The approach of Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday, has me brooding once again over slanderous 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. “Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage,” psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in 2007, “quantitative body counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with ax marks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.” According to Pinker, the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes “got it right” when he called pre-state life a “war of all against all.”
Pinker reiterated this claim in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I reviewed for Slate). The Hobbesian thesis has also been advanced in other influential books, notably War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, by anthropologist Lawrence Keeley; Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, by archaeologist Steven LeBlanc; War in Human Civilization, by political scientist Azar Gat; The Social Conquest of Earth, by biologist Edward Wilson; and The World Until Yesterday, by geographer Jared Diamond.
Referring specifically to the pre-Colombian New World, Keeley asserted, “The dogs of war were seldom on a leash.” 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.”
Yes, Native Americans waged war 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 as I have asserted in my book The End of War and on this site, Pinker and other Hobbesians have greatly exaggerated the extent of warfare among early humans. They 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 historian Howard Zinn's 1980 classic A People’s History of the United States—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,” the historian Samuel Morison—who admired Columbus!–wrote. [*Zinn may have omitted an important part of Columbus's description. See Addendum below.]
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.
*Self-plagiarism alert: I have published versions of this column previously. Maybe I'll make it an annual Thanksgiving ritual, like watching the Lions lose.
Addendum: After posting this column, I had the following email exchange with a reader.
Bob Capetta to John Horgan: It’s ironic that you chose Howard Zinn’s quote to help make your point in “Thanksgiving and the Slanderous Myth of the Savage Savage.” The first time I read the quote in A People’s History of the United States (a book that I love), I went back to the copy of The Log of Christopher Columbus that I had bought in 1992 during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. (The Log was translated by Robert H. Fusion, International Marine Publishing, 1987. There’s a note in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data that says, “Translation based on Las Casas’ abstract of the Log with additions from his Historia and Fernando Columbus’s Historie [of the Columbus family.]”)
This is the passage that, to me, Zinn had glaringly left out of his quote (it comes right after “...hawks’ bells.”): “Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to make them slaves.”
John, do “we” really—as you say we do—call the Arawak and the Wampanoag “more savage than us?” Do even any of the scientists you’re criticizing say that? The Arawak and Wampanoag were gentle people. Your using them as stand-ins for all Native Americans continues to ignore the Carib and the Mohawk and the Aztec and all the others who—besides the Europeans who brutally conquered them—were brutal conquerors themselves.
And it misses the point: Humanity, as a whole, contains both the good and the evil. It does now, always has, and (despite Howard Zinn’s hope that his writing would help it do otherwise) probably always will. Happy Thanksgiving, Bob Capetta
John Horgan replies to Bob Capetta: If your quote from Columbus's Log is accurate, it does indeed represent a significant omission by Zinn. Thanks for drawing it to my attention. But it does not negate the overall point of my column. Yes, as I noted, Native Americans were not all pacifists. But leading scientists at major institutions have perpetuated, and the educated public has largely accepted (hence my use of the collective "we"), the claim that Native Americans and other indigenous people were more violent than the Europeans who "civilized" them over the last half millennium. Not only is this claim based on flimsy evidence. It also feeds the moral arrogance of western powers, and especially of the U.S. That arrogance is on display right now in our violent foreign policies, which are exacerbating the problems that they purport to solve.
The view you express--that humanity as a whole is "evil"--also justifies U.S. hawkishness. If the world is irredeemably violent, we might as well be the guys with the most guns, right? And we better get the bad guys before they get us. As long as we indulge in this pseudo-scientific, self-fulfilling fatalism, we will indeed have no hope of ending war.