Reflection on Native Peoples of North America

Since the semester is almost a third of the way finished, my professor thought it would be important to reflect on what we have learned in class up to this point. It seems as though the semester is flying by, and I have learned so much that it is difficult to try and combine all this information into one cohesive picture. So far in class, we have learned about four tribes from slightly different regions of the world: the Netsilik, Chipewyan (Dene), Kootenai, and Tlingit. These tribes settled starting in the Arctic with the Netsilik and ending on the Northwest Coast with the Tlingit.

Map of Native American Regions and Tribes

Map of Native American Regions and Tribes

During historic times, population sizes in these groups ranged from several hundred to several thousands, depending on the location. In looking at and comparing the subsistence patterns, religious practices, and social organization of these tribes, one of the key things that I have noticed is how much the environment has a great effect on the people that live in it.

For example, we began our investigation of Native American tribes with the Netsilik (also referred to as Eskimo/Inuit), a group of people who likely numbered around 700 at the time of first contact with Europeans. These people lived in arguably the harshest climate with very few natural resources, main ones being Caribou, soapstone, and seal. As a result, the Netsilik were very familiar with starvation, a possibility that was largely out of their control. These environmental circumstances had a great influence on how the Netsilik viewed life, their food, and each other. Due to the scarcity of game, the Netsilik had a large amount of religious taboos surrounding the animals that they hunted, specifically seals. When hunting seals, one was expected to follow a particular procedure which involved pacifying the soul of the seal. These taboos were an attempt to regain control over their food supply when in reality the Netsilik had very little control over whether they survived or starved. This environmental influence can also be seen in the social structure of the Netsilik. In general, there was very little social stratification among these people, and resources were shared freely between family members. Families often had hunting partners, and the tribe hunted as a group to increase the likelihood of having success. This egalitarian lifestyle with resource sharing was to ensure that as many people as possible survived because the Netsilik realized that it was impossible to survive on one’s own in the unforgiving climate of the Arctic. Finally, we see this environmental influence reflected in the Netsilik’s views of life and their subsequent actions. For example, it was not uncommon for one member of the tribe to be killed by another, if that member was making trouble or endangering the community. Additionally, female infanticide was a somewhat common practice among the Netsilik. Rather than showing a disregard for human life, these actions reflect the way in which the Netsilik responded to the environment that they lived in. For these people, working together was very important for survival. As such, anyone who threatened this group cohesion also threatened the lives of the members of the group, requiring a seemingly drastic action to ensure that the group survived. On the other hand, men provided more of the food supply through hunting than women, making male infants more essential to survival than female infants. Due to the limited food supply, it was difficult to support many children and it was sometimes deemed necessary to kill an infant if a family was not able to support it. All of these practices were deemed necessary for survival and were adopted as a result of the limited resources and unpredictable hardships that the Arctic provided.

Netsilik eating frozen fish

Netsilik eating frozen fish

This connection between environment and lifestyle became very obvious when comparing the Netsilik to the Tlingit, who reside in the Northwest Coast of North America. In this region, game and natural resources are plentiful and diverse, ranging from salmon to berries to sea and land mammals. As opposed to the Netsilik, the Tlingit had fairly large numbers, potentially as high as 10,000 before European contact. Even with their large population size, the Tlingit did not struggle with starvation and were able to feed their families through numerous subsistence activities which took place mainly in the spring and summer. This seasonal pattern allowed for more leisure time in the winter when they used food reserves to feed the tribe. This surplus of resources can be seen in the Tlingit religious activities which were very different from that of the Netsilik. One of the most noticeable differences was that there were very little taboos surrounding their main food source, salmon. This was likely the case because for the Tlingit, there had never been the possibility that the salmon would not be there, as there often was with the seals and caribou in the Arctic. Thus, the Tlingit did not have to worry as much about whether they would be able to find food because of the availability and diversity of resources in their environment, manifesting in a difference in religious emphasis. This environmental difference is also reflected in the Tlingit’s social structure which was much more elaborate than the Netsilik. Among the Tlingit, individuals had the capacity to gain social status within their family and community. Social status was based on age, wealth, and skill, with the hierarchy ranging from the wealthy and aristocrats on top to the commoners and slaves on the bottom. This type of social stratification was unheard of with the Netsilik community and was likely derived from the surplus of resources that the Tlingit had available to them. Through this comparison, it becomes clear that where one lives can have a great effect on one’s social life, religious beliefs, and community organization.

Two Tlingit women with children

Two Tlingit women with children

I believe that this connection between environment and lifestyle is important because it allows outsiders to understand to some degree why certain groups act and live the way that they do. Looking back on Native American history, there has been a long tradition of cultural disconnect with both sides misunderstanding one another. In particular, European settlers often saw the way that Native Americans lived as barbaric and wrong without grasping the meaning behind their actions. While their viewpoint were clouded by their own beliefs and traditions, Europeans were not able to see how the environment and context in which Native peoples lived shaped how their society functioned in order to survive. Thus, some of the practices that they deemed savage were merely practical and logical ways to ensure that the community as a whole would survive. This cultural disconnect led to many Europeans making assumptions about the thoughts and ideas behind actions without consulting Native Americans themselves. Consequently, Europeans saw Native Americans as inferior or child-like and believed that they needed to teach them to act and live the “right” way. Many problems between Europeans and Native Americans resulted from this inability to understand the circumstances, thoughts, and beliefs behind American Indians’ way of life.

