The Indigenous Critique: How Native Americans Inspired the European Enlightenment

This essay references and quotes the book Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

In the spring of 1754, an academic society in the city of Dijon in France announced a national competition for the best thesis written on the subject: What is the origin of inequality among humans? And is it part of the laws of nature? The competition was important for two reasons. On the one hand, the competition saw the participation of a young political thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of the theory of the social contract and one of the most influential political thinkers in history.

The second reason was the subject of the competition itself. Equality and its absence were relatively new ideas in European society, and raising them at that time was part of a general intellectual shift that included debates and discussions about freedom, human rights and solidarity. These debates took shape to form the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, to which credit is attributed for the series of improvements in the quality and dignity of human life from that era to the present day.

In this essay, we will look at the source of the European curiosity towards ideas of freedom, equality and solidarity in the 17th century.

Our story begins with the exploration of the two Americas by Spanish expeditions, during the Europeans’ attempts to find a route to India that did not pass through the Ottoman Empire. The discovery of America was a pivotal point in European thought for several reasons, most notably the discovery of indigenous people who lived in a lifestyle very different from the European lifestyle at that time.

In fact, the two Americas were home to different forms of human civilizations, ranging from small tribes with a simple lifestyle, to the great kingdoms of the Incan and Mayan civilizations in Central and South America. During the early period of European expeditions, settlements were concentrated on the east coast of North America, where tribes of indigenous peoples such as the Wendat and Mi’kmaq lived.

From the perspective of European explorers, the indigenous people on the east coast lived a simple life, some even described it as primitive. This created an ethical dilemma about how to deal with them, and whether it was morally, religiously and legally legitimate to conquer and dominate them. In fact, this dilemma contributed to the development of a legal field known as natural law, which asks about the rights that must be granted to all humans in their natural state. This subject at the same time contributed to the emergence of the question of equality and its absence, as many wondered whether the indigenous people were “equal” to the people of Europe in terms of rights.

The first consequence of the interaction between European explorers and Native Americans was the idea of the “state of nature”. Europeans assumed that the natives lived a simple life because they had not gone through the stage of civilization development that Europe had gone through, and so they lived in a state of nature that all humans used to live in before the development of civilization. And since the lifestyle of the natives was characterized by equality, Europeans assumed that the original or natural state of humans was equality, and that inequality emerged over time with the development of civilization.

In this context, it is understandable that the academic society in Dijon was questioning the “origin” of inequality. At the same time, the state of nature theory was used to justify many of the atrocities committed by Europeans against indigenous peoples, on the grounds that they lived outside civilization and history, and were thus an inferior kind of human.

In fact, the indigenous people were not as simple as the Europeans imagined, and although their lifestyle seemed simplistic superficially, they had arrived at it through a long history of political and governmental experiments, which ended with them choosing a lifestyle that placed great importance on the values of freedom and equality, and rejected any kind of hierarchy, subordination, and any form of binding orders and authorities.

Interestingly, at the same time, the Native Americans were forming their own views on Europeans and their civilization and way of life. The natives were known for their high rhetorical and debating skills, and many of them engaged in discussions and debates with European explorers. When the explorers returned to Europe, they published memoirs about their observations of the natives and their interactions with them, and these books became one of the most widely circulated and popular types of publications in Europe in the 17th century.

Let’s take a look at how the Native Americans thought about European civilization. Father Pierre Biard was one of the evangelical Christian missionaries who traveled to the east coast of America to proselytize the Mi’kmaq tribe in Nova Scotia, and he had mixed views on the Mi’kmaq, but the tribe’s youth had even more negative views towards him. Biard wrote in his memoirs: “They consider themselves better than the French, because they say: you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves, we live in peace. You are envious and speak ill of each other all the time, you are thieves and fraudsters and greedy, you do not show generosity or compassion, while we, if we have a piece of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Twenty years after Biard’s memoirs, another missionary named Gabriel Sagard published his memoirs about his interactions with the Wendat tribe. At first, Sagard was also reserved about the Wendat, and was convinced that all the women in the tribe were trying to sleep with him. But as his mission neared its end, his views changed, to the extent that he believed the Wendat way of life was superior to European life: “They have no lawsuits and do not suffer much to get what they want in life, while we Christians torture ourselves severely for these purposes, and because of our excessive and outrageous greed we deprive ourselves of their calm and settled life.”

