Were Native Americans really kinder, gentler and more spiritual?
I used to, on some level, accept the popular notion that Native Americans were more spiritual and in tune with nature than European Americans, and that it was European Americans who brought war, sexism, and environmental degradation to an otherwise innocent, peaceful and Edenic Native America.
As a kid I bought slim paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Club that taught me that Native Americans planted dead fish in their agricultural fields in order to fertilize them. I learned that North American Indians didn't have the wheel, bronze, iron, or steel, or writing. They cooked acorns by dropping hot stones into holes dug in the ground and filled with water. The acorns had to be soaked in advance in order to leech them of toxins. I thought of how cumbersome and time-consuming that cooking method would be, and how bland a meal a soaked acorn would provide.
In popular culture, Native Americans were the spiritual and natural corrective to modern Americans, who were seen as greedy and divorced from nature. On TV, Iron Eyes Cody witnessed American pollution and a visible tear flowed down his creased and weathered cheek. Of course Iron Eyes Cody was actually Sicilian but hey. The commercial meant well.
Chief Seattle was alleged to have given an eloquent speech about protecting the environment. He compared the Native American harmony with nature and the White Man's greed. Chief Seattle's environmental speech is a hoax. The version most people know was written by a white, Christian man from Texas.
My environmentalist and politically correct friends were deeply offended by the "kill theory" of megafauna extinction. How did wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers disappear? Native Americans probably wiped them out. That's one theory, the "kill" theory. Other theories are the "chill" theory – cold weather killed the megafauna, and the "ill" theory. They died from disease. The kill theory depicted Native Americans as just like all other humans – not "in harmony with nature" but eager to exploit nature and heedless of the long-term consequences of such exploitation.
Christy Turner is a forensic anthropologist specializing in teeth. Native Americans have different teeth than European Americans. Their teeth are shovel shaped.
Turner was working his way through a box of bones in an Arizona museum in the 1970s when he said to himself, "Holy smokes." He suddenly realized that these human bones were the remains of a meal. These Native Americans had been butchered, cooked, and eaten. The bones showed typical evidence like cutting at key points to remove meat from bone. Diners had lopped off the tops of human skulls and placed them, face out, around fires in order to cook up and gain access to tasty brains. Before eating these peoples' brains, the diners had gazed at their agonized, slaughtered faces staring out at them from the cook fire.
Turner dated this horror repast, this cannibal cafeteria, between 900 AD and 1150 AD – three hundred years before Columbus arrived in North America. He found seventy-two sites with cannibal remains. Tons of human meat.
At one site, the cannibals slaughtered a family, butchered them, cooked them, ate them, and then crapped their remains out into the most sacred and beloved spot in a home – the family hearth – the source of heat, light, sustenance, and companionship. A coprolite, or fossilized feces, was found in the family hearth. It contained human remains, proof positive of Turner's cannibalism theory.
Turner published his research. He called the cannibals "thugs" and "Charles Manson types."
He was demonized. How dare you, you nasty white man named "Christy," as in the evil Christian Church (yes Turner's critics did say things like this), how dare you vilify Native Americans? Turner is hated to this day.
I was shocked when I read Turner's research. On some level I really believed that Native Americans were kinder and gentler and more spiritual.
I went to the National Museum of the American Indian run by the Smithsonian Institution. I learned there that Pizarro was able to conquer the Inca Empire with fewer than two hundred Spanish soldiers. Native American soldiers fought with him against the Inca. There must have been some mighty hatred for the Inca on the part of their Native American neighbors.
The Aztecs bragged of sacrificing 80,000 victims at the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487. A review of a museum show of Aztec art called it "chilling" and "terrifying." Writing in "The Guardian," journalist Laura Cumming called Aztec art "the most alien of all art. There are no images of moving animals, as in the caves of Lascaux. There are no accounts of great deeds, or commemorations of great leaders as in the art of the Pharaohs. Unlike just about every other culture in history, the Aztecs did not represent women, or women with babies, or, indeed, children at all. Nor, to be fair, did they ever depict men except as priests or warriors half-skeletonized in the jaws of death.
If they had any interest in the human spirit, in friendship, sex or emotion, then they certainly never showed it. The last thing you would expect from them would be anything as human or intimate as a portrait…As far as I can see, pretty much the entire purpose of Aztec art was to scare the living daylights out of everyone who saw it…Even the flea is monumentalized in stone because it lives by sucking blood.
