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The language of 'civilization'


What do the terms ''savages'' or ''barbarians'' imply in the context of contemporary understandings of civilization, and how have Indian peoples come to be described by these expressions? Double-edged words like savage and barbarian have changing meanings and often carry with them social and political agendas, especially as those agendas relate to the assimilation of Indian people and communities.

Savage, a word from old French, means wild or uncivilized. French colonists and traders applied the term to the Indian people of North America, but with an understanding that American Indians were a people with a culture different from theirs. In this expression, Indians were savages because they did not live by and adhere to French cultural understandings and ways of life.

This French colonial expression of Indians as savage is very similar to the contemporary understanding of the ''other.'' Other is a group of people who are outside one's own community of social and cultural relations. In the French expression of savage, the term does not necessarily imply inferiority, but the word translates into English as different, wild and primitive. The French expression, however, recognized that North American Indians had distinct communities, cultures and institutions, and they sometimes spoke highly of Indian social and political processes.

Scholars note that American Indians are sometimes viewed as noble savages when we are seen living by honorable ideals and ways that are considered ''traditional.'' But more often Indians were, and continue to be, dehumanized and seen as wild savages and enemies of the State. In either usage, the expression implies people who are of a different culture and do not live according to the notion of Western culture or urban ways.

The expression ''barbarian'' has roots among the ancient Greek and refers to people of a different language (and by default, people from non-Greek culture). Similarly, the expression ''outlander'' or ''outlandish'' is often translated from classic Greek texts, and means something akin to foreigners; people of a different non-Greek culture and language. The Romans used ''barbarian'' to describe peoples or tribes that did not live according to Roman, Greek or Christian culture. The concept of civilization referred to people who live an urban life and who practice the lifeways of the Greek, Roman or Christian nations. Those described as barbarians were considered primitive, rural, and could be civilized only by adopting the dominant society's culture and ways of life.

During the early centuries of the colonization of the Americas, Western nations believed that Christian nations were civilized and individuals were civilized if they lived an urban lifestyle, pursued individual economic accumulation of wealth and were faithful subjects of a Christian kingdom. According to this view, few American Indian nations or individuals lived in a civilized way.

Our ancestors lived in hundreds of different political, cultural and economic arrangements that usually bore little resemblance to Western cultural patterns. In this old view of civilization, there is an inherent sense of social and cultural evolution or progress and an assumption that all rational people gravitate toward a similar cultural form of civilization. Western nations, churches and individuals sought to Christianize and civilize Indian peoples in order to bring them into Western civilized life.

Today, the idea of one culture claiming civilization, while viewing all other cultures as primitive or uncivilized, is considered ethnocentric. The word ''civilization'' now is applied to many non-Western cultures, and has come to mean an empire or nation with enduring rules, order and institutions. This contemporary understanding of civilization is applied (by others) to our Indian cultures, in the sense that we have order, continuity, rules and enduring institutions.

A distinct policy of the United States - and the notion of much of American society - is that Indian tribes and nations should assimilate and become part of the mainstream. From the Civilization Acts passed by Congress in the 1790s, through to the termination era of the 1950s, American policy sought to ''save'' Indian peoples from savage or barbarian cultures and move them as individuals into civilized American society.

At the beginning of the 21st century, many American Indians have a high school education and live in urban areas. Many pursue economic livelihood through government or market-based employment, and are reasonably comfortable with dual tribal and U.S. citizenship. By historical Western standards, most American Indians are considered civilized.

However, continuing efforts by Indian peoples to reclaim traditional languages, religions and cultures suggest that communities and individuals are choosing cultural and community pathways that are not based on or even similar to American culture and ways. By drawing on community culture and values, many Indian communities seek political, educational and economic solutions to contemporary issues that build on their own institutions and values.

If Indian nations succeed in their goals to build a future that draws upon traditional community institutions and lifeways, then they will uphold cultural, political, economic and community institutions that will continue to differ significantly from American society and the Western vision of civilization.

The absence of common cultural ground between Indian communities and mainstream American culture will remain a defining characteristic affecting political, legal and cultural relationships on many levels. Most likely, many of us will continue to resist assimilation and, in the absence of more modern terminology, will consequently remain as ''other'' to American culture and civilization. Perhaps a new term such as indigenous civilization may become increasingly meaningful and necessary to give expression to American Indian nations that participate in contemporary markets for livelihood while maintaining government-to-government relations, and preserving community and values.