considered the richest and most desirable because of their valuable resources and their extensive populations who were soon forced to serve the Europeans as slaves, servants, or dependent trading partners. The present areas of the United States and Canada were considered by the Iberian powers the least desirable portions of the New World, hardly worth colonizing except to prevent northern European nations from establishing bases from which to harass the Spanish and Portuguese.
Because of the absence of both mineral wealth and subservient populations in the areas north of Mexico, the English, French, Dutch, and Swedish set up colonies at the beginning of the seventeenth century that were primarily extensions of their own societies and dealt only intermittently with the surrounding native populations. The natural growth of these colonies provided increasing military and economic power vis-à-vis the Indians, whose numerical superiority in the first half-century in almost every colony was lost in the second half-century as European diseases and warfare took their toll.
Cruelty and greed were prevalent in the early history of all the northern European nations' dealings with the Indians, but the picture was not entirely one-sided: treachery and cunning existed on both sides. Cultural differences--the failure of each side to understand the assumptions of the other--led to frequent misunderstandings that in turn led to warfare. One of the most elementary forms of misunderstanding, for example, was the anger felt by the Indians over the colonists' allowing their cattle and hogs to roam in unfenced freedom. The consequence was often the destruction of the Indians' corn, which led to the Indians' killing the offending animals, which led to retaliation by the settlers upon the Indians who had killed the animals, and so on. And too often those retaliating failed to discriminate between the Indians who were responsible for the "offense" and those who were not.
While Spain and Portugal exploited the labor (through slavery and serfdom) of the large populations of the areas they settled, the northern Europeans made only limited use of Indian labor. Rather, they wanted land; if it had not been acquired through war or simple occupation, they sought to purchase it. But often the Indians assumed they were conferring on Europeans only the right to use the land without losing their own right to continue to use it for hunting, fishing, or gathering food. Northern European governments soon prohibited their colonists from making such purchases for fear that the contracts would compromise the royal assertions of ultimate sovereignty over all the lands.
With the destruction or subordination of most of the coastal tribes, England and France, the two most successful of the northern European colonial powers, extended their jurisdiction into the interior, the English across the Appalachian Mountains hemming in their coastal settlements, and the French down the St. Lawrence River and up the Mississippi. The French, from their interior position, hoped to confine their English rivals to the coastal regions. The French were more adept at forging alliances with the powerful Indian nations in the interior, though they were not averse to wars of extermination, such as that against the Natchez in the Mississippi valley. Because the French had few- er settlers than the English, they tended to rely on a network of military and trade alliances with the Indians rather than developing agricultural and commercial settlements to match those of the English.
With the destruction of French power in the great war for empire that raged across North America and Europe during the 1750s and 1760s, the situation of the Indians was weakened. They were no longer able to play off one European power against another but had to confront England directly. Only with the coming of the American Revolution did they recover the opportunity to play a balancing role. But, unfortunately, most tribes chose to side with the loser, and the victorious Americans treated the Indian nations who had fought with the British as defeated foes. Great Britain made no attempt to secure Indian rights in treaty negotiations with the Americans, and even the objections of Spain (America's wartime ally) that the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River remained Indian territory were dismissed by the victorious revolutionaries. But treating the Indians as defeated enemies was not an entirely successful tactic. After the tribes of the Old Northwest had inflicted a number of stinging setbacks upon the U.S. Army, the new American nation formulated a more moderate policy toward the Indians. The United States recognized the right of the Indian nations to exist as autonomous entities but sought to buy as much of their land as possible. Even the Indian allies of the Americans were pressured to sell off large portions of their lands.
As the United States grew in power in the early nineteenth century, several Indian nations such as the Cherokee were overwhelmed and sent on forced marches to the so-called Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) with significant loss of life. The "Trail of Tears" of the Cherokee migration to the Indian Territory in the 1830s became an enduring symbol of white injustice toward the Indians, particularly since the removal was carried out despite the Cherokee Nation's legal victory over the state of Georgia in the Supreme Court. Most of the Indians in the eastern United States now moved West, either voluntarily or under duress, with a few remaining in small pockets near their original homelands.
The health and longevity of the Indians had suffered a steady decline since the arrival of the Europeans, for the whites carried diseases, such as smallpox and measles, for which the Indians had no immunity. The diseases and the numbers affected by them is a subject of intense debate among scholars. Estimates of Indian population before the arrival of whites have increased over the years, sometimes by as much as ten times the earlier estimates. Henry Dobyns put the number at some 10 to 12 million in North America north of Mexico and 90 to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. Most scholars have discounted such high estimates, although conceding that earlier estimates (such as the traditional figure of about 1 million for the present area of the United States) were probably too low. In any event, the steady decline of the Indian population in the United States reached its low point of 228,000 in 1890.
