The American Indian as an Ideological Object

Alleged virtues of the American Indian have played a role in European and American white ideology since shortly after Columbus. Michel de Montaigne, who died in 1592 praised the Aztecs in his essays. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the 18th century wrote of the "noble savage". Long before that, Romans wrote of the martial virtues of the German barbarians. In the old days the military virtues of the Indians were praised. More recently they have been assigned ecological virtue.

One amusing phenomenon is the famous fake Chief Seattle speech. The real speech was given in 1854 by Chief Sealth of the Dwamish Indians at a meeting with the newly appointed Governor of the Oregon Territory. In 1970, an environmentalist movie was made by a religious denomination, and the screenwriter, one Ted Perry, made up an environmentalist speech for Chief Seattle. It referred to buffalo being shot from trains, but neither buffalo nor trains existed within 1,000 miles of Seattle at the time. The movie did not acknowledge that Ted Perry had written the speech, because "they said it would be more effective that way". They were certainly right. Here are some notes on the fake speech, which has been set to music and recited and sung worldwide on all sorts of environmentalist occasions. The part about buffalo should have made anyone suspicious; it made me suspicious, even before I learned the facts of the matter.

In 1991 the Seattle Times published an article about the real speech given by Chief Seattle. Rudolph Kaiser, a German historian, had tracked down the sources of both the real speech and the fake speech.

The Arbor Heights Elementary School in Seattle has version 1 on its Web page (reproduced in Bill Gates's book) and refers to a version on Native Web as possibly more authentic. It isn't clear how authentic any version is, because the version in the U.S. archives was written down in 1887 from the memory of the translator, who had only been in the territory for a year.

James A. Clifton edited a collection of articles The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, published by Transaction Publishers in 1990. Much that is taught in school about Indians and even much written by professional anthropologists are myths.

Bruce E. Johansen has compiled a bibliography entitled Native American Political Systems and the Evolution of Democracy: . He supports the view that there was a big influence. He dislikes Clifton's book. The article in Clifton's book on this subject is by Elizabeth Tooker, and Johansen quotes her 1988 article saying "I attempt here no consideration of all the questionable interpretations of the data such authors as Johansen and Grinde make..."

It seems that much that is believed about the Australian aborigines and their relations with the colonists is just as mythical as common beliefs about American Indians. An article "The fabrication of Aboriginal history" by Keith Windschuttle appeared in the The New Criterion magazine for 2001 September. I don't know how long it will remain available on the magazine's website.

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