Sagard’s writings reflected the contempt expressed by the Wendat for the French people’s lack of generosity towards one another: “They (the Wendat) reciprocate favors and extend generous assistance to one another to the extent that everyone has what they need without a single wretched beggar in their towns and villages. And they expressed great dismay when they learned that in France there are many destitute beggars, and they blamed it on our lack of generosity, harshly reproaching us for this.” After returning to Europe, Sagard’s memoir book became one of the best sellers in France and Europe, and was quoted by many prominent thinkers of that period such as John Locke and Voltaire.

In fact, the reality that the Natives lived in free societies, and that Europeans did not live in similar societies, was a fact agreed upon by both parties. The disagreement was not there. For Europeans, the disagreement was about whether it was virtuous and desirable to live in similar free societies in the first place. Although we think of freedom as a noble and positive value today, the matter was different in 17th century Europe.

One of the Europeans who traveled to America and returned to Europe to publish several books about their experiences wrote, feeling shocked by the Native American lifestyle: “They imagine that they have the right by birth to enjoy the freedom that an unruly horse has: they bow their heads to no one at all unless they choose to. I have been reprimanded a hundred times because we (Europeans) fear our leaders, while they laugh and frolic with their leaders. Their leaders have no power other than their eloquence and ability to persuade, and even if a leader killed himself arguing and pleading with the crowds, they would only obey him if that pleased them.”

What becomes clear to us here is an important point. While we tend to think of European explorers as resembling us and being early versions of today’s humans, and while we tend to think of Native Americans as distant and different from us, the reality is closer to the opposite. When it comes to freedom, gender equality, or individual sovereignty, the Native Americans were far closer to us today than Europeans were at that time.

Lahontan was one of the Europeans who traveled to America and returned to Europe to publish several books about their experiences. One of his books was titled “Curious Conversations with a Savage of Good Sense and Some Experience of Travel”. It contains four conversations with a Wendat tribesman named Kandiaronk. It just so happened that Kandiaronk was one of the few natives who had the opportunity to travel to Europe and observe European lifestyles up close in Paris. As a result, Kandiaronk developed an advanced critique of European society and its values.

Lahontan’s conversations with Kandiaronk covered the usual topics such as the natives’ criticism of the conflicts, lack of solidarity, and blind obedience to authority among Europeans, and added to it a critique of the concept of private property in Westerners. Lahontan says: “They believe there is no excuse or justification for one person to own more than another, and that the rich receive more respect than the poor get. In short, they say that the term ‘savage’ that we have applied to them fits better as a description of us, given that nothing in our behavior indicates any semblance of wisdom.”

One of the conversations between the two revolves around the idea of criminal law, and the role of the law in influencing people’s behavior:

Lahontan: This is why the wicked must be punished and the good rewarded. Otherwise, crime, theft and abuse will spread everywhere, and we will become the most wretched people on earth.

Kandiaronk: For my part, I find it hard to believe how you (Europeans) could be more wretched than you already are. What kind of people, what breed of creatures must Europeans be, if they need to be forced to do what is good, and only deterred from doing evil by fear of punishment? As I have observed, we have no judges. Why is that? Because we do not sue each other. And why don’t we do that? Well, because we made the decision not to accept or use money. And why do we reject the entry of money into our societies? The reason is this: We are determined to avoid laws (criminal), and our ancestors were able to live satisfactorily without them.

Another conversation revolves around money and its role in shaping society:

Kandiaronk: I have spent six years contemplating the state of European society and still cannot think of a single way in which Europeans act that is not inhumane, and I sincerely believe there is no escape for you from this condition as long as you cling to your distinction between mine and yours. I maintain that what you call money is the devil of devils, the tyrant of France, the origin of all evils (…) To imagine a person living in a country based on money and keeping his soul is like imagining a person at the bottom of a lake who is able to stay alive. Money is the father of extravagance, luxury, lust, deceit, lies, betrayal, dishonesty – the father of all the bad behaviors in the world. Parents sell their children, spouses betray each other, brothers kill each other, friends are insincere, all because of money. In light of all this, tell me that the Wendat are not right to refuse to touch, or even look at, silver.

