Native Americans’ cultural differences from Europeans are numerous, though virtually all share common attitudes toward the natural environment, property and resources, and religious beliefs and practices. Unlike many of his peers, Thomas Jefferson found many things about the Native people admirable, but that did not preclude him from wanting them to assimilate to white society’s norms and abandon their lands to white settlers. Perhaps the root of Europeans’ and Indians’ differences lay in their attitudes toward the physical environment.
Where Europeans, following the Judeo-Christian tradition, believed that humans were superior to nature, that nature held no spiritual authority, and that humanity was entitled to manipulate and exploit nature for its own gain, Native peoples had a sacred relationship with the earth. They considered it holy because it gave life and sustenance, and it was revered, along with many aspects of nature, such as the physical environment, flora and fauna, and even weather and climate.
Natural resources like game, fish, water, and plants used for food or medicine were not overused or treated as commodities, but used sparingly and their existence respected; some peoples, like the Hupa and Yurok nations of the Pacific Northwest, performed rituals aimed to replenishing those resources (Bonvillain 404). Later, after trade relations with Europeans began, Indians fell pretty to market pressures and began overhunting certain animals, like beaver, depleting their resources considerably.
Native peoples claimed ownership of property, but it was based more on group ownership and communal uses, contrary to the European practice of private individual ownership and limited uses. They treated property, particularly land, as a communal resource, with clans or villages owning property in common and, says historian Nancy Bonvillain, “Conflicts over resources rarely developed because in most areas, neighbors were permitted to obtain what they needed when foods in their own domain were scarce or supplies were exhausted” (Bonvillain 3).
In addition, Native peoples did not rely on strict, precise boundaries to divide land, contributing to later conflicts when Indians sold land to white colonists, who continued to encroach upon Indians territory. Bonvillain asserts that “the degree to which Indians understood the terms and conditions of these transactions is questionable” (Bonvillain 14), since their own practices were not so legalistic or detailed. Their actual practices varied.
Plains nations, for example, relied on horses not only for warfare and transportation but also for measuring wealth and status, along with personal property like clothing or decorated household items (Bonvillain 216). Great Basin peoples did not own territory but believed that whatever group that habitually used a given resource (especially creeks or springs), though all members of the community and certain neighboring kin groups had access (Bonvillain 271). Native Americans also differed sharply from Europeans where religion was concerned.
Instead of worshipping an intangible deity detached from the physical world They saw the physical environment and religion as inseparable entities; in Bonvillain’s words, they “were generally based on beliefs in a spirit essence that pervaded the universe and imbued all living creatures and many inanimate objects, forces of nature, and specific locales with spirit powers” (Bonvillain 6). Native peoples particularly respected life-giving forces such as water, edible plants, and animals; the Lakota, for example, revered the bison, their chief resource.
They also believed in direct contact with the spirit world rather than worship of a single anthropomorphic deity, and while nearly every nation had healers and seers (indeed, health and the body were integral parts of Native American religion), there was no institutionalized clergy. Europeans, particularly from catholic nations like Spain and France, viewed Indian religion as “pagan” or “idolatrous” because it revered the forces of nature, and their lack of rigid guidelines on sexuality or some nations’ lack of clothing “sinful.
” Religion later became an important part of Indian resistance, though as European-borne diseases took their toll and native cures failed to halt illnesses’ spread, Native people’s beliefs were threatened. Thomas Jefferson’s attitudes toward Native Americans reveal many of the contradictions that characterized other aspects of his personality, combining a sense of romanticism, scientific and cultural interests, and racist elitism. According to historian E. M.
Halliday, Indians “seemed to him to be nature’s noblemen, endowed with intelligence, courage, honesty, ingenuity, strength, grace dignity, love of freedom, and whatever other virtues humanity was capable of” (Halliday 184). As something of a Renaissance man, Jefferson had a genuine scholarly interest in their languages (though he struggled to understand them, in all their variety), history, folklore, and culture, and he considered them noble because they were “naturally free” and had an innate nobility and morality – much as he believed whites possessed.
He did not consider them savages or pagans, setting him apart from his peers. In addition, he was certainly unique in his time for believing that Indians were not racially inferior to whites, as he believed blacks were. To him, they were genuinely American, not simply because their presence predated that of whites but also because they embodied the romantic virtues he considered “American, ” seemed to him more like whites than they actually were, and were better suited for life in a republic than blacks.
A slaveholder, Jefferson embraced his fellow Southerners’ views on race (despite his own lifelong ambivalence toward slavery), viewing African Americans as biologically inferior and irreconcilably different from whites (Miller 74-75). He even advocated intermarriage between whites and Indians, considering them too fundamentally similar to make their intermingling “miscegenation. ” However, this generally sympathetic, respectful attitude did not preclude Jefferson from supporting removal from their lands.
He did not doubt whites’ cultural superiority and his reason for supporting white-Indian intermarriage was curiously racist; he advocated it mainly because he thought it would necessitate Indians’ assimilation with white culture and thus make them disappear by merging seamlessly with the white majority. He also believed strongly in white farmers’ westward settlement and had conventional contemporary attitudes toward white Americans’ taking of Indian lands.
Also, while he preferred peace, he did not hesitate to advocate warfare in the face of Indian resistance and defense of their territory, publicly stating that, if Indian violence against whites erupted, “we will never lay [the hatchet] down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi” (Halliday 186). He supported Lewis and Clark’s expedition partly for scientific purposes, but also to understand and exploit its commercial potential as well; the Native peoples’ sovereignty was not an issue for him.
Native Americans’ cultural, economic, and religious differences were the three chief issues that pitted them directly against Europeans and white Americans. Their communal approach to land and property ownership and reverence for nature instead of a deity like the Judeo-Christian God differed sharply from European cultural norms, and Thomas Jefferson was rare in his understanding of and respect for their culture.
However, he shared white Americans’ desire for expansion and acquisition of more arable land, and though he advocated white-Indian intermarriage, his reasons were hardly praiseworthy and his motives ultimately ulterior. Though enlightened and progressive for his era, Jefferson was not immune to the racial myths and prejudices of his peers.
Bonvillain, Nancy. Native Nations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. Halliday, E. M. Jefferson and Nature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Miller, Charles A. Understanding Thomas Jefferson. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.