Civilization, in a standard dictionary, is "the stage of human social development and organization that is considered most advanced." The dictionary equates "advanced" with "the comfort and convenience of modern life." A thesaurus adds "progress, enlightenment, culture, refinement, sophistication."
Maybe most of us find these definitions acceptable, despite the fact we know there are different civilizations, with different ideas of enlightenment, culture, refinement, etc. The way of life of a particular area—Western civilization, for example—is not the same as that of another area—ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, for example. In fact, as we know from current news, the present incarnations of these different civilizations are in combat.
Do conflicts between civilizations give us pause when we ask, what is civilization? Some might bridle at the suggestion that other ways of life might deserve the name civilization. The partisans in today's Midde East don't appear ready to agree to disagree on this basic question.
The Christian colonizers of America have a long history of this disagreement spilling over into bloodshed against Indigenous peoples. As David Stannard writes in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, American Christian civilization launched "public campaigns of genocide with the explicitly stated goal of all-out Indian extermination." He describes the Franciscan missions in California as "furnaces of death." Stannard compares the Nazi campaigns of extermination, with the reminder that the numbers of people exterminated in America were orders of magnitude greater than in Germany.
Frederick Turner, in Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, says colonizers viewed Indigenous peoples as "wild" and vowed they "must cease to exist, must either be civilized or sacrificed to civilization—which amounts to the same thing."
The cases that comprise federal Indian law often use words of civilized domination. One of these, Davis v. Sitka School Board, 3 Alaska 481 (1908), involved six "mixed blood" children: Dora and Tillie Davis; John and Lottie Littlefield; Lizzie and Peter Allard, who petitioned to be admitted to the Sitka public school. Their lawyer, the court stated, labored "among the native Alaskans… to advance the conditions of the native children and of the children of the mixed blood."
The Sitka school was created to educate "white children and children of mixed blood who lead a civilized life." The statute said, "Eskimos and Indians…shall remain under the direction and control of the Secretary of the Interior, and … shall have the … right to be admitted to any Indian boarding school." The question, the court said, is whether the mixed blood children were leading a civilized life and therefore eligible to attend public school.
The statute said nothing about full blood Indians being civilized, since, the court said, "The Indian in his native state has everywhere been found to be savage, an uncivilized being, when measured by the white man's standard." For this reason, "the care and education of the Indian has been one of the problems that has vexed the government."
The court acknowledged that the term "civilization" didn't refer to "any particular or definite condition," and that "the term 'civilization' is at best only relative." It said, "each generation must decide for itself what constitutes the civilized life, and each case involving the question of civilization must be decided upon its own merits, free and untrammeled by rules…."
The court decided that the definition of "leading a civilized life" that would make a mixed blood child eligible to attend the Sitka school was that their families "have exchanged the old barbaric, uncivilized environment for one changed, new, and so different as to indicate an advanced and improved condition of mind, which desires and reaches out for something altogether distinct from and unlike the old life."
The court added, "For the children of those families which preferred the other life…was provided a system of education under the control of the Secretary of the Interior, more appropriate to their undeveloped mental condition…."
It's clear from this that the judge was not comparing one civilization to another, but was rather contrasting "civilization" with the "Indian way of life." After surveying the evidence—showing the livelihood of the plaintiffs' families—the judge concluded, "civilization… includes… more than a prosperous business, a trade, a house, white man's clothes, and membership in a church." These did not "satisfy the test."
The judge denied the children's petition. He said: "Those who from choice make their homes among an uncivilized or semicivilized people and find their sole social enjoyments and personal pleasures and associations cannot, in my opinion, be classed with those who live a civilized life." In other words, no matter how much they aped the white world, they remained “uncivilized” because they lived among their Native friends and families.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.