Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cherokee Misconceptions, Part 5: Noble Savage

The Noble Savage
In an introduction to the book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan”, Victor Wolfgang von Hagen wrote, “The acceptance of an indigenous ‘civilization’ demanded of an American living in 1836 a complete reorientation; to him an ‘Indian’ was one of those barbaric, half-naked tipi dwellers, a rude sub-human people who hunted with animal stealth.”

Benjamin Franklin deplored the use of the term "savages" for Native Americans: “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs”.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens had quite another opinion, “To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage.  I consider him a prodigious nuisance and an enormous superstition. ... I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth....”

“The term noble savage (French, bon sauvage) is a literary stock character that expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or "other" who has not been "corrupted" by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness.  It first appeared in a 17th century play by John Dryden." [wikipedia]

This “noble or good savage” idea has hung around and was adopted by Hollywood as the stereotypical American Indian. 

So, what is a “savage?”  Well, Mr. Webster (Merriam Webster Dictionary) has a couple of definitions that relate to culture: 1 lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings, and 2 lacking complex or advanced culture, uncivilized.
Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

Ok, well, in the first definition, a lot depends upon what  “normal” is.  Certainly, to the Europeans, the American Indian was far from normal.  In the second definition, the key word is “uncivilized”.  So, what does it take to be classified as civilized?  For that, I will turn to Jacob Bronowski.

Jacob Bronowski was a Polish-Jewish British mathematician, biologist, historian of science, author, poet, and inventor.  He was definitely a brilliant man, but I know him for his fantastic book and BBC TV documentary “The Ascent of Man” which aired in 1973.  There are so many wonderful quotes from his books but I will try to limit myself to a few.  For instance he pointed out that, “Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

So what did this wise man have to say about civilization?  “It took at least two million years for man to change from the little dark creature with the stone in his hand, Australopithicus in Central Africa, to the modern form, Homo Sapiens.  … But it has taken much less than twenty thousand years for Homo sapiens to become the creatures that you and I aspire to be … .  That is the pace of cultural evolution … .  Twenty thousand years ago man in all parts of the world that he had reached was a forager and a hunter, whose most advanced technique was to attach himself to a moving herd … .  By ten thousand years ago that had changed, and he had begun in some places to domesticate some animals and to cultivate some plants; and that is the change from which civilization took off. … It is usually called the ‘agricultural revolution’.”

Many scholars believe that we have gone through two more revolutions since then—the “industrial revolution” and the “technology revolution”.   Having been born and raised on a farm, I tend to find the other two stages just revolting.

If we take Bronowski’s definition, we would have to classify the Cherokee as civilized.  Long before their encounter with the arrogant Europeans, the Cherokee had made that leap from “forager and hunter” and adopted and adapted to the agricultural way of life.  They built permanent houses, had a sophisticated form of government and military, farmed, educated their children, followed a holistic form of healthcare and religion.

Again from Bronowski, “With that there comes an equally powerful social revolution.  Because now it became possible—more than that, it became necessary—for man to settle.  I believe that civilization rests on that decision.”

From the beginning, though, the Cherokee and the other eastern tribes were not recognized as civilized.  George Washington considered the Native American equal as a person, but inferior as a society.  He developed a plan or policy to encourage the “civilizing” process.  Historian Robert Remini wrote, “they presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans.”

Government Agents were appointed to teach, through example and instruction, the Native Americans how to “live like whites”.  And although the southeastern tribes, including the Cherokee, adopted Washington’s policy and established schools, adopted yeoman farming practices, converted to Christianity, built homes like their colonial neighbors, developed their own alphabet and wrote their own constitution, it was not enough.

Henry Knox wrote to George Washington, “How different would be the sensation of a philosophic mind to reflect that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended. But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America – This opinion is probably more convenient than just.”
Andrew Jackson
Directed removal of Cherokee

Despite being recognized as one of the “five civilized tribes”, in 1836, under the direction of President Andrew Jackson, the Cherokee were forced to leave their native lands and relocate to Oklahoma.  The harsh conditions of the move resulted in the death of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee and came to be known as “The Trail of Tears.”

-- Courtney Miller

Author of "The First Raven Mocker"
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles

Available at bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and

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