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Turtle Island at

"We Are Participating in the
Outright Theft of a World"
Approaching the Native American Question

Section Index

  1. Seizing a Continent
  2. Losing a Continent
  3. Clashing Civilizations

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When the Makah were allowed to resume their whaling tradition, having won permission from the International Whaling Commission to hunt down up to five migrating gray whales per annum from 1998 through 2002, the result was both an outcry of the general public and a sigh of relief by tribe members, among whose, however, also criticism against resuming whaling was voiced[1]. The issue was being discussed extensively over some weeks, returning each year with the whaling season, and the Makah have been hindered from pursuing their newly regained tradition by activist groups, the US Government having to interfere in favor of the Makah.

The Makah reservation is a very small location situated at the north-west end of Olympic island. The people there seem to have adapted quite much to the Twentieth Century; as well as the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico, they don't ride horses but drive pickup trucks, they display their history and art and culture at museums and roadside gift shops, they administer tourist attractions like the Navajo National Monument and the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The Natives of Taos Pueblo, Arizona, have made their Pueblo village accessible to tourists. Indians maintain businesses all over the country. In recent movies and television, they make regular appearances[2], and the issue of Native Americans is being discussed in a more or less direct way[3].

But what exactly is this issue? Native Americans, or American Indians, are part of the history of the American Continent. Their land has been taken by the colonists, their civilizations irreparably altered, even destroyed by that. Judging by European history, this might not be that new. The Roman Empire too destroyed various tribes and civilizations which stood in its way, same did the Greeks, same every other "advanced" culture. "Less advanced", often tribal civilizations were being conquered and integrated into the respective empire, or they were being influenced in such a way that their uniqueness had to disappear. The most striking process, however, seems to have been a kind of voluntary assimilation; less advanced cultures assuming the conveniences of civilization and thus giving up their own heritage. These processes like the Romanization of Gaul and other provinces, however, happened more than twenty centuries ago, the notions of those times are different -- except the "imperialist" agenda they were subjected to.

While in the age of the Roman Empire the sociological and technological difference between the cultures was quite negligible in some respect, so that it was possible to integrate alien cultures into one's own without doing great harm, this was different in the Americas. The technological gap between colonists and Natives was by far surpassing any territorial advantage the Indians might have had. While it is true that the Greek considered anybody not speaking their language a barbarian, and that the Romans, themselves Barbarians in the eyes of true Greeks, acquired this custom, it is equally true that once the territories were integrated into the political sphere of the empire, the local aristocracy were not denied high-ranking positions. Barbarians could become Romans. But both the technological and sociological gap as well as the mis-applied religious aim of missionizing others made it possible to declare the Native American population as being savages.

Also, the circumstances had changed. While in ancient and medieval times political control was usually a very fragile institution, merely touching the upper strata of society while the rural population was mostly autonomous and actual dominion was just possible over some strategically important cities like Lyons or Cologne, the modern understanding of government, appearing in the renaissance, was that of total control, traces of which were already to be found in the later Roman Empire. New technologies had made this possible and were making it increasingly possible in times to come. Also, the economic and military power of European countries was continually rising -- making it eventually possible to govern the newly-acquired territories in their totality.

What started as a punctual reign at key locations, leaving the vast amount of land still uninhabited by European settlers, developed into new countries. But the more settlers came, the more they got to know the country, the more they got accustomed to the climate and weather conditions, the more their economy flourished, the more the gap between native and colonist population grew. In the end, the Natives had to back off, they were decimated and lost their land.

1. Seizing a Continent

1.1. Origins

"The discovery of America did not begin with Christopher Columbus. It started many thousands of years earlier when human beings first crossed an ancient land bridge over the Bering Straight into what is now Alaska and -- almost certainly without realizing it -- began to people a new continent."[4]

Having bridged the bridge over the Bering Strait appearing during the Wisconsin glaciation, the ancestors of today's American Indian population arrived in Alaska between 50,000 and 10,000 BC and eventually spread southward; this possibly making American Indians the oldest of all human races, with evidence of the other ones appearing much later[5]. This theory is now widely accepted, although the time frame isn't yet fixed. Also, the very act of spreading from Asia to America need not be as spectacular as it might seem. The process itself took centuries, even millennia; it was rather a gradual and very slow movement into then still empty territories than a concerted action like most maps seem to imply[6]:

"Time, enough time, can herd along people unaided, it doesn't need an assist from readily discernible motives of man."[7]

The very early tribes of the Lithic or Protoarchaic stage were essentially nomadic hunters, hunting the soon extinct larger mammals like mammoths, as well as the bison; probably contributing to the extinction of those larger mammals by aggressive hunting techniques[8]. Throughout the ensuing millennia, the people who would later develop into what we now call Indian American cultures populated North-, Meso- and South American territories to establish their cultures. But the remains of such are scarce, evidence mainly belonging to the realm of archeology, language, myths and legend. Today's Western awareness of time cannot understand the dimensions of this era of virtual equilibrium, maybe it even seems like a dreamtime indeed.

