The great myth is essentially borne out by whatever one is likely to hear about Indians from non-specialist sources. Professor Clifton devotes several pages to fleshing it out, but it can be quickly summarized: Indians were spiritual, egalitarian, innocent people living in perfect harmony with the earth. They welcomed the white man, taught him the secrets of the wilderness, and shared with him the wisdom of their social institutions. In return, the white man enslaved and slaughtered the Indian, afflicted him with hideous diseases, and tried to destroy his culture.
Nevertheless, runs the myth, the Native American has survived. Though he has been dispossessed and politically emasculated, his spirit remains pure. As the white man begins to acknowledge the horrors he has wrought upon the Indian, so has he begun to study and appreciate the age-old wisdom and natural virtue to which all Indians, everywhere, are heir.
Like all myths, this one leaves certain things out: in this case, cannibalism, infanticide, ritual torture, geronticide, slaughter of prisoners, slavery, and the like. Such practices, though well substantiated, are seldom written about by historians and ethnographers for fear of violating what Prof. Clifton calls the Eleventh Commandment of the Indian business: Never Say No To An Indian. One of the Commandment’s corollaries prohibits writing or saying anything that Indians might not wish to hear. Most Indians know very little about their ancestors of centuries ago, and would vigorously deny accusations of slavery or cannibalism.
In Canada, certain agreeable fictions have semi-legal status. Whenever work crews find human bones at ancient camp sites, for example, they must take special measures not to violate the sacred dead. Broken or burnt human bones evidence of certain now-embarrassing practices can be treated like animal bones.
Stressing the Positive
On the stress-the-positive side of the myth we find the wisdom that the white man is supposed to have learned from the Indian. Every school child has heard of Squanto, the Algonquin who taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their corn with fish. As Lynn Ceci points out in a fascinating essay, there is no evidence that any North American tribes used fertilizer of any kind. Squanto, who had a very interesting and well-documented career, probably learned about it in Newfoundland, where he lived for some time among English settlers who routinely fertilized with fish.
School children do not learn that Squanto had lived in both England and Spain, spoke fluent English, and was hardly the noble, simple savage the history books make him out to be. As Dr.Ceci points out, the image of generous Squanto tends to obscure the more accurate picture of Indians who often attacked and killed settlers.
Another part of the great Indian myth that has recently been picking up steam, is that early Americans learned about democracy and the advantages of unity by studying the Iroquois Confederation. One of the authors traces the origins of this myth, and explodes the idea that the Constitution could have been influenced, in any way, by the matrilineal and hereditary form of representation practiced by the Iroquois.
One reason such preposterous notions make any headway at all is that it has become nearly obligatory to describe Indian societies as idyllically egalitarian, even “non-sexist.” Of course, there were hundreds of different tribal societies with different customs, but all of them had well defined sex roles that would horrify Gloria Steinem. Often, women were treated scarcely better than beasts of burden.
As for egalitarianism, it is difficult for bare subsistence-level hunters and gatherers to practice anything else, but as soon as material surplus appeared, some people got more of it than others. Leland Donald writes about the Tutchone of the southern Yukon, who lived on land so harsh as to be nearly uninhabitable. Nevertheless, their society was divided into hereditary classes of rich, poor, and slaves. As Dr. Donald puts it, “even in conditions that seem ideal for the presence of the classic egalitarian Indian society, it is possible for marked inequalities to emerge.”
The potlatches and ruinous gift-giving that were required for status among the more prosperous Northwest Indians are well known, but somehow coexist with the myth that Indians all lived in innocent classlessness. Even well known expressions like “low man on the totem pole” fail to puncture the myth.
Another important part of the image is the perfect harmony with nature in which Indians are said to have lived. Once again, sparsely scattered, stone-age people have very little choice about the matter, but “Mother Earth” is central to the myth. All Indians, it is said, saw the earth as their beloved mother. Hills were her breasts, streams were mother’s milk, and vegetation was her lovely hair.
Astounding as it may seem, one of the authors explains that the entire Mother Earth story can be traced to a single statement made by a single Indian in 1885. There is virtually no other evidence that Indians thought of the earth as mother. Nevertheless, the Mother Earth belief is now so widely attributed not only to American Indians but to all primitive peoples that it is frightful heresy to point out how unsubstantiated it is.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of entrepreneurs Indian and non-Indian who have parlayed the notion of the noble, nature-wise Indian into a means of parting gullible whites from their money. People with names like Rolling Thunder and Spotted Fawn do a brisk business promoting sweat lodges, sun dances, purification ceremonies, or whatever else aging hippies can be made to pay for. These ceremonies bear only a vague resemblance to anything the Indians of the past ever did, but there is a steady market for them.
