Last Updated 25 May 2020

American Literature Before 1865

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While the land issue is frequently invoked as the reason behind the extermination of indigenous Americans by European settlers, the real issue was a clash of cultures that held incompatible world views. Among Native Americans (hereafter referred to as “Indians” for convenience and because this is actually Native peoples’ preferred appellation according to Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie), society was usually very egalitarian, and even democratic. Europeans on the other hand believed in top-down, societal structures with rigid orders and classes.

Most Indians were hunters and gatherers; this is how they survived, acknowledging game and wild edible plants as gifts of nature. In light of the harsh, puritanical Yahwist world view of the Europeans, it is significant that those in a hunting-gathering society rarely have to work more than five or six hours per week in order to satisfy their basic needs; Euro-Christians were children of a vengeful, patriarchal god who demanded that they earn their bread by the sweat of their brow (unless of course, one was a successful capitalist, in which lower classes would do it on one’s behalf).

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Their warped belief system demanded that they till the earth; hunting was for sport. Many (not all) Indians found the thought of agriculture as an affront to the earth; if the Great Spirit had provided berries, roots and game animals, why would they scratch open the Great Mother seeking more?

Sexuality was another issue; while most Indians embraced it as any normal, healthy life form and exhibited great tolerance for homosexuality and trans-gendered people (some of whom had high status, as was the case of the Cherokee “Two Spirit”), Europeans were – as many Americans are now – embarrassed, ashamed, intolerant and repressive when it came to sexual matters. Women among many Indian tribes also had a huge degree of freedom and equality with men, which was rigidly denied to European women. Different European groups had very different experiences and problems in encountering and interacting with Indians.

In A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virgina, written in 1587 prior to the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, the explorer Harriot – a product of the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare – wrote under the heading Of The Nature and Manners of the People that the Indians “…are not to be feared, “ but warning “that they shall have cause to feare and love us, that shall inhabite with them” (241). Harriot goes on the describe them in some detail as to their animal-skin clothing, their lack of edged tools and their style of warfare.

He writes, “In respect of us, they are a people poore, and for want of skill and judgement in the knowledge and use of our things, doe esteeme our trifles [toys, coins and cooking tools] before things of greater value” (242). This statement is significant, particularly in light of later experiences of the English in Virginia – experiences that involved great suffering, death and privation. Here, Harriot indulges in typical English chauvinism, judging Indian society and culture by the standards of his own.

It should have become obvious over the ensuing twenty years that a lack of technology did not necessarily make for an inferior culture; masters of their environment, the Indians were well able to survive and even thrive in a place where the first English settlers starved, existed in poverty and frequently died. Even Harriot’s statement that “should they desire our friendship and love, [they will] have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us” – a clear declaration of intentions to enslave Indians – proved to be based on this faulty logic as future English settlers discovered when they attempted to do just that.

Harriot’s description of the local Indian’s religion indicates there were some traits shared with their own Christianity; immortality of the soul, analogues to Heaven and Hell, and even formal worship rituals held in “houses appropriate or temples” (243). While by no means typical of all Indian spirituality or religion, it was these kinds of similarities that some Catholic missionaries were able to use in their successful conversions elsewhere.

With similarities such as described by Harriot, one wonders if some elements of Christianity had not filtered north from Spanish claims in Florida. Alternatively, given the chauvinistic tendencies of Europeans in general and the English in particular that led to so many misunderstandings, it is quite possible that Harriot may have been simply seeing what he expected and/or desired to see. In any event, the English did not hesitate to use the Indian’s own normal fears of the unknown against them for their own advantage.

During a drought, local Indians (some of the few who did engage in agriculture, apparently) came to believe their problems had been brought on by their own actions, and offered to play to the “God of England, that he would preserve their Corne,” offering the English a portion when the harvest came in. Later, when diseases carried by the English were spread to those Indians who had no natural immunity, the English were all too happy to attribute the plague to their vengeful God for their “wicked practises” (245).

In the case of Indians to whom such things had never happened and had no concept of how disease spread through bacteria and viruses, this self-serving explanation on the part of the English was all too acceptable. The Spaniards’ experiences with Indians were as varied as the Indian cultures they encountered. For example, with complex urban societies such as the Aztecs and Incas, the Spaniards were forced to deal with powers that were nearly equal to their own in terms of technology and organization; only through collaborators within these civilizations were leaders like Cortez and Pizzaro able to succeed in their conquests.

Further north, the Dine (Navajo) and Zuni presented somewhat less of a challenge. Unlike the English who came for land, the Spaniard’s main objective was plunder; gold, silver, slaves and souls. Unlike the primarily secular English expeditions, the Spaniards operated under the blessings of an aggressive Roman Catholic church, whose tool was the Holy Inquisition (rather different from the “kinder, gentler” brand of Catholicism brought by French missionaries to Indians further north).

The Zuni – linguistically related to the Nez Perce, Yakama, Klamath and Modoc peoples of the Pacific Northwest, yet living in New Mexico – embraced a kind of spirituality that was completely unlike Christianity. There religion was organized into different “societies,” each of which governed a specific aspect of the community (22). In many ways, Zuni religion resembled that of the ancient Mayans; a “sun priest” known as a Pekwin kept a calendar; there was also a belief in “Hero Twins,” hearkening back to the Mayan legends of Hunahpu and Xibalanque.

The Hero Twins also appear in the mythology of other Southwest peoples, including the Navajo (34). This and many other aspects of Zuni culture are revealed in their own creation myth, whose relationship with the Spaniards was hostile practically from the beginning; taken as one of the “Seven Cities of Cibola,” this sedentary, semi-urbanized, agricultural people successful drove off the initial Spaniard invasion in 1540. A Catholic mission was eventually established some ninety years later, but in 1680, the Zuni were in rebellion once again, joining other Pueblo Indians against the Spaniards.

Zuni attitudes toward the Spaniards are apparent in a later version on the Zuni creation story, in which the Trickster, or “mischief-maker,” is associated with Mexicans, or Spaniards. The Trickster is a common figure in nearly all myths in all cultures on the planet; the late Joseph Campbell considered the Trickster as an integral part of the archetype “mythic journey,” or Hero’s Quest. The purpose of a Trickster was to lead the Hero astray, or attempt to delay or even foil the Quest.

Among American Indian cultures, the Trickster could take many forms, but most frequently appeared as a Coyote. While he could be a teacher and frequently force one to confront that which they might not otherwise wish to deal with, Coyote could also be a mischief-maker. Associated Coyote with Mexicans/Spaniards had a negative connotation. In this version of the creation story, Mexicans also emerge later than the Zuni. This is yet another point of significance; like many tribal peoples, their name for themselves translates as “The People,” with the implication that others are not “people.

” The name Halona-Iriwana, the Zuni pueblo, means “The Middle Ant Hill of the World,” suggesting that chauvinistic self-centeredness was not unique to the English and Spaniards. It has been suggested that this type of mentality was what allowed the Europeans to decimate the Indian populations; had all Indian peoples been able to unite against the invaders, European settlers might not have been quite as successful. The problem with this idea is in the sheer diversity of Indian peoples, not only in terms of language, but culture and even physical traits.

While warfare among American Indian tribes never reached the kind of wholesale slaughter that it did among Europeans, conflict and competition for resources and prestige was still quite common. Cultural diversity may be something to treasure today, but in American history, it has had great – and often tragic – consequences. Works Cited Baird, Forrest E. and Walter Kaufman, eds. From Plato to Derrida, 4th Ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1997).

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American Literature Before 1865. (2016, Jul 12). Retrieved from

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