"It might be assumed that they lived with the world rather than in it, as much part of the setting fashioned by nature around them as fingers are part of a hand, and it would follow as a matter of course that the beasts, trees, winds, and stars of that setting pondered and talked, aspired, feared, and desired as did anyone else. [..] The impressive thing about this world, after all, is time. The people can be imagined, and their thoughts and ways, everything but those limitless reaches of time, time so much longer than all the centuries of written history, while men leaned on their spears and dreamed and nothing really changed at all."[9]

In all Indian societies, the predominant theme is that of an awareness of unity -- the awareness of the fragile yet profound connection between nature and man. This, however, might not seem so surprising at all for peoples depending so closely on nature as these. They didn't have to go back to nature, they already were in nature -- nature was surrounding them and dictating their lifestyle. Only in more "advanced" cultures, technology is able to detach man from nature so completely that it is only noticed as a weather phenomenon, mostly annoying, seemingly unimportant. For "primitive" cultures but there cannot be a distancing from nature -- be it peaceful or warring nations.

"One insistent tone is present in all these varying examples, an awareness of the harmony of things that can be struck out of balance at any moment, even by a man's own actions. [..] If time is the tonic note in the story of the Indians, this theme of the world's precarious harmony is the dominant."[10]

Dealing with the topic of American Indians is a task encompassing many different branches of science and cultural studies[11] -- also including a naming problem. The cultural gap between Native American Culture and the Western-European view of the world leads to simplifications, categorizations and analogies which are but of a limited scope:

"It should also be pointed out, especially in light of the particularly holistic Indian world view, that the various categories and classification systems [..] are heuristic devices, applied for the sake of convenience and understanding, and not absolutes"[12]

1.2. Diversity ...

When we talk about American Indians or Native Americans, we first have to be aware that there is nothing like a Native American Nation, that there is nothing like an overwhelming unity or general consensus between the individual nations and tribes. This contemporary denomination is in itself a construction to cope with the problem of diversity.

The problem, however, isn't alien to European history either -- what we conceive now as European nations probably becoming the European nation in the future also has started as a loose collection of different tribes whose origin in most cases is quite different from today's localization. Several more or less related tribes either fused or were fused together, this very process being accelerated a lot by already existing empires and more powerful nations. Until the Middle Ages, there were no German, no French nation but various tribes.

Similarly, smaller tribes and less advanced nations in the Americas have been formed and shaped by others who already had built confederacies or empires. The Olmec empire lay the foundations for the Mayas whose climax in turn anteceded the Toltecs and the Aztec civilization. Continuity prevails in most cases; the conquerors (if that term can be applied) usually took over the old culture, intermingling it with new elements of their own. Equally, pueblo nations like the Hopi or the Zuñi, now to be found predominantly in New Mexico and Arizona, built upon what was already laid out by the Anasazi civilization[13].

But it is dangerous to impose the European model as a help for understanding here, assuming parallel structures and concepts to having arisen in the New World as much as in the Old; just as the Spaniards failed to realize the profound differences between their own and Aztec society. The Maya and Aztec empires were no empires by European standards, they didn't aim for territorial domination but had only a very loose grip on its surroundings[14]; and direct system comparisons were of no help for the conquistadores[15]; but these errors were to be made later by other colonizing forces in North America as well.

The various Indian nations seem to have had some contact with each other in the past as there exist various similar concepts in philosophy, religion and constitution of reign. But these small "ripples of contact"[16], in whatever way transmigrating from tribe to tribe, need not imply common descent. As it is generally agreed that no human life originated directly from America, all Indians had to arrive there coming from other continents -- this meaning the already mentioned bridge across the Bering Straight of today. But the migration into America didn't happen in a sudden concerted action -- it wasn't one group of colonists but several of them, probably being separated by place of origin as well as by the time of arrival in America.

Also, groups once united would have split up over time to form countless other tribes and nations -- as it also has happened with the Indo-Europeans developing into various present-day nations, laying the foundation to Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indic/Sanskritic, Iranian, Italic and Slavic nations -- cultures whose common descent isn't quite that obvious today and had to be reconstructed by linguists[17].

The languages spoken in the Americas cannot easily be put into a system as most of the possible source material has either been lost or destroyed in the past; it is assumed that up to 2,000 different languages were spoken in both continents amongst 15-40 million inhabitants at the time of Columbus' arrival, approximately two thirds of these languages having died out by the middle of the twentieth century. The geographical category of "Native American Languages" however cannot be rooted to a single linguistic family, neither can its Asian roots be confirmed[18]. Similarities in language needn't mean common descent, such as common descent needn't mean related language[19]. Sometimes also conquerors assumed the language and culture of the conquered[20].