According to another author, the same can be said for the pottery sold on the Pamunkey Indian reservation in Virginia. The Pamunkey stopped making pottery in the 1890s and started up again in the 1930s only because the state of Virginia paid to establish a pottery school on the reservation. Now tourists happily buy “Indian” pots, decorated with stick figure “writing” that is likewise a 20th century invention.
The High Counters
Minor frauds like these are relatively harmless. Deliberate attempts to manipulate thinking about Indians are more serious. David Henige of the University of Wisconsin reports that there is a small academic industry devoted to inflating the population estimates of Pre-Columbian America. If evidence can be found that tens of millions of healthy, happy Indians were living on the continent before the white man arrived, then the reduction of their numbers through warfare and disease can be made to seem all the more heinous.
The High Counters, as Mr. Henige calls them, pore over ancient accounts, pick the most exaggerated population estimates they can find, and solemnly pass them along as wholly credible. One scholar, for example, believes that a single energetic priest actually baptized, and counted, 14,000 Indians in a single day one every six seconds, round the clock. Others think that when Cortes said he faced an army of “more than 149,000” men, he can be relied on to have counted them accurately.
As Mr. Henige points out, numbers like these are just another way of saying “a lot,” but it is the scholars who are prepared to believe the worst of the colonizing white man who have the deepest faith in his ability to count people in crowds. Other High Counters would have it that European diseases swept through native tribes before the white man found them, killing up to half the population before Europeans could even start counting them.
If, by whatever means, the High Counters can gin up enough pre-Columbian Indians, they can then trot out the great, anti-white totem word, “genocide,” when they talk about the legacy of Columbus. The University of Oklahoma has even published a book called American Indian Holocaust and Survival.
Present descendants of invented Indians have woven the strands of myth into a mighty whip with which to beat the white man. They have, for example, mobilized reservoirs of public sympathy for huge land claims. Allan van Gestel, who has defended current owners against such claims, estimates that since 1970, Indian law suits have clouded the title to 35 million acres in the Eastern United States alone. This is an area the size of Austria or Ireland.
Indians can always call on teams of eager whites who will work for them pro bono. Clever lawyers have based most land cases on an obscure Congressional proclamation of 1783 that forbade the states to buy land from Indian tribes without federal permission. This was six years before the Constitution even went into effect, and several state governments had bought land from Indians even before the proclamation. This has not stopped tribes from trying to get back land that was duly purchased and that has been enormously improved in the last two hundred years.
Public sentiment, stoked by tales about the invented Indian, is such that Indians can virtually monopolize the services of scholars and historians; to testify “against” Indians can ruin a career. Some Indian claims have cost current land-owners hundreds of millions of dollars.
Today, the federal government has primary responsibility for dealing with Indians, but states and Canadian provinces also manage publicly funded Indian programs. According to Steven Feraca, a long-time worker at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), all of these bureaucracies have long been given over to race-based hiring and promotion. Preferences at the Bureau are so blatant, and career prospects for non-Indians so bleak, that although Indians are only 1/2 percent of the US population, they hold 75 percent of the jobs at BIA.
In the last few decades, the “Indian desks” of virtually all branches of government have been turned over to Indians, so that decisions that are supposed to be made in the names of larger jurisdictions are in the hands of unabashed partisans. Tribal “leaders” are now often indistinguishable from Indian-affairs bureaucrats, with no way to sort out the resulting conflicts of interest. What is more, as another author points out, chronic lateness and absenteeism in these offices are routinely excused by the notion that Indians work according to mysterious earth rhythms rather than by the white man’s clock.
In sum, both in Canada and in the United States, Indians have succeeded in becoming a kind of Uber-citizen. Off the reservation, they have all the usual legal rights, in addition to the strenuous affirmative-action preferences that are now obligatory. On the reservation, they enjoy a kind of extraterritoriality, which exempts them from many taxes and laws, and entitles them to a complete array of Indians-only health and welfare benefits. They have suckled at the public teat for longer than any other group in North America, and bear the stigmata of listlessness and squalor to prove it.
Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. What, by all rights, should be a proud celebration of the spread of civilization to the New World, has already been hijacked by cultural relativists who see in the white man nothing but wickedness. The October issue of National Geographic begins a series of “quincentenary” articles, in which the editors flatter themselves on letting Indians write from “the most intimate and perhaps truest perspective of all.”
Such a series is likely to be filled with the exploits of invented Indians more of what Prof. Clifton calls “perfectly enchanting fiction . . . that is both believed by its impresarios and presented as believable to others.” His book, impressively researched and stuffed with fascinating details, is the perfect antidote.