Exploits of the Noble Savage

There once was a seven-foot-tall camel that roamed North and Central America from Alaska to Guatemala, called the “Camelops.” It vanished from the face of the earth, in part, thanks to the aggressive hunting habits of pre-Columbian peoples, which palynologist and geochronologist Paul Martin likened to blitzkrieg warfare.

Martin’s overkill thesis remains controversial because it undermines the cherished fiction of the noble savage who lived in harmony with his brothers and sisters and all of nature in a veritable Garden of Eden, eternally serenaded by the soothing sound of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” None of that is true, of course, but it hasn’t stopped the spread of the myth that this antediluvian party ended only with the arrival of treacherous Europeans. Simon Moya-Smith, a self-described “Oglala & Chicano” lecturer at the University of Colorado Denver, recently tweeted an especially fanciful variation of this tale:

Before white people came to this land, there were no jails, no homelessness, no laws against homosexuality or abortion. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples emphasized health, housing, freedom to love who you love and the fact that we need Mother Earth. She doesn’t need us.

I have always been sympathetic to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s admiration for savagery. The Genevan favorably compared the “American savages, who go naked, and live entirely on the products of the chase” and thus “have been always impossible to subdue,” to the cosmopolitan Westerner who conflates decorum with virtue, whose professed maxims don’t correspond with their conduct, and whose rich apparel drew Rousseau’s scorn because it serves to “prevent the exertion of his strength” and “to conceal some deformity.” What he wrote about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Western elites is far truer now than in 1750.

We are, however, reminded in our time of the perniciousness of the noble-savage narrative, which often finds its loudest exponents in a species of Rousseau’s degenerated Westerner. Like Rousseau, Moya-Smith is a paradox in that he is a critic of the civilization that produced him and which, in many ways, he has embraced. Moya-Smith has not renounced the white man’s world—let alone his Hispano-Anglo-Saxon surname—for the Edenic simplicity still available in remote places such as North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal. But he’s less self-aware than Rousseau and, therefore, more contemptible.

The truth is that savages were waging war on man and Mother Earth long before Columbus hopped off the boat, as Martin has argued. Though there is debate over the details of his overkill thesis, it has been generally accepted that human hunting habits contributed to the extinction of various megafauna, or large animals. In North and South America, humans helped make extinct the glyptodon, a giant armadillo-like creature that lived from the Pleistocene to the Early Holocene epoch. This pattern appears everywhere. In Australia, human predation drove the extinction of genyornis newtoni, a flightless bird that stood over two meters tall. Research published in the scientific journal Nature Communications suggests early man ate the ancient avian specimen out of the circle of life by constantly stealing and cooking its eggs.

The blitzkrieg on nature staged by the forebears of indigenous peoples everywhere may have been so devastating that it forced the assailants to turn toward other, more sustainable methods. Speaking to The Guardian, Professor Mark Maslin of the University College London said that “the first biodiversity crisis was at the end of the last ice age, when early humans had slaughtered the megafauna and therefore they’d sort of run out of food, and that precipitated, in many places, a switch to agriculture.”

But the slaughter hardly slowed. In his book The Ecological Indian, anthropologist Shepard Krech III examined the question of whether Indians overhunted buffalo, whitetail deer, and beaver. It’s true that the European fur trade commercialized the skins of these animals and thus contributed to their being killed. However, Krech argues that Indians were far from responsible stewards of the land before then. “A first priority of Plains Indian people was to ensure that they had an adequate supply of the animal on which they were totally dependent,” he writes. “With tens (or hundreds) of thousands of buffaloes within sight each year, there may have been no compelling reason to curb waste.” Buffalo tongues, meat, skulls, and myths were integral to their religion.

The Dodge, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other Indians “firmly believed that the buffalo were produced in countless numbers in a country under the ground; that every spring the surplus swarmed, like bees from a hive, out of great cave-like openings to this country.” Other tribes held the same or similar views. In practical terms, this did not encourage conservation or management. If buffalo did not return in expected numbers, it was because they were waiting for the right moment beneath the earth’s surface to do so—not exactly a view conducive to conservation. And just because they didn’t have help from more modern methods of wholesale slaughter doesn’t mean they weren’t innovative.

