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Indians And Europeans - Contact/Relationship Between

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Category: American History

Autor: reviewessays 01 March 2011

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The geographical separation of the European and Indian settlements fostered their early societies to grow up drastically different to one another. When contact was finally made, inevitable misunderstanding followed, sprung from their individually formed world views. The Indians were initially seen as savages by the Europeans due to their apparent primitive practices, and many missionaries made it their concern to civilise them into something closer to their European ideal. Bruce Beresford’s film Black Robe helps visually illustrate the difficulty of doing so and depicts some consequences that following such a ‘civilising’ attempt by a Jesuit, Father Laforgue or ‘Black Robe’. Problems arose however mainly due to the obvious cultural clash between the two; their differences of views seem to have been too great to coexist together and remain unaltered. The Indian culture is shown to suffer the most detriment from contact with the whites: European trade contact caused problems by encouraging Indian dependency and abuse on their goods; views and practices on religion were so different that European missionaries’ attempts to convert the Indians to their Christianity often failed, and those converted only divided the community and weakened the fabric of Indian culture; and finally, communication between the two was thick with misunderstanding, and the attempt by the Europeans to ‘correct’ the Indians with literacy and the written word only wore away at their traditional customs and identity.

Upon contact between the Europeans and the Indians, communication methods proved to be greatly different, leaving plenty of room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The first record of contact between the Europeans and the Indians of pre-British Columbia was recorded in July 1774 in the journals of two Franciscan friars, Thomas de la Pena and Juan Crespi, who were aboard the Santiago. A group of native Haida paddled out to the ship and threw feathers all about over the water. Although meaning could in this case be presumed as peaceful, as it was, the ambiguity within each side’s communication was ever-present and loomed over negotiations and interaction, allowing room for doubt and suspicion. In Black Robe, Father Laforgue introduces the Indians to the written word by an example of a written message that is able to be relayed to another without the use of voice. The Indians were amazed, yet fearful; they claimed that he must be a demon. The sign language such as the feathers on the water was not used for the European’s sake and to aid their lack of understanding, it was used throughout their people as well; speaking was reserved for comfortable situations where the relationship is established and understood. In Black Robe, when the Indian Chief is introduced to Black Robe, he remains silent but gestures his cooperation with a firm hug. Silent exchanges often took place between the two peoples and the Indian were often noted as being faithful to their pledged word, even to his own detriment. In the film, the Indian Chief pledged that he would deliver Black Robe to the Huron village, and although he initially abandons him upon suspicion of his identity as a demon, he returns to keep his word, resigning that: “I may be stupid, but I agreed to take them to the Huron mission.”

Communicative learning for the European most often would be individual by the use of literacy and books– wherein the author was detached from the reader, the distance allowing objective, colder views on the subject. The availability of books ruled out the importance of remembrance; there was no urgency or immediate need to memorise as it could be ‘looked up’ at a time when convenient. Wilcome E. Washburn, author of The Indian in America explains that the ‘the white world view is visual rather than oral, static rather than dynamic, abstract rather than eventful.’ The native Indians therefore were oral, dynamic and eventful, learning through group communication which bound together their internal social structure. Story-tellers were very much a part of the content, their deliverance inspiring empathy, emotion and closeness. The very fact that nothing was written down but all remembered emphasises the importance placed on this oral tradition. The Europeans, however, saw oral tradition as primitive and took steps to ‘correct’ their practice of communication, sometimes being severely understood by the natives. Black Robe in the film introduces them to the written word by an example of a letter and the message that is able to be relayed to his assistant without the use of voice. The Indians were amazed, yet fearful; claiming that he must be a demon. The conflict of communication between the two peoples resulted in continual misunderstanding and tragedy, from both the inability to understand the other parties view. Oral tradition is what encouraged community and fostered the respect of elders and the pride in one’s culture. With the introduction of literacy, the need of remembrance and thus the importance of oral tradition declined, degrading a large part of the social fabric of the Indians.

By observing the Indian’s lack of written record, the Early European explorers assumed they lived by no religious code or law. This was not the case, however; the Indian’s religious foundation was strongly influenced by nature and dreaming. A Seneca Jesuit missionary in the seventeenth century complained that the Indians have ‘only a single divinity – the dream. To it they render their submission, and follow its orders with the utmost exactness’. The dream as an unconscious force within the Indian acted to link man with the higher power and larger force of the universe. In the film Black Robe, the Algonquin chief is shown to have a reoccurring dream of what turns out to be images seen at his death and beyond. As he lay dying, his instruction to his daughter was understood: to be left alone and Black Robe to be journey onward alone. The importance to obey the dream’s ‘wishes’ is described earlier in the film by the Algonquin guides as ‘more real than death or battle’ and that it ‘must be understood and obeyed.’

Contrastingly, the ruling religion of the European missionaries were for men to understand and obey God and his Word, the Bible, and Black Robe in the film remarks tiresomely about the Indian’s stubborn idea of the dream being real and the seen-world as just an illusion. Previously it is made known that the Indians had been instructed by Black Robe to give up the dream as a spiritual guide, to only have one wife and to stop killing their enemies. The Huron Chief however, complained that: “If we obey… we will no longer be Hurons. And soon our enemies will know our weakness and wipe us from this earth.” This foreshadowing is eventually fulfilled, the film ending with script describing such an occasion. The Huron tribe were all baptised and converted to Christianity, to their eventual downfall: fifteen years later their enemy, the Iroquois tribe overtook them and the Jesuit mission was abandoned. Evidently, the conversion of the Indian to Christianity caused problems – the Indian’s spiritual life was not as black and white as the Europeans where religion is predominantly left up to select Priests; for the Indians it was an element of daily social life and for everyone.