It is impossible to look at all these objects without seeing them as the emblems and tools of a vast, putrid slaughterhouse. Nothing in Aztec art speaks of humanity or beauty. There is no attempt to inspire the sacrificial victim with rewarding images of the afterlife or to celebrate the gifts of the gods."
Obviously Ms. Cumming did not receive the memo on political correctness or cultural relativism.
Some promote Native Americans as gender heroes. The idea is that sexism is a modern invention, or that Christianity is to blame, and the further one gets from civilization and Christianity, the better things get for women and homosexuals, or "two spirit" people or berdaches.
Others acknowledge that it's not that simple. The Amazonian Yanomami is one of the most remote tribes on earth. They are very violent, including towards women. Gang rape is a fact of life. Husbands beat and burn their wives to establish dominance. According to David Good, who was born of a Yanomami mother and an anthropologist father, the language has no word for "love." When his anthropologist father left the village, his mother was gang raped by over 20 men. She had no husband to protect her.
I recently re-watched John Ford's classic 1956 western "The Searchers." The film is so rich whenever I watch it I simultaneously google various features of the story. "The Searchers" depicts settlers in 1860s Texas. Comanche warriors raid a homestead, murder four family members and kidnap the youngest, Debbie, to raise as one of their own and eventually marry her off to Scar, the chief. The plot is inspired by the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker who was the mother of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche.
Every American knows how we are supposed to react to "The Searchers" now. Back in 1956, when it was first made, Americans were supposed unquestioningly to accept the film's depiction of the Comanche as scary warriors who did horrible things to captives, especially women captives.
Now we are supposed to doubt and mock that official narrative. We are supposed to understand the Comanche as noble warriors defending their homeland against white, Euro-American Christians, who are supposed to be the real savages.
That's not what I found out through Google. What I found out through Google was pretty nightmarish.
The Comanche were no more native to Texas than the European Americans. They had started out in Wyoming. Europeans brought horses to the Americans, horses that had previously been driven to extinction in North America by kill, ill, or chill.
The Comanche adopted the horse and a mentality of "total war." They made furious war on other Native Americans, including the Apache, whom they "nearly exterminated," according to S. C. Gwynne, author of "Empire of the Summer Moon."
In "The Searchers," John Ford never shows or tells exactly what the Comanche did to their captives and their slaves. One can find out, though, through a Google search. I read material that utterly shocked me. I don't want to repeat the worst things. I'll just repeat one death – they took a white slave captive's baby, tied a rope to him, and dragged his infant body through cactus plants until he died.
One sixteen-year-old captive was repeatedly burned over eighteen months until her face was roasted away and her body was covered with bruises and burns.
One captive, Rachel Plummer, turned on her tormenter and began beating the Comanche. Once the captive had the upper hand, she nearly beat the Comanche to death. She reported that other Comanche stood around and watched their fellow tribeswoman being beaten to death by a white captive, and enjoyed it as an entertaining spectacle.
Once the captive had defeated the Comanche woman and she lay prostrate, no other Comanche would help her. The white captive did so, dragging her to a shelter and dressing her wounds. Plummer reported that beating a Comanche nearly to death earned her status in the tribe, and after that she was treated as an equal. S. C. Gwynne characterizes the Comanche as possessed of a "demonic immorality." Their enthusiastically sadistic rapes "border on criminal perversion if not some very advanced form of evil."
After reading about the Comanche, I had a taboo thought. "I'm glad the Comanche lost."
I'm not saying that the conquest of the Americas was not a bloodbath initiated by Europeans on less developed and often defenseless Native Americans. Of course I acknowledge the massive human suffering and injustice. And most tribes were not the Comanche or the Anasazi cannibals or Aztecs.
But in this one case, the case of European settlers in Texas v. the Comanche, I'm glad the Comanche lost. If their way of life is accurately depicted in the accounts I read, a way of life in which constant war, enslavement of non-Comanche, rape and torture were central features, I'm glad that that culture was defeated.
This conclusion is totally at odds with the politically correct worldview that insists that Europeans and Christians as the source of problems like sexism, cruelty and war. It's totally at odds with the centuries-old concept of the Noble Savage.
David Good, the son of an anthropologist father and a Yanomami mother, reports an anecdote.
"I remember the wife of a very prominent anthropologist — I was 12 or 13 at the time — asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I said, 'A Nintendo 64 with Super Mario Bros.' She looked at me in horror and said, 'Oh, my God. You're a typical American kid. I thought you'd be different.'"