3. Clashing Civilizations
3.1. Frontiear and "Wilderness"
"Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development. [..] The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land"
The frontier Turner described so eloquently surely has had some kind of an impact on American history. The tricky point, however, is the equally bold and revealing description of the frontier marking the border to free land. This "free land", as it should have been clear, wasn't that free at all but populated by a Native population. The basic assumption stated by the frontier thesis might therefore be quite an accurate description for the conflict at hand: The land probably even seemed free as it was only scarcely populated. Compared to Europe, the New World indeed had vast spaces available for settlement. The Indians didn't exploit the land to full extent, which must have seemed strange in European eyes; equally as the European way was strange to the Natives.
"The wilderness masters the colonist. [..] at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish [..] Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe [..] here is a new product that is American."
For the settlers, the frontier experience -- as asserted rightfully by Turner -- defied all European class systems, it demanded for explorers, farmers, communities and hard work, not for aristocrats, through this pragmatism thus promoting democracy -- though this image of the "independent frontiersman" wasn't true for all America, as the quasi-aristocratic system of the South would later show. In this pragmatism, in the intent to overcome the wilderness, in culturing nature, one of the basic differences between European and Native American philosophy appears.
3.2. Difference of Concepts
"The white man does not understand. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a wanderer who comes in the night and borrows from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has won the struggle, he moves on. [..] The white man is like a snake who eats his own tail in order to live. And the tail grows shorter and shorter"
As has been shown before, the Native American question is not just an issue of forced relocation and destruction of cultures; much more it reveals clearly how two very different cultural spheres, Europeans and Indians, encountered each other. The history of this encounter is not only a history of war, massacres and evictions, it is -- although much more hidden -- also a history of two peoples learning from each other, basically the Europeans learning something about themselves the very hard way. Apart from the things they brought back to Europe, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa, cotton, tobacco and many more, some of them, like Las Casas, already could see that the Indian cultures could offer something much more subtle, much more profound to the Europeans. Native Americans were no barbarians; although it is easily understandable that most settlers would perceive it that way when they preferred not to look too closely. By depicting them as savages, however noble or bloodthirsty, they just saw that these people barely had clothing, their housing mostly being tents or houses looking primitive in European understanding. Their rituals were not understood, sacrifices deprived of their religious context and, with the air of European superiority in mind, efforts to reach understanding were rare.
"the only thing to be done with the incomprehensible is to pretend it does not exist"
Europe had long given up its partnership with nature. Beginning with elements of Greek philosophy but only fully starting with the Roman obsession of controlling nature even in the tiniest part, nature had become man's best enemy, a challenge it had become to cultivate it, to see it as a tool for human purposes; and when the colonists landed in the Americas, after all the initial awe and mystery, it was streets, settlements, railroads and factories to be built. Isn't a river's best purpose to be dammed up? And isn't the finest use for the desert of Nevada and Arizona the testing of military equipment? What in early antiquity still was widespread belief, that nature was sacred and peopled by countless nymphs and gods, became a matter of business, this not just starting with interpretations of Genesis 1,28 -- dominion over the earth was understood as conquest. Thus the Indian counter-image was even more so a mystery, strange and ungraspable for those who came to cultivate the earth instead of worshipping it.
Equally ungraspable, even in our time, was the multitude of nations, although white generals and diplomats masterly played tribe against tribe to gain their own profit. In defense of the Europeans, however, it has to be said that without Indian help, there would have been no conquest, not without "thousands of Indian allies happy to help the mighty strangers destroy their traditional enemies" -- which again illustrates that it wasn't the Indians being fought against. The tragedy, however encompassing all tribes, befell one tribe after the other, not in unison but in sequence rather. Thus resistance could only have been partial. In the end, tribes became unimportant and it was just an anonymous mass of Indians being dealt with.
