Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2009

From Jack Weatherford’s “Indian Givers”

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

Jack Weatherford

Jack Weatherford, “Indian Givers“:

Freedom does not have a long pedigree in the Old World. When it appears in the ancient literature of the Mediterranean, freedom usually refers to the freedom of a tribe, a nation, or a city from the domination of another such group, as in the freedom of the Jews from Egyptian bondage or the freedom of the Greek cities from Persian rule. In this sense the word echoes our contemporary notion of national sovereignty, but it resembles only slightly our concept of freedom as personal liberty. Occasionally, this sense of the word appeared in connection with a Roman or Greek slave who was freed, but this was a very specialized use that meant a person became human and was no longer merely the property of someone else.

After the people of the Old World learned to accept the strange animals reported from America and had at least a slight acquaintance with the new plants, they began to examine more closely the people and their culture. By this time the Spanish had virtually decapitated the native societies that they had encountered, and they had then grafted the Spanish monarchy, the Spanish language, and Spanish Catholicism to the native roots of American culture. In contrast, the more marginal areas of America that fell into the hands of the French and British still had flourishing native societies.

The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians’ personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king.

As the first reports of this new place filtered into Europe, they provoked much philosophical and political writing. Sir Thomas More incorporated into his 1516 book Utopia those characteristics then being reported by the first travelers to America, especially in the much-discussed letters of Amerigo Vespucci. More made his Utopia one of equality without money. The following year, More’s brother-in-law John Ratsell set out in search of some such paradise in America. Although his trip failed, he continued to advocate the colonization of America in his writings, and his son did make the trip in 1536.

More’s work was translated into all the major European languages and has stayed in print until the present day. His thought carried influence throughout the European continent, and in the following century, other writers strengthened and developed the idea of freedom that he described and the ways that the Indians in America maintained it.

Writing a little later in the sixteenth century, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne presented a similar description of American Indian life based primarily on the early reports from Brazil. In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne wrote that they are “still governed by natural laws and very little corrupted by our own.” He specifically cited their lack of magistrates, forced services, riches, poverty, and inheritance. As in More’s Utopia, Brazil emerged as the ideal place and Indians as having created the ideal society. Most of these early writings contained strongly satirical veins-the writers indicated that even so-called savages lived better than civilized Europeans-but the satire grew out of the unavoidable truth that the technologically simple Indians usually lived in more just, equitable, and egalitarian social conditions.

Not until a century after Montaigne did the first French ethnography on the North American Indians appear. Louis Armand de Lorn d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, wrote several short books on the Huron Indians of Canada based on his stay with them from 1683 to 1694. An adventurer far more than an anthropologist, Lahontan nevertheless managed to rise above the genre of adventure stories to give the French reader the worldview of the Hurons from inside the Indian mind. By the time of Lahontan’s sojourn among the Hurons, they had already survived several decades of sporadic interaction with European explorers and traders, and they had been the subject of numerous commentaries by Jesuit missionaries. From these interactions the Hurons were able to compare their own way of life and the Europeans’. The Indians particularly decried the European obsession with money that compelled European women to sell their bodies to lusty men and compelled men to sell their lives to the armies of greedy men who used them to enslave yet more people. By contrast, the Hurons lived a life of liberty and equality. According to the Hurons, the Europeans lost their freedom in their incessant use of “thine” and “mine.”

One of the Hurons explained to Lahontan, “We are born free and united brothers, each as much a great lord as the other, while you are all the slaves of one sole man. I am the master of my body, I dispose of myself, I do what I wish, I am the first and the last of my Nation . . . subject only to the great Spirit”. It is difficult to tell where the Huron philosopher speaks and where Lahontan may be promoting his own political philosophy, but still the book rested on a base of solid ethnographic fact: the Hurons lived without social classes, without a government separate from their kinship system, and without private property. To describe this political situation, Lahontan revived the Greek-derived word “anarchy,” using it in the literal sense meaning “no ruler.” Lahontan found an orderly society, but one lacking a formal government that compelled such order.

