Cultural Disparity Between the Indigenous Peoples and Colonials of America

The contrasting worldviews of the Indigenous and Colonial people served as a crucial source of social erosion, partly due to misconceptions that arose out of each other’s cultural structures and elements. Thus, it is partly for this reason why European settlers never viewed their Indigenous counterparts as equals, but rather as their inferiors. The extensive cultural differences between Colonial and Indigenous Americans played a significant role in the foundation of the European concept of racial supremacy over the Native people, which in turn fueled the ‘justification’ of European settlement. In order to better understand this complex relationship, that arose out of significant cultural contention, it is essential to look at various primary documents from the early contact period. This will hopefully provide an idea of the manner in which ethnocentrism affected the process of aggressive European colonization efforts.

Indigenous culture was intensely different from its European counterpart. It is, perhaps, more appropriate to describe the Indigenous cultural structures as vastly heterogeneous in comparison to the relative uniformity of the colonizers. The Indigenous populations of North America lived in symbiosis with the natural settings of the continent. Their relationship with their surroundings are best depicted in Chekilli’s Origin of the Creek Confederacy, where the Creek people, after much adversity, finally found their homeland and settled in ambiance with their natural surroundings. Moreover, the source describes how the Creek people were rooted from nature itself. There was, without doubt, a deep attachment and respect for nature within Indigenous society which had a profound effect on the religious and cultural development of the people. On the other hand, European culture thrived on the domination of nature and all its benefits, which in itself gave rise to an primitive sense of consumerism. In Platter’s travels to London,instead of describing events or people he gives a detailed list of meaningless but valuable objects collected from the New World in an apartment he visited. This fascination with material wealth became the driving factor in European culture both at the societal and individual level. The concepts of ownership and the domination of nature were the most important differences in the two cultures, and more importantly the source of European entitlement over the Indigenous people. Moreover these were also the foundations on which most European scholars and writers justified the superiority of European culture. Most travelers, tradesman, scholars and writers compared the Indigenous and deemed them as inferior, rather than study them as a rich

Harriot’s account of the Indigenous populations of Virginia and New Found Land serves as a perfect example of the way Europeans undermined and labeled Indigenous cultures as primitive, only to promote European ‘rights’ to settle on the North American lands. The reason for this is the fact that he puts a great deal of effort into comparing the two cultures. One specific instance of this, which is prevalent throughout the document, is his discussion of religion. Harriot is quick to debunk Indigenous spirituality and referred to it as ‘simple’ and ‘wrong’. In fact he goes as far to mention that they worshiped numerous gods, which in fact is far from the truth. The majority of Indigenous spirituality held an aspect of animism, where spirits, deities and humans all lived and shared nature together. This can be seen in Norton’s Iroquois Creation Story, where the main protagonist meets and interacts with spirits throughout nature.There is no aspect of fundamental polytheism, in the European model, or any part of standard western religious principles as Harriot believes. In other words, while there are many deities and spirits within their spirituality, they are most of the time not worshiped or loved, but respected, due to their connections to nature. Essentially, Harriot makes the mistake of comparing European to Indigenous religion as a fundamental standard, which is only one of his narrow minded faults. Thus, due to the erroneous manner of his comparisons, accompanied by his inability to understand Indigenous complexity, he enforces the idea that Europeans are superior early on in his writing. For instance, he refers to the Indigenous physicians as “ignorant” and nowhere as skilled and knowledgeable as European doctors. This general pattern can be seen throughout his work, as he compares all aspects of Indigenous culture, from clothing to warfare, to the European models. In fact, more than half of his work is based on these comparisons. By the time Harriot reaches his propaganda of colonization, the idea of European supremacy has already been firmly

It is difficult to determine whether this extremism was shared by many of Harriot’s contemporaries at the time, however, it is obvious that he directed his descriptions towards an European audience who shared the same affinities. Harriot emphasizes on his fabrication that the Indigenous people had a ‘need’ to be converted to Christianity, mainly, as he explains, that their simplicity and lack of culture did not let them evolve beyond their situations. For example, he infers that because many of the Natives began dying, due to the unknown fact at the time that epidemics traversed the ocean with Europeans, they began fearing the Christian God and even began following His ‘scriptures’. This seems somewhat exaggerated mainly due to the fact that Indigenous people had extremely strong ties, not only to their communities, but their communal spirituality. This can be evidenced by their strong creation stories and even stories about the prophetization of the arrival of Europeans. In Jeremy’s Floating Island there is an extensive description of the religious affinity of the Indigenous community, and even the woman’s prophecy is taken very seriously by all the tribes of the area. The main point remains that Harriot,at all instances tries, to emphasize that European culture is dominant over Indigenous culture in all aspects, by creating a sense that Natives were so astonished by the visitors that they immediately wanted to emulate their way of life. This unfair comparison leads to his statement that Virginia and New Found Land were perfect habitats to hold new immigration from England, despite the fact they contained thriving communities. In other words, the Indigenous ‘inferiority’ justified an aggressive European take­over, not only of the rich landscape but also

