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Setting the Record Straight About Native Peoples: Barbarians and Noble Savages

Q: Hey! You called Battle X a massacre or Massacre Y a battle! Are you a politically correct panderer/a Nazi?
A: No. Please stop and consider whether you are emotionally capable of handling the idea that someone from your ethnic group may have murdered some innocents and/or been beaten in battle fair and square. If not, whether you are Indian or white, history is not for you. I recommend golf.

If you can handle that much, however, then our definitions are these: if most of the dead were civilians it was a massacre, if most of the dead were warriors it was a battle, and if most of the dead were warriors but had already surrendered or something it was a war crime. Little Bighorn was a battle. All the dead were armed soldiers. Wounded Knee was a massacre. Most of the dead were civilian noncombatants. There's really nothing subjective about it.

Q: Isn't it true that before Europeans got here Native Americans never polluted, wasted anything, killed women or children, and they never invented child abuse, rape, or slavery?
A: Yes, and I've got some great farmland to sell you in Oklahoma.

No, seriously, there has never been a human society in which no one ever abused, murdered, or raped anyone else. American Indian societies were no exception. I've been a little surprised to hear this idea coming from some Indians now as well as white New Agers. Some people need to go back and listen to the old stories a little more. Why do the villains in our legends and oral histories rape, murder, abuse and enslave people if we never knew what that was? This is really the other side of the same "savage Indians didn't understand honesty, love, or loyalty" coin, and it's just as dehumanizing. Of course we knew what pollution, rape, massacres, and wife-beating were, and we knew they were wrong. We had laws against these things, we punished people we caught doing them, and we told stories with morals to teach the children they were unacceptable and would lead to no good end. A dog never does anything evil and never does anything about evil, because a dog doesn't understand evil. Civilized people are capable of evil and work together to protect their society from falling prey to it. Native Americans, contrary to some reports, were and are civilized people.

Q: Who was more savage, the Europeans or the Native Americans?
A: Here is a difficult truth: neither. People on both continents knew how best to live in their native environment, built the tools and machines they needed for their daily lives, wore clothes, made music and art, took care of their children and elders, fought wars, built cities, prayed, and sometimes did wicked things. Most people couldn't read or write, but some could. Some leaders were just, and others oppressed people. Europeans had more advanced weapons, and Native Americans took more baths.

Somehow, this is the very hardest idea for Americans to come to terms with, given the massive genocide that occurred here. If heroic white pioneers wiped out a race of ignorant cavemen who were just living miserable savage lives anyway, or if misguided white aggressors slew a noble and gentle race of otherwordly beings who might have otherwise taught them the secrets of wise living, then those would be comprehensible tragedies. That one group of normal, generally decent people should have slaughtered another group of normal, generally decent people--ordinary human beings who baked bread and did their laundry and watched football games and gossiped about their neighbors and made mistakes and loved their children--is psychologically devastating, almost beyond comprehension. But that's what happened. We're just like you. We always have been. There are just fewer of us, now.



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