In February of 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to the Treasurer of Aragon who supported his adventures. Columbus’ views of the Native Americans he encountered in the Western Hemisphere were made clear in the letter. Some of the natives knew how to sail, and Columbus gave them credit for their skill: “They are most ingenious men, and navigate these seas in a wonderful way.” Aside from this statement, however, Columbus’ descriptions of the natives portrayed them as inferior to Europeans.
Columbus made it clear that it was easy to take land from the Native Americans not only because they had inferior weapons, but because they were fearful. He wrote, “They [the natives] have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because…they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane…with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.” Columbus easily made friends with the local rulers and claimed their territories because they had no knowledge of European weapons.
In addition to their ignorance of weapons, Columbus stated that the natives were also clueless about what their possessions were worth. Whenever the sailors traded with the natives, the sailors could get much more in return than they gave to the natives. Columbus claimed to have stopped his men from taking advantage of the Native Americans, but he had his own selfish motives for doing so. He wrote that he “gave a thousand good and pretty things that I had to win their love, and induce them to…love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help to get for us things they have in abundance, which are necessary to us.” Although Columbus appeared to be protecting the natives, he only did it because the natives had materials which his men wanted.
Columbus also believed he had the right to make the natives into slaves. He captured some to provide him with knowledge about the land he discovered: “I took by force some of the natives, that we might gain some information of what there was in these parts.” In addition, he also promised the king and queen of Spain that “their Highnesses will see that I can give them…as many slaves as they choose to send for, all heathens.” The inferiority which Columbus perceived in the Native Americans (their timidity and lack of knowledge of Christianity) supposedly gave him the right to make them serve Europeans. Yet Columbus did not see that without the help of the natives to guide him, he and his men would not have learned much about the new territory.
One of the motives the Spanish gave for settling in California was to convert the native Pueblo to Catholicism. The religious motive gave Spaniards an excuse to profit from their journey by acquiring gold, spices, and other items. As missionary Father de la Ascension stated, “If the Spaniard does not see any advantage he will not be moved to do good, and these souls [of the Pueblo] will perish without remedy.” Religion was also supposed to motivate the Spanish to treat the natives well.
The Europeans faced some obstacles in getting the Pueblo to convert to their customs. For example, Pueblos had a greater respect for nature while the Europeans believed that the earth and its resources could be used however mankind wanted. The Pueblo religion suggested that gods and the people came from the underworld below the earth. Since gods came from beneath the earth, nature and natural resources were considered sacred. Spaniards and the Pueblo also had different perceptions of community. In Spanish society, individuals were encouraged to distinguish themselves from others. Individuality had no place in Pueblo society, however. Distinction was discouraged in Pueblo society because the community’s prosperity was considered to be more important than individual achievements.
Despite their differences, Pueblo religion and Spanish Catholicism were similar in some ways. Both religions stressed the authority of a higher power. The universe was not controlled by human beings but by a god or gods. The god(s) decided the people’s fate and could send disasters if they were angry at their followers. Also, the reverence which saints received in the Catholic Church was similar to the Pueblo heroes who became revered spirits when they died. Some Pueblo adopted the Catholic faith because they wanted to please the Spaniards and receive gifts from them. Unfortunately, Native Americans did not realize that many of the gifts the Spanish gave them were worthless.
The environment in which a child lives—her parents, friends, and neighborhood—greatly impacts who that child will become. In the same way, the environment in which a society is placed influences the development of that society. Native American societies varied according to the type of ecosystem, or environment, a tribe inhabited.
Native American economies were greatly affected by their ecosystems, and thus their ability to plant and grow food. The tribes migrated toward food and water during the different seasons. These changes in climate caused the people to find methods that helped them adjust to their environments.
Different ecosystems made different methods of survival necessary. In a fragile ecosystem like the one the Northern Algonquians inhabited, a hunter and gatherer technique was used. Societies would fish and gather food in the spring and summer while hunting during the winter. For these Native Americans, late winter and early spring became the time of hunger. This ecosystem was easy to alter due to the few animals and plants. As a result, the tribes needed to be small and very mobile. The Northern Algonquians’ small villages led to a less complex society compared to other tribes.
In contrast to the fragile ecosystem, sturdy ecosystems like the one in which the Iroquois lived had a greater variety of plants and animals. The Iroquois established an agricultural society. They planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, and hunted during winter. Their fertile ecosystem allowed them to grow a variety of foods and contributed to their ability to set up more permanent communities.