After the appearance of Lahontan’s New Voyages to North America in 1703 in The Hague and his Curious Dialogues soon thereafter, Lahontan became an international celebrity feted in all the liberal circles. The playwright Delisle de la Drevetiere adapted these ideas to the stage in a play about an American Indian’s visit to Paris. Performed in Paris in 1721 as Arlequin Sauvage, the play ends with a young Parisian woman named Violette falling in love with the Indian and fleeing with him to live in the liberty of America beyond law and money.

As usually happens in the theatrical world, this success initiated dozens of imitations, and there soon followed a spate of plays, farces, burlesques, and operas on the wonderful life of liberty among the Indians of America. Impresarios brought over Indians in droves to tour the European capitals and entertain at parties with their tales of liberty and freedom in the American paradise. Plays such as Indes Galantes and Le Nouveau Monde followed in the 1730s. The original play Arlequin Sauvage had a major impact on a young man named Jean Jacques Rousseau, who set about in 1742 to write an operetta on the discovery of the New World featuring Christopher Columbus’s arrival with a sword while singing to the Indians the refrain “Lose your liberty!”. This contrast between the liberty of the Indians and the virtual enslavement of the Europeans became a lifelong concern for Rousseau and eventually led to publication of his best-known work, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, in 1754.

Despite the excessive literary commercialization of the notion of American liberty, a number of good ethnographic studies of the Indians also appeared during this period. The social descriptions of Lahontan found subsequent corroboration in the more ethnographic but less dramatic writings of the Jesuit Father Joseph Frangois Lafitau, who published in 1724 Customs of the American Savages Compared with Those of Earliest Times, describing the Mohawks. The virtues of Indian society so impressed Lafitau that he saw in it a reflection of ancient Greek society. He intimated that the Indians actually might be descendants of refugees from the Trojan wars who managed to transfer their Greek ideals to America.

During this era the thinkers of Europe forged the ideas that became known as the European Enlightenment, and much of its light came from the torch of Indian liberty that still burned brightly in the brief interregnum between their first contact with the Europeans and their decimation by the Europeans. The Indian, particularly the Huron, became the “noble savage,” the man of liberty living in the “natural state.” While a few Europeans chose the path of Violette and left the corrupt world of Europe for America, others began working on ideas and plans to change Europe by incorporating some of the ideas of liberty into their own world. Almost all of the plans involved revolutionary changes to overthrow the monarchy, the aristocracy, or the church, and in some cases even to abolish money and private property.

The greatest political radical to follow the example of the Indians was probably Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the English Quaker and former craftsman who arrived in Philadelphia to visit Benjamin Franklin just in time for Christmas of 1774. Because the Quakerism of his family restricted his study of Latin, the language of learning, Paine was not an intellectual trained in philosophy. He left school at age thirteen to become an apprentice staymaker. He earned his education in life, something that many people have attempted and few have accomplished. His experiences made him a radical proponent of democracy.

After arriving in America he developed a sharp interest in the Indians, who seemed to be living in the natural state so alien to the urban and supposedly civilized life he encountered around himself. When the American Revolution started, Paine served as secretary to the commissioners sent to negotiate with the Iroquois at the town of Easton near Philadelphia on the Delaware River in January 1777. Through this and subsequent encounters with the Indians, Paine sought to learn their language, and throughout the remainder of his political and writing career he used the Indians as models of how society might be organized.

In his writings, Paine castigated Britain for her abusive treatment of the Indians, and he became the first American to call for the abolition of slavery. He refined his knowledge and opinions in order to disseminate them to the world in eloquent works bearing such simple titles as Common Sense, which he issued in January 1776 as the first call for American independence. Subsequently he became the first to propose the name “United States of America” for the emerging nation. After the revolutionary victory in America, he returned to Europe in 1787 to carry the Indian spark of liberty. The French made him an honorary French citizen, and they offered him a seat in the National Assembly in order to help draft a just constitution for their nation. He fought hard for the French Revolution, but despite his belief in revolutionary democracy, he abhorred terrorism, including the French reign of terror. Despite these excesses of the French, Paine laid out his logical defense of revolution in The Rights of Man in 1792, and then turned his attention to the role of religion by writing the book that gave its name to the whole Enlightenment, The Age of Reason (1794-95).

