European Perceptions of Native Government

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European Perceptions of Native Government


Land of Anarchy. When Europeans first encountered Native American communities in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they often commented that Indians lived without government in a state of nature much like the animals of the forest. To Europeans, Indians did not seem to have parliaments, courts, or laws. Tomas Ortiz, a Dominican priest from Spain, wrote in 1525, There is no justice among them.... They are unstable. The Spanish jurist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda wrote that the Indians observed no written laws. Instead, he said, they maintained barbaric institutions and customs. Since the native cultures in America did not appear to have

Observations on Native American Government

Bartolomé de las Casas rejected the Spanish depiction of Indians as atheistic, uncivilized savages devoid of political, social, or legal institutions:

They are not ignorant, inhuman, or bestial. Rather, long before they had heard the word Spanish, they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, custom. They cultivated friendship and, bound together in common fellowship, lived in populous cities in which they wisely administered the affairs of both peace and war justly and equitably, truly governed by laws that in many points surpass ours.

Source: Marvin Lunenfeld, ed., 1492: Discovery, Invasion, Encounter (Lexington, Mass. & Toronto: D. C. Heath, 1991).

these familiar legal and political institutions, many Europeans presumed that Indians lived in anarchy, that is, in a state of society without a working system of security and order. Some Europeans even suggested that Indians were intellectually incapable of organizing governments. Other European observers often attempted to apply their own political terminology and experience to what they observed in America. These commentators tended to look for monarchs and judges among the native societies because these were offices and institutions of government with which they were familiar. Consequently European officials often described particular Indians who appeared to be more influential than others as kings or emperors, even though Native American groups did not maintain European-styled monarchies. Some, such as Pietro Martire, an Italian historian, were astonished that native societies could survive without these institutions of government. In 1511 he wrote, They deal truly with one another, without laws, without books, without judges. Since Europeans believed their civilization was the most advanced in the world, some of their political and religious leaders felt an obligation to convert Indian people to their way of life, including their legal and political concepts. George Peckham of England wrote in 1583 that Indians needed to be converted from their disordered riotous riots and companies to a well governed common wealth. In particular Europeans believed that the natives held a flawed conception of land ownership. Indians did not think of land as something that could be divided up and sold to individuals. Peckham and other Europeans, on the other hand, believed that private ownership was an essential step toward civilization. Consequently European governments, and later the United States, would go to great lengths to convince Indians to embrace private property ownership.

Tomas Ortizs Description of Indians

In 1525 Tomas Ortiz, a Dominican priest, wrote a report to the Council of the Indies. He argued that Indians did not possess the same natural rights as Europeans:

On the mainland they eat human flesh. They are more given to sodomy than any other nation. There is no justice among them. They go naked. They have no respect either for love or for virginity. They are stupid and silly. They have no respect for truth, save when it is to their advantage. They are unstable. They have no knowledge of what foresight means.... They are incapable of learning. Punishments have no effect upon them. Traitorous, cruel, and vindictive, they never forgive. Most hostile to religion, idle, dishonest, abject, and vile, in their judgments they keep no faith or law.... Liars, superstitious, and cowardly as hares. They eat fleas, spiders, and worms raw, whenever they find them. They exercise none of the humane arts or industries. When taught the mysteries of our religion, they say that these things may suit Castilians, but not them, and they do not wish to change their customs.... The older they get the worse they become.... I may therefore affirm that God has never created a race more full of vice and composed without the least mixture of kindness or culture.... We here speak of those whom we know by experience.... The Indians are more stupid than asses and refuse to improve in anything.

Based on these alleged deficiencies, Ortiz argued that Spain could conquer and take the land of the natives of America.

Source: Wilcomb E. Washburn, Red Mans Land, White Mans Law: The Past and Present Status of the American Indian (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971).

Native Reality. People come together and form political institutions for basic purposes. They want to improve their ability to obtain food, shelter, and other necessities of life. In addition they seek to provide security for themselves and a sense of order for their community. In reality Indian communities on the eve of the European discovery of the Americas maintained functioning systems of law and order that were as effective in providing for the welfare and security of their communities as the centralized governments of Europe. Most native societies encouraged behavior that was in the best interest of the commonweal and maintained social mechanisms that provided clear parameters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Over the thousands of years before Christopher Columbus, the native peoples of the Americas had constructed forms of government that adequately responded to the unique demands of their environments and subsistence methods. As such Native American government had become quite diverse across the continent by the age of Columbus. In the Arctic and Subarctic, in the Great Basin, and throughout the Great Plains native people depended on hunting and gathering for the preponderance of their food. These peoples were necessarily nomadic and lived in small, mobile bands. As a result these peoples maintained governments that were informal and limited in organization and scope. Their governments were not structured in a hierarchical fashion. Instead the people of these communities spread the power of making decisions to most of the adult population. In the river valleys and flood plains of arable North America, Indian peoples usually occupied specific territories and produced their own food through sophisticated agricultural techniques. Agricultural production on these lands tended to support more people than a hunting and gathering existence. These societies required greater planning to organize the planting, harvesting, and distribution of food. Quite naturally the governments of these sedentary peoples were more complicated and centralized than those that continued to live by hunting and gathering. By the time of the European discovery of America, Native American governments ranged in complexity from the small groups led by family or clan patriarchs in the Great Basin to the powerful chiefdoms of the Southeast to the multitribal alliance of the Iroquois confederacy.

European Objectives. A few Europeans such as the Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas, recognized that Native Americans possessed effective and functional systems of government and admired the relative stability of their societies. However, views such as those of las Casas were exceptions to the norm of ethnocentrism. Throughout the European colonial period in America, European lawyers and rulers that did recognize the existence of Indian government tended to act on the presumption that native governments were illegitimate, inferior to those of Europe, and not worth preserving. The leaders of the European nations used these ill-founded presumptions about Indian political and legal organization to justify their actions when they took the lands of Native American peoples. Since the Indians did not seem to occupy all of their land or maintain national borders, the kings of Europe and their legal counselors often argued that Indians did not have the right to own the large tracts of land on which they lived. Over time European legal philosophers developed theories that their kings or queens could use to justify the seizure of the Americas and the extension of their sovereignty over the people who lived there.

In many cases these Europeans simply misrepresented the existence and nature of native government and land use as a convenient means to justify their end of acquiring native land. Unfortunately for Native Americans, these arguments would become precedents that the United States would later use in its own conquest and acquisition of Indian land.

Before Europeans

A Native American song that described Mexico before the coming of Europeans:

There was then no sickness.

They had then no aching bones.

They had then no high fever.

They had then no smallpox.

They had then no burning chest.

They had then no abdominal pains.

They had then no consumption.

They had then no headache.

At that time the course of humanity was orderly.

The foreigners made it otherwise when they arrived here.

Source: John Mack Faragher, and others, Out of Many: A History of the American People (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1994).


James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1981);

Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., The White Mans Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopf, 1978);

Robert A. Williams Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1990).

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European Perceptions of Native Government

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European Perceptions of Native Government