Genealogy of Racism on American Indians

Notes transcribed from Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America, Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 2nd edition, Westview press, 1999, Comments are my own.

The origins of racism in America as employed by the United States Indian Service are in the English treatments of the Native people of Ireland.[1]  The English people for centuries attempted to fully colonize Ireland to little results. The Irish people resisted every attempt to conquer them either through war or through social reorganization (ie: acculturation, assimilation and colonization). The English merely have carried of a protracted war of colonization that continues to the present era. The beginnings of this war are likely within the desires of the English monarchy for greater trade and thus needing greater land holdings. As well, the English, as Catholics, lived within a particular worldview which was not tolerant towards another “race” of people living under a different way. Here we will explore some of the issues and means of expressing the racism of the English.

It is likely that the beginnings of English and European racism is in the Crusades.[2] In the 11th through the 13th centuries thousands of “Crusaders” attacked the Islamic cities of the Near east is an attempt to recover the sacred lands for Christianity.  The peoples of the Mediterranean therefore benefited greatly from their association with the Islamic peoples and trade flourished in the region. This did not benefit the Northern Europeans, and the principles of Protestantism flourished in the north. In the North, the principles of capitalism took hold, which changed English society significantly. Along with the concentration of power within the English monarchy, there were consolidations of economic power within the merchant class. This era saw the rise of free wage labor, the separation of labor from the land, and transformation of labor and land into commodities that could be exchanged in a widening world market.[3] Also fostered were values of individualism, private property, and wealth accumulation, which caused the breakdown of kinship and community ties.[4]  The protection of the wealthy and the politically powerful became a societal norm.[5]  People became highly individualized and mobile marketable units that would displace to where the work was, whether it was warfare or factory labor, sometimes far away from their families for long periods of time.[6]

“Possessive individualism” is a theory of the English by C.B. MacPherson, which is “that man is free and human by virtue of his sole proprietorship of his own person, and that human society is essentially a series of market relations.”[7] This concept is a market view of human society, such that all human endeavors have market value and as such can be bought and sold.  MacPherson goes on to show that freedom is equated with rights to property, the basic right of every man was the right to property in his own person, his body, labor and capacities, and a man can only alienate his property by selling it, and the exercising of the rights of the individual, give a man freedom, which makes him fully human.[8]  John Locke’s philosophy holds that government exists to protect men in the exercise of their property rights, and that the accumulation of wealth was a “natural right.”[9]

“The English were perceived as so culturally distinct by their European contemporaries long before the age of exploration and conquest…these cultural traits impacted uniquely on the nature and quality of their colonial experiences. Their ideologies about individualism and accumulating property guided their assault on foreign lands and their treament of the indigenous peoples of the new world. Possessive individualism and the near sacredness of property  and property rights in the seventeenth century English culture facilitated the transformation of Africans into slave property and their concomitant demotion into nonhuman forms of being.”[10]

The identity of men was tied into their relationship with property. Laboring men worked for men who owned property. Propertied men were men of substance and civility, had some political power, had civil rights and responsibilities. Another class of men were vagabonds and the opposite of propertied men, they were threats to the social order.[11]

Leonard Liggio proposed the hypothesis that it was the English experience with the Irish that is the root of English racial attitudes.[12] The English failed to consolidate power over Ireland for centuries. To prevent Englishmen from “going native” They passed laws forbidding English men to wear Irish dress or hairstyles, speak the Irish language, intermarry, or trade with the Irish. They also outlawed Irish games, poetry, and music all under the Statutes of Kilkenny (1367). All of this was done because the English wanted to protect their people from an erosion of civilized culture, the degeneracy of Englishmen, and that these cultural phenomenon were too seductive for young Englishmen to resist.[13] The underlying aim of was the confiscation of Irish lands, the establishment of an agrarian economy, and the exploitation of native labor.[14]

The conflict was linked to that between nomadic or seminomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers.[15] That is a culture centered on being highly adaptable, and following animal herds. Land was owned in common, by the community,  and pastoralists would not acquire much private property. As such there was very little wealth accumulation, what was accumulated was knowledge of the environment.

