#5. Native Culture Wasn’t Primitive.
American Indians lived in balance with mother earth, father moon, brother coyote and sister… bear? Does that just sound right because of the Berenstain Bears? Whichever animal they thought was their sister, the point is, the Indians were leaving behind a small carbon footprint before elements were wearing shoes. If the government was taken over by hippies tomorrow, the directionless, ecologically friendly society they’d institute is about what we picture the Native Americans as having lived like.
The Indians were so good at killing trees that a team of Stanford environmental scientists think they caused a mini ice age in Europe. When all of the tree-clearing Indians died in the plague, so many trees grew back that it had a reverse global warming effect. More carbon dioxide was sucked from the air, the Earth’s atmosphere held on to less heat, and Al Gore cried a single tear of joy.
One of the best examples of how we got Native Americans all wrong is Cahokia, a massive Native American city located in modern day East St. Louis. In 1250, it was bigger than London, and featured a sophisticated society with an urban center, satellite villages and thatched-roof houses lining the central plazas. While the city was abandoned by the time white people got to it, the evidence they left behind suggests a complex economy with trade routes from the Great Lakes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
And that’s not even mentioning America’s version of the Great Pyramid: Monk’s Mound. You know how people treat the very existence of the Great Pyramid in Egypt as one of history’s most confounding mysteries? Well, Cahokia’s pyramid dwarfs that one, both in size and in degree of difficulty. The mound contains more than 2.16 billion pounds of soil, some of which had to be carried from hundreds of miles away, to make sure the city’s giant monument was vividly colored. To put that in perspective, all 13 million people who live in the state of Illinois today would have to carry three 50-pound baskets of soil from as far away as Indiana to construct another one.
So why does Egypt get millions of dollars of tourism and Time Life documentaries dedicated to their boring old sand pyramids, while you didn’t even know about the giant blue, red, white, black, gray, brown and orange testament to engineering and human willpower just outside of St. Louis? Well, because the Egyptians know how to treat one of the Eight Wonders of the World. America, on the other hand, appears to be trying to figure out how to turn it into a parking lot.
In the realm of personal hygiene, the Europeans out-hippied the Indians by a foul smelling mile. Europeans at the time thought baths attracted the black humors, or some such bullshit, because they never washed and were amazed by the Indians’ interest in personal cleanliness. The natives, for their part, viewed Europeans as “just plain smelly” according to first hand records.
The Native Americans didn’t hate Europeans just for the clouds of shit-smelling awfulness they dragged around behind them. Missionaries met Indians who thought Europeans were “physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly” and “possessed little intelligence in comparison to themselves.” The Europeans didn’t do much to debunk the comparison in the physical beauty department. Verrazzano, the sailor who witnessed the densely populated East Coast, called a native who boarded his ship “as beautiful in stature and build as I can possibly describe,” before presumably adding, “you know, for a dude.” This man-crush wasn’t an isolated incident. British fisherman William Wood described the Indians in New England as “more amiable to behold, though dressed only in Adam’s finery, than … an English dandy in the newest fashion.” Or, with the bullshit removed, “Better looking than any of us, and they’re not even fucking trying.”
1492 is an awesome book, and you should read it! And Cahokia is awesome btw, I just got to go there last year. <3
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