One of the enduring myths about life in the Americas before it was “discovered” by Europeans is that the entire “new world” was sparsely populated by nomadic tribes of simple-minded hunters and gatherers.
This myth holds that these people had no permanent attachment to any specific piece of land, they did not live in permanent homes, and they did not live in towns or villages like the rest of mankind. Instead they lived in temporary shelters they could pick up and move at a moment’s notice. Their social group consisted of a tribe of 50 or 100 people, and similar tribes were scattered throughout the forests and plains of North, South and Central America. This is what we might call the Primitive Indian Myth.
We think of these people as living in “harmony” with their surroundings – hunting and foraging for their food – wild animals and plants such as berries that grew naturally in the forest. They had no inclination to hoard or pile up food or any other kind of possession for that matter, so the idea of “selfishness” was foreign to them. They took only what they needed to survive, using only the natural elements presented to them for their day to day survival.
According to this myth American natives were stone age people living from one season to the next on the very edge of survival. As with any simple-minded animals, they had a wild, untamed, unpredictable side. This made it impossible for them to coexist with others – even other tribes of natives – in a more complex organized society, and unable to be reasoned with in any meaningful and lasting way. Primitive Indians would simply turn vicious when their life, family, tribe or food supply were threatened. That is why there were called “savages” by Europeans.
The core feature of the Primitive Indian Myth is that American native life before contact with Europeans was basic, simple, undeveloped and primitive in virtually every way. Their tools, their weapons, their craftsmanship, their language, their literature, their art, their religious beliefs, their social structures, their political organization – all of these things were barely developed beyond the primitive level that must have existed thousands of years before.
The Primitive Indian Myth has been created by stories told and written over the 500 years since “contact” in the late 1400s and early 1500s. It has been reinforced and developed in a very deliberate way in Hollywood movies stretching back to the beginning of movie making in the early 1900s and in popular novels and histories written as far back as the 1600s.
Undoubtedly many believers in the Primitive Indian Myth were well-intentioned people, but at its heart the motives behind the promotion of the myth were sinister. As with most myths, this one was developed and promoted for specific social and political purposes.
The promulgation of the Primitive Indian Myth has served as a justification for the systematic marginalization of American natives, the theft of their land and resources, the rejection of their moral and political claims to self-government, and the outright extermination of millions of American natives over the last 500 years.
There are some important facts about pre-contact native life in the Americas that are distorted and misrepresented by the Primitive Indian Myth, and I will be discussing these in my next few posts. These include the following commonly held assumptions:
– That the Americas were sparsely populated before European contact
– That virtually all American natives were hunters and gatherers with no fixed attachment to villages, towns or places of residence
– That American natives had no use or understanding of technology
– That American natives did not engage in extensive agriculture
– That American natives were incapable of more advanced social organization
– That American natives held only simplistic, primitive religious beliefs
– and more…