"Within 19th-century America the policy of removing the Indians and, later, confining them to reservations, had in the background the collapse of differences, in the white mind, so that Apaches and Creeks, farming and hunting nations, Christianized and savage, were simply designated 'Indians' and subjected to a common fate. The very choice within a culture to attend to increasingly refined differences or to more and more inclusive categories is a political act for which the inner practice and memorization takes place informally and continuously."
It is not at all natural that Native Americans are defined as a separate race; it is rather that they have been defined as being non-white to exclude them from American society, just as Blacks had been excluded -- "all men are created equal" firstly meaning all white men; and males of course, following the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) prototype. The artificial distinctions which led to the definition of races are still at work today, being reflected by the ethno-racial pentagon of white, black, brown, yellow and red, only substituted with politically correct euphemisms like Caucasian, Afro-American (with something like the one-drop rule still silently applied), Hispanics, Asian and Indian Americans; definitions whose artificiality becomes especially obvious in the case of Hispanics, who "became" a race about twenty years ago. Such differentiation rather promotes discrimination than equal chances. While at first glance seemingly accepting cultural uniqueness, these crude categories don't differentiate between Korean, Chinese or Japanese just as they don't differentiate between Makah, Hopi or Navajo. It doesn't help the case of Indian Americans to see them as a unity -- with all their similarities, their most similar property is their uniqueness, their being different nations.
Such thoughtless smoothening of differences only promotes conflicts like that between the Navajo and Hopi nations, possibly paving the way for ethnic clashes in the future. But apart from all the problems of today's Native nations, they have gained some new and positive reputation, especially through their participation in the World Wars or through the Navajo Code Talkers. Also, with the tribes' rights to operate gambling facilities on their reservations, new economic possibilities have arisen, however dubious this method may seem. There has also been an increase in the use of Indian names and symbols, but that's a much more different issue -- this use being often quite sarcastic and even insulting -- like in "Cherokee" Jeeps, "Pontiac" cars, "Apache" and "Comanche" military helicopters, sports teams like the Washington "Redskins"; and of course with place and state names still carrying Indian denominations, Native American culture and symbols are often rather thoughtlessly exploited than honored; Indians are used as a mascot.
Almost traditionally, Indians were most often reduced to stereotypes of the noble or bloodthirsty savage, the myth of the Indians being wild, bloodthirsty, enduring and a threat to the settlers being portrayed in lots of classic Westerns, showing that "the Indian was killed out of 'necessity'". More modern Westerns like Dances With Wolves might have shed a much better light on the Indians, also quite accurately incorporating the Lakota language, but still portrayed them in their basic role as victims of white civilization. Other movies, like Maverick, portrayed an Indian trickster, exploiting the "bloodthirsty savage" image and acting more like an equal partner of the hero.
More recent films are often more vocal concerning the topic:
"[Colonel Ludlow:] I worked for the government once ... Indians! Indians were the issue in those days. I can assure you, gentlemen, there is nothing quite so grotesque as the meeting of a child with a bullet; and an entire village slaughtered while sleeping. That was the government's resolution of that particular issue, and I've seen nothing in its behavior since then that would persuade me it has gained either in wisdom, common sense or humanity."
Also Star Trek, which has always featured some kinds of variations on the Indian problem, became especially clear in its latest movie, depicting the attempt to save an outnumbered and outgunned people facing relocation and destruction by a profit-oriented enemy:
"Picard: [We] will destroy the Ba'ku, just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocation throughout history.
Dougherty: Jean-Luc, we're only moving six hundred people.
Picard: How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong?"
However often the topic might be raised, Indians mostly seem to be a non-issue, although their contributions to American society are increasingly made visible. There can be no excuse for what happened to the Native nations, but a policy of enlarged respect and an awareness for European responsibility could help set the stage for reconciliation.
"There were no miracles to account for their recovery . . . and certainly none performed on the part of the United States government that failed to honor its treaty with the Navajos. The Navajos survived through an innate sense of 'oneness' that compels them to help each other both in times of wealth and in times of poverty."