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Thanksgiving Guilt Trip: How Warlike Were Native Americans before Europeans Arrived?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The approach of Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday, has me brooding over recent scientific portrayals of Native Americans as bellicose brutes. When I was in grade school, my classmates and I wore paper Indian headdresses and Pilgrim hats and reenacted the “first Thanksgiving,” in which supposedly friendly Native Americans joined Pilgrims for a fall feast of turkey, venison, squash and corn. This episode seemed to support the view—often (apparently erroneously) attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau—of Native Americans and other pre-state people as peaceful “noble savages.”

Many prominent scientists now deride depictions of pre-state people as peaceful. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I reviewed last fall), Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker mocked the idea that “war is a recent invention, and that fighting among native peoples was ritualistic and harmless until they encountered European colonialists.” According to Pinker, pre-state societies were on average far more violent than even the most brutal modern states.

Pinker based his view on books such as War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, 1996) by anthropologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois, and Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage (Saint Martin’s Press, 2003) by archaeologist Steven LeBlanc of Harvard. “The dogs of war were seldom on a leash” in the pre-Colombian New World, Keeley wrote.

Popular culture has amplified these scientific claims. In the 2007 HBO docudrama Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Chief Sitting Bull complains to a U.S. Army colonel about whites’ violent treatment of the Indians. The colonel retorts, “You were killing each other for hundreds of moons before the first white stepped foot on this continent.”

Native Americans definitely waged war long before Europeans showed up. The evidence is especially strong in the American Southwest, where archaeologists have found numerous skeletons with projectile points embedded in them and other marks of violence; war seems to have surged during periods of drought. But scientists such as Pinker, Keeley and LeBlanc have replaced the myth of the noble savage with the myth of the savage savage.

In two momentous early encounters, Native Americans greeted Europeans with kindness and generosity. Here is how Christopher Columbus described the Arawak, tribal people living in the Bahamas when he landed there in 1492: “They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

How that passage—which I found in A People’s History of the United States by the historian Howard Zinn (Harper Collins, 2003)—captures the whole sordid history of colonialism! Columbus was as good as his word. Within decades the Spaniards had slaughtered almost all the Arawaks and other natives of the New Indies and enslaved the few survivors. “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide,” wrote the historian Samuel Morison (who admired Columbus!).

A similar pattern unfolded in New England in the early 17th century. After the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620 on the Mayflower, they almost starved to death. Members of a local tribe, the Wampanoag, helped the newcomers, showing them how to plant corn and other local foods. In the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest with a three-day feast with the Wampanoag. The event my classmates and I reenacted in grade school really happened!

The friendliness of the Wampanoag was extraordinary, because they had recently been ravaged by diseases caught from previous European explorers. Europeans had also killed, kidnapped and enslaved Native Americans in the region. The Plymouth settlers, during their desperate first year, had even stolen grain and other goods from the Wampanoag, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Plymouth Colony.

The good vibes of that 1621 feast soon dissipated. As more English settlers arrived in New England, they seized more and more land from the Wampanoag and other tribes, who eventually resisted with violence—in vain. We all know how this story ended. “The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million,” Zinn wrote.

The Arawak and Wampanoag were kind to us—and by us I mean people of European descent. We showed our thanks by sickening, subjugating and slaughtering them. And we have the gall to call them more savage than us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Self-plagiarism alert: This is a slightly modified version of a column originally posted before Thanksgiving 2010.

Image credit: Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris of 1621 feast at Plymouth, courtesy of Wiki Commons.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jplatt 2:58 pm 11/21/2012

    The danger here is talking about Native Americans as a homogeneous culture. They were (and are) not; any question asking “were they warlike or not” is already generalizing too much.

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  2. 2. frankblank 4:30 pm 11/21/2012

    Good old Columbus. It took him five minutes to figure out foreign policy for the next 500 years. And counting.

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  3. 3. marximo 5:48 pm 11/21/2012

    I wonder if the author would prefer to live in the tribal, waring but oh-so mysteriously romantic world of the native Americans and what they would have turned America into, or what the ‘savage’ white men turned American did. Unless I’m mistaken and he’s moved onto a reservation, it’s clear he chooses the latter, and derides it at the same time. How noble.

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  4. 4. Na g n o s t ic 6:06 pm 11/21/2012

    Big deal.

