Thursday, March 17, 2016

North American Indians: Points of First Contact

The history of interactions between the Indians (or ‘Native Americans’) and those who came from other parts of the world is long and complex. For an understanding of the cultures indigenous to North America, records of the first contacts between Indians and early explorers offer unique data.

These moments of first contact show us Indian behavior before they had any experience - good or bad - with those from the outside. Later moments of contact were based on experiences, and so show an Indian culture which had already changed inasmuch as it had begun to form a conceptualized notion of who these outsiders were.

After years of contact, Indian culture had changed significantly, e.g., their use of horses and beads.

Historians must always return, then, to the points of first contact to gain the most pristine evidence of Indian culture.

A note on terminology is also in order: in the twenty-first century, many Indian groups have rejected terminology like ‘Native Americans’ and prefer to be called ‘Indians.’ This is manifest, e.g., among the Cherokees of North Carolina in their tribal councils and museums.

One record of first contact describes an encounter between Indians and a French explorer. These Indians had neither met, seen, nor heard of people from outside North America, so this meeting was a true first contact.

At the shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point in Michigan, the curator notes:

In 1610 the young French interpretor Etienne Brule entered into the vast uncharted wilderness of the Great Lakes area. Sent to explore and learn the ways of the Indians, he was considered the first European to penetrate this region. Always moving and never forming a true alliance, he was later turned on by the Hurons who had him bound, tortured, quartered and eaten.

It is not clear whether the curator intends the comment that Brule ‘never’ formed ‘a true alliance’ to be some justification for, or amelioration of, cannibalism.

In any case, the Frenchman had stumbled upon a society formed by human sacrifice, frequent tribal warfare, and cannibalism. His murder was unprovoked.

This, then, is a glimpse into the way Indian culture functioned prior to any effects which outside contact may have had upon it. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that

The details of his death remain uncertain, but according to several accounts, he was killed and eaten by the Hurons, his adoptive tribe, whose lore thereafter attributed a prolonged “curse” to his murder.

More than a century later, Juan Nentvig was the first European encountered by Indians around what is now Mexico and the southwestern United States. As an example of first contact, he documented the treatment of women among the Indians. They were treated as animals and as property.

By the time of events such as the conflicts at Wounded Knee and at Little Bighorn, Indian culture had changed significantly because of its interaction with Europeans, Africans, and Asians. The Indians of the second half of the nineteenth century were observably different than those who lived prior to any contact from the outside world.

Those who inhabited North America prior to the widespread settling of Europeans would have regarded Geronimo and his colleagues at the 1898 ‘Indian Congress’ in Omaha as utterly foreign.

The most reliable data about indigenous North American cultures comes, then, from points of first contact.