This insight is crucial for improving modern relations between Native Americans and Non-Native Americans. Even in modern times, it has often been the case that the federal government makes decisions about the Native American lifestyle without consulting Native Americans or fully understanding their situation. This kind of legislature, although well-intentioned, is ultimately ineffective. It is important when interacting with people of different cultures to understand where they are coming from and the reasons behind their actions. It is also necessary to look beyond the superficial to the morals, beliefs, and circumstances that guide the way that people conduct themselves. This kind of understanding would allow both parties to see where the other is coming from and would make negotiations and interactions much more productive and beneficial. I believe that classes like the one that I am taking would be a good resource in teaching about Native American culture as well as learning by visiting and interacting with modern Native Americans. True learning can come only from observing and interacting with modern American Indians.

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Evaluating Sioui’s Concept of Amerindian Autohistory

02-01-2013 02;40;49PM

Class Assignment: Write an evaluation of Sioui’s philosophies of Amerindian Autohistory from the perspective of educating non-Indians about Indian cultures. In other words, think about what Sioui is promoting and whether this is the best way to educate non-Indians about Indian societies, cultures, and history.

In his book For an Amerindian Autohistory, Georges Sioui argues that the best way to educate non-Amerindians about Native American history, culture, and society is through autohistory, which is defined in the forward of the book as “Native history written in accordance with Amerindian values” (Trigger pg. x). Using autohistory, Sioui states that his main goal is to “provide modern historical and ethnohistorical (anthropological) science access to an appropriate knowledge of Amerindian values” (Sioui pg. 98). In fact, his book is meant to be an example of the methodology of autohistory although I feel that Sioui’s noble aspirations fall short of making his point.

In reading his introduction, it is easy to identify with the need that Sioui feels for a better way of educating the public about Amerindian culture. Referring to my own education, Native Americans were usually portrayed in two contradicting ways: the barbaric savage or the noble Indian. In addition, Sioui refers to the confusion that he felt growing up when his teachers would describe his ancestors as “savages with no knowledge of God” (Sioui pg. xix). It is not difficult to argue that up until recently, the majority of Amerindian depictions were very biased and almost exclusively written from a Westerner’s point of view. As such, I can sympathize with Sioui’s desire to rectify the negative imagery that has been associated with Amerindians and to retract the exaggerated falsehoods that still linger in today’s educational spheres. However, I feel that the example that Sioui sets up only highlights some of the potential flaws that come with writing one’s own history.

First, Sioui has a tendency within his writing to overgeneralize, assigning his personal values and practices to all Native Americans. It is well-known that there was and still is great diversity between different Native American tribes. Yet, this author’s description leads readers to believe that all Amerindians hold similar customs in areas such as gender roles, religion, morals, and social conflict. By doing so, Sioui undermines the credibility of the history that he is writing because it is based off of his personal experiences. He ignores the potential variability of culture between different tribes and instead chooses to lump all Amerindians into the same category, a mistake that is common in western descriptions of Native Americans.

Second, although Sioui make reference to enlightening anthropologists and historians about Native American culture, his use of terminology and expression of ideas throughout the book show that he has very little interaction and understanding of these fields of study. For example, Sioui often uses the words “values” and “culture” interchangeably without defining what he means by these labels. Additionally, in his autohistory, Sioui expresses his belief that “Native people, instead of being stepping stones for ‘true civilization’ in America, become the guides who will take their white visitors towards Amerindian civilization, a truer and more human one” (Sioui 38). This statement represents a common theme that is repeated throughout the book where Amerindians are meant to share their way of living with the Euroamericans so that they may adopt these practices and begin living the “right” way. This manner of thinking is known as ethnocentricity within the field of Anthropology and is avoided as much as possible in scholarly writings. These oversights often distract or prevent the reader from properly absorbing much of the valuable and interesting information that is available within the text.

Obviously although Sioui’s concept of Amerindian autohistory is intriguing, his execution leaves much to be desired. Yet, this does not mean that the idea of autohistory is necessarily flawed. In fact, I believe that it is crucial that Native Americans take part in the writing and teaching of their history and culture. This involvement would allow Amerindians to feel empowered and connected to their heritage, while hopefully addressing the ignorance that has permeated the mainstream culture. Writing Amerindian autohistory would also allow the public access to information that might otherwise be difficult to obtain and provides a different perspective of American history. However, there are some criteria that must be met in order for autohistory to be an efficient and beneficial tool.

To begin, in order to account for the many differences between Native American tribes, numerous viewpoints and perspectives must be considered when attempting to describe both history and culture. Individuals must realize that they can only contribute their personal experiences and consult accordingly to fill in gaps and contradictions in their knowledge. This collaboration would safeguard against projecting one tribe’s culture onto another and may include other people, historical documents, oral histories, etc. Moreover, I feel that formal education is necessary for those who wish to write autohistory or other scholarly works. Although some may argue that this is ethnocentric, I believe that this would allow the writer to better reach and communicate effectively with their intended audience. Finally, it needs to be recognized that Amerindian autohistory be written without bias if at all possible. I believe that this is a goal which every historian and anthropologist strives to achieve, and these writings should be no exception. One should hope to impart knowledge and understanding without prejudice or ethnocentricity.

Overall, I think that Sioui’s work has potential even if it does not necessarily achieve its desired effect. Nonetheless, I can appreciate that he has such a passion for his culture and that after all that has been done to his people, he still wishes to share his values, beliefs, and customs with others. I respect that he is willing to tackle such a large exploit and that he encourages others to continue where he left off. I have always loved learning about how others viewed the world and being able to get a glimpse of the Native American perspective is both enlightening and enthralling.

In case you wanted more reading, here a few more reviews that I found of Sioui’s book. They may be helpful in order to further evaluate his work.
http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1838&context=greatplainsquarterly
http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1104&context=greatplainsresearch

Also, here is the citation for Sioui’s book: Sioui, Georges. For an Amerindian Autohistory. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. Print.
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