In Other Words




An Evolving Narrative of Indigenous Histories

1 November 2018

Well into the twentieth century, stories of American Indians held to a stereotypical narrative. Indians—the name replaced by the more culturally relevant Native Americans—were portrayed as fierce and oftentimes brutal warriors but vulnerable as a race; they were powerful and handsome but primitive and uncivilized. Shaping these perceptions, writers and filmmakers presented tweaked histories of events, but our representations gradually evolved to suit society expectations and eventually inclusivity. This shift in ideas and thoughts has led to more emphasis being placed on the search for Native American Identity. Our first data collected on Native Americans was taken from explorers, soldiers, missionaries and traders, whose motivations were less about understanding human nature, and more about exploitation, conversion and ownership of a land rich in human and natural resources. And perhaps in a case of too little, too late, revisiting these histories has been challenging, and the process to fully understand the natures of these earliest known Americans continues.

Early cultural insights about the Americas once came from writer opinions and fictional storytellers. The experiences of fierce conflicts over territory between European settlers and Native Americans, that ran into the early twentieth century, has inspired literature, films, games and songs. While indigenous, fictional narratives told from a white man’s perspective is sometimes seen as cultural appropriation, we can at least credit some writers for offering empathetic views. The Last of the Mohicans, a novel written in 1826 and set in 1757, was a romanticized version of conflict and showed flawed characters on all sides: English, French as well as Indians and their own tribal wars.  It depicted Indians as noble and virtuous, and a desire for alliance between races, but also showed a wide cultural divide between the new and old settlers, which offered no immediate or peaceful solution.

For several centuries, the fierce and proud horse-riding Indian has been a popular and palatable portrayal, since original histories—long before horses were re-introduced to the Americas in the 1600s—were too vague or complex to illustrate.  Alternative histories have surrounded battle legends and famous Native Americans such as: Pocahontas, who married and entered English Society; Sitting Bull whose visions inspired a US cavalry defeat in the legendary ‘Custer’s Last Stand’; and Geronimo who fought against the confinement of reservation settlement. For newer audiences, however, knowledge and technology have given ways to create greater realism based on our collected evidence of an earlier era. The film, Apocalypto set in 1511 gave people a window into the raw untouched Mesoamerican and the pitfalls of sharing land with other tribes prior to European settlement.

Our attention has in more recent years turned toward a sense of injustice and an acknowledgement of early mistreatment. That’s not to say there weren’t individuals of an earlier era, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, a missionary priest and historian who spoke out against slavery and the abuse of Native Americans, but voices didn’t have the same reach to drown out more popular descriptions.  And while explaining them positively, indigenous peoples were often lumped as one large group rather than depicting them as individuals within unique societies.

Certain perspective and bias have often framed understanding, and historical texts produced conflicting images and messages. Christopher Columbus’ first reaction, on his voyage of 1492, described the natives, the “gentle” Arawaks in Central America, as “all of good stature, very handsome people”, and “lacking in guile and so generous.”  Then when they rose up against the sudden restrictions placed upon them he would reshape his opinions. He and others later encountered tribes who were not so accommodating and resisted the Spanish such as the Caribs reported as ‘cannibals’. The word itself derived from a Carib word meaning valiant man. In the Carib culture eating the prisoners of war both celebrated the defeat of an enemy and asserted their position of power. Yet an event like that did not translate well into the European world and the word cannibal was synonymous with animalistic and barbarous.

Vespucci recorded that a sailor was killed and eaten within sight of shipmates. With more reports of polygamy and incest, images were emerging of a faithless, disorderly and savage being. Historian, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés reported that Indians were “unteachable”, further asserting Vespucci’s descriptions. Columbus’ depiction was translated into sixteen editions before the fifteenth century concluded, and twenty-two editions were published in total and in various languages.  Similarly to the fact that indigenous words didn’t always translate effectively, one can see how a certain amount of the original account may have been distorted as these early depictions spread across Europe. To add to the confusion and ignorance, there was disparity between explorers when describing the appearance of indigenous Americans. Could they be considered European (or Caucasian) for example, or was the preference to distance them from any similarities? Columbus described them as neither black nor white, and Amerigo Vespucci, Florentine explorer of 1502, saw their sun-browned skin as “pulling toward red.” Italian, Giovanni da Verrazzano exploring eastern North America described them “toward whiteness”, others to a tawny color.