After this life of activism and writing, Paine wrote Agrarian Justice (1797), in which he asked a question that still haunts our own time: can civilized society ever cure the poverty it has created? He was not entirely optimistic that it could. He returned once again to the Iroquois, among whom he had learned democracy, when he wrote, “The fact is, that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North-America at the present day”. Unfortunately, however, Paine concluded that “it is always possible to go from the natural to the civilized state, but it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state”.

When the French so ardently embraced Napoleon as emperor, Paine felt that they had betrayed everything he had been preaching, and he left France in disgust in 1802 to return to America, which still struggled with the implementation of liberty. He found the citizens of America now more complacent. Following their revolution they seemed intent on settling down, making money, and enjoying the pursuit of happiness. They showed no tolerant mood for an aging radical who held up savage Indians to them as paragons of the proper human values.

By the time Paine died, the Indians had been permanently enshrined in European thought as exemplars of liberty. In the next generation, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the first volume of Democracy in America, repeatedly used phrases such as “equal and free.” He said that the ancient European republics never showed more love of independence than did the Indians of North America. He compared the social system and the values of the Indians to those of the ancient European tribes prior to becoming “civilized” and domesticated.

Even in the twentieth century, French anthropologists continued the analysis of liberty and equality among surviving American Indian groups, particularly those in the jungles of South America. Describing it as “society against the state,” Pierre Clastres analyzed political institutions in Indian America to determine anew whether society could function without political oppression and coercion. He found that even in societies with chiefs, “the chief’s word carries no force of law.” He quoted the great cacique, or chief, Alaykin of the Argentine Chaco as saying that “if I were to use orders or force with my comrades, they could turn their backs on me at once.” He continued, “I prefer to be loved and not feared by them.” Clastres summed up the office of chief by observing that “the chief who tries to act the chief is abandoned”.

From the moment the notion of democracy and the noble savage appeared in Europe, some skeptical thinkers rejected it entirely. Thomas Hobbes launched one of the first attacks against this primitivism. Although he had never been to America, he claimed in his Leviathan (1651) that the savage people in many places of America led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He then went on to attack the ideas of liberty. For Hobbes the natural state of man was the horror of “war of all against all,” and only through total subjugation of everyone to a ruler could the individual be protected from the perfidy and savagery of others.

In the next century a philosopher as eminent as Voltaire joined Hobbes in belittling the American Indians, but he used Indian characters in several of his works. Even the German philosopher Immanuel Kant attacked the idea of the noble Arfierican savage. In his 1772 lectures on philosophical anthropology at the University of Konigsberg, Kant proclaimed that the American Indians “are incapable of civilization.” He described them as having “no motive force, for they are without affection and passion. They are not drawn to one another by love, and are thus unfruitful. They hardly speak at all, never caress one another, care about nothing, and are lazy.” In a note in his lecture he foreshadowed two long centuries of racist thought in Germany when he wrote that the Indians “are incapable of governing themselves” and are “destined for extermination”.

As the eighteenth century closed in the bloodshed of the French Revolution, Europeans momentarily tired of constant political debate and the question of the natural social or political state of man. They turned away from the American Indian and let their fantasies flow to the South Pacific, where they envisioned a paradise of sensuality. Unlike the Indians who had suffered no rulers, many of the island people of Polynesia had rulers, and yet they seemed to be happy and to have found sexual, if not political, liberation. The notion of the noble savage took a new turn away from politics and into a frivolous image that still persists in some writings today.

Egalitarian democracy and liberty as we know them today owe little to Europe. They are not Greco-Roman derivatives somehow revived by the French in the eighteenth century. They entered modern western thought as American Indian notions translated into European language and culture.

