Monday, November 11, 2013

Those savages

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Outrage]

A friend and I were talking about the times we live in today and the conversation came to the question of human nature: whether humans are inherently good or bad. My friend was of the opinion that the times we live in today are better than ancient times in at least one aspect: social equality. His point was that since human nature is inherently slightly aggressive and greedy, societies and their cultures from pre-modern times were not very favorable to everyone who lived then. The physically stronger men would bully and beat up the physically weaker men. The verbally aggressive ones would belittle and insult the soft-spoken. One's social standing was directly related to their aggressiveness and strength. My friend would much rather live in the current era when physical strength is not a factor in determining success and conferring dignity.

I've been thinking about this for the past several weeks and if you saw my post on the debate at Google, you'd notice that I have a fairly clear position on this issue. I contend that life 200 years ago in many parts of the world was better in many respects than today. People were happier on any given day in many so-called backward societies across the world in pre-modern times. I've long had a soft corner for the tribal peoples of the world and thought highly of their simple lifestyle. I think highly of those who're close to nature, depending on it for their existence and deriving from it their worldviews. Perhaps this view of mine may have been shaped by something I'd read or seen a long time ago. I don't quite know!

I recently read a book called "Indian Summer" which is an account of life in a certain Native American village in the Central California valley in mid-19th century. 1850s to be precise. In 1850, the author was a boy whose family had recently moved next door to the Indian village. They were one of the first White settlers in the area where Indians had lived for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. The boy's mother had just passed away and the Indians ask his father to let them adopt him. His father was almost always out on long business trips trading hogs and other animals so he agrees and the boy grows up and lives with the tribe for the next 10 years until the age of 17. He learns their language, culture, traditions, hunting practices, and more or less becomes one of them, as much as a child would take to new ideas at that age.

It's a fascinating account of Indian life prior to significant life-altering interaction with foreigners and subsequent tragedy. It's a history lost to many of us, absent from school curricula and even the works of many professional historians and anthropologists. Mainstream media and school textbooks seldom mention what it was really like to be a Native American prior to contact with Whites for reasons I hope to explore in future posts. For now, consider the following excerpts from the book (found scattered among the various detailed descriptions of the Indians' daily lives):

Page 63 - The Indians always had a supply of food stored up. An Indian might go out and hunt all morning, or all day, and not get any game, but he could always come home and get something to eat. [no poverty or hunger]

Page 68 - Indians were very careful about polluting a stream near their rancheria or camp.

Page 69 - After the evening meal they would all lie around the fire on the ground through the long evening and tell stories and sing until as late as ten or eleven o'clock. This was the finest part of their lives. Here was the real family circle. The long evenings were spent about the fires in the most pleasant way imaginable. Every night was a bonfire party.

Page 87 - On the whole, the Indians I was with quarreled very little. The adult Indians very seldom ever quarreled, or even argued with each other. In general they did very little useless talking. They were not as speechless as many people suppose, but were not inclined to talk or gossip carelessly. The Indians I lived with were great to joke among themselves, and they all enjoyed themselves. The women were treated well by their husbands. Before they got whiskey [introduced to them by the white man], I never saw an Indian man strike an Indian woman.

Page 88 - White people generally have a wrong impression as to how the Indians bathed together in the rivers. In the first place, before sunup practically every Indian at the rancheria had taken a bath: men, women and children.

Page 91 - In general, the young people and children were very respectful to old people. I do not remember having seen an old person slighted or treated disrespectfully by anyone.

Page 105 (chapter titled "Indian Morals") - There is no use trying to deny that the Indians I knew were, for the most part, naked savages. But I have found in the sixty-six or more years since I left them that just wearing a lot of clothes does not make people decent. neither does going around naked necessarily make people indecent. There was nothing in the Indian language that compared with our profanity and vulgarity. They did not have the indecent attitude that White people have. I seldom ever knew the Indians to cheat at anything. I never remember hearing an argument of any kind in an Indian game. I remember that when I started school near Venice Hill with the white boys in 1862 I was surprised to find I could not trust them to tell the truth when we played water tag. So I quit playing it with them.

Page 106 - The average Indian I knew was more reliable than the average white man I knew in after years. The moral conditions in the Indian rancheria where I stayed were better than they were in the white villages that grew up nearby.