1.3. ... and Similarities

After now having stated that there is nothing like the American Indian nation, it remains to be shown that such a differentiation is in itself again a generalization which cannot be upheld properly. With all differences, all cultural specifics of each Native nation, there still are elements which justify all of these different cultures to be understood in a rather conjoined than disjoined way, although such approaches would of course mean a certain simplification.

The most obvious relation between all American cultures is the place they share, the continents themselves, the different regions of the land -- thus making it possible to group certain tribes together into various regional groups, like those populating the areas of the Northwest coast, California, the Southwest, the Plateau region, the Great Basin, the Great Plains, the Southeast and the Northeast plus arctic and subarctic regions for North America; further Mesoamerica, Circum-Carribbean and South-American regions[21]. It appears that geography and climate are both defining and binding factors for these assignations.

Other similarities go much deeper. One concept which seems to be true for all Indian nations is that of common property, the idea of private possession being utmost alien to them as the idea of shared ownership was for the Europeans who entered the New World:

"But it struck too deep a root of difference to be grasped. Europeans simply could not comprehend it. Likewise, the people of the New World were hopelessly bewildered by the European's spirit of competition for personal gain. For much more was at issue here than a difference of abstract ideologies: ramifications ran through every tissue of life. These two world views, each never dreaming of the other's existence, had really created two totally different worlds."[22]

Another crucial element common to perhaps all Indian nations is their relation to nature -- their aiming for harmony with nature. Nature isn't just not separated from man, it can be brother and sister, mother and father. This is further illustrated by a creation myth shared by many Indian nations -- that before the arrival of man, all animals were able to speak[23]. Also, religion is an integral part of their lives -- the concept even of a differentiation between religion and politics and ordinary life being alien, as in the example of the Navajo (Dineh):

"The Navajo's concept of religion is so total that it can be said that there is no such thing as religion in Navajo culture because everything is religious. Everything a Navajo knows -- his shelter, his fields, his livestock, the sky above him and the ground upon which he walks -- is holy. The Navajos for the most part, have long resisted Christianity. They look upon it as a 'part-time' religion where a man's god is available to him for only a few hours on Sunday and then has to be sought out in a special house where his spirit dwells."[24]

Equally similar is the notion of peace. Of course there have been wars and conquest amongst the Indian nations themselves, but war was never as overwhelming and destructive as it were to become with the arrival of the Europeans.

"In the untouched Indian world, even among peoples of dreaded warlike reputation, there was a great more peace than war."[25]

In all its differences, the greatest of similarities has become the common cause, their common fate of being subjugated under European rule.

"Indians were not perfect. However, they remain infinitely more sinned against than sinning."[26]

2. Losing a Continent

2.1. Barbarians

"In 1643 [..], the Dutch governor, according to some accounts not only exasperated but inebriated, ordered the massacre of a number of Wappinger people who had run to the Dutch for protection from raiding Mohawks. The Indian refugees were lulled by friendly Dutch treatment for several days, and then were attacked by the Dutch while they slept [..], and eighty heads of men, women, and children were brought back to Manhattan, to Fort Amsterdam, where a New Amsterdam dowager played kickball with them in the street. A captive Hackensack Indian was publicly tortured, charged a contemporary pamphleteer, by being skinned in strips and fed with his own flesh while the 'poor, naked, simple creature' stubbornly tried to keep up his death song, until at last, flayed from his fingers to his knees, castrated, dragged through the streets but still alive, he was placed on a millstone and his head beaten off by the soldiers. The Dutch governor looked on throughout and 'laughed right heartily'"[27]

With the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the world were to change for the Native American cultures. "Christ-Bearing Dove"[28] started a process which would soon deprive the population of their land, mostly with the arguments that Europe had to civilize these uncivilized barbarians. Mostly, these barbarians "were friendly at first but usually alienated in short order by slaving, murder, torture, and extortion"[29].

Ironically, without initial Indian help[30], colonization would have been impossible. Hadn't the Indians been friendly at first, hadn't they also supported colonies like Jamestown[31], hadn't they shared their resources with their conquistadors, history would have been different. First contact has often been very friendly, Indians and settlers living together; this peaceful cooperation even extending over long times[32].

But as soon as money[33] or religious zeal[34] were involved, things changed; although money also could save the Indians from time to time -- waging war was expensive. So occasionally Indian lives had to be spared "since it would necessitate so heavy an expenditure on so uncertain an event and so little appearance of profit"[35]. That the enslavement of Indians in the English and other colonies had to disappear over the long term also wasn't determined by the decimation of the Native population through diseases -- Indians were harder to control, they also weren't as suitable as Blacks, who in turn could be recognized immediately as slaves because of their skin color. The end of Indian slavery in the English colonies was through a lack of control, not supply[36].

