Going Native

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Going Native


The phenomenon of going native is one of the less commonly known outgrowths of European colonialism. It emerged as a result of the meeting of European and indigenous cultures and drew its strength from the perceived differences between those cultures. The term refers to the desire of non-aboriginals to identify with and immerse themselves in native culture.

In North America, cultural conversions of this type have taken a variety of forms. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans intent on survival in an unfamiliar terrain were wise to adopt aspects of aboriginal lifestyles in matters ranging from food and clothing to language and transportation. During military conflicts, colonialists taken captive by aboriginal groups frequently recovered from their initial terror and were quite happily absorbed into native societies, following long-standing practice within aboriginal communities.

As an era of exploration gave way to one of permanent white settlement and aboriginal marginalization between the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, incidents of going native took different and, generally, more limited forms. Most commonly, the desire to go native now manifested as an interest in playing Indian. Those who played Indian did not seek the permanent adoption of a new culture, but rather borrowed elements of native cultures to serve specific social, cultural, and sometimes political ends. For instance, during the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s, colonials borrowed aboriginal imagery (and sometimes dress) to help identify themselves with the aboriginal spirit of independence and to fashion a national identity distinct from that of their European cousins. Into the nineteenth century, members of fraternal orders adopted aboriginal dress for their initiation rituals, and native metaphors and imagery for the nationalist literature they crafted. By the early twentieth century, playing Indian was deemed especially appropriate for children. As Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and summer campers, children were invited to emulate aboriginal lifestyles during afternoons of woodcraft, evenings of Indian council ring, and weeklong canoe trips.

By the twentieth century, only a few took their interest in playing Indian beyond the realm of leisure-time pursuits. Anthropologists, for one, occasionally lost themselves, wittingly or otherwise, in the indigenous cultures they studied. More sensationally, a few rare individuals consciously adopted new identities, attempting, frequently with success, to pass themselves off as aboriginal to white society. Naturalist and early conservationist Grey Owl and journalist and war hero Buffalo Child Long Lance were just two who reinvented themselves as Indians, gaining significant public attention in the 1930s.

As a rule, those who played Indian after the mid-nineteenth century had more limited understandings of the indigenous cultures they sought to embrace than those who went native in earlier centuries. Typically, aboriginal people were understood in simplistic and frequently inaccurate ways. Above all, to white society, native peoples symbolized innocence, connection to nature, and immersion in the simple life that white society had left behind. Those troubled by the pace and direction of modern cultural change found in this invented Indian a comforting symbol of simpler days. Even into the late twentieth century, the desire for this comfort shaped aspects of the counterculture of the 1960s and the New Age spirituality of the 1980s.

These modern forms of going native, then, had less to do with understanding or honoring native cultures and more to do with filling the social, cultural, and psychic needs of white society. By playing Indian, white North Americans, whether as revolutionaries, as members of fraternal orders, or as campers, distanced themselves from, and also eased their guilt about, the realities of colonial conquest. At the same time, they bolstered their own sense of national identity and attempted to redeem the racial category of whiteness.

Similar incidents of going native have occurred elsewhere around the world as colonialists interacted with indigenous peoples of other regions, including North Africa, the South Pacific, and the Near and Middle East. While the two cultures interacting may have differed, the fundamental dynamic was similar to the process found in North America. Members of dominant and usually colonizing cultures frequently became enamored with indigenous others and desirous of immersing themselves in their indigenous cultures. Ultimately, these colonial intruders moved from the belief that originally justified colonizationnamely, that indigenous cultures were inferiorto one that romanticized those same cultures as providing the exotic and intense experience their own societies discouraged.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Travel and Travel Writing


Axtell, James. 1975. The White Indians of North America. William and Mary Quarterly 32: 5588.

Deloria, Philip J. 1998. Playing Indian. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Sharon Wall