In language, custom, religion, and written law, the Spaniards descended directly from ancient Rome, yet they brought nothing resembling a democratic tradition with them to America. The French and Dutch who settled parts of North America also settled many other parts of the world that did not become democratic. Democracy did not spring up on French-speaking Haiti any more than in South Africa, where the British and Dutch settled about the same time that they settled in North America.

Even the Netherlands and Britain, the two showcases for European democracy, had difficulty grafting democracy onto monarchical and aristocratic systems soaked in the strong traditions of class privilege. During the reign of George III of Great Britain, while the United States was fighting for its independence, only one person in twenty could vote in England. In all of Scotland, three thousand men could vote, and in Ireland no Catholic could hold office or vote. In their centuries of struggle to suppress the Irish, the British possibly encumbered their own democratic development.

American anglophiles occasionally point to the signing of the Magna Carta by King John on the battlefield of Runnymede in 1215 as the start of civil liberties and democracy in the English-speaking world. This document, however, merely moved slightly away from monarchy and toward oligarchy by increasing the power of the aristocracy. It continued the traditional European vacillation between government by a single strong ruler and by an oligarchic class. An oligarchy is not an incipient democracy, and a step away from monarchy does not necessarily mean a step toward democracy. In the same tradition, the election of the pope by a college of cardinals did not make the Vatican into a democratic institution, nor did the Holy Roman Empire become a democracy merely because a congress of aristocrats elected the emperor.

When the Dutch built colonies in America, power in their homeland rested securely in the hands of the aristocracy and the burghers, who composed only a quarter of the population. A city such as Amsterdam fell under the rule of a council of thirty-six men, none of whom was elected; instead each council member inherited his office and held it until death.

Henry Steele Commager wrote that during the Enlightenment “Europe was ruled by the wellborn, the rich, the privileged, by those who held their places by divine favor, inheritance, prescription, or purchase”. The philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment became quite complacent and self-congratulatory because the “enlightened despots” such as Catherine of Russia and Frederick of Prussia read widely and showed literary inclinations. Too many philosophers became court pets and because of that believed that Europe was moving toward enlightened democracy. As Commager explained it, Europe only imagined the Enlightenment, but America enacted it. This Enlightenment grew as much from its roots in Indian culture as from any other source.

When Americans try to trace their democratic heritage back through the writings of French and English political thinkers of the Enlightenment, they often forget that these people’s thoughts were heavily shaped by the democratic traditions and the state of nature of the American Indians. The concept of the “noble savage” derived largely from writings about the American Indians, and even though the picture grew romanticized and distorted, the writers were only romanticizing and distorting something that really did exist. The Indians did live in a fairly democratic condition, they were egalitarian, and they did live in greater harmony with nature.

The modern notions of democracy based on egalitarian principles and a federated government of overlapping powers arose from the unique blend of European and Indian political ideas and institutions along the Atlantic coast between 1607 and 1776. Modern democracy as we know it today is as much the legacy of the American Indians, particularly the Iroquois and the Algonquians, as it is of the British settlers, of French political theory, or of all the failed efforts of the Greeks and Romans.

The American Revolution did not stop with the thirteen Atlantic colonies; it soon spread around the world. As Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, “from a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished.” He went on to say that the flame “winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by silent operation”.

Although today the notion of the noble savage usually reaps only scorn and historical footnotes as a quaint idea of a less-informed era, the idea had ramifications of great width and magnitude. The noble savage represented a new ideal of human political relations that mutated into the hundreds of political theories that have swept the world in the past five hundred years. The discovery of new forms of political life in America freed the imaginations of Old World thinkers to envision Utopias, socialism, communism, anarchism, and dozens of other social forms. Scarcely any political theory or movement of the last three centuries has not shown the impact of this great political awakening that the Indians provoked among the Europeans.

The descriptions of the Baron de Lahontan and other New World travelers of the so-called anarchy among the American Indians contributed to several different brands of anarchistic theory in the nineteenth century. Today, anarchism is often equated with terrorism and nihilism, which denies any values, but early anarchism lacked both of these qualities. Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the father of modern anarchistic theory, stressed the notion of “mutualism” in a society based on cooperation without the use of coercion from any quarter. This was to be brought about peacefully through workers helping one another in labor associations.