Another source that reinforces the general European mindset of superiority is Heckwelder’s The Arrival of the Dutch. Although this is a Indigenous account of the early contacts with Dutch settlers, it has been recorded by Heckwelder, a Dutch missionary in the 1760’s. In other words, it is very difficult to appreciate the validity of this source, especially more so because it deals with early contact content. The reason for this is simply because it is impossible to tell whether Heckwelder omitted or exaggerated a few in the story in order to promote the positivity and eminence of the European traders. More specifically, it is evident that that Heckwelder puts a great amount of emphasis, and even exaggeration on the manner in which Indigenous people viewed the European traders. For instance, they were at first considered to be the laborers of Mannito, an important deity within Mahican spiritual believes. The captain himself was considered to be Mannito himself, because of his lavish red clothes. Heckwelders explains that because of European technology and demeanor, they were immediately considered gods and appraised by the people. Both Harriot and Heckwelder used the religious aspects of both cultures to promote the idea that Indigenous people were by nature subject to the superior skills and knowledge of the Europeans. The only difference, however, is that Heckwelder’s source is an account passed down through ‘verbatism’ by the indigenous people themselves. However, although this is an Indigenous account, it is very unlikely that it was not recorded through Heckwelder’s European view points, as Calloway himself admitted in his editorial. Thus, it is possible that Heckwelder maliciously used the Indigenous lack of script to validate the long standing pro­European concept of being ‘gods’ in the eyes of the Indigenous

Although not to the same extent, the same pattern can be found in the collection of sources pertaining to Gosnold’s English Voyage of 1602. In these instances, among the crew who recorded their experiences, there is a sense of European entitlement to the land, natural resources and even inhabitants. In Gosnold’s letter to his father, he enthusiastically proclaims that the North Virginian lands are ripe for colonization, not only due to the favorable weather, but also because of the many exotic commodities found in the area, such as sassafras plants. Immediately after the voyage, Gosnold promoted the English, almost, ‘god-­given’ right to the lands without any real value given to the Indigenous population he met in Virginia. In fact, it is apparent throughout the crew’s recorded writings that their appreciation of Indigenous culture lay in their natural wealth and ability to trade. Gosnold saw in North Virginia a rich and lush environment whose resources remained largely virgin ,very similar to the island paradise described in the legend of St. Brendan’s travels, about 5 centuries earlier. The legend perhaps played a much bigger role in the religious and cultural definitions of the European continent, especially in the sense that it signifies the European need, at the time, to conquer new lands to the west which would enrich individual the nations. The same need was most definitely present with Gosnold during his voyage in 1602. Therefore, if the perquisites for colonization were already deeply instilled within the European mindset, it only became easier, once explorers undermined the much misunderstood Indigenous cultures, to further fabricate their own ideas about racial supremacy and dominance over areas such as Virginia.

The justification of forced settlement therefore was of no issue once the proposed cultural supremacy of the Europeans became a widespread denomination of most New World literature. Accounts such as Harriot’s, Gosnold’s played a significant role as primitive propaganda to incite colonization by right. They were a minuscule part of the large conglomerate of explorers and traders whose accounts, in general, pointed in the same direction and functioned in the same manner; by comparing European and Indigenous culture unfairly, especially to make the former look in more favorable light.

Cultural disparity was not the only factor that contributed to the fabrication of European entitlement, but also the manner in which Europeans sought to understand and decode these differences as their resolute duty to take over the Indigenous populations. The intermixing of the religious, economic and political objectives of the Europeans intertwined specifically to form a relationship with the supremacist view of explorers, such as Harriot, to conquer the Indigenous lands as their own for the next few centuries. Quinney’s July 4 Speech subtly summarizes the Europeans’ destruction of the Mahican people as a “terrible story of recompense of kindness”. What is meant by this is that although Europeans were welcomed, they only saw the Mahican people as commodities, only valuable in their times of need. The lack of religious institutions and political structures that resembled European models, as well as any remnants of what Europeans perceived as ‘culture’ within Indigenous society greatly encouraged xenophobia among the explorers and traders, who easily regarded the Indigenous inhabitants as inferior. Thus the European justifications for colonization were already deeply entrenched within the first few encounters between the two cultures in the early period of discovery. The Europeans chose to concentrate on the cultural distinctions rather than similarities which gave birth to the roots of concentrated supremacy, much more so than the premeditated xenophobia present in Europe in the pre­-contact period.

By Milad Doroudian


Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.

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