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Myths of the Wandering Indians

From at least the 18th century and afterward, for much of the writing about Native peoples, we are written about as being wandering peoples. Explorers, settlers, fur traders all write about us, our tribal ancestors, as wandering the landscape as if we had no notion of living in one place. This characterization is the opposite for the European peoples who were always written of as having large advanced cities and more civilized ways of being, The Europeans were more settled and therefore that is a more civilized lifestyle, from their perspectives. The European lifeways included farming and large trading centers and castles and wealth accumulation for the lords, royalty, and landed elites. The people doing all the work were the peasant and laborer classes who did not own their land at all but were indentured servants of the landed elites. This was a more civilized way. In addition, properly everyone was Christian, and believed in a single god, even though they may have fought about which version of the single god, or the bible to believe is, the proper civilized people were also Christians. In fact, in some versions of definitions of civilization, it was impossible to be non-christian and civilized at the same time. Pseudo-scientific hierarchies were created by scholars to justify the cultural movement of various different types of peoples from savagism to civilization. In a real sense, these models and theories were completely biased, always denoting that the most advanced, most civilized ways of human evolution were European, the same culture of the scholars. An interesting and well-noted problem in all such models because the scholars who got the attention were always European.

Wandering natives cannot in any way, under any model be thought of as civilized. Why is this important? Well it is only civilized people under European schemas who can own land, again self-fulfilling because only landed elites in Europe could own land all of whom were Christians, living in an agrarian life way, even if they did not do much actual work, but made the peasants do it for them. So this becomes the justification for claiming the lands of the Americas from the native peoples, and I would argue anywhere in the world thought of in this manner, including Asia, Australia, Pacific Islands, Africa, etc.

There were a few other tools that helped make this model of world colonization “more” humanitarian. In the 14th century and after, a series of Papal Bulls were released regarding how the indigenous lands of the world may be claimed from Indigenous peoples properly. First, the bulls stated that Indigenous peoples have aboriginal rights to their land. Note here, they have “aboriginal” rights, not something else like permanent rights, or civilized rights or any other designation that allowed the indigenous peoples of the world have full claim to their lands. These rights were less than European rights because the peoples were mainly non-Christians. I say mainly because there were a good number of African nations who were Christians, and lots of converted peoples, as well as Islamic Muslim peoples who also believe in the same one god, in remarkable the same way as Christians but were clearly not Europeans because of their cultures and physical characteristics like skin color. Then the bulls establish a more humanitarian way to take the land from the indigenous peoples, with primary rights given to the first Christian nation who planted their flag in the right way. There was not any way in any of the bulls that non-Christian peoples could keep their lands.

(In fact the Muslims in Spain were called the Moors and driven from Spain in one of the most extreme racist acts in the history of mankind. Similarly, in earlier times, these peoples and others had possession of the holy lands, Palestine, and the Crusades was an attempt to rid the holy land of the darker peoples who believed in a version of the one god, Muhammad, that was not well-liked by Europeans. Such is the history of much of the past 2000 years with Europeans fighting over which version and interpretation of the one god is the true and only correct version.)

But I digress… Clearly, if Muslims cannot be the proper stewards of Palestine, then indigenous peoples have no chance rightly owning their own lands. The visualization of civilized peoples then becomes a tool to leverage indigenous peoples from their lands. One characteristic indigenous peoples were assigned was the notion that they simply wandered around finding food. “Wandering” gives me images of unplanned movements of native peoples throughout a land base. This is impermanence, uncivilized actions by an “obviously” primitive people. Perhaps they were not “people” at all but some form of “ape” in the midst of evolving to a higher life form, which would then be capable of learning to be civilized. This thought is not too far from how native peoples were thought of, savage, primitive peoples who could maybe learn some civilization, but would never be truly equal with the white man.

This common set of thoughts is really what was happening in the 19th century in Indian Country. The tribes had some aboriginal rights, but they were not considered civilized so they did not deserve to maintain any lands, and because they wandered anyway, policies needed to be constructed to help them become civilized.

But Americans and others really did not know the tribes at all. Americans bent on the colonization of the west only saw tribes as an impediment and nuisances that needed to be gotten rid of and perhaps destroyed. Wars were fought to move Native peoples from their lands. Oklahoma Indian Country was established to concentrate all the tribes in one large “reservation ” away from the lands the white people wanted. The same happened in the West with dozens of tribes rounded up and placed on reservations to allow whites more access to the best lands. The white settlements taking place decades before any federal agreements to buy the tribal lands and there were no allowances for the previous taking of tribal lands, not the destruction the whites had brought with them. Never was there a thought to holding whites responsible for violence against the tribes, of theft and destruction of cultures and life-ways, of bringing diseases and allowing their people to squat on tribal lands illegally.

