An edited version of this post appears at American Thinker.
Progressives embrace victimhood to give themselves moral superiority. But victimhood often requires grossly distorted narratives in place of historical facts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Nation magazine, where two American Indian “activists” recently “debated” Should America Keep Celebrating Thanksgiving? They agreed that Thanksgiving needed to be “decolonized” and that Thanksgiving needed to refocus on the evil of the colonists.
That means centering the Indigenous perspective and challenging the colonial narratives around the holiday (and every other day on the calendar). By reclaiming authentic histories and practices, decolonization seeks to honor Indigenous values, identities, and knowledge. This approach is one of constructive evolution: In decolonizing Thanksgiving, we acknowledge this painful past while reimagining our lives in a more truthful manner.
Great. It is long past time to have a “truthful” conversation.
Those activists who claim that colonial-era “indigenous culture” was morally superior to Western culture are lying. Scratch the surface, and it becomes apparent that their true complaint is not that the European colonists were uniquely evil but that in the clash of civilizations, the Indian tribes lost to the Western Enlightenment.
The world—and the American Indians today—are far the better for it.
The truth is that all the colonial-era North American Indian tribes were nonliterate, militaristic, brutal, and stone-age, and only a few steps removed from hunter-gatherers. Their decentralized tribal governance caused constant war and bloodshed, and there’s unbiased, contemporaneous evidence to prove this.
None of the North American Indian tribes had a written language. These tribes had no books to accumulate and transmit knowledge. They had no recorded histories before those Europeans created after 1492. Outside of adopting European language and writing, the American Indian tribes did not develop alphabets and writing in their native tongues until well into the 19th century.
The single best original source for studying the North American Indians through the colonial period is James Adair’s 1775 book, The History of the American Indians. Adair was “a trader with the Indians and Resident in their Country for Forty Years,” who had married into the Chickasaw tribe. He embraced the Indians and had personal contact with most of the tribes east of the Mississippi River. He was also university-educated, spoke numerous languages, and was a keen observer.
Adair states unequivocally that the American Indians valued military prowess to the exclusion of all else. They measured that prowess “by scalps” that a victorious brave would return with and by the prisoners that he would bring back to the tribe to be enslaved, ritually executed, or adopted. It was on these measures that the Indians bestowed “all their war-titles, which distinguish them among the brave: and these they hold in as high esteem.”
One could well compare North American Indian tribes to the military societies of ancient Sparta or medieval Japan. That said, in the case of the American Indians, Adair points out that the desire for revenge often drove warfare:
The Indian Americans are more eager to revenge blood, than any other people on the whole face of the earth.
I have known the Indians to go a thousand miles, for the purpose of revenge, in pathless woods… Such is their over-boiling revengeful temper, that they utterly contemn [physical hardships as] imaginary trifles, if they are so happy as to get the scalp of the murderer, or enemy, to satisfy the supposed craving ghosts of their deceased relations. Though they imagine the report of guns will send off the ghosts of their kindred that died at home, to their quiet place, yet they firmly believe, that the spirits of those who are killed by the enemy, without equal revenge of blood, find no rest, and at night haunt the houses of the tribe to which they belonged…
Such persons cannot well live without war…
Adair writes that prisoners would sometimes be adopted into the tribe but, most often, they would be enslaved or ritually executed. The Indian’s preferred method of execution—varying little across tribes—was death by fire torture in an ordeal lasting a period of hours to days and ending in scalping and dismemberment. As Adair described it:
[The] condemned…[are] tied to the dreadful stake, one at a time. The victors first strip their miserable captives quite naked and…fasten with a grapevine a burning fire-brand to the pole a little above the reach of their heads. Then they know their doom—deep black, and burning fire, are fixed seals of their death-warrant.
Their punishment is always left to the women…[who] perform it to the entire satisfaction of…the spectators. Each of them prepares for the dreadful rejoicing, a long bundle of dry canes, or the heart of fat pitch-pine, and as the victims are led to the stake, the women and their young ones beat them with these in a most barbarous manner. Happy would it be for the miserable creatures, if their sufferings ended here, or a merciful tomohawk finished them at one stroke; but this shameful treatment is a prelude to future sufferings…
The victim’s arms are…pinioned, and a strong grapevine is tied round his neck to the top of the war-pole, allowing him to track around about fifteen yards. They fix some tough clay on his head to secure the scalp from the blazing torches.
Unspeakable pleasure now fills the exulting crowd of spectators, and the circle fills with the…merciless executioners… The women make a furious onset with their burning torches: his pain is soon so excruciating that he rushes out from the pole with the fury of the most savage beast of prey and with the vine sweeps down all before him, kicking, biting, and trampling them… The circle immediately fills again, either with the same, or fresh persons: they attack him on every side—now he runs to the pole for shelter , but the flames pursue him. Then with champing teeth and sparkling eye-balls, he breaks through their contracted circle afresh, and acts every part that the highest courage, most raging fury, and blackest despair can prompt him to. But he is sure to be over-powered by numbers, and after some time the fire affects his tender parts. —Then they pour over him a quantity of cold water, and allow him a proper time of respite, until his spirits recover, and he is capable of suffering new tortures.