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  5. 5. nooneexpects 6:11 pm 11/21/2012

    Flawed reasoning here.

    Because white people were also violent, the so-called savage savage myth is a myth? One, the author came up with the term as something of a straw man. Two, once the straw man was set up, he doesn’t even knock it down. Instead, he argues a completely different point! I’m quite sure Pinker et al would also acknowledge that Europeans were quite violent. That doesn’t make their argument that native american societies had violence false. Moreover, the evidence used by the author to demonstrate that europeans were violent in the Americas (ie population loss) completely overlooks the far greater role in that loss played by disease. The reliance on wikipedia, too, is a little discomforting.

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  6. 6. tharriss 6:12 pm 11/21/2012

    Well Marximo, that ignores the other possibility… that progress could have happened without such a level of total cruelty and injustice. Just because things turned out well for us here now, doesn’t justify horrific acts that got us here. It is entirely possible that a less brutal and generally awful approach could also have led to a high technology, high standard of living society similar to what we have now, but without the horrific legacy that is pretty casually swept under the rug with a wink about the end justifying the means.

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  7. 7. littleredtop 6:30 pm 11/21/2012

    Native Americans were brutal savages who waged war on one another, as well as outside visitors. They lived in tribes which were continuously fighting for dominion over each other and war was their way of life. The savages commonly took slaves from other tribes and Native American women had no rights and were traded like livestock. This land was not a pleasant place in which to reside. Now, hundreds of years later, history is being rewritten to depict the savages as kind, warmhearted indigenous souls who were brutally taken advantage of. That was not the case. Those historians who got it right should be commended for their work.

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  8. 8. Metridia 6:31 pm 11/21/2012

    >The danger here is talking about Native Americans as a >homogeneous culture. They were (and are) not; any question >asking “were they warlike or not” is already generalizing >too much.

    Exactly. Not much of a counterargument there Mr Horgan. Two anecdotes at single points in time don’t characterize much of anything, especially something as diverse as the peoples of an entire continent.

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  9. 9. Na g n o s t ic 1:58 am 11/22/2012

    I don’t feel guilty.
    Apparently the author does.
    Maybe he was alive back in Pilgrim times. That possibility is of far more importance than questions about long-dead people’s violent behavior.

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  10. 10. Whammer2 6:35 am 11/22/2012

    Absolutely right. Trying to generalise “all native American” tribes as one culture is poor science and shoddy thinking. They were seperate cultures and had their own cultural traditions.

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  11. 11. syzygyygyzys 6:56 am 11/22/2012

    People (naked apes), by observation of history and breaking news, have displayed and continue to exhibit both great kindness and unbelievable cruelty. I think it’s hopeful that we lament cruelty to one another.

    The indigenous portion along with the likely African contribution to my DNA both believe they are better off they way things turned out.

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  12. 12. Chryses 7:50 am 11/22/2012

    Stop fretting. This was not an historical piece, it is a political piece, and may be safely dismissed as such.

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  13. 13. Dredd 8:10 am 11/22/2012

    jplatt @1,

    Very true. The Native American nations, like nation states around the globe today, vary in their practices, that is, in their religions, traditions, peace making, and warmaking.

    “Now I notice a very odd point. All other religions in the world, as far as I know them, are either nature religions, or anti-nature religions … But here is something quite different. Here is something telling me – well, what? Telling me that I must never … say that death does not matter.” – C.S. Lewis

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  14. 14. patrickfreeland 8:22 am 11/22/2012

    I think one of the biggest problems with authors dictating how “Native Americans” were is that it seems to completely discount the fact that there are still natives around today. Want to know what something was like? Ask them…

    As for the racist comment from littleredtop up there… you have no idea what you are talking about. Our women were sacred, in fact the clans system for most of the eastern tribes (including my own) were matrilineally based. The system of governance for the eastern tribes often stemmed from the approval of the women first, then to consensus within the larger community based on representation. This system of governance was the foundation for the United States constitution.

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  15. 15. KWillets 11:44 am 11/22/2012

    There’s an undercurrent of objectification in scientific thought which conflicts with the ability of people to speak for themselves.

