A Brief History
On March 22, 1621, the European (basically British) colonists of Plymouth Colony, a “Pilgrim” venture for displaced religious zealots to find a place to practice their religion in peace, signed a peace treaty with Chief (or “Sachem”) Massasoit of the Wampanoag Native American coalition of tribes that had occupied what is now Massachusetts. Only a year later, at Jamestown, Virginia, the European (mostly British) colonists suffered a catastrophic attack from Algonquian Native Americans, resulting in the deaths of about a third of the entire population of colonists at and around Jamestown, leaving 347 White colonists dead, part of the conflict known as the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. Peace, war, cooperation, massacres, lies, admiration, respect, hatred, racism, all words that accurately describe the relationship between Native Americans and the European Americans that usurped ownership of the lands of North America.
The uneven and allegedly unfair relationship between White European settlers and Native Americans is a subject we have previously touched upon. At first, contact between European explorers and Native people in North America, at least among the French, English and Dutch and the Native people, was perhaps tense, but quickly turned into a mutually profitable venture when the Europeans eagerly paid the Native Americans for furs and pelts in exchange for a variety of European goods, including trade muskets and the associated shot and powder. The lucrative fur trade spawned its own set of complicated relationships, not just between the Europeans and Native Americans, but also between competing Native people that vied for the trade with Europeans, resulting in Native vs. Native warfare and displacement of populations. As Europeans started to colonize North America, Native people were displaced and conflicts often occurred, resulting in what is known as the American Indian Wars, a period from 1540 to as late as 1924. When White people slaughtered Native people, even women and children, the action was called a “Victory.” When Native Americans won a battle, whether or not women and children were among the victims, White people called it a “Massacre!”
Spanish conquest of Native American lands in what is now called Latin America started soon after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. The Spanish and Portuguese also experienced an ambivalent relationship with Native people, brutally oppressing Native tribes and at the same time trying to acknowledge basic human rights under the law. Similar unsuccessful and inconsistent treatment of Native people happened in what is now the United States and Canada, with periods of peaceful co-existence interspersed with fierce wars in which non-combatants on both sides were often slaughtered. Of course, forcing the Christian religion upon Native people was a common theme.
The American impression of Native Americans varies wildly from the “Noble Savage,” portraying the Native Americans as environmentalists in spiritual touch with the land, wise and of great honor, and then our movies and television shows portray Native people as bloodthirsty savages desiring only to rape, murder and scalp White people. Our history books tell school children of the great kindness and cooperation of Native people with European settlers, noting such Native people as Squanto and Sacagawea among others. Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chief was paraded about at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows and became the figurehead of the “Nobel Savage” stereotype. Meanwhile, Native people were pushed further and further off their traditional lands, and finally herded to “reservations.”
The dilemma of European Americans vis a vis the Native People: Should Native people be integrated into mainstream (White) society, or would that be a form of genocide, destroying their Native language, customs and culture? Designating reservations was problematic as well. Given large tracts of land would invariably lead to lands eventually coveted by the White population. Thus, lands set aside for reservations often were not large enough to allow for the Native lifestyle and often were of poor quality for sustaining the Native people, forcing those “Reservation Indians” into dependence on White government largesse. Not all Native people were thrilled about being forced to become farmers, notably those that had nomadic lifestyles with strong traditions of hunting and travel.
Native people were long discriminated against in American society, treated as second class citizens, refused the right to vote or operate as equals in normal society. Intermarriage between Whites and Native people occurred often enough, but was not only discouraged but often made illegal, not much different than the way interracial relationships between African Americans and European Americans was treated both socially and legally. Mixed race “half-breed” people resulting from the union of White and Native couples were treated the same as Native people.
The US government has put the image of Native Americans on coins and stamps, and Americans have celebrated the athletic exploits of Jim Thorpe, a mixed race half-Native American. Today, Americans often brag about their partial Native American heritage, even to the point of lying about having some Native American DNA swimming around inside! (Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts and 2020 candidate for President comes to mind.) We were proud to write about the first US Senator of Native American descent, Charles Curtiss, but other high ranking US politicians claiming Native American heritage have been noticeably absent from our history.
Another Native American of mixed historical and popular reaction was US Marine, Ira Hayes, who served on Iwo Jima during the horrific fighting against the Japanese for that little island during World War II. One of the famous men that raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, Hayes achieved fame, but when he went home after the war there was little our country had to offer him. Like many Native Americans of the time, he was trapped in poverty and was reportedly a heavy drinker of alcoholic beverages, a stereotype that has dogged Native people throughout our history. His death supposedly came as he drowned, passed out from over-drinking in a puddle, though this account is disputed by some, with the counter claim that Hayes had been mugged after gambling and left for dead. A real American hero, but cast aside and forgotten, a perfect example of the crazy inconsistent way Americans treat their Native people. (See our article, “10 Famous Native Americans.”)
So, how about it Americans? Are our Native People illiterate savages little different than the beasts that once roamed North America, or are they the noble, wise, conservationists with an uncanny spirituality, brave and cunning with a deeply ingrained sense of honor? Are Native Americans inherently lazy drunkards, or are they naturally athletic physical powerhouses and masters of nature? Which typical American impression is right, the romanticized positive one the racist stereotypical one?
More likely the idea of trying to characterize an entire people is just plain wrong! Individuals are just that, individuals. There really is no “Indian” type, just individual people with varying degrees of mental, physical and moral abilities. As to the legality and morality of how the United States was settled at the expense of the Native People, the arguments are incredibly complex. Feel free to give us your thoughts on the subject.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should the United States have been settled by pushing out the Native peoples? How could things have been done differently? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.
Treuer, Anton. Atlas of Indian Nations. National Geographic, 2014.
The featured image in this article, an image of Massasoit and governor John Carver smoking a peace pipe, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.