This decline coincided with the loss of tribal lands and tribal authority, particularly under the General Allotment Act (Dawes Severalty Act) of 1887. This act imposed a system of individual land ownership upon many of the Indian tribes with the government selling off the surplus lands to white settlers for the presumed benefit of the tribes (some western tribes were exempted or not forced to comply). Contemporary Indians often cite the Dawes Act as legislation that could and should have been avoided, but that is probably an unrealistic assessment. The vast landholdings of small impotent tribes simply could not have been maintained against the millions of well-armed whites moving west. The land rush in 1889 into the Indian Territory (which became Oklahoma as a result) is an example. Even the staunchest friends of the Indian were convinced that the tribes could not survive unless they gave up much of their land claims and secured a portion in severalty (individual allotments) with the security of a "white man's [fee simple] title."
Although the popular impression during those years was that the Indians were a "disappearing race," the twentieth century saw a dramatic reversal of almost all indexes of decline. Health problems came under increasing control, and diseases like tuberculosis were nearly eliminated. But alcoholism, or alcohol-related events such as car accidents, became the principal cause of death among Indians: no one has determined why Indians seem to be so susceptible to alcoholic stress, and the debate between those favoring a genetic explanation and those a cultural one continues.
The gradual loss of Indian tribal authority was suddenly reversed in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which addressed the strengthening of tribal life and government with federal assistance. Although it was subject to bitter debate both at the time and later, the evidence is conclusive that the act, the product of the thinking of John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs, put Indian communities, then nearing political and cultural dissolution, on the road to recovery and growth. Collier, struck by the strength and viability of Indian communal societies in the Southwest (e.g., the Hopis) and appalled by the destructive effects on tribal societies of the allotment system, sought to restore tribal structures by making the tribes instrumentalities of the federal government. In this way, he asserted, tribes would be "surrounded by the protective guardianship of the federal government and clothed with the authority of the federal government." Indian tribal governments, as Collier foresaw, now exist on a government-to-government basis with the states and the federal government. Although they are financially and legally dependent upon the federal government, they have been able to extend their political and judicial authority in areas nineteenth-century politicians would have found unimaginable.
American Indians, now a rapidly growing minority group, possess a unique legal status (based on treaties and constitutional decisions) and are better educated, in better health, and more prosperous than ever before (despite the persistence of high levels of unemployment, poverty, and disease). The causes of this "Indian Renaissance" have been the subject of much dispute, some attributing it to the well-publicized activities of Indian radicals, others to the commitment and decency of the larger society. Nevertheless, the popular stereotype of the impoverished, drunken, abused Indian has continued to cloud Indian life.
Contemporary issues being fought out in the courts, legislatures, and tribal councils have concerned Indian religious freedom, water rights, and land claims. Demands in the 1980s and 1990s for the return of Indian skeletal remains in museum collections pitted some white museum administrators and archaeologists against Indian religious and political leaders. The Indians seemed to be winning, as the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, and other groups promised the repatriation of Indian remains and accompanying grave goods to the tribes claiming them. Water rights continued to be a bitter issue affecting western tribes, but Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s dampened the more optimistic Indian hopes for an increased portion of the limited water resources in the West. Land claims, although settled for the most part by the defunct Indian Claims Commission, were occasionally reasserted in specific instances in the 1980s, as among the Iroquois of New York State.
It has often been assumed that acculturation was a one-way street--that Indians were shaped by whites and not the other way around. But it is clear that the process was one of "transculturization," as the anthropologist Irving Hallowell put it. Not only did whites adopt aspects of Indian material culture (e.g., maize, moccasins), but spiritually and psychologically the transplanted European society acquired an Indian cast, particularly a taste for individual freedom and a distaste for the constraints of civilization, as D. H. Lawrence, James Adair, Carl Jung, and James Fenimore Cooper all noted. It was not because Indians were despised but because they were admired that their symbolic powers were often appropriated and celebrated by their former foes.
James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (1981); Francis P. Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, 2 vols. (1984); Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Indian in America (1975).
WILCOMB E. WASHBURN
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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Curriculum companion to the program focusing on the dramatic clash between the Spanish and French for control over modern-day Florida.