Exploration and conquest were two of the defining traits of old Europe, whether it was discovering entirely new, uninhabited land, or land that only appeared new until traces of civilization were discovered. One such land was the Americas, aptly labeled “the New World”. In the modern day, it is considered a melting pot of various cultures, comprised of over 300 million people. However, the original inhabitants of this land have a long history of their own. Over the centuries following Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, the Natives would be subject to hostility, institution, and a myriad of misconceptions regarding their culture.
Not long after the first contact between Columbus’ men and the Taino of the Arawak, there was a sense of tribalism, ironically, between old Europe and the recently discovered America. The theme of the righteous white man taming the uncivilized savage became a recurring one among Europeans, used to justify their continuous expansion into already inhabited territory. One instance of this portrayal resulted from the famous last stand of General George Armstrong Custer; in popular culture, Custer was portrayed in the Battle of Little Bighorn as having fought the proud fight, resisting down to the last bullet in his Remington rifle. This is not how the event really happened. Custer, along with his men and even some of his family members, were easily subdued and killed within the hour; the undignified defeat “outraged many white Americans and confirmed their image of the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty” (History.com Editors). This forced assimilation was not created exclusively through violence, either. Europeans also subdued Natives by means of re-education; the former believed that the latter’s government, legislature, religion, and generally positive attitude towards women were incorrect. This cultural dissonance birthed the belief that Natives needed to be taught the proper way to live, a cause that many people supported; among these institutions was Harvard University, which founded a “college for Indians” in 1460 that lasted for over 200 years. These efforts all demonstrated that the focus of Europeans “would be to assimilate the Native Americans into European civilization by means of education” (United Indians). Naturally, there were Natives who rebelled against assimilation, creating the dichotomy between those who were educated, the “noble savage”, and those who were not, the “ignoble savage”.
All hope was not lost for the tribes, however; as Europeans went further west, several of them would attempt to understand Native customs, thus rectifying them even slightly. Although it is impossible to generalize every tribe under a monolith of rules, many of them have presented common traits, such as equality between women and men. Johannes Megapolensis, a Dutch minister, wrote while living with Mohawks: “The women are obliged to prepare the land, to mow, to plant, and to do everything; the men do nothing, but hunt; fish, and make war upon their enemies”. This cooperation between the sexes can be considered rather ahead of its time, even though Megapolensis slightly exaggerates by insisting that women were responsible for every menial task. Women were considered important even outside of the fields; maternal lineage came into play when considering what tribe one belonged to, where inheritances would go, the trading of crops, among other daily responsibilities (TeachingHistory.org). Additionally, there was the opinion that Native Americans were inclined towards generosity and were open to forming alliances. Perhaps most famous narrative of an Indian helping a settler was that of Pocahontas; essentially, Captain John Smith was kidnapped by Powhatans to be executed but was saved just in time by the Chief’s daughter. From that point on, she was a translator, a food gatherer, and an ally to the Jamestown settlers, even choosing to be Christened and married to one of them. This kindness did not go by unnoticed; unfortunately, it was taken advantage of by settlers who were on the search for laborers. Regardless, the image of the generous Native proved itself to be true throughout – even if it did not always reveal itself so easily. Sacagawea was another example of this generosity, as she famously helped the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traverse the Louisiana territory in the early 1800s, serving a similar role to Pocahontas.
The impact of Europe’s clash with America, and the following Columbian Exchange, is still experienced to this day, and even now it is widely disputed whether the first contact was for better or worse. The Indians were introduced to potentially fatal diseases, none of which they were prepared for. The exchange had a significant impact on Africa; the rapid death rate among recently diseased Natives, combined with an increasing need for labor in plantations, turned the continent into a hub for selling and transporting slaves. This exchange subsequently led to both the largest transportation of slaves in history, and the use of African slaves on a massive scale in the colonies. On a more positive note, both sides were introduced to brand new foods and animals, which radically changed commerce for both continents; the fertile soil of the Americas allowed for improved growth of crops, tobacco and cotton being among the most popular. Recalling a previous point, many Natives assimilated to the new wave of society, and to prevent their culture from being erased by colonization, the remaining tribe members had little choice but to keep practicing their customs and reciting their stories.
After a treacherous path, and countless Indian and European lives lost, the descendants of these settlers created a country in which all people are given the opportunity to prosper – whether the ends truly justified the mean is up to interpretation. Regardless of what happened in the past, the culture and history of Native Americans has been mostly rectified. People have become more aware of these issues and are working towards fixing them, so that the modern person can both understand and appreciate the history of these First peoples.