Commonly Americans had these thoughts about tribes when they sought their Manifest Destiny, to take the west from the tribes and create one large nation the destiny, and now the legacy of the American peoples. This is why the ideas of Wandering Indians” as so very harmful to the tribes today, because it casts an image on the tribes that there was no land ownership and that we did not claim anything as ours, we had no permanent settlements or towns, and therefore the Americans were not really taking anything from us, but helping us become civilized. This is of course a series of stereotypes today, which scholars have been confronting for 40-50 years or more.

Anyone who has lived in or studies the tribal nations knows that this is not true at all. Tribes absolutely owned lands and had stories of where their land claims were. They all respected other tribal claims to lands and would fight to protect their places. There were some areas of the tribal lands which were more closely guarded, like fishing sites, falls, and other areas which were common lands than any tribe could visit and harvest from, like mountain ranges. Tribal groups did move around their lands and did so in a controlled and planned manner. Tribal elites would set schedules and tell people when it was time to go and families owned sites for root gathering and acorn gathering and fishing. The tribes did their movements mostly on well-established trails, they had used thousands of times previously. In fact, some resource sites were used by tribes from more than 10,000 years, suggesting a real sense of permanence to their annual movements and activities. There were as well large trade centers and craft specialization in all regions. Some areas of Indian country did not have agriculture, and they did not need it because the land produced so much food year-round that there was not a need to have agriculture for some fairly large populations. Salmon runs and large camas crops, acorn crops, and wapato and berries all constitute numerous other foods enough wild foods to comfortably live on the land without the need for agriculture.

Regarding the last large hurdle of a one god religion, perhaps the tribes will never have this, but then we do not really need it as it is a path to war, destruction, racism and discrimination if we look at the history of Christianity over the past 2000 years. I am not sure we can really equate “only” Christianity with civilized anyway. The notion of civilized is inherently a racist ideal that needs serious rethought and revision. The practices of the civilized peoples, of taking tribal lands committing genocides, stealing children to force them to become another culture, imprisoning tribal peoples for 100 years or more on reservation is not really “high civilization” at its finest.

Why do I write about this now? I recently picked up a book The Ohlone Way by Malcolm Margolin (1978). The writer has been a native specialist and editor for native peoples from some time and well thought of in many circles. There is one chapter about the wandering peoples, that sort of leans into the concept of “wandering” as descriptive of the Ohlone ways of moving about the land. This way of thinking about the Ohlone is problematic for many reasons. Not having studied them much myself, but having studied tribes from the Miwok to the Tolowa in Alta California. I think today’s tribal scholars would also have a problem with this chapter for the reasons noted in this essay. I did not think this chapter would be the same today as it was written in 1978. Native studies and tribal scholars have really advanced their thinking about native peoples beyond that of the 1970s and I am sure that this chapter today would be very different. Native scholars today are working to break the bounds of colonists’ languages, and in many ways, we need to rethink all of the notions, concepts, theories, and characterizations about us written in the past 200 years or more.

Categories: General History

Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD

PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.

I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.

2 replies

  1. Yes, the ‘wandering’ and ‘roaming’ adjectives have grated on my nerves for a long time – because it obscures for most people the actual seasonal patterns of life. Movement was not random; it was set to particular locations at the same times of year, year after year.

    Another thing I’ve learned – and it made sense when I read it – that in the PNW people did not often practice agriculture (except for tobacco) but horticulture. It made sense that between ‘gathering’ and ‘agriculture’ there is a broad middle ground of varying degrees of land management and plant use practices that fall under the concept of horticulture. And PNW horticulture must’ve been pretty successful as there were big swaths of wapato, and camas meadows were productive year after year for millennia. Pretty good!

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  2. Boundaries and land ownership has always. and will always, be a problem, apparently. What advice would you give to the current ongoing “war” between India and China over Kashmir? It seems to be a stalemate, probably because neither country can run roughshod over the other. Or when China took over Tibet, while the Korean war was going on? Human nature never changes. Indigenous peoples historically come out on the short end of the stick. Small nations have no choice but to rely on the rely on the hubris and rectitude of larger nations. Such is the pecking order, in spite of appeals to a higher order.

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