Myths Surrounding American Indian History, by Imani Cruz

I am so proud to share this essay, written by my daughter for an American Indian History college class:

Myths Surrounding American Indian History, by Imani Cruz
​Many myths pervade the history of American Indians as told by Euro Americans. American Indian history was incomplete if told only by the Europeans and this left room for pervasive myths. Multiple art forms perpetuate these myths, such as the poem, The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, by studying numerous sources, both American Indian and European, and by being aware of any biases that can exist, many of these myths can be broken down in order to create a more 3-dimensional history.
​The Song of Hiawatha, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, perpetuated the myth of the disappearing Indian. Hiawatha was meant to represent the noble savage, an Indian who accepts his fate to disappear. Hiawatha sees the people from the land of dawn and knows that the savage Indians will destroy themselves and will not fit in with civilization, so they must be noble savages and accept their fate to disappear. The poem justified European-Americans’ ideas that Indians were fading away as civilization, inevitably, came to America and created the advanced United States that they knew. Many European-Americans believed that it was inevitable that the American Indians disappear, that American Indians were inherently savage and uncivilized and could not coincide with the new civilization that Europeans brought to the United States. In some ways, the poem portrayed Europeans as people who were coming to North America because they were meant to save the Indian savage from himself. His fate was savagery and destruction without the people from the land of dawn. However, the many myths that The Song of Hiawatha perpetuated were simply misconceptions. Many events that occurred during the creation of the “New World” disproved the idea that American Indians were disappearing. And many other events and ensuing relationships between American Indians and Europeans disproved many of the misconceptions that Europeans and Americans had of Indians and their supposed place in this New World.

​Many Europeans’ views of American Indians led them to treating Indians like they were children. But many Indian nations’ leaders proved that American Indians were not children but people who held great political and economic power that could even surpass the power of Europeans in North America. Some Indian nations mirrored the power and order of European empires. One leader who proved his intelligence when it came to politics and economics was Eshkibagikoonzhe, known to the Americans as Flat Mouth. Flat Mouth was able to use Anishinaabeg goods to create relationships with the Americans and British that gave the Anishinaabeg an independence that the Europeans may have disliked. Flat Mouth showed that he was not a child, but an independent leader who knew how to create advantages for his people. His tactics along with many other American Indian leaders allowed Indian nations to expand, both in territory and population, contrary to the belief that they were disappearing.

​The 1660 Feast of the Dead strengthened the alliances between several Indian nations. While American Indians were often portrayed as barbarians who were constantly at war with one another, the Feast of the Dead showed different nations coming together to create a strong connection and alliance. Two nations that came together through the Feast were the Wyandot and the Anishinaabewaki. The Wyandot “had forged a connection with the peoples of Anishinaabewaki. These connections gave them a right of residence, as well as the right to trade and travel in the country of their ‘Algonquian’ allies.” [1] American Indian nations were able to create strong alliances through Feasts of the Dead. Gift giving, food, and music were an important part of the Feasts and many people were married between the tribes. The nations came to feast and bury their dead together. While some nations did face excessive warfare, not all war was without political basis and many nations created strong alliances with each other. Many Europeans were not able to recognize the politics behind American Indian nations’ interactions and brushed their wars and alliances off as the actions of backwards communities that needed to be civilized.

​Often Europeans viewed Indians simply as a source for goods or people to convert to Christianity, not people that they were dependent on. But the relationships between different Indian nations greatly affected the Europeans and their success. Wars between nations could greatly hurt the Europeans’ trade opportunities. If one of these Indian nations became weakened by warfare or sickness that depleted their populations, the French, British or American economies could suffer. Traders’ livelihoods often depended on their relationships with American Indians and the continued success of their nations. Whether certain Indian nations were friend or foe to these traders could greatly affect any success these men would have. Both the European-Americans and American Indians had to work every opportunity to their advantage and this meant that it was important European-Americans kept good relationships with their Indian allies. These allies and foes “learned to exploit the overlapping circulation of indigenous and European goods to become power brokers.” [2] Europeans and Americans also depended on Indian agents to travel throughout the U.S. Without these agents, Europeans and Americans were left without protection and aid to help them trade and interact with Indian leaders. The French and British created alliances with different nations in order to protect themselves, compete with each other, and to build up their economies. Without the aid of American Indians, many Americans and Europeans would have been left with very little in terms of trade and protection in a land that was foreign to them but important to the global economy.

​Europeans’ views of American Indians often came solely from Europeans who had traveled to the United States. However, this often gave them a one sided view of the indigenous people of the United States. Visiting Europeans often only saw the lives of American Indians from an outside perspective that was not always aware of social, cultural, political and economic traditions. Many also met American Indians with preconceived ideas of what they would be like. An example of this is in the Europeans’ views of American Indian nomadic life that existed in some Indian nations. Some Europeans saw this as the lifestyle of a backwards-thinking community, left behind in time. They did not see the complexity of the nomadic lifestyle and the work it took nomadic American Indians to keep their people organized and proficient. Many Europeans examined the lives of American Indians without the full context of their lives, cultures, reasonings and social norms. These incomplete notions they created about the lives and personalities of American Indians were spread to Europe and were hard to drive out of the minds of generations of Americans and Europeans who continued to believe them.

​Europeans often portrayed their pursuits in the United States as more successful than they were. They often laid claim to American soil when in reality, they had no more control over it than their European empires across the Atlantic. American Indians were able to continue maintaining control over vast amounts of territory and create a “Native New World” by using the changes brought on by the presence of a new global economy to their advantage. Much of this territory could be seen as “a Native New World created by indigenous social formations in response to the emergence of a global market economy, and the expansion of the Atlantic World empires onto North American soil.” [3] American Indians were not disappearing as much as Europeans would’ve liked their people to believe. It would be more difficult to take Indian land than the Europeans wanted it to be. Many times, Indians were portrayed as nomadic so Europeans could take over their territory on the pretense that these American Indian nations did not occupy it. However, this was a myth because many American Indian nations controlled vast amounts of land that the Europeans were attempting to take.

​There are many myths that surround American Indians and their cultures, nations, politics and personalities along with the colonialism that they dealt with throughout the formation of the “New World.” Some of these misconceptions had some original truth that led to exaggeration or lies that eventually led to the myths. Many were not based in reality and were meant to work to the advantage of Europeans and Americans, as seen with the many myths exemplified in The Song of Hiawatha, which worked to justify European colonialism and structure in North America. These myths were often influenced by one-sided accounts of American Indian life that were recorded by Europeans and Americans who had had very little interaction with American Indians outside of trade or who were trying to help themselves. Eventually many myths, that spoke of the disappearing Indian, with backwards lifestyles and child-like personalities, were able to exist with little merit. These myths would go on to influence generations of people, as did the story of Hiawatha as it was told to generations of school-age children. Many of these myths can be broken up from the vantage point of many years later, though some may still remain.

[1] Michael Witgen. An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 46
[2] Witgen, An Infinity of Nations, 55
[3] Ibid., 118
Witgen, Michael. An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012