The White Man's Indian by Robert Berkhofer

Native Americans were not depicted “ for themselves
but only in counterpart to White values,
as metaphors in the struggle
between savagery and civilization” (page 93)

The White Man's Indian by Robert Berkhofer

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Non Fiction

The White Man's Indian by Robert Berkhofer

This is a magnificent, fascinating and ground breaking work in which Berkhofer established the origin and importance of the image, and the development of the concept in (pseudo) Science and Culture, before exploring how the image of the Indian was used to justify the policy of the whites towards native Americans.

Even in the earliest contacts a negative image was created by the use of pejorative language. While communications from the Virginia Company in London referred to 'inhabitants', those in closer contact called them wild, infidels, heathens, barbarians or savages. It was not until the seventeenth century that the English modified the Spanish word 'Indios'to identify them. Typically Arthur Barlowe, who accompanied Raleigh's expedition to Roanoke Island in 1584, reported very favourably on those encountered, 'We found the people most gentle, loving, and faithful, void of all guile and treason and such as lived after the manner of the Golden Age'. (p73) They were commonly viewed as close to nature, simple, brave and innocent (p28). But colonials soon came to judge the natives against 'the twin criteria of Christianity and civilization'(p18).

Just as human beings pass through stages, so do societies, it was argued. The Indian represented what the Europeans would have been like before progressing towards their civilized state. In the seventeenth century some Europeans, observing that fauna introduced from Europe did not flourish, even suggested that this backwardness was due to environmental factors, something to which Americans, like Jefferson, not unnaturally, took exception. However, their argument that native Americans were their equal was somewhat hollow given the relationship between them and the indigenous population.

Berkhofer observes that 'the essence of the White image of the Indian has been the definition of Native Americans in fact and fancy as a separate and single other. Whether evaluated as noble or ignoble, whether seen as exotic or downgraded, the Indian as an image was always alien to the White'. (p xv) The noble savage is traced back to the sixteenth century homogenizations of the indigenous peoples of America of those such as Barlowe, while the bloodthirsty savage was derived from cultural conflict producing a crazed demon, seeking vengeance or just malicious fun. (p 98) Native Americans were not depicted ' for themselves but only in counterpart to White values, as metaphors in the struggle between savagery and civilization' (p93)

In the battle of civilization against savagery the noble Indian could help the settler while the savage could scalp helpless Whites. Both would be 'eliminated through disease, alcohol, bullets or the passage of time to make way for the presumed superior White way of life.' (p91)

Having examined the emergence of the pseudoscientific justification for viewing the native Americans as an inferior race, Berkhofer reviews popular culture: 'In the Western formula lawlessness and savagery must recede before the vanguard of white society, of which the town and particularly the educated White woman are the prime symbols' (p97)

The Dime novel western began in the forests before moving to the plains. At first the central character was a backwoodsman but by the 1880s it was a cowboy. The horse gave him a nobility while the gun gave him self assertion. The agents of civilization (settlers, townspeople) come into conflict with outlaws or Indians. The hero resolves that conflict. Railroads aided the spread of the dime novel as it did the nation, and while the publishing house of Beadle & Adams did not invent the dime novel it “standardized the length and uniformly packaged the product”. ( p99)

Berkhofer compares Frederic Remington to Theodore Roosevelt, 'an aristocrat gone cowboy' (p101) before tracing the development of the film, first the silents, for example the Great Train Robbery 1903, then feature films by 1914, sound in 1920s and colour in the 1930s.

Once again Berkhofer observes that the image is derived from white rather than native perception: 'Not only is'realism' in the counter cultural use of Indian relative to White scientific opinion and politics, but any debate about this 'realism will always be framed in terms of white values and needs, white ideologies and creative uses.' (p111)

“One finds the same fundamental imagery serving both as moral and intellectual justifications for white policies….The primary premise of that imagery is the deficiency of the Indian compared to the White.' (p113) This meant that the Indian must be ”reformed” and their labour, lands and souls put to “higher uses” Even though the specific goals of military, missionaries philanthropists or politicians differed they all basically accepted the same culture bound view of the Indian” Together, Berkhofer might have added, they became the notion of Manifest Destiny.

The perceptions of the white policy makers dominated their view of themselves and the native Americans – no-one stopped to ask the native Americans for their perspective: it was not contemplated.

Francis Parkman observed that 'Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.' Despite recognizing these basic differences of approach, Berkhofer sees the end result as being basically the same, fulfilling the same religious, economic and nationalist aims.

The creation of the idea of a noble savage was a convenient way of embodying the principle that 'good' Indians were in a mutually beneficial relationship with the whites. 'Bad Indians justified subjugation and/or conquest.'

Thereafter in the second half of his book Berkhofer catalogues the consequences of the ideology for federal policy, beginning with the Federal constitution hardly mentioning the Indian. (p141-2) He traces the development of a changing policy through time from removal to reservation and on to demoralisation by an attack on their culture through 'education' of the young in boarding schools to the end of treaties (1871) and the break up of the reservations under the Dawes Act of 1887 .

As hard as it is to stomach, 'Through the use of the wild and dying Indian images, Jackson justified the removal of acculturated Cherokees as well as other tribes from the lands they farmed to 'wild' areas in the west - all in the name of civilizing them.' (p160) 'traditional Indian imagery rationalized the needs of the United States in the continental push of native Americans from lands desired by whites.' (p160)

And on to the twentieth century when citizenship is 'awarded'by federal law but not necessarily in practice by state law, and the federal services and wardship of reservations is ended from 1953 onwards. Finally we learn of the American Indian Movement and their efforts to take direct action, for example by the occupying of Alcatraz and the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and the 'second' Battle of Wounded Knee. Not unreasonably Berkhofer has exhausted himself in the first three parts of the book, and the last part tends to become almost a list of events less dependent on his astute understanding of ideology, it seems to me, than the preceding chapters. The work is no less monumental for this, it stands as a landmark in our understanding of not only the image of the native American in popular and culture how it has been manipulated, but in realizing how partial that understanding and image is, and how important it is for native Americans to take control of their own image. Whatever their differences all native American groups see the maintaining of their separateness as crucial to their identity. Sadly Berkhofer concludes that the extent to which they can achieve this depends on white policy makers.

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© Chris Smallbone October 2008