The agricultural Iroquois were able to establish more complex social organizations than the hunter and gatherer societies. Within an Iroquois village were households which consisted of a number of families together in a long house. The Iroquois ecosystem provided more authority for women because women were responsible for the planting and harvest and most of the society’s nourishment came from the women’s work. In contrast, in the Northern Algonquian tribe the men were more valued because they hunted and hunting was their society’s main source of food. Within both of these ecosystems Native Americans shared land but individuals could own food they produced or gathered.
The political organization of the Iroquois also gave women power because of their harvesting skills. In the Iroquois League, women chose the male members of the councils which governed the tribes. The society remained in the control of men, however, so that no women became chiefs. Fragile ecosystems did not allow for as much female authority in their government. Each Native American society provided different methods of growing food, social and political organization depending on the environment in which the people lived.
Colonial France provides some contrast to the economic and religious practices of other nations toward the Native Americans. The economy in the French colonies was based almost entirely on trading animal furs. Samuel de Champlain established a trading post at Quebec in 1608 and entered into an alliance with the Algonquin, Montagnais, and Huron Indians. The coureurs de bois, or French traders, gave the Native Americans metal goods in exchange for beaver fur. This fur was in high demand in Europe. Trading posts were placed on vacant land and France’s economy was not dependant on cash crops like tobacco. In contrast to colonial England and Spain, the French colonists fully incorporated the natives into their economic system. The natives did not work for the French colonists or have their lands taken by whites.
The religious practices of colonial France were also unlike those of England and Spain. Champlain sent for missionaries to convert the natives. Catholic priests called Recollets and Jesuits who established Montreal came to the area. Since France’s economic system depended on the well-being of the natives, missionaries were more tolerant of the Native Americans than missionaries from other countries. Only colonial France was able to produce economic and religious practices that did not subject the natives to cruelty.
One reason for the tolerance of the French traders and missionaries of the natives may have been their small numbers. The population of New France never reached the level of New Spain or the English colonies. As a result, there was less pressure placed on the Indians and their lands. Luckily for the Native Americans in French colonies, the small white population may have stopped some of the forced labor requirements and land grabbing that went on in other colonies.
The economic system which was used by the Spanish colonists incorporated the Native American population but also repressed it. Native Americans worked a plot of land called a encomienda, which was granted to a colonist by the governor. Indian laborers worked without pay at tasks such as tanning hides and were required to provide the owner of the encomienda with an annual tribute of goods. The Spanish economic system created a society of extremes. Owners of land were profiting from the labor of native peoples. The tributes and labor were expected even in times of crisis such as drought, further oppressing the natives.
In colonial Spain's economic system, a person's race determined their place in society. Only peninsulares, who were Spaniards born in Spain, could hold the highest colonial government position of viceroy. Creoles, people of European descent but who were born in the colonies, had access to offices such as archbishop. Mestizos, or people of Spanish and Indian origin, could not hold any public offices and worked only in crafts. On the lowest rung were the Indians who worked on the encomiendas for the Spanish. By making race a factor in a person's economic status, colonial Spain succeeded in oppressing the natives.
Even colonial Spain's missionaries eventually became hostile to the Native Americans. When New Mexico was founded in 1598, the Spanish monarchy felt that it had a duty to convert the natives. In the beginning the number of religious conversions was more important to the Catholic friars than strict doctrine. Similarities between native and Catholic religions such as the belief in a higher power also aided the process of blending the cultures together. The tolerance of the friars for the natives ended after the drought of the 1670s. Since the English god was unable to provide the Native American tribe of the Pueblo with much needed rain, the Pueblo rejected Catholicism and went back to their old religion. In response, friars destroyed altars and forbade dances which the Pueblo used in their religious ceremonies. Also, 47 ceremonial leaders were arrested, three of whom were killed by the Spanish. Clearly both religion and economics were used to subjugate the Indians.
From the time the first explorers came to America, the new arrivals had a great impact on the culture of the native people. For example, they introduced the natives to new crops such as rice, wheat, and coffee which could successfully grow and benefit the natives. Although the immigrant and native cultures influenced each other at first, as the years passed one culture, often referred to as Anglo-Saxon, eventually became dominant. The early native people chose to adopt elements of white culture which complimented their former way of life.
