The Arrogance and Misguidance of Calling Indigenous Culture Primitive

Indigenous cultures in America are often stigmatized as “primitive”.

It goes something like first come hunter gatherer societies, nomadic and tribally organized, seeing themselves as one with the earth and its creatures, rather than above nature. Supposedly without many ambitions, save for meeting their basic needs. This is the primitive stage of civilization according to the authorities. Always, with a subtext, that those who would live this way were backwards, and perhaps too dumb to found an empire.

Then these hunter gatherer societies settle in a fixed locale. A hierarchy rises to rule within this colonized society. Their religion morphs toward monotheism. Their minds move from reverencing the natural world to subduing it. Community becomes ever more disconnected. A series of castes begins to form within the hierarchy. Numerous selfish ambitions and interests begin to compete. To hear the Eurocentric history narrative tell it, this is a grand evolution. As if a monkey finally turned into a man.

Next, the function of a person in society grows ever more abstract, as empires sprawl, and technology develops. The hierarchy becomes more rigid. The one percent at the top of a pyramid basically steers the rest of society. Through physical violence at first. Then the empire refines it methods of control. The chains become psychological. The oppressed even come to revere the chains the power structure has placed on them, if the process is done skillfully enough.

Women are denigrated, as are minorities. Empires need to exclude, empires need most to be in the outer circle. Empires are about concentrating power into the hands of a few, so empires need an underclass. Empires can only thrive by keeping large quantities of people as cannon fodder, baby factories, and worker fuel to shovel into the engines.

Such oppression, this legion of inequalities, was never an accident, but was carefully designed to keep the luxury of the top few safe. Empires need oppression, empires need coercion of the masses, empires need totalitarian authority. Injustice and inequality is how power condensates. Under the thumb of that oppression is where most people throughout the history of western civilization, from Rome to America, have found themselves. The fuel class, the fodder class, the baby factory class, manipulated and without much of a voice. Such a pyramid scheme of government is said to be the pinnacle of progress, the enlightened way to organize and govern a people.

Every effort to dehumanize and cast Native Americans as lower creatures in need of the guidance of European civilization begins with these assumptions. History, wrote by the children of the empire, tends to judge cultures by their efficiency of conquest. Technology is typically central as the means to this conquest, so it gets placed on the pedestal of glorification as well. Conquest and technological advantage, in what ways beyond these two things were imperialistic countries any better than the numerous cultures they marauded through?

Beyond conquest and technological advantage, its hard to find many ways European empire is decisively better than Indigenous America. Yet here, ignorance and might equals right tries to masquerade as knowledge and sound ethics. This masquerade is where we get the judgment of American indigenous cultures as primitive from. The only way indigenous American culture could be called primitive is by misunderstanding it wholesale, or believing that cultures should be ranked according to their ability to oppress. By any other standard of measuring a culture other than force, destruction, conquest, and technology, American indigenous culture was advanced. Sometimes in ways that have never been matched by anything in western civilization.

Something that needs recognized is there was never an objective authority that proclaimed conquest and technology as the gold standards of culture. A god never stepped down from high, and said, “your guns are bigger, you’ve cut down more trees, maintained a larger standing army, I therefore grant your empire the moral right of way.” No, the whole narrative of indigenous primitiveness is born of narcissism, rather than objectivity. European culture never found some adjudicating, absolute standard which named it the be all end all. The dominating force merely looked in the mirror, saw the tendencies of their own society, and venerated their own method of rule.

For example, early Europeans couldn’t fathom not taking control of a land and decimating it for purposes of industry. The only thing that came to their mind was indigenous Americans were backward and stupid for leaving everything in nature so pristine. Yet there was good reasons, and an old philosophical tradition, behind why Natives tried to live in harmony with the earth. There were good reasons why they tried to not maim the earth for the sake of human conquest. Only recently has some of the Native dissent from industrial civilization been given venue to speak for itself. History has been wrote by the conquistadors. When it comes to indigenous Americans, history has been less an objective science, and more a collection of one sided biases.

Yet indigenous culture was so much more advanced, had so much more depth, than this biased butchering of history gives it. Lets look at a couple of the ways this characterization has sold reality short, and contributed to the toxic myth making that surrounds everything Native American.

Calling indigenous political organization primitive is to ignore how Native Americans practiced so called American ideals, often better than the American establishment. Indigenous Americans practiced something that resembled democracy and rule by the people. Indigenous Americans were closer to democracy than the American corporate oligarchy has ever came close to in its entire history.

Americans want to believe they are the descendants of freedom itself. Americans want to believe liberty, equality, and justice were the holy trinity that immaculately conceived the nation. In truth, these ideals had more in common with the indigenous cultures America went to great lengths to stamp out. Native society choose their leaders without much coercion. If someone didn’t want to follow a particular person, they simply didn’t anymore. Every voice was valued in a council, from the young warriors to the grandmothers. No one was without representation, or merely used as a means to an end, or had their fate dictated by irreproachable authorities.

