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Already in residence, 1492

Page history last edited by Mr. Hengsterman 6 years, 2 months ago


The presence of explorers such as Verrazano and Cartier and of unknown numbers of anonymous fishermen and part-time traders had several effects on the native population.


The Mi’kmaqs, Hurons, and other northeastern Indian groups approached the intruding Europeans in friendship, eager to trade and to learn more about the strangers. In part this response was a sign of natural curiosity, but it also reflected some serious changes taking place in the Native world of North America.


Beginning in the mid-fourteenth century, the climate in North America underwent significant cooling. As the climate grew colder, both hunter-gatherers like the Mi’kmaqs and agriculturists like the Iroquois had to expand their subsistence territory, and in doing so they came into conflict with their neighbors.


As warfare became more common, groups increasingly formed alliances for mutual defense—systems like the Iroquois League and Powhatan Confederacy. And Indians found it beneficial to welcome European newcomers into their midst—as trading partners bearing new tools, as allies in the evolving conflicts with neighboring Indian groups, and as powerful magicians whose shamans might provide explanations and remedies for the hard times that had befallen the Indians.


The existence of America—and even more the presence of people there—further challenged European provincialism, though as the newcomers came to understand that America was a new land and that the Indians were a new people, they attempted to fit both into the cosmic map outlined in the Bible. To Columbus, for example, Indians represented mankind before the fall of Adam, noble savages of whom he wrote, “Of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.”[1] Vespucci, in contrast, found them to be the most fallen of all mankind, true savages who “marry as many wives as they please,” and among whom the “son cohabits with mother, brother with sister, male cousin with female, and any man with the first woman he meets.”[2] Such portrayals, which were repeated over and over again by explorers and early settlers, established a sort of dichotomous mythic identity for American Indians that continues to affect non-Native perceptions of them through the present day.


In some ways, the arrival of Europeans may have been easier for American Indians to understand and explain than the existence of Indians was for Europeans. To Indians, the world was alive, animated by a spiritual force that was both universal and intelligent. Social ties based on fictive kinship and reciprocal trade linked all creatures—human and nonhuman—together into a common cosmos. These connections were chronicled in myth and maintained through ritual, which often involved the exchange of ceremonial items believed to have spiritual value. In the pre-Columbian trading world, such prized goods passed from society to society, establishing a spiritual bond even if the two groups never met. Europeans and European goods slipped easily into this ceremonial trading system. The trade items that the Europeans generally offered to American Indians on first contact—glass beads, mirrors, brass bells—resembled closely the items that the Indians traditionally used to establish friendly spiritual and economic relations with strangers. The perceived similarity of the trade goods offered by the Europeans led Indians to accept the newcomers as simply another new group in the complex social cosmos uniting the spiritual and material worlds.


Europeans, to the contrary, perceived such items as worthless trinkets, valuing instead Indian furs and land. This difference in perception became a major source of misunderstanding and conflict. To the Indians, neither furs nor the land was considered “property”; according to their beliefs, all things had innate spirits and belonged to themselves. Beavers, for example, gave their fur to people in exchange for spiritual gifts, and when the Native Americans passed the furs along to Europeans they were simply extending the social connection that had brought the furs into their hands in the first place. Similarly, the land was seen as a living being—a mother—who feeds, clothes, and houses people as long as she receives proper respect. When Europeans offered spiritually significant objects in exchange for land on which to build, farm, or hunt, Indians perceived the offer as an effort to join an already existing social relationship, and not as a contract transferring ownership.


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