The Spaniards had done their best to enforce work upon the Indians in their colonies via their encomienda system which turned out to be a heavy euphemism for slavery. One of the reasons given for this was often that Indians were savages, no Christians, and could therefore be justly enslaved. Protest, however, ensued with the committed agitation of Bartholomé de Las Casas, but protest against Indian enslavement was also carried by conquistadors like Cortes[37], leading eventually -- but slowly because of the resistance of the encomienda owners -- to a change of the system, demanded by the Papal Bull Sublimis Deus of 1537 by Pope Paul III, outlawing Indian slavery in any form, proclaiming that Indians have rationality and full humanity. Las Casas then continued to fight for the Indian cause and for the equality and humanity of races[38], thus contesting the popular argument that some people and races were natural slaves, based upon Aristotle[39].

"De lo cual se sigue necesariamente ser imposible de toda imposibilidad que una nación toda sea inhábil o tan de poco y barbarísmo juicio y de baja y apocada razón que no se sepa gobernar y no pueda ser inducida y atraída y doctrinada en cualquiera buena doctrina moral, y mayormente instruída en las cosas de la fe e imbuída en la religión cristiana, y esto es de fe tenerlo así, como en otra parte hemos probado."[40]

The Catholic Church, having thus heard of the atrocities in New Spain, vehemently fought for the Indian cause, joined by a not-so small opposition in Spain[41]. The Jesuits even tried to integrate Indian concepts into the Christian religion and fought the eradication of Indian cultures[42], as can be seen in the case of the Jesuit Missions to the Guarani[43]. Lakota Chiefs Red Cloud and Little Wound even directly requested Catholic priests[44].

"The [Jesuit] missionaries did not see the Native peoples as godless and uncivilized, but rather believed that they had some idea of the true God through nature. They also saw that they had natural virtues such as patience, courage, perseverance, and charity."[45]

In the English colonies, there was only little official interest in Indians as workforce or souls to be saved; they were discarded once they became unnecessary, but these hostilities, massacres and wars were rather a "matter of business", uncomplicated by any missionizing effort[46], the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers "distinguish[ing] themselves by wholesale massacres of noncombatants" recording these with delight, proving it repeatedly "that it was the sacred duty of the Christian English to root out the godless Canaanites", leading to deliberate extermination of the Native populace[47] in the disguise of fulfilling a manifest destiny.

2.2. Conquest and Settlement

"We are participating in the outright theft of a world"[48]

The discovery of new land offered the possibility for Europeans to emigrate from their homeland, where lots of them were suffering religious and political discrimination and poverty. Businessmen America provided with new sources of profit, minerals like gold and silver, and -- through trade and exchange with the Indians -- furs, tobacco, cotton and new kinds of vegetables. It was business, "nothing personal"[49].

"The settlers came. They were not stopped by anything. They came, first, for good land; and when gold was discovered, the gold-hunters joined the ranks of the land-hungry. First a trickle, then a torrent, the migration westward became a phenomenon in American history unique in numbers and distances. For fifty years the westward migration continued, until the good land from the Missouri to the Pacific was peopled, and the frontier was declared to be past tense."[50]

There doesn't seem to have been any master plan for genocide, mostly decisions had to be made on the spot, without caring about future consequences. There was no official policy in destroying all Indian culture, on the contrary, the crown -- both in England and Spain -- often tried to intervene and to fix the frontier[51], but settlement continued to take place wherever the slightest weakness appeared in the Indian nations, the frontier was moved by the settlers piece by piece, but unstoppably, the conquest silently already completed when the war would break out. Even if the English and later the American government had intended to actually prevent the Indians from being evicted, the momentum settlement had gained always proved stronger. In the end, a government will rather protect its own people than others, however sympathetic it might be towards the losing side, and whatever cooperation existed between both sides. The most destructive factor but were diseases the Europeans had -- unknowingly -- brought to the New World, a decisive factor but surely unintentional. However the Pilgrim Fathers might have interpreted it as a sign of God, knowledge about the carriers of diseases wouldn't come about until Robert Koch's discoveries of the 1870s. The result, however, wasn't affected by any intentions -- it remains as a hard fact:

"For two centuries, tribe after tribe had been forced westward, as treaties had been made and broken by the government with complete disregard of the Indians' rights."[52]

Europeans fought each other in the New World, in search for land and prosperity, with the Indian tribes surely standing in their way. The tribes were made use of in alliances, the European nations collided, "boldly determined to fight to the last Indian"[53].

3. Clashing Civilizations

3.1. Frontiear and "Wilderness"

"Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development. [..] The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land"[54]

The frontier Turner described so eloquently surely has had some kind of an impact on American history. The tricky point, however, is the equally bold and revealing description of the frontier marking the border to free land. This "free land", as it should have been clear, wasn't that free at all but populated by a Native population. The basic assumption stated by the frontier thesis might therefore be quite an accurate description for the conflict at hand: The land probably even seemed free as it was only scarcely populated. Compared to Europe, the New World indeed had vast spaces available for settlement. The Indians didn't exploit the land to full extent, which must have seemed strange in European eyes; equally as the European way was strange to the Natives.

