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European misconceptions leave a costly legacy

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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 itís 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 wasnít a straight land-grab, was meant to bring ìeconomic individualismî to Indians. As a by-product, of course, this goal of do-good groups like the ìFriends of Indiansî 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 Jacksonís ìethnic cleansing.î 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 Indiansí hunting-gathering existence harked back to human origins and illuminated the basic principles that eventually produced political society. This analysis culminated in John Lockeís ìTwo Treatises of Governmentî in 1689, which came to justify Englandís 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 ìNew World.î

Thomas Hobbes (1588 ñ 1679) painted his memorable picture of the state of war of all against all in his classic ìLeviathan,î published in 1651. He specifically cited the Indians: ìFor 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.î Ten years later, the German international law theorist Samuel Pufendorf (1632 ñ 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 ìstate of nature.î ìPolitical tracts that do not even touch upon it must be considered gravely defective,î he wrote in 1675 in an extended essay, ìOn the Natural State of Man.î

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 wasnít as simple as it first seemed. Pufendorf used the Bible as a source as well as accounts of America. He noted that Adamís first-born son practiced agriculture and probably already knew how to use iron tools. (At the latest, according to Genesis, Adamís 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 werenít able to take their tools along. So they ìtried 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.î

So even the Indians werenít 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 enemiesí 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 Vegaís ìHistory of the Yncas of Peru.î) 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 ìSolons of the Forest,î 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 manís social nature, described in an older European tradition. The development of tribes and tribal confederacies closely resembles the account of pre-political man in Aristotleís ìPolitics.î 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.

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 itís 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 wasnít a straight land-grab, was meant to bring ìeconomic individualismî to Indians. As a by-product, of course, this goal of do-good groups like the ìFriends of Indiansî 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 Jacksonís ìethnic cleansing.î 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 Indiansí hunting-gathering existence harked back to human origins and illuminated the basic principles that eventually produced political society. This analysis culminated in John Lockeís ìTwo Treatises of Governmentî in 1689, which came to justify Englandís 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 ìNew World.îThomas Hobbes (1588 ñ 1679) painted his memorable picture of the state of war of all against all in his classic ìLeviathan,î published in 1651. He specifically cited the Indians: ìFor 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.î Ten years later, the German international law theorist Samuel Pufendorf (1632 ñ 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 ìstate of nature.î ìPolitical tracts that do not even touch upon it must be considered gravely defective,î he wrote in 1675 in an extended essay, ìOn the Natural State of Man.îSome 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 wasnít as simple as it first seemed. Pufendorf used the Bible as a source as well as accounts of America. He noted that Adamís first-born son practiced agriculture and probably already knew how to use iron tools. (At the latest, according to Genesis, Adamís 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 werenít able to take their tools along. So they ìtried 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.îSo even the Indians werenít 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 enemiesí 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 Vegaís ìHistory of the Yncas of Peru.î) 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 ìSolons of the Forest,î 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 manís social nature, described in an older European tradition. The development of tribes and tribal confederacies closely resembles the account of pre-political man in Aristotleís ìPolitics.î 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.