(This is very interesting, I wonder if this info has been well looked at. There are studies in anthropology about agriculture, and the categorization of native peoples into different classes, hunter-gatherers, complex hunter-gatherers, but some native societies seems to fit into this model of the pastoralists. I think the distinction will be the fact that Native peoples did not domesticate their animals (besides the dog), but I wonder how much this model fits, even so. The Plains Indians followed the Bison herds around on the plains, they traveled widely and had a very good understanding of the geography of the lands they traveled. They did not acquire much wealth until it became part of the trade culture with the Europeans and horses were introduced. Did the fact that Indians followed the Bison for thousands of years and regularly culled the herds cause a type of pastoralism to occur? Was the effect of the relationship of the Indians to the Bison a mutually collaborative relationship?  The tribes depending on the bison for food, while the constant hunting kept their numbers down to managed levels. Clearly not domestication, but their societies were intermingled. And, while Bison are the animals that get the most attention, did not a form of this occur for other native cultures not in the Bison herd regions.

Thinking about the Willamette Valley, the big resource animals were deer, elk and even salmon. Did not a similar relationship occur for the people of the Willamette Valley, the Kalapuya and Molalla Tribes? For centuries, as long as 10,000 years, the native peoples developed a “seasonal round” which incorporated seasons of following the herds of deer and elk, and seasons of catching fish, and other season intermingled of gathering fruits and harvesting Camass. The Kalapuyas intentionally burned the prairies and intentionally practiced a type of horticulture with the Camass and the Tobacco plants. So in effect, the Kalapuyas practiced forms of pastoralism-adaptation and horticulture-agriculture.  Yet they are labeled nomadic and hunter-gatherers. This does not appear accurate. They are a different type of culture than that. They lived within this culture for as long as 10,000 years, clearly this was a stable way of life and embodies the qualities of being civilized. Not civilized in the European definition, but in the sense of stability, and humanity. Their “seasonal round” was stable, more stable and longer lasting than all European cultures.

And rather interesting that the American policy toward Indians was to enforce an agricultural lifestyle upon the tribes. The destruction of the Bison herds and the imposition of American-style government, laws and culture, along with the agricultural lifestyle, fits well into this English model. The object was to remove their ability to be wild-land hunters, to make them sedentary farmers, then to gradually take away their lands such that they become the laborer class. This is what was enforced upon the Indians in reservation and off-reservation schools, the Indians were “tracked” into laborer class employment. (comments 2005))

(Perhaps the issue here about agriculturalists is that the European civilization model suggests that the origins of true civilization are agricultural societies, ie: they are sedentary and this allows larger populations, trade to develop, and notions such as land ownership to become important for the nation-state. Thus there is the growth of social, economic, and political systems to manage the growth of the culture, the trade products and to provide for security for their landholdings. While many tribes did not have sedentary landholding like agriculturalists and yet still had highly developed trade systems, and highly developed systems of political and social hierarchy as well as land claims and ownership of valuable locations and resources. However, tribes are made to fit into a pre-civilization hierarchy model, because their cultures do not match that of European Western civilization. (comment 2020))

“What distinguished English culture from Irish was the advanced elaboration of the jural concept of rights in property in land, and the social identity and status that derived therefrom.”[16]

“From the standpoint of English cultural values, Irish utilization of the land was a monstrous waste, a rich soil that their animals trampled could be put to better use cultivating urban grains, vegetables, and other goods to be marketed abroad and to cities.”[17] Along with this the sons of English nobility could have large estates in Ireland with the Irish being their labor classes.

16th century, English established a standing army in Ireland and began forced colonization. Irish land was forcibly taken, with some genocides occurring when English military leaders began killing women and children.[18]

17th century Oliver Cromwell’s army carried out extermination, massacres. Prisoners of war were taken and sent to the New World for servitude in the English colonies in the West Indies.[19]

The Irish, as described in literature were less than human, cannibals, lewd marriage customs, educated in rebellion…superstition, idolatry, unclean. The Irish people were related to the descriptions of the primitive peoples by the Greeks. Irish were believed to be animals and could be treated as such.[20]

As Catholics, there was another reason to have conflict with the Irish, because there was already longstanding hostility between the Catholics and the Protestants.