"The wilderness masters the colonist. [..] at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish [..] Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe [..] here is a new product that is American."[55]

For the settlers, the frontier experience -- as asserted rightfully by Turner -- defied all European class systems, it demanded for explorers, farmers, communities and hard work, not for aristocrats[56], through this pragmatism thus promoting democracy[57] -- though this image of the "independent frontiersman" wasn't true for all America[58], as the quasi-aristocratic system of the South would later show. In this pragmatism, in the intent to overcome the wilderness, in culturing nature, one of the basic differences between European and Native American philosophy appears.

3.2. Difference of Concepts

"The white man does not understand. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a wanderer who comes in the night and borrows from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has won the struggle, he moves on. [..] The white man is like a snake who eats his own tail in order to live. And the tail grows shorter and shorter"[59]

As has been shown before, the Native American question is not just an issue of forced relocation and destruction of cultures; much more it reveals clearly how two very different cultural spheres, Europeans and Indians, encountered each other. The history of this encounter is not only a history of war, massacres and evictions, it is -- although much more hidden -- also a history of two peoples learning from each other, basically the Europeans learning something about themselves the very hard way. Apart from the things they brought back to Europe, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa, cotton, tobacco and many more, some of them, like Las Casas, already could see that the Indian cultures could offer something much more subtle, much more profound to the Europeans. Native Americans were no barbarians; although it is easily understandable that most settlers would perceive it that way when they preferred not to look too closely. By depicting them as savages, however noble or bloodthirsty, they just saw that these people barely had clothing, their housing mostly being tents or houses looking primitive in European understanding. Their rituals were not understood, sacrifices deprived of their religious context and, with the air of European superiority in mind, efforts to reach understanding were rare.

"the only thing to be done with the incomprehensible is to pretend it does not exist"[60]

Europe had long given up its partnership with nature. Beginning with elements of Greek philosophy but only fully starting with the Roman obsession of controlling nature even in the tiniest part, nature had become man's best enemy, a challenge it had become to cultivate it, to see it as a tool for human purposes; and when the colonists landed in the Americas, after all the initial awe and mystery, it was streets, settlements, railroads and factories to be built. Isn't a river's best purpose to be dammed up? And isn't the finest use for the desert of Nevada and Arizona the testing of military equipment? What in early antiquity still was widespread belief, that nature was sacred and peopled by countless nymphs and gods, became a matter of business, this not just starting with interpretations of Genesis 1,28 -- dominion over the earth was understood as conquest. Thus the Indian counter-image was even more so a mystery, strange and ungraspable for those who came to cultivate the earth instead of worshipping it.

Equally ungraspable, even in our time, was the multitude of nations, although white generals and diplomats masterly played tribe against tribe to gain their own profit. In defense of the Europeans, however, it has to be said that without Indian help, there would have been no conquest, not without "thousands of Indian allies happy to help the mighty strangers destroy their traditional enemies"[61] -- which again illustrates that it wasn't the Indians being fought against. The tragedy, however encompassing all tribes, befell one tribe after the other, not in unison but in sequence rather. Thus resistance could only have been partial. In the end, tribes became unimportant and it was just an anonymous mass of Indians being dealt with.

"Within 19th-century America the policy of removing the Indians and, later, confining them to reservations, had in the background the collapse of differences, in the white mind, so that Apaches and Creeks, farming and hunting nations, Christianized and savage, were simply designated 'Indians' and subjected to a common fate. The very choice within a culture to attend to increasingly refined differences or to more and more inclusive categories is a political act for which the inner practice and memorization takes place informally and continuously."[62]

It is not at all natural that Native Americans are defined as a separate race; it is rather that they have been defined as being non-white to exclude them from American society[63], just as Blacks had been excluded -- "all men are created equal" firstly meaning all white men; and males of course, following the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) prototype. The artificial distinctions which led to the definition of races are still at work today, being reflected by the ethno-racial pentagon of white, black, brown, yellow and red, only substituted with politically correct euphemisms like Caucasian, Afro-American (with something like the one-drop rule still silently applied), Hispanics, Asian and Indian Americans; definitions whose artificiality becomes especially obvious in the case of Hispanics, who "became" a race about twenty years ago[64]. Such differentiation rather promotes discrimination than equal chances. While at first glance seemingly accepting cultural uniqueness, these crude categories don't differentiate between Korean, Chinese or Japanese just as they don't differentiate between Makah, Hopi or Navajo. It doesn't help the case of Indian Americans to see them as a unity -- with all their similarities, their most similar property is their uniqueness, their being different nations.

