Native Americans. In defense of the ‘Noble Savage’

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours.

Benjamin Franklin

An idea, central to how the indigenous tribes in Northern America perceived the world around them, was that all humans are Mother Nature’s children. Equal. Brothers. Native Americans showed everyday their respect to the Eternal, the Great Mystery as they called it. That worship was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. Native tribes such as the Apache believed that the Great Spirit breathed life to all Creation, so they held the idea that the universe and all natural objects, humans, animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains, etc, they all have souls/ spirits. A simple but deep consciousness of the divine. For this reason, their everyday acts & deeds were dictated by a sense of modesty and humbleness.

When hunting, Native Americans never killed more animals than it was just enough for them to satisfy the needs of their community. Isn’t it remarkable that the Natives of N. America never regarded their immediate surrounding and environs as their property? Territory: yes. Property: no. The concept of land ownership was alien to them!

Apache warrior painted for war, wearing a red head-band. By Greek artist Christos Giannopoulos.

Dignity and respect were vital characteristics of their way of life. When a traveler happened to be approaching an Apache settlement, it was considered inappropriate to enter the village unexpectedly by not announcing his/her visit. When travelers approached a settlement (the Apache lived in family groups, rather than villages) and they were close enough for their voice to be heard, it was considered polite to stop and announce their presence. Only when their voice was heard and themselves invited to approach, only then they would proceed to enter the village.

The White Man’s illusion of moral superiority

Hospitality was highly valued. Welcoming a foreigner was a custom, much like it was for the Ancient Greeks or the Ancient Indians. In every Apache village for example, there was always a spare tent ready to host any lone, foreign traveler. Villagers would always welcome foreigners with good will, entertain them, offer food and any clothes that the visitor needed, and provided shelter and a place to rest. After that, villagers would offer tobacco to the traveler and sit all together to smoke and engage in conversation.

Before departure, villagers would provide the traveler with any other convenience he/she might need, including clothes, provisions, or even a local guide to help with the continuation of the journey. Native Americans regarded this as their moral duty, doing it out of kindness,  asking nothing in return.

Geronimo and fellow Apache while being ‘transported’ to Florida in chains. Only 5,000 Apaches survive today.

Their politeness, kindness and ‘Spartan-like’ character made a huge impression on Benjamin Franklin. Franklin couldn’t hide his admiration for those “savages”, as Westerners called them: ‘…there is no Force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment… Having few artificial wants, they have abundance of leisure for improvement by conversation.

Map of culture areas of Northern American native tribes

Modern day political scientists cannot but marvel at the uniqueness of the Iroquois Confederacy. I’m sure that Aristotle would have found it exciting to study the unique democratic league that those tribes formed. A league that included women too!

Civil virtue. Ethical code. Empathy

The Apache would never share their opinion about an important subject on the same day that they were asked. Instead they would wait a day, as a sign of respect, dedicating more time so as to show that they take the question asked, under serious consideration.

In their public assemblies and gatherings they always displayed discipline and respect. Whoever wished to address the assembly, would stand up while the rest would listen in total silence. Interrupting a speaker was considered rude, shameful and unforgivable. Everyone present was carefully listening to the speaker, focusing on the opinion being heard, nodding,  listening, showing empathy. Even if the opinion expressed was different than the one they held.

Photo portraits of Apache. Far left: Geronimo.

The chief (or in some cases a chieftainess) was chosen for his courage, wisdom and personal generosity. The war chief led the Apache in negotiations and, if necessary, battle (in Apache, chief translates to he who speaks).

A trailblazer: George Catlin

The great  American painter George Catlin, an advocate of Native American cultures, dedicated most of his life creating paintings, immortalizing America’s ‘vanishing race’.

One day in Philadelphia, Catlin happened to come across a group of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C.
He described the scene:

“A delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the ‘Far West,’ suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed in all their classic beauty–with shield and helmet-with tunic and manteau-tinted and tasseled off, exactly for the painter’s palette. In silent and stoic dignity, these lords of the forest strutted about the city for a few days, wrapped in their pictorial robes, with their brows plumed with the quills of the war-eagle.

George Catlin
George Catlin (1796 – 1872)

Catlin later, summarized wonderfully the heart and soul of those peoples:

•             I love a people that have always made me welcome to the very best that they had.

•             I love a people who are honest without laws, who have no jails and no poorhouses.

•             I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read or heard them preached from the pulpit.

•             I love a people who never swear or take the name of God in vain.

•             I love a people who love their neighbors as they love themselves.

•             I love a people who worship God without a Bible, for I believe that God loves them also.

•             I love a people whose religion is all the same, and who are free from religious animosities.

•             I love a people who have never raised a hand against me, or stolen my property, when there was no law to punish either.

•             I love and do not fear mankind where God has made and left them, for they are his children.

•             I love a people who have never fought a battle with the white man, except on their own ground.

•             I love a people who live and keep what is their own without lock and keys.

•             I love a people who do the best they can. And oh how I love a people who do not live for the love of money.

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