Early Framing of Indigenous Peoples

Conceptions of the “others” encountered and used in the European colonial expansion varied with their utility for European colonizers. In colonial conquests in Central and South America, early Spanish conquerors defined and viewed indigenous peoples as inferior “Indians” and “natural slaves, as subhuman beasts of burden.”8 Columbus recorded details about the lives of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, as he and his men brutally subordinated, enslaved, and killed them in the thousands. Over centuries of colonization of the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and North America, the Spanish sought indigenous peoples’ lands and labor and brought genocidal wars, enslavement, and European diseases that killed tens of millions of indigenous inhabitants.

In North America, the later English colonizers and their descendants were much less interested in using Indians as enslaved laborers, although they did enslave some for a time. English colonists were mainly interested in stealing land. Prior to arrival, English colonizers knew little about “Indians,” except what they gained from Spanish writings. The Spanish influence can be seen in the Spanish-derived English words “Indian” and “Negro” (black).9 In addition, these English umbrella-type words indicate that European colonists often saw few differences among the many Native American groups and the many African groups they encountered. Such umbrella categorizing suggests that a prototypical visual image and associated set of racialized stereotypes had already become part of early European American framing of those oppressed.

Most English colonists early defined Native Americans as the uncivilized enemy, and wars with the Native Americans who resisted invasion were important in accenting the sense of European cultural and physical distinctiveness. In the early 1600s the English colonists’ racialized framing of “Indians” grew out of a rationalization of warfare with them and of the taking of their land. The first English colony was established on Roanoke Island, off what became the colony of Virginia. English commentaries from this era indicate a variable view of Native Americans. The colonizer Arthur Barlowe landed in 1584, claimed it for “her highness,” and penned this about indigenous people: “We found the people most gentle loving and faithful, void of all guile and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the Golden Age.” Soon thereafter, however, English colonizers attacked these gentle people because they were, as Robert Gray dehumanized them, “wild beasts, and unreasonable creatures” or “brutish savages.” As the aforementioned Barlowe recounted, “we burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne, all the people beeing fledde.”10

“Indian” and “savage” were terms commonly applied to indigenous peoples by colonists, although they also used “infidel,” “heathen,” and “barbarian,” all revealing the religious and cultural dimension of early framing of indigenous peoples.11 Color and physical characteristics got attention, but seem less significant in early English American framing of Native Americans than in their subsequent framing of African Americans—a differentiating tendency that would persist over subsequent centuries.

At the major colony of Jamestown, Virginia, the celebrated Captain John Smith viewed indigenous groups as uncivilized “savages” and “inconstant in everie thing” and “craftie, timerous ... very ingenuous.” Smith made it clear that he did not trust the “craftie” indigenous groups that dominated the area at this time. In 1613 the minister Alexander Whitaker described them as “barbarous people,” “naked slaves of the divell,” yet still as “industrious in their labour.” In 1625 Samuel Purchas described them as “having little of humanitie but shape, ignorant of Civilitie, of Arts, of Religion; moree brutish than the beasts they hunt ... captivated also to Satans tyrallny in foolish pieties, wicked idlenesse, busie and bloudy wickednesse.” In these commentaries we again see early framing of Indians in religious-cultural and physical terms as uncivilized, unchristian, and beast-like. A few decades later, the leading English philosopher Thomas Hobbes would point to the “savage people in many places of America” as examples of those whose lives are, in his famous phrase, “poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”12 Of course, shortened and impoverished lives were often the result of the European invasions.

The leaders of the Massachusetts colony to the north operated out of a similar imperialistic frame that led them to speak, falsely, of North America as “unpeopled” and to destroy indigenous communities to secure land. Much colonial language described the Indians as “wild beasts” who should be “removed from their dens” and killed.13 Here we glimpse another important dimension of European framing of the “other,” one that animalized them and placed them well down the great-chain hierarchy. In 1637 one rare dissenting colonist, Thomas Morton, wrote disapprovingly of this negative framing. He described the “new creed” of fellow European colonists as holding that the “Salvages [savages] are a dangerous people, subtill, secreat and mischeivous.” Morton disagreed with this framing: “I have found the Massachusetts Indian more full of humanity than the Christians.”14 A major dissenter from the Eurocentric framing of Indians, Morton was persecuted by other colonists for his views and positive relationships with the Indians.

In most of these commentaries the powerful European American frame not only focused on the subordinated “others,” usually negatively, but also on the oppressors themselves, usually very positively. From the beginning, this dominant frame was unidirectional and emotion-laden: The “others” are portrayed negatively and are mainly to blame for intergroup conflicts, while whites are portrayed as generally virtuous and as rarely to blame for such conflicts.

At an early point in the colonization, the dominant framing accented the view that European Americans were “virtuous republicans,” to use historian Ronald Takaki’s apt phrase. Spanish, English, and other European conquerors rationalized oppression of indigenous peoples in Eurocentric religious andmoralizing terms. European American colonists’ framing of the new society portrayed themselves as rational, ascetic, civilized, and sexually controlled, while Native Americans and African Americans were stereotyped as irrational, hedonistic, uncivilized, and oversexed. Researchers have demonstrated the religiously repressed nature of many European colonists, with their intense fears of the “dark others,” the irrational and unvirtuous non-European peoples who were thought to be very unlike Europeans.1’ There is strong counterpoint thinking here: “The Indian became important for the English mind not for what he was in and of himself, but rather for what he showed civilized men they were not and must not become.”16

Note the central importance of the mythical European American notion that it is the “others” who are irrational and emotional. In this view rationality equals emotionlessness, and irrationality equals emotionality. Yet, from the beginning to the present, European Americans’ fears, angers, and jealousies about other racial groups have signaled their own powerful and often destructive emotions, no matter how much they attempt to repress an overt consideration of them.

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