The English began hearing of the plantation models that the Spanish were using on the “Indians” and began to apply that model to the Irish. At the heart of the plantation model was the coercive exploitation of Irish labor with the objective of “maintaining the labor force in a permanent state of inferiority to and dependence on the English settlers.””[21]

Savage- The savage was first of all a heathen, a godless and immoral creature. Wicked, barbarous and uncivil, lazy, filthy, evil, superstitious, worshiped idols, lying stealing, murdering, double-dealing, committing treachery, nomadic tendencies and presumed lack of social order, and laws, were the antithesis of the habits of civilized man who were sedentary and not bound to the land but to other men by laws…. This is the image of the Irish savage that emerged from the English and made possible the development of policies and  practices that could be perpetuated for gain unencumbered by reflections on any ethical or moral considerations.[22] In fact the Irish were considered beyond being civilized that even though they were changing, they would always remain savages. And the English learning and adopted many of the Spanish practices of dealing with the Indians and practiced them on the Irish.

Smedley here writes about the powerful attraction of the New World and the opportunities that existed for anyone motivated enough to go after great wealth. However, one of my own theories is that the promise of opportunities would have been a powerful attraction. But previous to that, European people would have had to be in a socio-economic situation such that it was not conducive to social and economic gain. The fact that most people did not own land, did not have civil rights, where not protected by laws equally, were subjected to intense religious persecution, and were under constant threat to security and life. Wars and diseases were constant and the brunt of the death occurred for the underclasses. Under this situation, the New World would be considered paradise, where people could make their way and their fortune and gain security and distance from the seats of political power. It would be extremely easy to ignore the Native people of the New World and to adopt “European” ways of thinking about them.

The Savage began to embody all of those repulsive characteristics that were contrary to English beliefs, laws and values.[23]

European opinion during this period of ethnological reflection was generally “anti-savage, and strongly so”.[24]

The myth of Anglo-saxonism originated during this period (1559-1603). Depicted as a branch of heroic and freedom-loving Germanic people. Anglo-saxons were depicted as not only great lovers of liberty but as originators of civilization’s free institutions and equitable laws.[25] Rationalized break with Catholic church to form the Anglican Church, consonant with developing ethnocentrism.

Some turned to science because it was the one institution that could claim neutrality or, at minimum, an absence of biased interest in keeping the Negro subservient.[26]

This ends the notes from Smedley, but we can easily pick up where Smedley left off. The origins of contemporary science are right at this point. Early scientists are easily swayed yet by religious racist views of the savage other. The model of colonial racism practiced on the Irish, and on the Islamic peoples centuries earlier are applied to the “Indians” of the new world.

The notes and essay comments largely formed in 2005 a little before beginning my dissertation for the PhD. Some few comments and edits have bee added.


[1] Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America, Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 2nd edition, Westview press, 1999.

[2] Smedley 1999, 43.

[3] Smedley, 1999, 46.

[4] Smedley, 1999, 47.

[5] Smedley, 1999, 47.

[6] Smedley, 1999, 47.

[7] Smedley, 1999, 49 (MacPherson 1962, 270).

[8] Smedley, 1999, 49 (MacPherson 1962, 264).

[9] Smedley, 1999 49-50, (MacPherson 1962, 208-221).

[10] Smedley, 1999, 51.

[11] Smedley, 1999, 52.

[12] Smedley, 1999, 53, Liggio 1976, 1.

[13] Smedley, 1999, 54.

[14] Ibid, 54.

[15] Ibid, 55.

[16] Ibid, 57.

[17] Ibid, 57.

[18] Ibid 58.

[19] Ibid 59.

[20] Ibid, 59.

[21] Ibid, 60-61, Quinn 1958, 27.

[22] Ibid, 61.

[23] Ibid, 61.

[24] Ibid, 62; Margaret Hodgen 1964, 362.

[25] Ibid 62; Reginald Horsman 1976, 1981.

[26] Ibid 227.