During an expedition through Central Mexico, Hernán Cortés commented on the cultural parallels between the old world and the new, describing the Aztec’s advanced structures taller than the buildings in Spain. And through Cortés another view of “the Indian” was appearing: someone more advanced, more powerful.  Fuelled by Cortes’ discoveries, Francisco Pizarro’s exploration and later conquering of Peru revealed further the sophistication of the Incas and their hierarchal system of government with a ruler, nobles and administrators, taxation, advanced road system that stretched across the empire, impressive architecture, which included canals, fountains and buildings to withstand an earthquake, and superior artwork and agriculture.

The first known accurate portrait of a Native American was completed in 1529 by Christoph Weiditz, and brought to the court of Charles V by Cortés. Though even with solid evidence, this did not in fact soften the image of the New World’s inhabitants. Those who weren’t witness conjured up ideas of devils. Artists, engravers who had never visited the new world created unflattering likenesses. Some like Jacques le Moyne de Morgues depicted hard working agriculturalists, but others took some artistic licence to create centurion-like warriors beside pieces of people hung up as in an abattoir.  For the many who couldn’t read, illustrations, and the framed opinions by those who could, guaranteed a narrow, political view.

Increasingly, we have turned to archaeology, geology and science to understand natures, patterns, and traditions. Studies suggest that the world once looked very different, and that people travelled from Siberia to Alaska connected by a strip of land known as Beringia 11,500 years ago. DNA of children’s bones found in Alaska appears to confirm this.  ­­Interestingly, Jose de Acosta, a Jesuit theologian and missionary in the 16th century, was the first to attempt to understand the origins of the Native Americans and hypothesized the same: that Native Americans had migrated from elsewhere.

In 1848, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley was published detailing examinations of earthworks, walled structures, and mounds in Ohio that are an estimated between 1500 and 2200 years old. Scientists and archaeologists have spent a considerable time since attempting to carbon date the items found within these sites: from fine art, crafts and carvings that would rival some of the artistry today, as well weaponry, copper items, and evidence of tools, seeds and kernels of maize that suggested farming and trade. Such evidence suggests more than savage warriors or peaceful naturists, but thriving and advanced trading communities, much like the Inca and Aztec civilizations, and long before European discovery.

We also know that despite not having a particular name for their religion, some worshipped deities, saw the sun as a higher power, and had burial rituals and ceremonies; and the depictions of shamans, warriors and animal-like figures in cave paintings dating back 1500 years in North America suggested evidence of a religion that was focused around nature, animals, and spirits.

In the quest to interpret the Native American anatomically, some did so by dubious means. Geographers and scientists in the 1800s took whatever measures necessary to retrieve skeletons to study, while some museums raced to obtain “collectables”. Skull collectors took to robbing graves for their relevant benefactors. And some travelled through even murkier archaeological and scientific waters, classifying the intelligence of races by skull size, something that has since been appropriately abandoned. Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist in the early 1900s, took under his wing the last known native of a previously unknown northern Californian tribe. Kroeber believed that “Ishi” was the intellectual and physical equal of any white American and all that separated him from mainstream America was Western education.

It is safe to assume that language presented a major barrier, since it is estimated that around the time of Columbus there were between 400 and 600 languages across as many tribes, and likely many more in the thousands of years earlier. Native American texts, whether studied or learned in earlier centuries, were not recorded, and the earliest evidence is a hand written land deed written in Massachusetts in 1664. It was not until the 1700s that texts written by Native Americans fully emerged but by then knowledge from centuries earlier had been mostly lost.  By the end of this century, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese were quickly taking over the Americas. While some native languages still exist in parts of America today, many have become or are becoming extinct. Native Americans from the centuries past were adopting the European culture and traditions, and government policies on assimilation meant that the histories passed on verbally or through customs were also disappearing.

Narratives have broadened to better reflect and appreciate indigenous histories, but the task to fully understand them remains complex by the sheer number of unique peoples and tribes, languages and customs. Based on early observations, environment and discoveries, we have come to somewhat basic conclusions about the earliest Americans. Tribes had roles each for women and men. Within their own structures they had politics and religion. Their personalities were varied from gentle to others more combative and fiercely territorial, and each group had their own legends, customs and languages. Some tribes like the Navajo lived more simply on the land while others like the Mayans were advanced architecturally. But through these conclusions also, we have learnt that the complexity of human nature is universal. Perhaps there is only one history that not only defines the nature of the Native Americans but that we collectively share across races. Chief Seattle, of the Duwamish tribe, seemed to think so over two hundred years ago: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”


Gemma Liviero


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Image: Wikipedia. Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, 1827, Thomas Cole.


© Gemma Liviero 2018

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