Were European Colonialists and Native American People Friends?

This morning my daughter asked, seemingly out of nowhere and initially rhetorically, “Why weren’t the Native American people and Europeans friends?”

“Why do you think they weren’t friends,” I asked.

“Well, I think they were friends, but not all of them.”

I drove in silence, unsure of what to say. I thought about my knowledge of the trail of tears, Indian boarding schools, the Indian Appropriation Act and a few personal stories shared with me when I worked with families living on the Pasqua Yaqui Reservation in Tucson, Arizona. Everything was part of the tragedies and acts of violence inflicted upon indigenous populations by White people on “Turtle Island,” which is what many native people call North America. I was also aware of a few historical accounts of relatively positive relationships between native people and colonialists…however those often relied on native people becoming Christian and “civilized.”

Looking out the back window, seemingly in deep thought, she then said, “Was it because the Native American people didn’t get to know one another and the Europeans discriminated?”

She went on attempting to make sense of her question on her own. “But John Smith and Pocahontas were friends because John Smith got to know Pocahontas’ identity.  Right?”

Admittedly, I said, “I can’t remember Pocahontas very well.” Shamefully continuing, “I haven’t watched it with you, but I do remember a little and it is much like other movies and stories.  Sometimes the Native Americans were friends with the colonialists.  I think there were times when they even made families together.  But, the European colonialists came to the Americas for farming and natural resources.  If the Native Americans lived on the land the colonialists wanted, there would be wars. The colonists had weapons like guns that the native people did not have so they lost the wars.”

“I’m not sure of the story of Pocahontas, but like other stories of historical people, it was probably whitewashed which means the white people with power and influence told their side of the story.  Their stories make them look good, like heroes to other white people and most other people who don’t question the way stories are told.  The stories are changed to help people believe that white people were the good guys, and indigenous people were bad.”

One thing I remember standing out to me during stories about the Native American people and their interactions with European colonialists I heard when I was growing up was that the Native American people were referred to as savages and the Europeans are settlers.  Those were whitewashed stories.

“What does savage mean?”

Savage is kind of like the descriptions the superintendent in Separate is Never Equal gave to Mexican children, but it also includes mean, violent and not caring for the lives of other people…

She added a few thoughts about contemporary issues that could be interpreted as savagery given the definition I provided.

“The stories I heard growing up described the Native American people as savages to make stories sound like the colonialists were nothing but heroes and were doing nothing wrong by killing the indigenous people, treating them like animals rather than people.”

“On the other hand, the Europeans were not just any European who decided they wanted to find a new home to settle in.  These Europeans were colonialists who wanted to take control of the land and resources, rule it with their power and the laws that continued to give them power, and punish anyone who did not follow their control.”

“Like the Egyptians did to the Hebrews?” referring to a movie the children recently watched that also warrants a critical assessment.

The conversation shifted to the Old Testament for the last two minutes of our drive.

As is always the case, I’m not 100% comfortable with what I said. However, I’m always trying to learn and experience more so that the next time that a similar question comes up, I feel just a little more prepared and less ignorant.


A little extra food for thought.