Then the like cruelties are repeated till he falls down, and happily becomes insensible of pain. Now they scalp him…dismember [him], and carry off all the exterior branches of the body (pudendis non exceptis [including the genitalia]) in shameful and savage triumph.
This is the most favorable treatment their…captives receive: it would be too shocking to humanity either to give, or peruse, every particular of their conduct in such doleful tragedies—nothing can equal these scenes…. Not a soul, of whatever age or sex, manifests the least pity during the prisoner’s tortures: the women sing with religious joy, all the while they are torturing the…victim, and peals of laughter resound through the crowded
A third option was to use the prisoners as slaves, a common practice among the colonial North American Indian tribes. Arrell Gibson, in his book The Chickasaws, gives an example:
Women did most of the menial work, cultivating fields and fetching firewood and water, as well as the customary household tasks. Prizing the Indian slaves captured in their tribe’s many wars, Chickasaw women could be expected to urge their men to more fury, more raids, and more slaves, which changed their status from laborers to overseers of slave laborers. To prevent escape from Chickasaw bondage, they mutilated the slaves’ feet by cutting nerves or sinews just above the instep. Thus they could labor but could not flee.
North American Indian societies were technologically backward to a startling degree. For instance, as the NYT reported in A New Analysis Describes the Birth of the Wheel, before European contact in 1492, no North American Indian tribe had developed the wheel.
Moreover, before 1492, American Indians still depended on stone tools and weapons. They had never developed the technology of smelting to create bronze, iron, or steel. Indeed, the most iconic Indian weapon, the steel-bladed “tomahawk,” was a colonial-era trade item only manufactured in Britain. American Indians prized the British tomahawks—as well as British muskets and gunpowder—and would trade deerskins for them with British (and French) traders in what became a large-scale colonial-era trade economy.
Additionally, the North American Indian tribes were not far removed from hunter-gatherer lifestyles. While the tribes had developed rudimentary agriculture, they had no domesticated livestock. Thus, the tribes were still dependent on hunting and fishing for protein.
Lastly, the North American Indians were mired in stone-age means of travel. Before Europeans introduced horses and oxen, the Indians traveled overland only by foot. On the water, they traveled using canoes, a technology thousands of years old. They had no ocean-going vessels.
Tribalism, a stone-age relic, is the least advanced form of government and defined every North American Indian society. It depends on blood relations to tie the tribe together, and blood relations dominated over all questions of law, ethics, or morality. As Adair writes of the tribal form:
[T]hey have no sure method to reconcile their differences: consequently, when any casual thing draws them into a war, it grows every year more spiteful till it advances to a bitter enmity, so as to excite them to an implacable hatred to one another’s very national names. Then they must go abroad to spill the enemy’s blood, and to revenge crying blood.
Indeed, the most notable aspect of tribalism, as Steven Pinker documented in The Better Angels of Our Nature, is its association with constant violence and warfare. Ms. BWR has written about it often in this blog, such as here. She has also stated the corollary:
.[O]ne of the key ingredients for low levels of violence is a stable nation-state with strong borders, [and] a reliable legal system. Add in our American constitutional notions of due process of law and individual liberty, and you’ve got the best possible living situation if you wish to be free of violence.
Lastly, the problems of tribalism and its associated violence were always present; they had nothing to do with the presence of European colonists in the New World. For example, an essay in the American Journal of Anthropology documents “The Most Violent Era In America Was Before Europeans Arrived”:
There’s a mythology about the native Americans, that they were all peaceful and in harmony with nature – it’s easy to create narratives when there is no written record.
But archeology keeps its own history and a new paper finds that the 20th century, with its hundreds of millions dead in wars and, in the case of Germany, China, Russia and other dictatorships, genocide, was not the most violent – on a per-capita basis that honor may belong to the central Mesa Verde of southwest Colorado and the Pueblo Indians…
As Adair writes, he rarely observed an Indian brave who perished of old age.
None of the above means that American Indians did not contribute value to the United States or lacked laudable characteristics. Unsurprisingly, their contributions often revolved around warfare.
Indian tribes produced superb individual warriors—men of tremendous self-discipline, physical resilience, and bravery. Their fieldcraft and survival skills are legacies we emulate today. And, as a former light infantry officer, I can attest that the impact American Indians had on infantry small-unit tactics cannot be overestimated. Benjamin Church, Robert Rogers, and Francis Marion all learned their military skills from Indian warfare. The small-unit tactics they adopted are the standard, not only in the U.S. military but around the world.
Beyond the above and several culinary contributions, I can “reimagine” nothing about colonial Indian tribal culture that anyone, including Indians today, should want to emulate.
European culture and technology, the Judaeo-Christian religions, and English law and government all combined to produce far larger, more advanced, and more successful societies than those of the North American Indian tribes. That is the truth. Therefore, all Americans, whether of Indian or European heritage, should thank God on Thanksgiving Day for His many Colonial Enlightenment blessings on all Americans and the fact that the colonists, not the American Indians, prevailed.