Savage System

Often, I address white American attitudes towards native peoples. How historians have ignored whole sections of our history, racism and genocide against native peoples, the lack of education about all of this history. But, recently I was reminded about how many Native people are themselves victims of having the same opinions of their own tribes, of the past, as the white populations around us. Many Native peoples have been separated from their history. They have learned through the same education systems about our ancestors, and they have become immersed in the stereotypes of native peoples that many people have in our society. In many ways, the assimilation experiment of the United States, worked. Some native people today see their ancestral peoples of the past as savages, warlike, drunken, lazy, and just the same as do many other people in on our society.

In some ways, the continuation of the reservation system helps to support the stereotypes. There are many poor and depressed Native people on reservations who seem to be living off whatever services and money they can get from their tribe. Many native peoples still do not graduate high school or go on to college. Native people have the lowest live expectancy of any minority.  Many become what appears to be lazy, drug depressed peoples, alcoholics that will never amount to anything. This is the outward appearance. And these appearances tend to confirm many of the stereotypes. I think the problem is in the reservation system itself, creating a literal prison for native people, and the other behaviors are coping behaviors for the system. There remains a layer of colonialism in tribal societies, people removed from their tribal identity, from who their people truly were.

Instead, many native people are immersed in a system of believing that their peoples of the past were completely savage and warlike, and if it wasn’t for Americans we would not be civilized today.

In my studies, I have found this not at all to be the case. Most tribes were not warlike. Tribes would make war rarely in most areas, and mainly had economic relationships of kinship and trade with one another. Concepts of ownership and rights were very different. Families could own property but the idea was more fluid. Ideas of respect and respect for the previous inhabitants were paramount. If respectful relations did not occur then there could be trouble. Tribes in Oregon had few wars with one another, especially their neighbors, who they were likely related to by marriage. Normally if raiding was to occur, it was will a tribe further away. In the Willamette Valley the Klamaths and Tillamooks would raid the Kalapuyans to take slaves. In the plateau, the Paiutes would raid tribes on their periphery into the 19th century.

Theft is an interesting concept. I have read numerous accounts of theft by tribes of the stuff that the Americans or British brought. Theft was looked on as acceptable if you could get away with it. People, tribes, had to be on their guard to make sure their stuff was not stolen. On most accounts of theft we read this is targeting the Americans or British. Although occasionally it would occur between tribes. In 1812 the Tualatin stole from the Clatsops. In the 1850’s, the Paiutes raided the Wascos numerous times. Ownership of stuff was very fluid. In British and American philosophies, theft is a crime punishable by death. First ownership is ultimate ownership of stuff. But the tribes did not believe this way. They had a different philosophy regarding theft and ownership. Theft of things could bring prestige and wealth.

The glory going to those who got away with it. Sort of reminds me of the idea of “Counting coup,” as really not a violent game, but instead a way to gain glory without a lot of death. In counting coup, warriors would get close enough to touch the enemy, or bap them on the head, gaining them some prestige. In some tribes it included death or taking of a scalp. They proved themselves athletic brave and smart enough to trick the opposition. Trickery generally was seen as a measure of a person’s prestige. We see this also in game of chance and gambling. Stick game can be won by trickery, and a good gambling song. Then trickery is used in hunting and fishing. Fish weirs, night light fishing, deer head decoys, elk pit falls, and snares. Like people are trying to become Coyote, the true measure of prestige.

But in the 19th century some of the theft from Americans was done through a need for retribution. The Americans failed to pay for their lands, failed to follow diplomatic procedures when meeting another people. So the tribes stole whatever they could from these wealthy powerful white people. The tribes then gained back some of their pride, and the tools to equalize their relationship.

The tribes were always ready for war, but, large scale war with other tribes was rare. There are some stories, the great war between the Paiutes (or was it Klamath?) and Clackamas which wiped out most or the Clackamas, it happened before the Americans came. But most warfare in Oregon involved tribes lining up their forces and then negotiating a withdrawal. This happened in 1812, when the Cowlitz wanted a part of the Columbia, Chief Kiesno held them off with a superior force of allies. In the upper Northwest Coast, raiding and warfare was likely much more common. There, many of the towns were essentially walled fortresses, to stop invaders. We did not have walled fortresses in Oregon. And there are numerous accounts of tribes from the north coming into Puget sound in large canoes to raid and take slaves. There are no accounts of raiding like this in Oregon. There are a a few accounts of Klamaths taking slaves from the Kalapuyans, who would fight back.