3.3. Reconciliation?

Such thoughtless smoothening of differences only promotes conflicts like that between the Navajo and Hopi nations[65], possibly paving the way for ethnic clashes in the future[66]. But apart from all the problems of today's Native nations, they have gained some new and positive reputation, especially through their participation in the World Wars or through the Navajo Code Talkers[67]. Also, with the tribes' rights to operate gambling facilities on their reservations, new economic possibilities have arisen, however dubious this method may seem[68]. There has also been an increase in the use of Indian names and symbols, but that's a much more different issue -- this use being often quite sarcastic and even insulting -- like in "Cherokee" Jeeps, "Pontiac" cars, "Apache" and "Comanche" military helicopters, sports teams like the Washington "Redskins"; and of course with place and state names still carrying Indian denominations, Native American culture and symbols are often rather thoughtlessly exploited than honored; Indians are used as a mascot[69].

Almost traditionally, Indians were most often reduced to stereotypes of the noble or bloodthirsty savage[70], the myth of the Indians being wild, bloodthirsty, enduring and a threat to the settlers being portrayed in lots of classic Westerns, showing that "the Indian was killed out of 'necessity'"[71]. More modern Westerns like Dances With Wolves might have shed a much better light on the Indians, also quite accurately incorporating the Lakota language[72], but still portrayed them in their basic role as victims of white civilization[73]. Other movies, like Maverick, portrayed an Indian trickster, exploiting the "bloodthirsty savage" image[74] and acting more like an equal partner of the hero.

More recent films are often more vocal concerning the topic:

"[Colonel Ludlow:] I worked for the government once ... Indians! Indians were the issue in those days. I can assure you, gentlemen, there is nothing quite so grotesque as the meeting of a child with a bullet; and an entire village slaughtered while sleeping. That was the government's resolution of that particular issue, and I've seen nothing in its behavior since then that would persuade me it has gained either in wisdom, common sense or humanity."[75]

Also Star Trek, which has always featured some kinds of variations on the Indian problem, became especially clear in its latest movie, depicting the attempt to save an outnumbered and outgunned people facing relocation and destruction by a profit-oriented enemy:

"Picard: [We] will destroy the Ba'ku, just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocation throughout history.

Dougherty: Jean-Luc, we're only moving six hundred people.

Picard: How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong?"[76]

However often the topic might be raised, Indians mostly seem to be a non-issue[77], although their contributions to American society are increasingly made visible[78]. There can be no excuse for what happened to the Native nations, but a policy of enlarged respect and an awareness for European responsibility could help set the stage for reconciliation.

"There were no miracles to account for their recovery . . . and certainly none performed on the part of the United States government that failed to honor its treaty with the Navajos. The Navajos survived through an innate sense of 'oneness' that compels them to help each other both in times of wealth and in times of poverty."[79]


"Probably the view back through time to the childhood of man can only be seen in distortion. The world becomes a still picture, when it was alive with motion; or it moves, when it was as still as eternity."[80]

History can neither repair the mistakes of the past, nor can it fully understand them as the future is yet unwritten and the general context missing; so all attempts at reaching conclusion have to end in a distortion of events. But what can be done is to look at single aspects of relevance, aspects of morality and humanity even -- without that, historiography would be pointless. The European view dictates us a certain pace of life, pushes us to aim even higher each time we try, and forcing us to try again and again. But is the result finally a kind of perfection? Or isn't there a standstill even in the rapid motion of action? However advanced today's Western society may seem; it is only one of many other possible models of living. When all masquerades of productivity and achievement are gone, does it make us happier, wiser and more content? The Indian model surprises us with a seemingly eternal standstill, mistaken much too often for stupidity and degeneration. It is easy to see progress in the advancement of technology[81], it is easy to see evolution as a one-way lane; it is easy to indulge in self-praise and in blaming past generations for knowledge they didn't have. But present becomes past -- and maybe the future solution to today's problems needs to be different than imagined. It's not about questioning progress -- it's rather about defining progress. And it's also about allowing other models of being to exist.

The white man has failed to take his chance to preserve the Indian cultures, instead their condition has been worsened even in this century by dubious land claims proceedings, by attempts to overcome tribal democracy and to assimilate them into the mainstream[82]. Their cultures need to be preserved -- if the Indians lose the connection with their cultural heritage, these cultures inevitably will die out, meaning a loss for all mankind[83]. That's why it is so important that the Makah are allowed to resume their whaling tradition; and it is a sign of hope that the US Government took action to support them in their case.

"The Europeans-become-Americans enjoyed the technical triumph; the Indians, we begin to see, won the spiritual battle. [..] Tecumseh, Osceola, Joseph, Plenty Coups, Red Cloud, and all the others are our leaders as well. We may not know that consciously yet, but we reveal an unconscious understanding in inadvertent ways. As one example, the United States Army paratroopers of World War II, when jumping into combat, did not call on formal gods, country, wives or sweethearts, mothers or fathers. The word they cried out as they leaped from their planes, their last word for all they knew, given into the wind as both defiance of the enemy and prayer for life, was 'Geronimo!' The Indian as myth-god-protector could not ask for deeper recognition, greater respect"[84]

In recent years, lots of tribes seem to have regained their confidence. Most of them have learned from their own mistakes -- mostly these mistakes were to trust those negotiating with them -- and have become more versatile in dealing with the US judicial system. Native pride rejoices, as can also be seen on the Internet. Their influence on Western culture also seems to have just begun. Their spirituality and quest for harmony with nature could very well be a chance for a new beginning.