By contrast, American culture was much more restrictive. America brought over the old imperial pyramid scheme of power that Europe had been perfecting since Constantine. Power was concentrated in the hands of a few, at the expense of the oppression of the many. American freedom wasn’t much of a freedom, especially at first, and didn’t apply to women, minorities, and any other group that could be excluded for being outside the status quo.

In this way, America is no descendant of democracy, but rather is a child of the power structure that came to this continent and crushed democracy. America was no cousin of freedom, but actually an authoritarian that came and took freedom and imprisoned it. Indigneous culture was an equal circle, where everyone and everything had their place, and came together mutually to seek the best for all. American culture was the pyramid, where everyone had their place in subjugation to a hierarchy, and the benefit of the top one percent was sought above all. American conquest is the story of the pyramid transplanting and doing its best to erase the circle.

Another place the primitive moniker sells reality short is in legal systems. The indigenous of the continent already had a sophisticated way of reconciling issues of justice. An elder once illustrated this to me through a story. He said the Lakota, our tribe, were camped on the plains. Another tribe, enemies to us, who practiced human sacrifice and other barbaric rituals, stole a little boy and killed him. The warriors found the band of men who did this. After a skirmish, instead of killing the men, they had them come live among them. For a year, they gradually integrated these killers into the tribe, teaching them the Lakota way, which was essentially a way of peace. At the end of this, they asked the killers, if they wanted to go back to their old way, or if they wanted to live like this from now on. The killers said they would like live in the new way. The Lakota then released them, and told them to go back to their original tribe, and teach them what they had learned.

This illustrates how the Lakota system of justice was based on reform, on returning a person on the wayward path back to psychological and spiritual well being. It wasn’t about eye for an eye, but rather about opening eyes that had previously been blind. Compare this to the American legal system which, especially in recent times, does all it can to ensure a criminal will fall through the cracks into recidivism and a cycle of perpetual criminality. America still hasn’t figured out how to turn a criminal into a functioning member of society. Yet there’s many stories like the one just told in Lakota society of reform happening all the time.

Ethics are another area where primitive sells the reality of indigenous culture short. Among the Lakota, its always been taught we are all equal. The people of the earth, the creatures that inhabit this land with us, the water, the sky, the living universe, is all sacred. There’s no hierarchy, no power structure, no clawing to the top of the throne, in such a belief system. Without that hierarchy, a lot of the oppression, a lot of the injustice of industrial civilization, has no need to come into play.

There is no cannon fodder class, no baby factory class, no worker fuel class in Lakota culture. So racism, the suppression of women, the blow up of every difference into a justification for discrimination, has no place. Because oppression is merely a tool to concentrate power through, and Lakota society didn’t have much use for out of control authority. In many ways, it took America two hundred years to even begin to approach indigenous standards of equality through the civil rights movement of the 1950’s. The primitive here wasn’t the one who tried to live in harmony and with respect for all persons and creatures. The primitive was the one who lived in dis-accord and oppression of his fellow beings.

Finally, primitive doesn’t do justice to the sophisticated way indigenous Americans respected nature. It wasn’t because they lacked intelligence that they didn’t mar the land with factories, housing tenements, and more people than could be provided for. Indigenous Americans had an idea of what scientists today would call carrying capacities, the limits to what a land could take before ruination. For example, indigenous women used to follow the rule of fours. They’d have no more than four children maximum, and they’d space each child out by four years. With the overpopulation the world sees today, this practice seems like wisdom contemporary society has yet to catch up with.

Indigenous Americans also knew their destiny was inevitably entwined with the land and the creatures. As Luther Standing Bear once said: “But the old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.” Inhabitants of industrial civilization used to laugh at Natives for believing this way. Now this lesson comes home everyday, in more sobering ways. From global warming threatening to throw all ecosystems into chaos, to the continent of trash that floats in the Pacific ocean, to the mass extinction brought on by human action with nearly two hundred species gone every day, the consequences of trying to be overlord of nature have become apparent. Scientists and environmentalists now tell the same thing the indigenous were trying to convey a hundred years ago. That all this life is very frail, and interdependent, and in doing harm to the land and its creatures, in the end its ourselves we harm most of all. These weren’t the observations of primitives, but of those close with the land, who intimately knew its cycles and needs.

So as we can see, it was narcissistic projection of their own image into the seat of the highest ideals, rather than anything born of reason, conscience, or sense that made European imperials declare Native culture to be primitive. Disregard conquest and technological advantage, and European empire doesn’t actually have many areas in which it can be said to be an improvement on American indigenous culture. The debasement that has been heaped on so called primitives wasn’t useful for accurately describing Native culture. It was merely an immensely useful tool of propaganda to dehumanize indigenous Americans. Which in the end, is what the primitive epithet is all about. Dehumanization. Justification of a genocide and summary imprisonment of a culture.

Reject this notion of indigenous primitiveness, and a lot of America’s myths about itself start to shed. The conflict between indigenous Americans and industrial civilization becomes less a matter of primitive vs enlightenment. Instead the true conflict emerges. Pyramid power structure that benefits a one percent, built on oppression which collects the power in the hands of a few, arrogantly placing itself above even nature itself, vs a society that didn’t believe much in coercion, force or authority, didn’t believe man was ever meant to sit like a god over the natural world.

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