Thursday, May 03, 2007

First Nations Civilization

It’s far too common, even among the learned, to view the indigenous peoples of North America as uncivilized primitives. The prejudice that when England established its settlement, Jamestown, the indigenous were destined for demise is common. This could be because much of standard US history is based on European sources.

Nevertheless, new findings are overturning these prejudices. In the May 2007 edition of National Geographic, a lovely article (Jamestown Revisited) bears testament to this. It turns out that, before the English came, Virginia was already “settled”. The indigenous Powhatan Confederacy, numbering 15,000 in the region, had both foresight and knowledge (combined, these equal “civilization” according to Bertrand Russell, in the essay Western Civilization).

Common prejudice tells us that indigenous of North America were simple-minded hunter-gatherers. They didn’t think to alter the land or store food, which is characteristic of civilizations. This, of course, is false. The Powhatan Confederacy burned the undergrowth of the Virginian forests to keep them open and managed the land wisely to grow crops.

On the other hand, Colonists had a tough time in Virginia. Unlike the indigenous people, they were unaccustomed to the land and too stubborn to modify their ways. Hundreds of colonists died and it took many to be shipped in from England to sustain the colony.

Only by spreading malaria to the Americas could the colonists prevail against the indigenous.

I’m not a cultural relativist, I’ll admit, Renaissance English (and European in general) culture did have some objectively better aspects than the First Nations culture. For one thing, they had the wheel and writing. Writing was the key to rational, public discourse. Without it, I can only imagine the sorry state of affairs the world would be in. European culture did focus more on rationality than First Nations culture.

But First Nations surpassed the Europeans in their ability to substantially cultivate the land, contrasted with the naïve and destructive practices of European Agriculture at the time.

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