After coming in contact with whites, the Cherokee gradually adopted some aspects of Christianity. The nineteenth century religious revivals and the government’s plan to make Native Americans more civilized resulted in missionaries being sent to the Cherokee Nation. In 1800 the Cherokees accepted the Christians’ desire to build a school. Apparently satisfied with their own religious beliefs, however, they remained uninterested in Christianity for many years. Missionaries eventually had more success with the younger generations which came to regard the old traditions such as singing and dancing around the fire as “unenlightened.” These later generations believed that this new religion would help them to become more civilized and would make them superior to their elders.
The Cherokee also adopted the American system of government. By 1827 the Native Americans began to centralize their government, dividing it into a bicameral legislature like our Senate and House of Representatives, several chief executives known as head chiefs, and a judiciary. Though the American system does not include more than one chief executive, the Cherokee’s new government is strikingly similar. The Native Americans did not imitate US government just because it was American. They had a specific purpose in mind when they eliminated the village meetings where everyone would argue until an agreement was reached. The Cherokees wanted to centralize their government to protect their nation whose land was in danger of being bought out by the whites. By centralizing the government and giving only officials authority to sell land, Cherokee leaders were attempting to ensure the Nation’s survival.
Native Americans also took advantage of the opportunity to learn how to read and write English through missionary schools. By 1824 Cherokee statesman John Ridge stated that one-third of the Cherokee Nation could read and write in English. Creating a fervent desire in the natives to create their own language, the introduction of the English alphabet led to the invention of the Cherokee written language by Sequoyah during the 1820s. Although the missionaries sought to civilize the Cherokee by using the English language, they unwittingly helped the Cherokee to develop their own language and sense of national pride. This pride was shown in the newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. The articles were printed in both English and Cherokee, and served two functions: to inform the people about US plans to relocate the tribe to Oklahoma and to bring the people together in protesting removal. Throughout the removal crisis, the newspaper became an important factor in uniting both Cherokee and some white people against removal.
Religion in America has been used to justify unforgivable actions against others. The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government is one example. In the nineteenth-century, Americans believed that it was their manifest destiny, or God-given duty, to spread their society across the continent. Americans’ godly mission, however, did not require them to care about the Native Americans who were displaced from their lands as whites moved closer. When President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act with the approval of Congress in 1830, Native Americans were forced to move to land west of the Mississippi. In 1838, the Cherokee Indians journeyed west. Baptist missionary Evan Jones traveled with the Cherokee and described the experience: “The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners…In Georgia, especially, multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow in the train of the captors.” Although the U.S. believed that manifest destiny justified the seizing of land, this action led to the unjust treatment of Native Americans.
Despite the negative consequences of manifest destiny, religion in American has also served as a motivation for reform. Throughout our nation’s history, churches promoted various social reforms. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, African Americans found leaders for the civil rights movement in their congregations. Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott during which African Americans refused to ride buses after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. He also organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest the treatment of blacks in white society. Today African American church leaders continue to fight for social justice. Reverend Jesse Jackson consistently brings media attention to issues of civil rights and other causes like welfare reform. Both King and Jackson demonstrate that religion can be a positive force when it is used to uproot injustices in society.
The Spanish conquistadors were unquestionably cruel to Native Americans. England’s colonists, however, were equally hostile toward the natives they encountered. The success of England’s colonies depended on the exploitation of Native Americans who were forced off their lands. Religion was often used to justify the poor treatment of the natives. Both England’s economic system and religion led to Native American oppression.
John Rolfe introduced tobacco to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1612. Jamestown’s tobacco growers made a lot of money by trading tobacco with the Europeans. Tobacco, however, tears up the land where it is planted so the colonists began to covet Native American lands. The Powhatan tribe tried to repel the land-grabbing English in 1622 and succeeded in killing a third of the settlement’s inhabitants. The colonists, however, successfully put down Native American uprisings throughout the decade. The Native Americans were forced to give up their lands so the colonists could grow even more tobacco.
In addition to their desire for land, the English also used religion to justify bloodshed. In 1637, New England Puritans exterminated thousands of Pequot Indians, including women and children. Captain John Underhill led the attack. He stated that the Pequot “broke forth into a most doleful cry, so as if God had not fitted the hearts of men for the service, it would have bred in them a commiseration towards them. But every man being bereaved of pity fell upon the work without compassion, considering the blood they had shed of our native Countrymen.” The Pequot had previously killed several English captains so the Puritans claimed God supported their extermination of the Pequot for the killing of Englishmen. Since they were Christians and the Pequot were seen as heathens, the Puritans felt justified in their actions.