The best Western thinking on Native Americans (Indians) from 1500 to 2000:
Indians seen in terms of the Bible. They are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. They have the same human nature, they have souls, they can be brought to Christ. The idea that they got to the Americas by a land bridge goes back to the Spanish in 1590.
The Golden Age model of history: the West had degenerated since Greek and Roman times. Indians had degenerated too, even more so, having sunk into savagery. Maybe because of differences in climate and environment. Maybe because they were the Devil’s own.
This deficiency model of Indians lasts till the 1900s. They are clearly human yet lacking something.
Indians seen as part of the human species. God created the species, each with certain fixed characteristics. So Indians could be different from whites but not too different. French scientist Buffon notes that species in the Americas are smaller and fewer, says Indians lack strong feelings about sex, family and society, that whites in the Americas will become the same way in time. Thomas Jefferson disagrees, forcing him to argue that Indians are equal to whites at birth.
The progress model of history: The West has now clearly passed the ancient Greeks in science – Newton, the microscope, the discovery of Uranus, etc. History is now seen in terms of progress, unfolding in stages:
So Indians are like how white people used to be thousands of years ago.
New words: civilization (1772), as a stage of history; race (1774) as the main division of mankind, using physical features.
Scientific racism. Measuring skulls – craniometry – becomes big, especially in White America. Whites find that they have the largest skulls, Indians next, blacks last. Slavery and genocide get support from the latest science! Naked scientific racism becomes common among Western thinkers from the 1860s to the 1930s, from Darwin to Hitler.
The unilinear, evolutionary model of history: all human societies, past and present, are studied and ranked from least advanced to most advanced – as judged by Westerners! Native Americans are backward due to their smaller brains.
New word: culture (1867), in the anthropological sense, though not yet clearly separated from race.
The rise of cultural anthropology: Franz Boas and his students take over anthropology and study Indians to death. But not as “Indians” but as separate, independent cultures. They find no relationship between race, culture, language or archaeology. Cultural features spread by diffusion – culture is not a matter of race. They find that the longer a Jewish mother lives in America, the more her child’s skull is like a White American’s – skull size is not a matter of race.
Boas’s Indians were “timeless”, without history. That changed by the 1970s.
End of the Indian deficiency model: There is nothing “backward” or screwed up about Indians – they just belong to different cultures.
New word: ethnocentric (1900): judging another culture by one’s own.
Source: Mainly: Robert F. Berkhofer, “The White Man’s Indian” (1979).
- Natives through the National Geographic lens – still doing that unilinear, evolutionary model of history thing in the 1980s. Natives are still pretty much “timeless” in the 2010s.
- Franz Boas
- Thomas Jefferson
- The word “race”
- “Europe is a continent”