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  16. 16. D.Russnak 2:30 pm 11/22/2012

    To all of you who are trying to paint the picture that European violence was in some way justified: Yes. Native Americans were violent, and went to war, just like every other people ever. However, the difference here is that time and time again, they attempted to make peace. Time and time again, the Europeans would slaughter them, and abuse them, because of the acts of a select few. This would be the equivalent of a foreign country exterminating us because a few tourists from here committed a few crimes over there. The Native Americans were generally satisfied simply with avenging themselves for the cruelty done to them, which is more than you can say for those of European descent. They did not deceive, steal, and INFECT WITH FATAL DISEASES like the Europeans. (It is interesting to note that not a single race in history has so readily, and repeatedly, used disease as a weapon as people of European descent. [note that I didn't say that no race has, merely that they don't do so as readily]) So before you go speaking as if your ancestors weren’t lying thieving vicious bastards, (like everyone’s) you should maybe read ALL the facts, not merely the ones you like. And just so you don’t go thinking I’m biased based on ancestry: I’m of both European and Native American descent. And unlike a LOT of people of mixed ancestry, there was no rape involved. Makes it a bit hard to pick sides until you look at both sides of this issue with an open mind. The fact is that reality is ugly vicious and brutal. And winning doesn’t make you right. Just makes you the winner.

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  17. 17. D.Russnak 2:33 pm 11/22/2012

    Oh… And I don’t mean they never lied or stole PERIOD. I mean that when they treated with the settlers, they did so honestly and fairly. (Europeans on the otherhand? See the Louisiana Purchase. If that wasn’t a con job then theft doesn’t exist.)

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  18. 18. lump1 4:28 pm 11/22/2012

    Am I misunderstanding something, or am I reading in Scientific American an editorial to the effect that well-researched scientific findings, though true, should not be made because… they seem in bad taste whenever Thanksgiving comes around? Please, Sci Am, don’t join the other Ostriches Against Reality, this continent has more than enough.

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  19. 19. Shoshin 6:38 pm 11/22/2012

    One of the reasons that Europeans were able to dominate was technology. Native Americans are just people, no better nor no worse, no more or less noble than their European counterparts. To suggest different is racist.

    Had Native Americans the technologies of steel, gunpowder and horses, it is certain that they would have become as efficient at killing each other (and the buffalo) as the Europeans were.

    People are people.

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  20. 20. Früit Helmet 6:53 pm 11/22/2012

    Wait, I don’t understand how this is supposed to help me as a self-loathing, middle class, white american…

    I didn’t help invent war?


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  21. 21. rfmcdonald 7:30 pm 11/22/2012

    1. Pinker’s argument was that, overall, the process of civilization in diverse areas of the world led to declining violence and rising empathy. The author’s post isn’t a serious attempt to address the issues that Pinker raised.

    2. I live in the area of Toronto, in southern Ontario, a place where the local Huron were annihilated in a genocidal trade war perpetrated by the Iroquois. Claiming that indigenous peoples sometimes did as terrible things as other groups is ahistorical.

    3. Overall, I’m inclined to bet that, on the eve of 1492, the populations of the Old and New Worlds taken as aggregates were equally violent and peaceloving.

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  22. 22. alan6302 7:36 pm 11/22/2012

    I was wondering what effect the iodine deficiency had in the new world. North America is iodine poor.

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  23. 23. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:47 pm 11/23/2012

    Here is the generally accepted modern historical view of Miles Standish and his minions.
    1. They were grave robbers, lied to the other Mayflower passengers, and committed genocide (the Pequot “war”).
    2. Miles Standish was an early fascist.
    3. The Puritans were reactionary conservatives and al Qaeda-style religious fundamentalists.
    4. The Native Americans were democratic, peaceful, and did not deserve the European invasion.

    I say the above as an upper-middle-class white male.

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  24. 24. AnchovyRancher 10:41 pm 11/23/2012

    Read some Alvin Josephy Jr. stuff, John.

