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Sympathy for the Native Americans

By Bradford Senning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 9, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Bradford Senning

I recall how James Cameron explained his strict attention to detail in the making of Titanic. He said, "We have a great responsibility. Whatever we make will become the truth, the visual reality that a generation will accept."

I kept this in mind as I looked at centuries of travel accounts written by voyagers who had met the "Indians" of the New World and pictures by artists who usually hadn't. This material was the only insight many Europeans had into the lives of Native Americans: they often perceived them as heathens, devils and "men whose heads grew beneath their shoulders."

Yet there also had been sympathy for the indigenous Americans. Between the lines and in momentary flashes of self-recognition, authors and artists exalted or gave credibility to indigenous American people and society.

In the year 1782, immediately following the American Revolution, a French immigrant in America wrote, incredibly enough, that the Native American society had qualities far superior to the European society. His justification was that although there were no examples of Native Americans having become Europeans, "thousands of Europeans are Indians."

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, the author of the above, grasps the most obvious manner by which Europeans could come to an understanding of the Native Americans: they could posit themselves as Indians. His assertion - Europeans are Indians - carries the weight of what I believe is a rare but pervasive sympathy for the Native American. By emphasizing who they were in closer identity to Native Americans, Europeans fostered a deeper sympathy. That sympathy can be revisited in books today.

The first questions Europeans had about the resemblance between themselves and Native Americans were almost childlike in tone. Are they also descendants of Adam and Eve? Are they like the people of Ovid's "golden age?" Amerigo Vespucci noted in 1503 that their language was uncannily similar to European languages (an unpopular comparison in his times): "They speak little, and in a low voice. They use the same accents as ourselves. . . only they have other words for things."

Similarities moved from token observations to ethical abstractions.

Francisco de Vitoria, professor of theology at the University of Salamanca, lectured in 1536 on the Indians' right to have their own property. To displace the Native Americans simply because they were bad (i.e. not Christian) was illogical: "In the same way that God makes His sun to rise on the good and on the bad and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust, so also He has given temporal goods alike to good and to bad.

"Even among ourselves," he continues, "we find many peasants who differ little from brutes." Though "brutes" is not a pleasant association, Native Americans often were given more distancing epithets. "Brute" was at least closer to home.

Voltaire echoed Vitoria in his 1756 Essai sur les moeurs, asking what the devil Europeans mean by such names as "savages." If they mean people who speak a dialect incomprehensible to acculturated citizens, assemble on certain days to take part in religious rituals they don't understand, or rush off at the sound of a drum roll to kill others of their own sort, there are "savages" of this breed throughout Europe. To recognize Amerindians as a race or, even better, multiple races of beings similar to the Europeans was to erase the arbitrary barriers of identity, the sometimes petty distinctions that caused the two cultures to be at odds. It may have been that, as Andre Malraux negatively wrote, Europeans understood little that didn't resemble themselves. But the alternative to this rudimentary self-recognition was a greedy troop of voyagers bent on torture and enslavement. The sympathy implied in common characteristics was sometimes a more powerful force than weaponry.

As I see it, the books and works of art that have accumulated in our now somewhat hybridized Euro-Indian culture tell the tales of many sympathies. And the reality we now inhabit is the perfect time to recount these tales.