Thursday, 23 June 2011

white mans creation

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Indian White Man’s Creation

The images of the Indian as we know them today are the invention of the White man (Birkhofer ). In fact, according to Roger Williams, until the Europeans arrived, the Native Americans had no need for a term that differentiated them from outsiders and thus only used the term “Indian” because the English used it (8). These images were created by the White man to justify their accumulation of wealth and colonization. While various descriptions and images are contradictory, the label “Indian” became synonymous with “savage” and “heathen” and perpetuated stereotypical images that unfortunately have endured for centuries.

In The White Man’s Indian, Robert F. Birkhofer, Jr., tells us that the Spanish inspired the term Indian, the concept that remains with us today, and that Christopher Columbus provided the original notion of the Indian, portraying both good and bad images of the natives in the New World (5). Columbus described their physical appearance, culture, and demeanor, remarking on their timidity, generosity, and overall pleasantness (6). However, he contrasted this view with a description of the “fierce” cannibalistic natives of “Carib;” and Birkhofer states that “from this hearsay but accurate description of the Caribbean cannibals came the line of savage images of the Indian as not only hostile but depraved” (7). Amerigo Vespucci also supplied Europeans with images of the Indian based upon his experiences of the natives in Brazil. In his writings, he tells of the natives’ nakedness, lust, and marital customs and thus establishes Indians as hedonistic (Birkhofer 7-8). Because of Vespucci’s influence in Europe and the wide distribution of his booklet, Birkhofer claims, the wild images of the natives were reinforced in the minds of his contemporaries (7).

Bartolom� de las Casas, a Spanish friar and advocate for the natives, attempted to prevent further abuse and destruction of the Indians by the Spanish. In his work entitled The Devastation of the Indies A Brief Account, las Casas paints a more constructive picture of the natives as “the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve” (8). He continues with portrayals of their humble, peaceful nature and intelligence. Las Casas’ rival on the issue of the treatment of the Indians was Juan Gin�s de SepĂșlveda, who supported Indian enslavement and occupation, describing Indians as inhuman, nomadic barbarians who were only satisfied while at war with one another and feasting on the flesh of their enemies (Birkhofer -10). Birkhofer states

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Spaniards found the Indian wanting in a long list of attributes letters, laws, government, clothing, arts, trade, agriculture, marriage, morals, metal goods, and above all, religion. Judgments upon these failures might be kind and sympathetic or harsh and hostile, but no one argues that the Indian was as good as the European in this early period. (10)

The English were no exception in their views of the stereotypical Indian. According to Birkhofer, the English used such labels as “infidel, heathen, and barbarian” in addition to Indian and savage, with infidel and heathen relating to religious distinctions between themselves and the Indians (15). Thomas Harriot reported a different slant on the natives, although his motives were less than noble. In his writings, he implies the natives could be easily overtaken by describing them not as barbarians but as poor, uneducated but respectful people who were interested in the religious beliefs and tools of the English, (81�84). To all of these descriptions, add the element of the printing press, enabling Europeans abroad to see actual images of the Indians, and ethnocentrism and stereotypes became widespread (Birkhofer 10).

In The Invasion of America, author Francis Jennings quotes Roy Harvey Pearce on his view of the Indian as “in fact no Indian but an image which the civilized conscience had created just for the protecting, which the civilized intellect and the civilized imagination had earlier created just for the destroying. Civilization had created a savage, so kill him. Idea had begotten image, so to kill it” (10). The author goes on to say that the Europeans’ opinions of the Indian varied according to what was needed of the Indian (5). For example, when the Indians defended their land from invasion, they were viewed as “demonic;” but when they were wanted as soldiers, their skill in warfare was praised and welcomed (5). Whatever viewpoint was held, Jennings states that the Indian “was always inferior to civilized men [. . .] never a citizen” (5).

In 16, in a conflict over land in Virginia, a new colony was destroyed by Powhatan’s successor, Opechancanough. In his anger and demand for vengeance for the colonists whose lives were lost, one poet constructed what is considered by Birkhofer to be “perhaps the darkest picture of Indian character [. . .]” (0)

For, but consider what those Creatures are,

(I cannot call them men) no Character

of God in them Soules drown’d in flesh and blood;

Rooted in Evill, and oppos’d in Good;

Errors of nature, of inhumane Birth,

The very dregs, garbage, and spanne of Earth;

Who ne’re (I think) were mention’d with those creatures

Adam gave names to in their several natures;

But such as coming of a later Brood,

(Not sav’d in th’ Arke) but since the generall Flood

Sprug up like vermine of an earthy slime,

And so have held b’ intrusion to this time

If these (I say) be but Consider’d well

(Father’d by Sathan, and the sonnes of hell). (5-18)

Birkhofer explains that the significance of this poetic description lies in the heresy committed by the poet as an outpouring of his anger, that by “depicting the savage character of the Indians he denied God’s creation of all human beings in a single act at one time” (1).

Europeans believed they were warranted in their takeover of the New World. In addressing the issue of justified conquest, Jennings argues that medieval theologians believed the rewards of a conquest could be considered justifiable only if the war was morally righteous; and declaring a morally righteous war against an enemy they had never met was difficult (4). However, the precedent had been set centuries before during the Crusades, which, according to Jennings “established the principle that war conducted in the interests of Holy Church was automatically just” (4). In addition, the writer asserts that waging war against a nation innocent of transgression would be a violation of decency as well as governing international law; but because the disagreement involved savages, war with them was an exception to the law (60). In 18, Chief Justice John Marshall argued, “The tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest [ . . .] That law which regulates [ . . . ] the relations between the conqueror and conquered was incapable of application to a people under such circumstances” (Jennings 60). Thus, being considered savages, those who lived off the land for sustenance, automatically precluded them from any protection through the law (Jennings 60).

While differences exist in the descriptions and images given by their conquerors, the term “Indian” became synonymous with “savage” and “heathen” and perpetuated stereotypical images that have endured for centuries. Native Americans have faced discrimination and exclusion for centuries as a result of the legacies created by the conquerors and early founders of our country. Birkhofer claims that “What began as reality for the Europeans ended as image and stereotype for Whites, and what began as an image alien to Native Americans became a reality for them. For Native Americans the power of the Whites all too often forced them to be the Indians Whites said they were [. . .]” (15). These early subjugators believed they were justified in their efforts to displace, enslave, or eliminate the estimated millions of native inhabitants in the name of Christianity and civilization. In his work entitled The Real Founders of New England, Charles Knowles Bolton summarized the plight of the Native Americans “Indeed the red man was the great overshadowing menace of colonization” (14).

Works Cited

Birkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man’s Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 178.

Bolton, Charles Knowles. The Real Founders of New England Stories of Their Life Along the Coast 160-168. Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 174.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill The University of North Carolina Press, 175.

Las Casas, Bartolom� de. The Devastation of the Indies A Brief Account. New York The Seabury Press, 174.

Williams, Roger. “A Key into the Language of America.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Literature to 180. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. 5 vols. New York Norton, 00.

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