The question of what motivates people more when they act – cultural priorities, such as religion or tradition, or the so-called “rational” motivations, such as economics and politics – has been one long debated on. This debate has been quite fierce, members of both sides providing valid and powerful arguments to support their claims. One of the focal points for this discussion are the people known under the blanket term “Native Americans”. Where did their motivations stem from? Was it merely pragmatism, a wish to get the most out of any outsiders? Or was culture and tradition vital to decision making?
It is doubtless that both of these factors were present, however, the question is, which was the initial factor of influence, dominating thought and action. Scholars have attempted to prove points both ways. I support the side which claims that culture was the primary factor. I shall first provide counter-arguments to the opposing side, then provide supporting arguments for my own claim. First, however, it must be noted that Native Americans is a very catchall term, which is used for lack of a better one. As the website of the Native American research center states, “It must be emphasized that no one person speaks for Indian People.
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There are nearly three hundred distinct American Indian Nations in the present United States. Each has its own language and history, its own sacred places and rituals. Each is rooted in and part of the land out of which it grew. “ There are dozens of tribes, including some that are officially considered extinct now, that had quite different customs. If we say that there were Native Americans and they had one kind of culture and, as a consequence, had the same customs, we may just as well say that there are Europeans and they have one culture, completely losing the obvious distinctions between different nations.
The cultures of different tribes of Native Americans are very different - to deny this would be to unjustly diminish their cultural value – and yet there are cultural tendencies, and there are exceptions. I will attempt to prove that the tendency is to use tradition as a guideline, and the occasions where “pragmatical” reasons have been primary are the exceptions verifying the rule. First I shall examine the political argument. It seems very difficult to think that “politics” in the sense that we understand them now had an influence on the Native Americans.
When we think of “politics” we think of diplomatic traditions, of treaties that are made to be broken, of backstabbing. This, however, was not the dominant case with Native Americans. As Dee Brown wrote in his book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, “So tractable, so peaceable, are these people,’ Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain [referring to the Tainos on the island of San Salvador, so was named by Columbus], ‘that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation.
They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy. ” This was verified a number of times by other observations, Columbus’s report being merely the most famous occasion. Time after time, the settlers used the same tactic. While officially recognizing the natives as owners of the land, they used any tactic possible to get them to sell the land, up to getting the chief of the tribe drunk.
Then, once the treaty – which usually went along the lines of “There are white men on your lands now anyway, but give us a part of your land, and we will not go on your land without your permission. ” – was signed, in a few years the expansion continued in the same manner, and new treaties were signed. Despite these circumstances, there have been virtually no instances of the treaties between the Indians and the Europeans being broken by the Indians – however, Europeans were breaking these treaties constantly, in 99% of the cases!
One would think that if politics were the defining factor in the Native American’s way of dealing they would have changed their tactic after the first few times these treaties were broken – they were not fools, and hundreds of years of such tactics would have destroyed even the most saintly naivete. So the conclusion must be that there was something more than mere hope that the white men would see reason standing behind these promises that forced the Native Americans to keep them. The next common choice for primary motivation is economics.
However, despite the fact that the Indians had private property and were no strangers to trade, this could hardly be the dominating motivation. First of all, the Indians were completely self-supporting. Even if they did require something essential they could not produce themselves – which was fairly rare - other Native American tribes generally proved much better business partners, generally being more honest than the Europeans. Consequentially, all the Europeans could offer them were luxuries. This, naturally, should not be underestimated as a lure in any way.
However, a trade which truly entails only luxuries is always small by necessity. In any case, trade relationships were not nearly so large-scale as in the Old World. They could not have been the driving motivation Also, we have numerous documents that detail the interaction between Native Americans and European settlers. The initial reply to the abovementioned land-selling treaties was nearly always quite similar. For instance, an excerpt from the 1752 Abenaki Conference between Captain Phineas Stevens and the St.
Francis Indians shows the Indian’s attitude to these treaties: “4 - But we will not cede one single inch of the lands we inhabit beyond what has been decided formerly by our fathers. 5 - You have the sea for your share from the place where you reside; you can trade there; but we expressly forbid you to kill a single Beaver, or to take a single stick of timber on the lands we inhabit; if you want timber we'll sell you some, but you shall not take it without our permission. ” And there exists a number of other documents revealing a similar attitude.
Could this, in truth, only be showing that the Indians merely wanted a better deal? One could naturally gain a leeway in trade by keeping the land and selling its resources. However, it is a basic law of economics that one wishing to trade must meet the demand. Had this trade in itself been a factor of dire importance to the Indians, they would have put forth an effort to convince the Europeans that trading would prove profitable. However, the attitude that prevails in documents is one of indifference. It seems like the Indians did not care for the presence of Europeans.
If the white men wished a trade, then they would get a trade. If they did not, the Indians seemed perfectly content to let them live without making any more contact than absolutely necessary. Trade was not of importance – it influenced the relationship between the natives and settlers when it was present, but it was by no means the most important factor. On the other hand, tradition and culture was of extreme importance, influencing entire tribe’s behaviors – especially such a part of culture as religion. For Native Americans religion was of utmost importance.
Even the Canadian Jesuit missionaries remarked that the Native Americans were highly religious – and not in the “Sunday Christian” sense, either, but with deep roots and a great influence of every aspect of their lives. This is a characteristic feature of most tribal societies, where little distinction is made between the sacral and the mundane. However, for Indians religion had special relevance, as it was one of the things that allowed them to cling on to their cultural identity, saving them from assimilation. Yet even before this was a relevant factor, religion permeated nearly every aspect of Native American life.
