Did Indians Teach Westerners Good Government?

Compiled by John "Birdman" Bryant

Note: Birdman would very much like to see some independent confirmation of all this.

 

From LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, BY JAMES LOEWEN (Simon & Schuster, 1995) from the chapter RED EYES PP. 109-111

The historian Gary Nash tells us that interculturation took place from the start in Virginia, "facilitated by the fact that some Indians lived among the English as day laborers, while a number of settlers fled to Indian villages rather than endure the rigors of life among the autocratic English. " Indeed, many white and black newcomers chose to live an Indian lifestyle. In his Letters from an American Farmer, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur wrote, "There must be in the Indians' social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans." Crevecoeur overstated his case: as we know from Squanto's example, some Natives chose to live among whites from the beginning. The migration was mostly the other way, however. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies."

Europeans were always trying to stop the outflow. Hernando De Soto had to post guards to keep his men and women from defecting to Native societies. The Pilgrims so feared Indianization that they made it a crime for men to wear long hair. "People who did run away to the Indians might expect very extreme punishments, even up to the death penalty" if caught by whites.

Nonetheless, right up to the end of independent Indian nationhood in 1890, whites continued to defect, and whites who lived an Indian lifestyle, such as Daniel Boone, became cultural heroes in white society. Communist Eastern Europe erected an Iron Curtain to stop its outflow but could never explain why, if Communist societies were the most progressive on earth, they had to prevent people from defecting. American colonial embarrassment similarly went straight to the heart of their ideology, also an ideology of progress. Textbooks in Eastern Europe and the United States have handled the problem in the same way: by omitting the facts. Not one American history textbook mentions the attraction of Native societies to European Americans and African Americans. African Americans frequently fled to Indian societies to escape bondage.

What did whites find so alluring? According to Benjamin Franklin, "All their government is by Counsel of the Sages. There is no Force; there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment." Probably foremost, the lack of hierarchy in the Native societies in the eastern United States attracted the admiration of European observers. Frontiersmen were taken with the extent to which Native Americans enjoyed freedom as individuals. Women were also accorded more status and power in most Native societies than in white societies of the time, which white women noted with envy in captivity narratives. Although leadership was substantially hereditary in some nations, most Indian societies north of Mexico were much more democratic than Spain, France, or even England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. "There is not a Man in the Ministry of the Five Nations, who has gain'd his Office, otherwise than by Merit," waxed Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden of New York in 1727. "Their Authority is only the Esteem of the People, and ceases the Moment that Esteem is lost." Colden applied to the Iroquois terms redolent of "the natural rights of mankind": "Here we see the natural Origin of all Power and Authority among a free People."

Indeed, Native American ideas may be partly responsible for our democratic institutions. We have seen how Native ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality found their way to Europe to influence social philosophers such as Thomas More, Locke, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. These European thinkers then influenced Americans such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison . In recent years historians have debated whether Indian ideas may also have influenced our democracy more directly. Through 150 years of colonial contact, the Iroquois League stood before the colonies as an object lesson in how to govern a large domain democratically. The terms used by Lt. Gov. Colden find an echo in our Declaration of Independence fifty years later. In the 1740s the Iroquois wearied of dealing with several often bickering English colonies and suggested that the colonies form a union similar to the league. In 1754 Benjamin Franklin, who had spent much time among the Iroquois observing their deliberations, pleaded with colonial leaders to consider the Albany Plan of Union: "It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies." The colonies rejected the plan. But it was a forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery. In 1775 Congress formulated a speech to the Iroquois, signed by John Hancock, that quoted Iroquois advice from 1744. "The Six Nations are a wise people," Congress wrote, "let us harken to their council and teach our children to follow it."

CAPTIONS ON PICTURES: After Col. Henry Bouquet defeated the Ohio Indians at Bushy Run in 1763, he demanded the release of all white captives. Most of them, especially the children, had to be "bound hand and foot" and forcibly returned to white society. Meanwhile the Native prisoners "went back to their defeated relations with great signs of joy, " in the words of the anthropologist Frederick Turner in Beyond Geography, 245. Turner rightly calls these scenes "infamous and embarrassing

As a symbol of the new United States, Americans chose the eagle clutching a bundle of arrows. They knew that both the eagle and the arrows were symbols of the Iroquois League. Although one arrow is easily broken, no one can break six or thirteen) at once.

 

 

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