>From these simple ideas about the noble savage, there followed a wild array of theories as varied and exotic as the different types of birds in the Amazon. Michael Bakunin developed anarchist collectivism. Peter Kropotkin became associated with the ideas of anarchist communism that achieved popularity in Spain, while in France anarcho-syndicalism helped inspire the work of Georges Sorel. Pacifist anarchism developed around the ideas of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the Dutch political philosopher Domela Nieuwenhuis.

In one of its mildest expressions, these ideas of pacific anarchism showed up in America in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Worshiping the New England countryside by then denuded of its aboriginal Indian inhabitants, Thoreau withdrew from society in order to practice his individualistic anarchism. In 1849 these ideas of the individual’s right to refuse cooperation with the state received its highest expression in his essay “Civil Disobedience.” In the twentieth century the ideas of Thoreau came to play almost as important a role in world politics as did the many revolutionary theories that developed from more activist brands of anarchism. In 1907 Thoreau’s essay helped Gandhi to select the appropriate means of struggle for Indian independence from Britain. Rather than launch a war of liberation, he launched a peaceful movement of civil disobedience. This movement eventually liberated Pakistan and India, and in so doing, sealed the fate of colonialism everywhere in the world. The peaceful movements of Gandhi did more to bring independence than did all the twentieth-century wars of independence.

Thoreau and Gandhi together inspired many different versions of their struggle, one of the most notable being that of the civil rights movement in the United States. Opting for the same peaceful struggle and for civil disobedience, the movement under Martin Luther King, Jr., ended virtually all legal forms of racism in the United States.

Like the American plants that spread all over the world and changed forever the economic, social, and demographic patterns of the world, the Indian love of liberty, freedom, and individuality have also spread. Even though the Indians never had a monopoly on these values, they did achieve the highest cultural development of them. Thus, today in the ordered anarchy of a powwow in North Dakota these same values are articulated even better and more eloquently than in the writings of Paine, Rousseau, Thoreau, and Gandhi.


  1. […] books close at hand since they have a way of reminding us of our debt to those we have vanquished. Read this to appreciate the perspective that is missing entirely in Diamond and Chagnon’s accounts. […]

    Pingback by Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 2 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 10, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

  2. You should read what Ward Churchill has to say about ‘Indian Givers’ — that it is a plagiarized version of another book authored by an indigenous writer.

    Comment by asdf — May 10, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

  3. I’d read it if you were a bit more specific. I do know that Ward Churchill cites “Indian Givers” in his “Acts of Rebellion”.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 10, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

  4. “In contrast, the more marginal areas of America that fell into the hands of the French and British still had flourishing native societies.

    The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians’ personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king.”

    If you read the account of the Portuguese about teir “discovery” of Brazil and their people you will find the same theme and amazement: “A people without faith, king or law”.

    Comment by Eugénio Calado — May 14, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  5. […] longtime Native emphasis on pragmatism and consensus-based anarchism. (See Jack Weatherford’s Indian Givers for a good overview of […]

    Pingback by Attitudes, disability, and violence « Urocyon's Meanderings — November 12, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  6. Churchill, Ward: Indians Are Us: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1994, 350 pp. ISBN: 0-921284-82-9, Cloth CDN $34.95; 0-921284-83-7, Paper CDN $17.95.

    The author also presents a prima facie case for “plagiarism” in his analysis of Weatherford’s 1988 book Indian Givers. Although the book has become the “ideal tool for debunking Eurocentrist mythologies in the classroom” the concept and basic information were actually presented in1986 by the late Warren Lowes in Indian Giver: A Legacy of North American Native Peoples produced by the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples. Weatherford does not even refer to the Lowes book until the less directly related volume that he wrote three years later, Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America (1991).


    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — December 23, 2011 @ 2:01 am

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