"All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."[85]

Selected Bibliography / Works Cited


  • Theodore W. Allen. The Invention of the White Race. Vol. II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. London/New York: Verso, 1997.
  • Kwame Anthony Appia, Henry Louis Gates, Jr (eds.). The Dictionary of Global Culture. NY: Vintage Books, 1996.
  • Ellen L. Arnold. "Reframing the Hollywood Indian: A Feminist Re-reading of Powwow Highway and Thunderheart". Dane Morrison (ed.). American Indian Studies. An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues. NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997, 347-362.
  • Aristotle. Politics. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • John Bierhorst. Die Mythologie der Indianer Nordamerikas. München: Diederichs, 1985/1997.
  • William Brandon. Indians. NY: American Heritage, 1961/1987.
  • Alan Brinkley. The Unfinished Nation. A Concise History of the American People. New York: McGraw-Hill 21997 .
  • Dee Brown. The American West. N.Y.: Touchstone, 1994 .
  • Ross Enochs. "Catholic Missions to the Native Americans". Dane Morrison (ed.). American Indian Studies. An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues. NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997, 195-216.
  • Philip Fisher. Hard Facts. Setting and Form of the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985 .
  • Eric Foner. The Story of American Freedom. New York/London: W.W. Norton, 1998.
  • Jane Frazier. "Tomahawkin' the Redskins: 'Indian' Images in Sports and Commerce". Dane Morrison (ed.). American Indian Studies. An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues. NY: Peter Lang, 1997, 337-346.
  • Otfried Höffe. Aristoteles. München: C.H. Beck 21999.
  • David A. Hollinger. Postethnic America. New York: BasicBooks, 1995 .
  • Dieter Janik, Wolf Lustig (eds.). Die spanische Eroberung Amerikas. Akteure, Autoren, Texte. Frankfurt: Veruert 21992.
  • Robert D. Kaplan. An Empire Wilderness. Travels into America's Future. NY: Random House, 1998.
  • Raymond Friday Locke. The Book of the Navajo. Los Angeles: Mankind, 1976/1992.
  • Jerry Mander. In the Absence of the Sacred. The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.
  • Mary Alice Money. "Images of Native Americans in the Popular Western". Dane Morrison (ed.). American Indian Studies. An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues. NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997, 363-388.
  • Gregory H. Nobles. American Frontiers. Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. NY: Hill&Wang, 1997.
  • Marian Wallace Ney. Indian America. A Geography of North American Indians. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee Publications, 1977.
  • Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle. "How can one sell the air?" Eli Gifford, R. Michael Cook (eds.). How can one sell the air? Chief Seattle's Vision. Summertown, TN: The Book Publishing Company, 1992.
  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The Disuniting of America. Reflections on a Multicultural Society. NY: W.W. Norton, 1991/1998.
  • Wayne J. Stein. "American Indians and Gambling: Economic and Social Impacts". Dane Morrison (ed.). American Indian Studies. An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues. NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997, 145-166.
  • Frederick Jackson Turner. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". C. Merton Babcock. The American Frontier. A social and literary record. NY: Holt, Rinehart&Winston, 1965. 29-42.
  • Matthias Waechter. Die Erfindung des Amerikanischen Westens. Die Geschichte der Frontier-Debatte. Freiburg: Rombach Historiae, 1996.
  • Carl Waldman. Atlas of the North American Indian. NY: Facts on File, 1985
  • Jack Weatherford. Indian Givers. How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. NY: Fawcett Columbine, 1988

Movies / Television Shows

  • Dances With Wolves. Screenplay by Michael Blake. Dir. Kevin Costner. Perf. Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene. Tig Productions,, 1990.
  • Legends of the Fall. Screenplay by Susan Shilliday, Bill Wittliff. Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond. Columbia Tristar, 1994.
  • Maverick. Screenplay by William Goldman. Based on Maverick by Roy Huggins. Dir. Richard Donner. Perf. Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner, Graham Greene. Warner Brothers, 1994.
  • Star Trek: Insurrection. Screenplay by Michael Piller. Based upon Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry. Dir. Jonathan Frakes. Perf. Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Donna Murphy. Paramount, 1998.
  • Star Trek: Voyager. Executive Produced by Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Brannon Braga. Perf. Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran, Jeri Ryan. Paramount, 1994-.
  • Twin Peaks. Executive Produced by Mark Frost, David Lynch. Perf. Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Michael Horse. Lynch/Frost Productions / Spelling Entertainment / Twin Peaks Productions 1990-1991.
  • The X-Files. Executive Produced by Chris Carter. Perf. David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi. Ten Thirteen Productions / Twentieth Century Fox 1993-.