There were neither often any line drawn between political and religious activitiy for the Indian, so for one of them to convert to Christianity and properly reject former belief must abandon a massive part of his society’s foundation, often leading to feelings of deracination and segregation. Most converted Indians did not want to feel excluded from their society and many of them were in fact indistinguishable from the unconverted. Father Biard, a Jesuit missionary, complains in 1611 that the “same savagery remains” in those that have been baptised – the Indian way of life was hard to remove. He explains that “the same customs, ceremonies, usages, fashions, and vices remain… no attention being paid to any distinction of time, days, offices, exercises, prayers, duties, virtues or spiritual remedies”. These expected European virtues were modelled through one of the most famous Indian converts to Christianity – Teedyuscung, a great Moravian warrior. He was baptised and given a new name: Gideon. He moved from his village into a European-style house, abandoned the use of alcohol, began to dress in European clothing, and kept the Sabbath holy . The Europeans were evidently not only converting religion, but lifestyle and identity. For these reasons, conversion was not massively popular; there was much resistance from the Indians. Converting to Christianity was problematic for the Indian as it meant isolation and division and not being accepted completely within the world of neither whites nor his traditional society. By trying to mould Indians into Europeans, they divided and deteriorated the Indians’ own culture.

The Indians culture relied heavily on their surrounding environment. Although European society obviously relied on nature for their survival also, the natives seemed more consciously aware of their dependency, and were more directly involved with nature. The quest for food was every Indian’s concern, and unlike the Europeans who could rely on a small percentage of workers to produce food in which they could easily purchase, every person within an Indian tribe was directly involved with the hunting and gathering of food, clothing, fuel and tools straight from the source of nature. Only killing what was needed and appreciating what was had, the Indian hunter justified his kill by praying over the animal with an explanation of necessity. The Indians did not waste any food, using as much of an animal as was possible and sharing all they had with one another. An example of this is illustrated by Pedro de Castaneda, an accompanying soldier on the south-western United States expedition in 1593 to 1541, where he comments on the Indians’ extensive use of the buffalo:

With the skins they built houses… clothe and shoe themselves… make rope and also obtain wool. With the sinews they make thread, with which they sew clothes and also their tents. From the bones they shape awls. The dung they use for firewood… the bladders they use as jugs and drinking containers. They sustain themselves on their meat, eating it slightly roasted and heated over the dung.

The proper practice of hunting and killing animals was of great importance to the Indian, lest the responsible hunter is avenged by that animal and its kind. If handled fairly, the soul of the animal was believed to communicate peace to the other animals, assuring them they will be handled with respect. Nature and the Indian were so intertwined, that Reverend Frederick A. Rauch in his Psychology; or a view of the Human Soul observed that:

The savage is so wholly sunk in the life of nature … [he] views both as merged into each other. We, accustomed from youth to separate soul and body, mind and nature, find it almost impossible to transfer ourselves into the life of the savage.

Rauch’s comparison to the ‘we’ – the European’s view – makes it evident that their relationship with nature is not so meshed into everyday life as the Indians. It appears that for the Indian, nature threads their life together and it was to be loved, feared and respected – similar to a missionaries view on God. Like Christian Bible stories and songs, the Indian had varied folk tales that reflected the respect of nature and its force.

The environment of both the Indian and the European supplied each society different resources and goods to trade, opening up the opportunity for trade between the two cultures. Washburn comments however on the:

…corrupting effect of the traders, often loose in their morals and unscrupulous in their dealings, hasten[ing] the destruction of the affected tribes.

The beginning of Black Robe shows the village of Quebec, where at one point the French are seen to be wheeling a cart of animal skins back from trade with the Indians. Conversation came about as to what was traded in exchange for the furs, the answer being ‘knives’ and ‘brandy’. Metals and Liquor the Indians did not have access to before contact with Europeans and they welcomed the trade, eagerly wanting the foreign goods. So much so that in 1787, George Dixon’s vessel was met with natives in canoes who had paddled out to see the marvel of what the Indians in Black Robe refer to as ‘floating islands’, eager to trade in their fur coats at the rate of one chisel per pelt. The European demand for fur also introduced a competition between the Indians and the concept of property ownership arose; fenced off areas belonging to individuals to hunt in with restriction on trespassing encouraged selfishness and decayed the traditional generous traits in the early Indian society. Liquor was also a common trading item, to the detriment of their society. Washburn comments that the Europeans “altered the traditional social and political structure of the Indian communities to the detriment of the Indian community as a whole. By means of liquor… they helped to debauch the morals of the tribe.” The Chief in Black Robe acknowledges this, foreshadowing their downfall from their dependency on European goods, commenting that they had ‘come to need them’ and that accepting the gifts of the white people will be their ‘undoing and their ending.’

The Europeans in effect was a large part in the undoing of the Indian’s traditional culture. The clash of worldviews between the two cultures created misunderstandings that caused a number of problems within particularly the Indian society. There were firstly the obvious communication differences which caused frustration and misinterpretation accompanied by the European’s wish to ‘fix’ them by teaching them how to read and write – chipping away at their traditional oral tradition. Religiously, the European’s forceful conversions to Christianity bred disaccord within the Indian’s society and misplaced many identities. The conversion also resulted in ‘weaker’ societies, as seen in Black Robe, where the village was destroyed at the end due to their no-killing policy. Lastly, the goods available within each culture’s environment were beneficial for trading initially, and yet they became detrimental to the Indians when they were abused and depended upon.


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