Their religion was (and remains) one of pure personal experience, not leaving any room for dogma. The Native American worldview is mythological. For all practical purposes, this means that religious factors such as hunting rituals and their theoretical results are the perceived as being absolutely as physically real as an arrow fired into an animal, having the same kind of cause-and-effect that a physical event might. A deal with a spirit, for instance, is treated as seriously as a treaty with a human. A spirit’s warning was heeded as much as a human’s would, with absolutely the same kind of discretion.
And magical means of solving problems were taken as absolutely valid. One of the most well known incidents was in 1876, before the battle at Little-Big-Horn when the famed Sitting Bull performed a three-day shamanic ritual to decide what to do with the white men, staring at the sun and wounding himself until he fell unconscious. After he came to, he announced that the white men were there for the Indians to take, because he saw white men fall into the Indian’s camp headfirst, losing their hats, meaning they would be the killed by the Indians.
Also he announced that “They had no ears”, i. e. they were deaf to reason, giving the Indians a moral right to attack. This is not the only incidence of religion influencing political activity. The Ghost Dance religion can be cited as another famous example, showing how Native American religion changed with the times, how it adapted to the flow of time and adopted alien cultural notions and yet survived without losing all of its cultural value, keeping the spirit, though changing the form.
One might say that this lack of dissemination between regular life and religious life simply brings more factors into the political games. Religious leaders are used as figure heads for power play, and spirits are dealt with in the same manner humans are dealt with – if, indeed, the shamans who contact the spirits even believe in them and not use them as a means of their own power and control! This is, however, hardly the case, as there are numerous arguments against this position in the study of tribal societies as a whole.
Firstly, their religion was always very personal. Every single Indian had their own religious experience and, as with any religion that requires its neophytes to work out their own niche - clergy being needed only in extreme cases – it is always very strong. The strength of this experience makes it difficult to give anything that is lower than it is a higher priority. The Native Americans did not believe in their gods watching over them – they knew the gods were there as much as they knew that their teepee was still standing.
And while white men were considered a temporary nuisance, guests or invaders at best, and were treated that way, the gods were almost like family, and treated with necessary respect and given due priority. Second, as the phenomenon of the Ghost Dance shows, the acts done out of religion were not necessarily the wisest politically – such as the sending out of search parties to look for the Messiah said to be an incarnation of Jesus, and this at the time when men were crucial to survival – so faking divine inspiration for political power is ruled out.
So, if the leaders genuinely believed in what they saw, the fate of hundreds and thousands rested within religion – more than enough to define it as one of the crucial influencing factors. It can be seen that politics and trade simply not as much of an influence on life, while religious and cultural activity was always extremely important, guiding the life of every Indian to a certain extent. This was the source of much misunderstanding, since for Europeans politics often took the leading role when religion failed to provide the necessary support and guidance.
This made both sides misinterpret the others’ actions, resulting in a long and bloody war that pned generations. The Native Americans also had also led wars between each other in the past; they were no strangers to military tactics. However, their wars had rules – ones that the settlers naturally broke, thus spelling defeat for the natives. This also shows just how big a role does tradition play in Native American society – had they adapted to the way of war which the Europeans brought to them, they would have survived losing less than they did.
In conclusion, it can be said that, as we have seen, purely empirical evidence proves that the Native Americans did not use either politics or economics as the prime guideline for building the relationships either among themselves or between them and Europeans. These factors were not considered firsthand in any crisis situation, and even 370 years of war against the Europeans did not put them very high on the list of priorities. However, ethics and religion made quite an impact on the decisions made by the Native American people, and remain influential factors in their thinking to this day.
This was the true motivation of most Native Americans, and remains so up to modern times. Works cited. 1. American Indian Culture Research Center: http://www. bluecloud. org/dakota. html 2. Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West”, Henry Holt & Company; Reprint edition (February 1, 1991) 3. Terry L. Anderson, “Dances with myths - truths about American Indians' environmental ethics”, Reason, February 1997. 4. Ghost Dance Religion: http://www. bgsu. edu/departments/acs/1890s/woundedknee/WKghost. html 5.
Cultures of North America: http://www. mnsu. edu/emuseum/cultural/northamerica/index. shtml 6. Cultures of North America: http://www. mnsu. edu/emuseum/cultural/northamerica/index. shtml 7. David Stannard, “The American Holocaust”, Oxford University Press, 1992. 8. The Massacre at Wounded Knee: http://www. hanksville. org/daniel/lakota/Wounded_Knee. html 9. The Wampum Chronicles: Mohawk Territory on the Internet: http://www. wampumchronicles. com/index. html 10. George E. Tinker, “Religion”: http://college. hmco. com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_032600_religion.
htm 11. NativeWeb: http://www. nativeweb. org/ 12. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler: http://digital. library. okstate. edu/kappler/Vol1/HTML_files/toc. html 13. Abenaki Conference with Phineas Stevens. Documents Related to the Colonial History of the State of New York Vol. X. pg. 252-254. Donated by Jeffery Miller - Administrator of Fort #4. http://www. avcnet. org/ne-do-ba/doc_1752. html 14. The Manataka Oath, Creed and Code of Conduct: http://www. manataka. org/page182. html
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