Internet Resources


[2] Such as in the role of the first officer Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager, in the role of Deputy Hawk on Twin Peaks as well as other appearances of Native American characters in popular TV shows like The X-Files
[3] such as in the movies Dances With Wolves, Legends of the Fall and Star Trek: Insurrection; which will be discussed to some degree later in this paper
[4] Brinkley. Unfinished Nation. 1
[5] Brandon. Indians. 9
[6] Brandon. Indians. 7-14
[7] Brandon. Indians. 10
[8] Waldman. Atlas. 1ff
[9] Brandon. Indians. 15
[10] Brandon. Indians. 21
[11] Waldman. Atlas. X
[12] Waldman. Atlas. X
[13] Brandon. Indians. 25f, 67f, 108f
[14] Brandon. Indians. 27, 70
[15] Brandon. Indians. 97
[16] Brandon. Indians. 18
[17] Calvert Watkins. "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans". American Heritage Dictionary. 1573
[18] encycopledia entry "Native American Languages" --
[19] Brandon. Indians. 138
[20] Brandon. Indians. 41f
[21] Waldman. Atlas. 31
[22] Brandon. Indians. 99
[23] Bierhorst. Mythologie. 178-180
[24] Locke. Navajo. 5; Brandon. Indians. 15
[25] Brandon. Indians. 154
[26] Ney. Indian America. 4
[27] Brandon. Indians. 168, my italics
[28] Brandon. Indians. 74
[29] Brandon. Indians. 94
[30] Brandon. Indians. 94-96
[31] Brandon. Indians. 159
[32] Brinkley. Unfinished Nation. 46f; Brandon. Indians. 173
[33] Brandon. Indians. 161
[34] Brandon. Indians. 170, 176f
[35] Brandon. Indians. 169, Brandon citing the directors of the Dutch West India Company
[36] Allen. The Invention of the White Race, Vol II. 40f
[37] Brandon. Indians. 127-129
[38] Appiah/Gates. Dictionary of Global Culture. 397; Enochs. "Catholic Missions to the Native Americans". 195f; Allen. The Invention of the White Race, Vol II. 33
[39] Aristotle. Politics. I 2, 1252b8; Höffe. Aristoteles. 262-265
[40] Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Apologética Historia. Kap. XLVIII, zitiert nach Janik/Lustig 85
[41] Brandon. Indians. 127
[42] Enochs. "Catholic Missions to the Native Americans". 212
[43] Enochs. "Catholic Missions to the Native Americans". 197
[44] Enochs. "Catholic Missions to the Native Americans". 205
[45] Enochs. "Catholic Missions to the Native Americans". 200
[46] Brandon. Indians. 164f
[47] Brandon. Indians. 176f
[48] Star Trek: Insurrection. Theatrical trailer, scenes deleted in the finished movie. Original script p. 64 --
[49] Brandon. Indians. 162
[50] Brown. The American West. 29
[51] Brandon. Indians. 199, 207; Brinkley. Unfinished Nation. 100
[52] Brown. The American West. 81
[53] Brandon. Indians. 149
[54] Turner. "Significance of the Frontier" 30f
[55] Turner. "Significance of the Frontier" 32
[56] Nobles. American Frontiers. 7
[57] Waechter. Die Erfindung des Amerikanischen Westens. 15
[58] Nobles. American Frontiers. 10
[59] Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle. "How can one sell the air?" How can one sell the air. 39f
[60] Brandon. Indians. 99
[61] Brandon. Indians. 96
[62] Fisher. Hard Facts. 4f
[63] Allen. The Invention of the White Race, Vol II. 44f
[64] Hollinger. Postethnic America. 29-34
[65] Arizona Central 01/06/2000 -- Navajo Relocation:
[66] Kaplan. An Empire Wilderness. 189f
[68] Stein. "American Indians and Gambling". 163-164
[69] Frazier. "'Indian' Images in Sports and Commerce". 337-339
[70] Arnold. "Reframing the Hollywood Indian". 347
[71] Frazier. "'Indian' Images in Sports and Commerce". 341
[72] Money. "Native Americans in the Popular Western". 376
[73] Frazier. "'Indian' Images in Sports and Commerce". 342
[74] Money. "Native Americans in the Popular Western". 378
[75] Legends of the Fall. time index 73'22" / DVD chapter 14
[76] Star Trek Insurrection. time index 48'42" / DVD chapter
[77] Mander. In the Absence of the Sacred. 1
[78] as in Jack Weatherford's Indian Givers
[79] Locke. Navajo. 5
[80] Brandon. Indians. 11
[81] cf. Mander. In the Absence of the Sacred. 30-39 for a more radical view on this issue
[82] Mander. In the Absence of the Sacred. 265, 306-308
[83] Schlesinger. The Disuniting of America. 95f
[84] Ney. Indian America. 4f
[85] Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle. "How can one sell the air?" How can one sell the air. 47

January 15th / 19th, 2000 [HTML Version]

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