No, most of the violence was focused on the Americans. The British had a few problems, some ships were raided, they had trade goods stolen. The Americans beyond all others sought to simply take all the land and ignore or eliminate the tribes. They treated the tribes in racist ways, ignored their previous habitation despite American laws, and invaded in such numbers that there was little room for the tribes. Tribal food sources were destroyed, villages were attacked, and so the tribes were under threat of extinction. It was genocide. The tribes simply wanted what they had always had, and respect for their presence. but the Americans left them nothing, then turned around and blamed the war on the tribes, on their warlike attitudes.

After this, they placed the tribes on reservations where many more died. The reservation system was not meant to sustain thousands of people, in a healthy environment, but to force an American concept of Indians upon them, to make them assimilate and force them to comply with American policies of oppression and repression. When assimilation did not immediately work, the US simply tried to define us out of existence, making it a policy that only people of 1/2 Indian blood quantum were true Indians who could get benefits. Then in the 1950’s the Federal government just declared our treaties terminated, dispossessing all western Oregon tribes with one Congressional bill.  Many people became fully assimilated in the next 29 years before the tribes were restored.  Many of these same policies continue today and the effects of this institutionalization, and histories of loss are very apparent in many native people.

It is almost like we are taught to hate ourselves.

How do we educate Native people, and really all people, and convince them that much of what they believe about the tribes, is a lie.



2 thoughts on “Savage System

  1. So true! I have been told stupid crap about Indians from a lot of people. Like the myth of “they had no concept of land ownership (oft followed by some version of, therefor we don’t have to pay for the land).” Different cultures had different concepts of land ownership and how it was accounted for, but just because it was different from white people’s methods doesn’t make it invalid!

    And the stereotype that all tribes were warlike is deeply entrenched too. Once I read an article (Smithsonian site) on the island tribe that Columbus first met. No sign of mass warfare in the archaeology, and Columbus’ Spanish compatriots all said the people there were friendly and peaceful. But some jerk in the comments insisted that “the Indians” were the moral equivalent of Columbus – warlike. Implied was (as it always is) is that it wasn’t wrong to wipe them out. I pointed out that the two populations were different – all noted these people were peaceful. Columbus’ crew were vicious brutes into torture, rape and murder. He had no reply for that. But I run into that alot. All Indians are Indians are Indians – an Aztec is a Penobscot is a Lakota is a Miwok. And therefor slaughtering and stealing land was A-OK. I know why people do this – they have to justify genocide because the “pioneers” were all “good guys” – good hardworking people looking to make money (the most moral American value ever!) and the ‘savages’ were no good indolent not-humans that had to be ‘removed’ so the prosperous capitalist pioneers could built a shiny new nation. To question this founding myth is, for them, to question all of “American values” and to admit that their ancestors were may not always, perhaps, morally upright people. Maybe some were pimps (like Friedrich Drumpf) and horse thieves and killers. While some people enjoy stories of shady characters in the family tree, many others are less than thrilled with that.

  2. I was so happy to read this David. It is a subject very close to my heart. I believe the only way to re-educate people of all races about the true conditions here on the American continient is to hold grant-funded free public symposiums in every college library across America. These must be either Ted-talked or put on a channel on You Tube and on Facebook. After presentation interviews with the attendees, asking their before and after views, and seeking a way to make mini presentations inside college classrooms is a must. Who will devote their lives and careers to such an endeavor though? There certainly is enough federal grant funds to cover it, but the human capital is what is hard to find. Let me leave you with a Facebook comment I had on one of my posts during Standing Rock to give you some small indication how terribly needed such re-education is. The towns near the Standing Rock battleground filled up with bussed and flown in para-military private contractors and a few of these men were standing on a balcony of a strip motel, when a young Native family who came to help at Standing Rock, stepped out of their room below to pack their car. One of the men saw a small Native boy directly below him and snarled, ‘Nits make lice’ and spit on the young child’s head. His older sister saw it happen, but her parents did not. This brave big sister ran up the side stairs and over to the man and stomped on his toes shouting, ‘You don’t spit on my little brother!’ The man shoved the little girl down and called her foul names. Her Native father ran up to protect his daughter and the police were called. The Native father was the only man who was taken to jail, not the White man who spit on a young child. This incident proves how deep the racism against Native Americans still is in America, even after 200+ years. Someone must step up to try to re-educate America. It’s TIME.

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