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Old 08-07-2006, 03:33 PM   #1
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European Misconceptions Leave A Costly Legacy

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European Misconceptions Leave A Costly Legacy

(javascript:PrintWindow();) Posted: August 04, 2006 by: _Editors Report_
( / Indian Country Today

European misreadings of American Indians should be a problem for
Europeans, not for Indians, but somehow Natives have always been the ones paying the
price. And it's been a steep price indeed when even the best intentioned
misunderstandings work their way into laws and judicial doctrine. These thoughts
crossed our mind as we pondered how the disastrous and discredited Dawes
Allotment Act of 1887 is still shaping Supreme Court decisions.

The Dawes Act, at least the part that wasn't a straight land-grab, was meant
to bring ''economic individualism'' to Indians. As a by-product, of course,
this goal of do-good groups like the ''Friends of Indians'' brought the
destruction of tribal society and the dissolution of the reservation. It did more
damage to Native morale and caused more loss of land than anything since
Andrew Jackson's ''ethnic cleansing.'' This was an inevitable result of an
ideology that emphasized the individual, or at most the head of a nuclear family,
as the basic economic and political unit and disregarded basic human ties
like the extended family and the tribe.

The irony is that this ideology at its beginning cited what it knew of North
American Indians as empirical proof for its assertions. Early reports of the
tribes supposedly showed mankind emerging from a State of Nature.
Philosophers of the 17th century thought that the Indians' hunting-gathering existence
harked back to human origins and illuminated the basic principles that
eventually produced political society. This analysis culminated in John Locke's
''Two Treatises of Government'' in 1689, which came to justify England's
Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution and constitutional rule based on the
consent of the governed. But it was a mainstay in northern European thought
during its first century of sustained contact with inhabitants of the ''New

Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) painted his memorable picture of the state of
war of all against all in his classic ''Leviathan,'' published in 1651. He
specifically cited the Indians: ''For the savage people in many places of
America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on
natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish
manner.'' Ten years later, the German international law theorist Samuel
Pufendorf (1632 - 1694) began to expand on Hobbes. He thought Hobbes gave too
grim an account of early man but agreed wholeheartedly on the importance of
describing the ''state of nature.'' ''Political tracts that do not even touch
upon it must be considered gravely defective,'' he wrote in 1675 in an extended
essay, ''On the Natural State of Man.''

Some consider Pufendorf the link between Hobbes and Locke. He criticized
Hobbes for his lack of a middle way in the primeval state of war and applied
that discussion to the emerging doctrine of international law. But along the way
he began to show that the doctrine of the State of Nature wasn't as simple
as it first seemed. Pufendorf used the Bible as a source as well as accounts
of America. He noted that Adam's first-born son practiced agriculture and
probably already knew how to use iron tools. (At the latest, according to
Genesis, Adam's fourth-generation descendant Tubal-cain developed metal-working.) So
why did inhabitants of America and other remote places not have iron? They
probably forgot its use in the course of their migrations, said Pufendorf, or
weren't able to take their tools along. So they ''tried in one way or another
to make up for the loss by using less suitable materials. Thus, many peoples
of America used stones, oyster shells, animal bones and teeth, bamboo and
similar things in place of iron.''

So even the Indians weren't pure primitives. They were men who had lost some
skills through a variety of accidents and were trying to find substitutes.
The true State of Nature is already beginning to look elusive and mythic.
Locke did even more inadvertent damage to the doctrine when he also turned to the
Bible for examples. He had great fun citing Scripture to show the absurdity
of his enemies' arguments, but he ran into the same problem Pufendorf noted
in using it to support his own. Once you get past the immediate family of
Adam, the Bible is filled with political regimes. Even the Patriarch Abraham
turns out to be a city boy, an exile from Ur of the Chaldees, one of the largest
urban centers of the day. For some in the 17th century, the State of Nature
ended when Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden.

The State of Nature in the Americas was just as elusive. Locke and his North
European contemporaries seemed strangely oblivious to the large,
sophisticated empires encountered by the Spaniards. (Although Locke twice quotes a
comically bizarre account of cannibalism from Garcilasso de la Vega's ''History
of the Yncas of Peru.'') They deliberately ignored the tribal confederacies
that kept peace over large territories, even though the Haudenosaunee
(Iroquois) League was then at a peak of diplomatic influence. It seemed totally
inconceivable to them that the woodland tribes of the north could be aware of the
indigenous monarchies to the south. Yet archaeology has shown the existence of
transcontinental trade and confirmed oral traditions of wide-ranging
contacts. The ''Solons of the Forest,'' as John Adams called them, had a far more
sophisticated understanding of politics and diplomacy than European travelogues
were willing to acknowledge.

Although northern European theorists constantly cited American Indians to
illustrate a State of Nature, they drew the wrong conclusions from the wrong
facts. Instead of supporting a theory of radical individualism, the American
Native experience showed the universality of man's social nature, described in
an older European tradition. The development of tribes and tribal
confederacies closely resembles the account of pre-political man in Aristotle's
''Politics.'' Even the final step, the founding of cities, took place with great
profusion in Mesoamerica. Some Spanish thinkers in the Aristotelian-Thomist
tradition, in opposition to the northern Europeans, drew the conclusion that
Indians shared the rational, social soul that the Almighty gave to all humanity
and that they derived from it the full right of sovereignty.

This latter tradition is far closer to Indian self-understanding, and it has
finally taken hold in federal policies of self-determination. But it still
competes with vestiges of policies based on the mythical State of Nature.
Indians continue to pay the price of European misrepresentations of more than
three centuries past.
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