Native Americans inhabited the Americas for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus and other European explorers and settlers. One of the most remarkable peculiarities of the people who lived in North America was their diversity in terms of language, political structure, and religion, although major aspects were common in all religions (Foner, Give Me Liberty 8).
The First Peoples also developed a complex network of trade that enabled all major tribes to interact easily. Such nations as the Aztecs built towns and cities with multistoried buildings, capable of accommodating a considerable population, while others lived in villages. At the same time, settlements had well-developed systems of irrigation, including dams and canals. One similarity exhibited by Native American societies was a focus on agriculture, hunting, and fishing, and a lack of technologically advanced tools such as machinery or even wheeled vehicles (Foner, Give Me Liberty 6).
Indian tribes were often at war with each other, leading to a lack of stability and, in many cases, the decline of many settlements and even societies. In fact, one reason for the Native Americans’ quick defeat by the Europeans was that while political alliances and even confederations existed, they were short-lived. Another cause, especially during the first decades of colonization, was the fact that Native Americans tended to see newcomers as another group that could enable them to gain more power among the rest of the tribes (Foner, Give Me Liberty 8).
Native Americans were also unlike the Europeans in the way they cherished the environment and knew how to live as part of the world rather than mere consumers. Although they built cities, constructed dams, and changed the environment to a certain extent, they tried to make their footprint as insignificant as possible. Their religious beliefs (characterized by animism) were the major reason behind this attitude as they believed that everything was interconnected and every type of existence was to be cherished.
Although Native Americans shared certain cultural beliefs with the Europeans who came to the continent between the 15th and 18th centuries, the clash between the two civilizations was inevitable due to several fundamental differences. Issues related to authority and property made Europeans and Indian societies hostile to each other and reluctant to bow to each other’s norms. The Europeans’ entire world was built on the notion of authority, and ironically, this was linked to the concept of liberty and freedom.
Europeans saw freedom and liberty as an individual’s ability to occupy their place within the hierarchy (Foner, Give Me Liberty 14). Native Americans had leaders, but such individuals had only slightly higher authority than the rest of the members of their society, a state of affairs that the Europeans considered barbarianism. In addition, the two groups’ religious beliefs differed as Christianity was deeply rooted in the idea of authority manifested in temples, clergy, and the supremacy of one god.
While in many cases, Native Americans believed in one creator (seen as female in some societies), they also cherished animals and the environment as, according to their religious beliefs, everything had a soul (Foner, Voices of Freedom 16). Indian societies’ animism and the lack of a strict hierarchy in religious practice made them barbarians in the Europeans’ eyes, causing the latter to claim the right to civilize Native Americans. The property was another concept highly valued by Europeans, who saw it as an attribute of liberty and civilization.
European colonizers perceived Indian settlements and agricultural areas as almost equal to the wilderness; thus, in their opinion, Native Americans had no right to land if they showed no ability (to European eyes) to use it properly. Therefore, the clash between the two civilizations was also fueled by the Europeans’ goal to exploit the resources of the New World. In short, labeling Native Americans barbarians was a way to justify colonization.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History. 5th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
—. Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History. 5th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.