Lahontan: Try for once to listen. Can you not see, my dear friend, that the nations of Europe cannot survive without gold and silver? Without money, the nobles, priests, traders, and many people who lack the strength to work the land would simply starve to death. Our kings would cease to be kings, and what kind of soldiers would we have? Who, then, would work to serve the kings and others? This would lead to the collapse of Europe into chaos.

Kandiaronk: Do you really think you will change my mind by talking about the needs of nobles, traders and clergymen? If you gave up your distinction between mine and yours, yes, these differences between people would disappear, and they would be replaced by an equality that would put all Europeans on an equal footing as is the case with the Wendat. And yes, for the first thirty years after you renounced self-interest, there is no doubt that you would see the end of those who are good for nothing but eating, drinking, sleeping and enjoying life – their condition would deteriorate and they would die. But their demise suits our way of life. Again and again, I have presented you with the values and characteristics that we Wendat believe should inspire human life – wisdom, logic and justice – and I have shown you how the existence of separate material interests destroys all these noble values. A person motivated by self-interest cannot be a rational person.

Similarly to the rest of the books by other European missionaries and explorers, Lahontan’s books, especially his conversations with Kandiaronk, gained wide popularity in Europe. The reason for the success of these books was precisely the criticism offered by the Native Americans of European civilization, which pushed Europeans to rethink their values and way of life, and to see themselves through different eyes. In fact, many prominent Enlightenment thinkers openly acknowledged being influenced by the ideas of Native Americans.

However, for a long time, academics and historians refused, and many still refuse today, to acknowledge the contribution of Native Americans to the European Enlightenment. This refusal usually takes the form of reducing Native Americans to one-dimensional stereotypical images, whether by portraying them as savages (devils) or innocent noble savages in a pure, primal natural state (angels). The natives were neither angels nor devils, but were human beings largely similar to us. They had undergone a long history of political and social experimentation before arriving at their lifestyle, values and political imagination which produced sharp and coherent criticism of European civilization.

In fact, these ideas are not just theoretical. During the period of European colonization of America, there were many cases where some natives decided to live with Europeans, and some Europeans decided to try living with the natives. If the Native Americans were truly simply noble or savage, we should have seen successful widespread migration from their lifestyle to the European lifestyle, and in contrast we should have seen failure of attempts by Europeans to adapt to the Native American lifestyle. But reality did not reflect that expectation.

Helena Valero was a Spanish white girl who was abducted from her family at a young age in Brazil by the Yanomami tribe. Helena lived with the tribe for two decades, married twice, and attained a respectable status within her community, yet at the same time she was repulsed by the cruelty that characterized Yanomami life, especially their raids on other tribes. At one point in her life, Helena managed to leave the Yanomami and return to European civilization, but over time she found herself in great hardship, rejection and loneliness. After Helena gained a clear picture of life in both indigenous and European societies, she voluntarily chose to return to the Yanomami and spend the rest of her life with them.

Helena’s story was not exceptional. The European colonial history in North and South America is crowded with stories of Europeans adopted or abducted by Natives, and over time when they were given the chance to return to European civilization, or even when their original families found them, they overwhelmingly chose in most cases to remain in their new lives with the Natives. In contrast, the period saw many natives raised in European societies, through adoption or marriage, with most of those cases ending with the natives escaping their European societies and returning to Native circles.

In recent years, a group of American academics, many of them of Native American descent, have worked to compile these ideas, books, and conversations, under a theory called “Indigenous Critique,” which encourages recognizing the crucial role played by Native Americans’ criticism of European society in inspiring the European Enlightenment and many of its pivotal events such as the French Revolution.

Returning to the beginning of our discussion, the question “What is the origin of inequality?” may not be as important as the question of why Europeans were interested in the origin of equality in the 17th century, after the idea of equality and inequality had been absent from most of European intellectual history? The most likely answer today says that when Europeans interacted with Native Americans and became acquainted with their way of life, they discovered that the European lifestyle of the Middle Ages was not the only lifestyle, and certainly not the ideal lifestyle.

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