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Sins of omission: the myth of the noble savage

A sequel to Dances With Wolves is reportedly scheduled for release in 2011. Not only did Dances create a romantic American Indian who never existed, it reversed the roles of the Sioux and the Pawnee. This kind of thing has been going on for hundreds of years, beginning with various European writers who, far removed from the reality of life on the American frontier, described the “noble savage” of the American forests. Americans got into the business also but only after the frontier was several generations removed from their reality. For 40 years I watched the same thing happen at the university -- first when I was an undergraduate, later as a graduate student, and still later as a professor. The noble savage is a fiction, of course, but few had the temerity to challenge the notion. The tribes who inhabited what is today the USA practiced torture, human sacrifice, cannibalism, gang rape, slavery, polygyny. They were illiterate and had not advanced beyond the Stone Age.

Before the arrival of the white man, they rode no horses, having hunted the horse to extinction thousands of years earlier. The horse was reintroduced by the Spaniards, and by the middle of the 18th century most of the Plains Indians had developed a horse culture, using the horse for hunting, war, packing, and trading. As an item of trade the horse could get a brave a wife -- one horse, one wife. A chief might demand two or three horses for one of his daughters. Those braves rich in horses acquired several wives. The horse did have one liberating effect on women. Until the arrival of the horse women had been the principal beast of burden for the tribe, carrying heavy packs whenever the tribe moved. Men carried nothing but their weapons. I have heard women anthropologists gush over the American Indian. I don’t know if they are ignorant or irrational, because Indian society was male chauvinism squared. All work was done by women while men hunted, fought, or lounged about.

The men, said François Larocque of the Crow in 1805, “do not even saddle their own horses when their wives are present nor do they take off their [own] leggings when they come in to go to bed.” When friends of a brave visited, he gave them his wife to indulge their lust. If a wife committed adultery without his permission, however, he was allowed to punish her by hacking off her nose and publicly casting her out. A man could also banish a wife for such minor transgressions as laziness or nagging. Suicide was not uncommon for women who had been cast out. Women and girls captured in raids were gang-raped and often tattooed or branded. They usually spent the rest of their lives as slaves. If they were lucky, they might become an extra wife for a brave. Captured pregnant women had their bellies split open and the babies pulled out. Captured men were tortured, often kept alive for days to suffer all the more. European witnesses regularly remarked upon anatomical knowledge of the torturers. Torture racks were a feature of semipermanent villages. The seminomadic tribes improvised torture apparatus on the spot. Saving “the last bullet for yourself” became a cliché for good reason.

The Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf learned this the hard way. He was working with the Huron when he has captured by a war party of Iroquois. He was taken off to a nearby village for fun and games. First he was forced to run the gauntlet. A man of enormous size and strength, Brébeuf, although bruised, lacerated, and bloodied, managed to stay upright as the Iroquois warriors clubbed him. The Iroquois then tied him to a post and burned him repeatedly from head to toe. They thrust firebrands into his mouth and strung a necklace of red-hot ax heads around his neck. Brébeuf bore the indescribable pain without flinching or crying out. The Iroquois redoubled their efforts. They poured boiling water over his head, mocking baptism. They wrapped a belt of burning resin around his waist, cut off his lips and ripped out his tongue, stripped chunks of flesh from his body, and scalped him. Still he did not cry out. The Iroquois finally could take no more. They cut out his heart, ate it, and drank his blood.

The torture of Brébeuf is remarkable only for his otherworldly fortitude. Whether white or red, men captured by the Indians underwent similar tortures. Pioneer settlers on the colonial frontier or those of the “dark and bloody” ground of Kentucky or latter-day frontiersmen in the trans-Mississippi West had no illusions about the American Indian. Most could tell of a relative or friend or someone they knew of who had been tortured to death by Indians. It seems that one of Andrew Jackson’s older brothers suffered such a fate. It is no wonder that his mother was described as an “old Irish lady, at dreadful enmity with the Indians.” The Jacksons were but one of hundreds of families who could relate tales of torture that was not aberrational or confined to a particular tribe, region, war, or era, but practiced universally and embraced, relished, and refined to a horrific degree by the American Indian. Noble, indeed.

Dit artikel van Roger D. McGrath verscheen oorspronkelijk bij het Amerikaanse "Rockford Institute" en in "Chronicles Magazine".

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4 Reacties:

At 21:03 Olivier said...

Een scène uit een film waarin de mythe van de nobele Indiaan ook even flink wordt aangepakt:

At 02:02 Anoniem said...

Wat een onzin artikel. Alle zogenaamde bewijs komt uit de monden van een stel indianen hatende blanken. Als bewijs absoluut onbetrouwbaar dus. dit heel artikel is niets meer dan een slecht geschreven propaganda stukje tegen de indianen.

At 11:24 Johan Terwilghen said...

Dit is GEEN propaganda. Dit is de harde realiteit. Films van het kaliber van Dances With Wolves zijn net propaganda. De indianen kenden géén eigendomsrecht en géén vrijheid voor de leden van hun stam. Kinderen en vrouwen werden verkracht en gemarteld, en gevangenen werden steevast doodgefolterd. De blanken hebben hen geen alcohol gegeven om hen te onderdrukken. Alcohol beantwoordde gewoon aan de eeuwige queeste van indianen voor een roes. Pijpen, tabak en drugs kenden ze al. Alcohol werd hen inderdaad geleerd, maar in de eerste plaats omdat zij dat zelf wilden kennen. Indianen waren een onderontwikkelde levensvorm, een bende wilden zoals u wil, en natuurlijk geeft dat de blanken geen recht om hen uit te roeien, maar het plaatst alles wel in een beter licht. Indianen werden niet van hun grond verdreven, omdat ze geen grond hadden. Indianen werden niet uitgemoord omdat de blanken dat leuk vonden, maar wel omdat ze de blanken voortdurend aanvielen en folterden. Het geval van Brébeuf is in dat opzicht zo typisch. Knappe tekst!

At 12:20 Uwe Hayek said...

Voor wie zich als westerling nog steeds schuldgevoelens laat aanpraten door ignorami, zoals mij een paar jaar terug overkwam in een "gesprek" met een Kaap-Verdier, de volgende tekst :

Jullie, Westerlingen, zo beschuldigde hij mij, zijn rijk geworden door ons afrikanen als slaven uit te buiten.

Toen ik hem antwoordde dat onze streken ten tijde van de Romeinen ook slachtoffer waren van slavenhandel, kreeg ik dan weer de beschuldiging terug dat ik "alles amalgameerde".

Ik was daarbij ook nog de feodaliteit vergeten te vermelden.

Nu blijkt uit het boek van Egon Flaig dat het licht alleen uit Europa kwam, wij waren de enigen en de eersten om de slavernij af te schaffen.

Uwe Hayek.


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