The Piegan, an Algonquian-speaking tribe from the North American Great Plains, laid claim to a cliff in southern Alberta, which they gave the name “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.” It’s called that because they would drive buffaloes off the precipice there to their death—a kind of primitive slaughterhouse. The “Head-Smashed” part is derived from a story about a boy who was too curious for his own good and stood at the bottom of the cliff to watch the buffaloes flop over the edge, only to have his head crushed. His body was not discovered until all the animals piled atop him had been butchered.

According to American History Illustrated, the Buffalo Jump is “representative of the North Americans’ ingenuity, of their understanding of ecological balances, and of their economical use of the land and its bounty.” Krech balks at this kind of rhetoric about buffalo hunting on the Plains. “White people wasted and caused the extermination of the buffalo, whereas Indians were skillful, ecologically aware conservationists,” he notes, derisively. In reality, Indians were instrumental in nearly driving bison to extinction, not infrequently taking only “the best parts of the meat” after hunting them in droves, leaving the rest “to rot in the field,” writes Krech.

But the myth of the noble savage extends beyond ecology. The natives were killing each other long before the arrival of the white devil. In fact, the most violent era in America was before Europeans arrived, according to Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler and his colleagues. Writing in American Antiquity, Kohler documented how nearly 90 percent of human remains examined in the central Mesa Verde of southwest Colorado from that period had trauma from blows to either their heads or parts of their arms. “If we’re identifying that much trauma, many were dying a violent death,” said Kohler. The Pueblo Indians didn’t need the white man’s help to violently depopulate the land.

Lawrence H. Keeley, late professor of archaeology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, documented several similar examples in the book War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Before the arrival of Europeans, the noble savages of the untamed wilds regularly put each other to the sword. The Dogrib Indians nearly eradicated the Yellowknives through massacres. The Crow Creek massacre, which took place a century-and-a-half before Columbus reached America, left for archaeologists a mass grave containing the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children—all slaughtered, scalped, and mutilated. According to Keeley, only 13 percent of these indigenous people did not war with their neighbors at least once per year. All that is to say nothing of the well-documented brutality of other pre-Columbian groups like the Aztecs, whose empire was constructed on an unceasing procession of blood and bones and human sacrifice.

People like Moya-Smith often remind me of an exchange from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a Western historical drama adapted for TV and based on a book of the same name. Shaun Johnston plays Colonel Nelson A. Miles—an American who served in the Civil War, the American Indian Wars, and the Spanish–American War—while August Schellenberg is cast as Chief Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota leader. In a meeting between the two, each flanked by armed men, Sitting Bull tells Col. Miles that whites must vacate “our lands,” the Black Hills, which were bestowed upon his people by Wakan Tanka—the Great Spirit in Lakota mythology. After Sitting Bull indicates that he does not respect the land claims of other people’s gods, Col. Miles responds bluntly:

No matter what your legends say, you didn’t sprout from the plains like the spring grasses. And you didn’t coalesce out of the ether. You came out of the Minnesota woodlands armed to the teeth and set upon your fellow man. You massacred the Kiowa, the Omaha, the Ponca, the Oto and the Pawnee without mercy. And yet you claim the Black Hills as a private preserve bequeathed to you by the Great Spirit.

Like Moya-Smith, Sitting Bull claims the land knew only peace until whites alighted from their ships and set siege to their world of magic and light. Col. Miles replies that

the proposition that you were a peaceable people before the appearance of the white man is the most fanciful legend of all. . . . You conquered those tribes, lusting for their game and their lands, just as we have now conquered you for no less noble a cause.

Ultimately, that’s what modern grievances are all about, too—competition for resources, prestige, and power. All that has changed are the myths used to mask the claims and obscure reality.

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