Page 108 - the reason that my daddy left me with the Indians until I was about seventeen, instead of taking me from them when I was old enough to take care of myself was because he said that I was in better company with the Indians than I would be staying around the white towns with him. Many of the white settlers of the sixties will disagree with me about many of the things I am mentioning. But they could not, and never did, know those Indians in their natural state.

Page 109 - The Indians were quite honest among themselves and never stole from one another. I believe they were more truthful among themselves than the white people.

Page 110 (chapter titled "Crowded out by Settlers") - When I left the Indians for the last time in 1962, there were not more than forty left, of a group that numbered more than three hundred when I went to them in 1850 or 1851.

The author grows up with a very different image of the Indians he had lived with, an image not shared by fellow White men of his time. He mentions how he would try to defend the Indians when he hears them being slandered and a brawl would break out because his friends and others would have none of it. So he stops talking about the Indians and his life with them until just before he passes away in his 80s in 1928.

The Indians described in the book did have one or two "strange" customs that might be considered barbaric today but by and large, it was closer to utopia than any modern society. Even these customs are deeply rooted in their spiritual worldview and when viewed in that context don't appear the same way as they would to an unbiased eye. This, it seems, was the bane of many ancient societies worldwide as many a half-curious Western historian (often with a specific narrow materialistic and religious worldview) saw ancient customs as nothing but barbaric.

The above snippets describe a way of life that's not very dissimilar to how millions of Native Americans lived for hundreds or thousands of years. Although their customs and traditions differed, they were highly evolved human beings in every sense of the word.

So were ancient societies and their cultures really like we've come to think of them? Why do we have such a distorted opinion of the many societies that thrived and flourished for thousands of years in every part of the world?

The back cover of the book

The author in 1928


  1. very interesting book. I also recommend Malcolm Margolin's "The Ohlone Way" which is the most comprehensive historical cultural look at the Costanoans, the Native American people of the central and northern California coast. While Native American tribes in North America were and are as diverse as human cultures, the Ohlone it seems were as close to living a peaceful harmonious existence as one could imagine. I'm sure some of it also had to do with physical elements like population density, geography, weather, water, food sources, etc, which if favorable can make for a less stressful existence. But there was certainly a deep culture and appreciation for life, manifest in many gatherings with food, laughter and dance.

    I know one of their dances was called "Dancing on the Brink of the World" and I once wrote a song envisioning what it must have been like to be roaming the California Coast before "progress" marched in.

    I can definitely see your friend's point about some of the progressive advances of the modern world, in it's really hard for me to pick one era over another. But if I had to choose between living among the Ohlone before the Spanish missionaries arrived and 21st Century Bay Area I'd probably choose the past. I'm certainly enjoying some elements of western industrial life, but the simplicity of subsistence life is more appealing than the aggressive compulsion of Capitalism to consume and extract. And I wouldn't wish the daunting challenges of global climate change on any generation, but it is mine and the next few after me that will have to pay the price for the last 100 years of fossil fueled excess.

  2. Nice song, Sven! Its energetic tempo goes well with the hopeful lyrics. The song is alive!

    Thanks for the recommendation. I came across "The Ohlone Way" at the bookstore of the San Mateo County History Museum ( recently and now that you mention it, will bump it up on my list of to-read books!

    You're the only person I know who is willing to trade a certain past for the present. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that you've taken the time to understand the past. It's indeed difficult to give up our modern conveniences but learning about the Indians and other indigenous peoples makes their way of life that much less alien and scary.

    What you're doing above (and what I've been trying to do a lot lately) is to connect your personal life, your desires and needs to the systems and structures that satisfy those desires and needs. Then you look at the externalities of those systems and say, "hmm... is this a fair trade? Not just for me personally, but for the larger world?" The more I realize that I'm inseparable from the world I live in (almost in a spiritual sense), the more I'm comfortable with going back to the past. I'd give up many things, including my favorite electronic music from German artists Schiller and ATB, well aware that such artistic achievements are only possible in the modern electronic era.

  3. You might also enjoy "Two years before the mast" by RH Dana. It's justly famous for it's accounts of being a sailor in days of yore, but I liked best it's depiction of California in the 1820's... when for example Monterey was merely a hut on a beach.