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Question of the week #1: What was the myth of the Noble Savage? Why was it a myth? What was the reality? How do we know?(The question of the week is one of the essay questions that may appear on the next exam.)Like many countries’ histories, U.S. history is full of myths — stories people like to tell themselves that are not the truth. Two of the most enduring in U.S. history are the Noble Savage Myth and the Myth of White Innocence.Read the below sources about the Noble Savage Myth, then contribute to the discussion.Bartolomé de las Casas describes the exploitation of indigenous peoples, 1542 (Links to an external site.)Charles C. Mann, The End of the Noble Savage Myth? (excerpts), 2005Mann explained why the Noble Savage Myth has long persisted and how recent science has disproved it.What did Mann mean by?Supposition, Noble Savage, agency, prelapsarian, putative, sloth, virgin, opulentFor almost five centuries … the supposition that Native Americans lived in an eternal, unhistoried state held sway in scholarly work, and from there fanned out into textbooks, Hollywood movies, newspaper articles, environmental campaigns, romantic adventure books, and silkscreened T-shirts. It existed in many forms and was embraced both by those who hated Indians and those who admired them. … In both images Indians lacked what social scientists call agency—they were not actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way.The Noble Savage dates back as far as the first full-blown ethnography of American Indian peoples, Bartolomé de las Casas’s Apologética Historia Sumaria, written mainly in the 1530s. Las Casas, a conquistador who repented his actions and became a priest, spent the second half of his long life opposing European cruelty in the Americas. To his way of thinking, Indians were natural creatures who dwelt, gentle as cows, in the “terrestrial paradise.” In their prelapsarian innocence, he believed, they had been quietly waiting—waiting for millennia—for Christian instruction. Las Casas’s contemporary, the Italian commentator Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, shared these views. Indians, he wrote (I quote the English translation from 1556), “lyve in that goulden world of whiche owlde writers speake so much,” existing “simplye and innocentlye without inforcement of lawes.”In our day, beliefs about Indians’ inherent simplicity and innocence refer mainly to their putative lack of impact on the environment. This notion dates back at least to Henry David Thoreau, who spent much time seeking “Indian wisdom,” an indigenous way of thought that supposedly did not encompass measuring or categorizing, which he viewed as the evils that allowed human beings to change Nature. Thoreau’s ideas continue to be influential. In the wake of the first Earth Day in 1970, a group named Keep American Beautiful, Inc., put up billboards that portrayed a Cherokee actor named Iron Eyes Cody quietly weeping over polluted land. The campaign was enormously successful. … It implicitly depicted Indians as people who had never changed their environment from its original wild state. Because history is change, they were people without history. …U.S. historian George Bancroft … argued in 1834 that before Europeans arrived North America was “an unproductive waste … Its only inhabitants were a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians, destitute of commerce and of political connection.” Like Las Casas, Bancroft believed that Indians had existed in societies without change—except that Bancroft regarded this timelessness as an indication of sloth, not innocence.In different forms Bancroft’s characterization was carried into the next century. Writing in 1934, Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the founders of American anthropology, theorized that the Indians in eastern America could not develop—could have no history—because their lives consisted of “warfare that was insane, unending, continuously attritional.” … Kroeber conceded that Indians took time out from fighting to grow crops, but insisted that agriculture “… was auxiliary, in a sense a luxury.” As a result, “Ninety-nine per cent or more of what [land] might have been developed remained virgin.” …Textbooks reflected academic beliefs faithfully. In a survey of U.S. history schoolbooks, the writer Frances Fitzgerald concluded that the characterization of Indians had moved, “if anything, resolutely backward” between the 1840s and the 1940s. Earlier writers thought of Indians as important, though uncivilized, but later books froze them into a formula: “lazy, childlike, and cruel.” A main textbook of the 1940s devoted only a “few paragraphs” to Indians, she wrote, “of which the last is headed ‘The Indians Were Backward.’”These views, though less common today, continue to appear. The 1987 edition of American History: A Survey, a standard high school textbook by three well-known historians, summed up Indian history thusly: “For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works.” The story of Europeans in the New World, the book informed students, “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” …Meanwhile, new disciplines and new technologies were creating new ways to examine the past. Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon 14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs—a torrent of novel perspectives and techniques cascaded into use. And when these were employed, the idea that the only human occupants of one-third of the earth’s surface had changed little for thousands of years began to seem implausible. …After several decades of discovery and debate, a new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants is emerging. … They were not nomadic, but built up and lived in some of the world’s most opulent cities. Far from being dependent on big-game hunting, most Indians lived on farms. Others subsisted on fish and shellfish. … In other words, the Americas were immeasurably busier, more diverse, and more populous than researchers had previously imagined.SOURCE: Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 12-15.Film clip: Disney’s “Pocahontas,” 1995Discussion questionsHow do we know now that the Noble Savage Myth was a myth, not reality?Explain the myth. For centuries, how did Europeans want to view the American Indians?Has the Noble Savage Myth disappeared, or does it still survive in American culture, such as in the movie “Pocahontas”
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