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  25. 25. jgrosay 4:18 pm 11/24/2012

    The so called “Catholic kings”, Isabel and Fernando, who took the decision of sending away Columbus, banned taking the inhabitants of the Canary islands as slaves, and later, this decission was extended to all the inhabitants of the newly discovered American continent. Today, you find genetic markers of connection to the Teino or Taino caribbean tribe as high as 30% or more in some places, and if it’s true that some deaths of natives took place, the most dangerous warriors attacking the natives were smallpox, measles and other infectious diseases that the Spaniards arriving to America transported unvoluntarily there. What is called today “Hispanics” is a mixture of Europeans and local ethnic peoples, and in some places of America, people not of native american look are called “Ladinos” a name used in Spain for jewish. Really, if the goal of “Conquistadores” was a genocide of natives they absolutely failed, and in some places as in the Inca empire, they got power as the natives were engaged in a civil war, and also some strange things were of help, as some native american cultures had legends about “gods” that will come from the other side of the Ocean. A native princess married an Spaniard with this in mind, and when in the wedding night the man felt asleep and began snoring, the princess realized his new husband was not a god at all, and cutted his neck.

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  26. 26. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 11:22 am 11/25/2012

    @ jgrosay: I don’t no whether your blatant racism or pro-religious attitudes are more appalling. Christopher Columbus committed genocide. The Arawak people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic were extinct hundreds of years before either country was founded because of the Spanish policies. The anti-Semitic and racist monsters known as Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t ban Spanish slave-taking, they actively encouraged it. Free Arawaks would kill themselves and their children rather than be taken alive by Spaniards.

    Europeans in general had a white supremacist attitude towards other peoples who they met. Name a Native American nation or government (the Iroquois Confederacy, for example, whose constitution was used as a blueprint for our own), and I can name a European, white, or group of such people who committed grievous and unprovoked crimes against that group, nation, or government.

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  27. 27. drglennking 6:55 pm 11/26/2012

    This is a complex issue and the essay and many of the critical comments contain accurate points. One point that seems to be missing is that some Indians were friendly toward Whites because they hoped that they would be allies against other Indians. See Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies” for well-balanced accounts of interaction between various Indians and Whites). The most important point (and it’s bizarre that it still has to be made) is that blameworthy violence (among Indians) does not justify equivalent violence by outsiders (European imperialists). That’s like saying that the Nazis were justified in slaughtering Belgians because some Belgians had previously committed atrocities in the Congo.

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  28. 28. cccampbell38 9:26 am 11/27/2012

    Europeans conquered and nearly exterminated Native American peoples beginning some five hundred years ago by following the ethical and legal principals of the time. And yes, adherents and leaders of Christianity were very much involved.

    European descendants in all of the Americas then vigorously pursued the slave trade for the next four hundred years. It was legal and deemed ethical by most for much of that time. Again, our chosen moral compass, the Christian Church, largely accepted, approved, and defended this practice, as did our elected representatives, our courts, our Presidents, and the majority of the people.

    Times changed, our view of what was ethical, acceptable, and legal changed; slavery and open, armed warfare against the remnants of the Native population were abolished.

    Are we somehow to be held guilty for what we now consider the sins of past generations, even though they did not consider their own behavior to be wrong?

    What bothers me is that we still fail to teach the unvarnished truth about our history to our children. As a one time history teacher I can attest that my attempts to be honest in a factual and non judgmental way got me into so much trouble that I decided to leave teaching. I was branded a “Communist”, “America Hating”, “N—– Loving”, “Anti-Christian Atheist” liar by a significant segment of two working class communities where I taught. That was a few decades ago. Things are somewhat better now.

    Still, many people in the US do not know and do not want to know the facts, both good and bad, about our history. They prefer the myths.

    So, no, George did not chop down the cherry tree and he told a lot of lies. And Abe was a country lawyer who was far from being the honest and kindly man we were taught about in school. And in spite of their flaws they made great contributions to the US. And we are still waging cultural and economic warfare against the Native Americans. So deal with it.

    Can a nation be truly great if it is unwilling to deal honestly and openly with its past and its present?

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  29. 29. Steveinnc 5:16 pm 11/15/2014

    ““They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…. ”

    He states “They do not bear arms” when two sentences prior he claims that they had traded spears. What are spears if not arms? Also, it’s difficult to believe that any people could long exist without edged weapons/tools like knives even if they were fashioned from stone, so the claim that they would not recognize a sword at least as a ‘knife’ or cutting implement is a stretch. How likely a tribe was to engage in warfare was then, largely like now, probably dependent on how much conflict it encountered. There is a wealth of historical writings and evidence that strongly indicate that native American’s were not all that peaceful and that many, like the Comanche for example, were at war more often than not.

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