Stone Age Herbalist  

Both the Wendats and their Iroquois enemies engaged in warfare largely to garner captives rather than to inflict large losses of life. Wendats aimed to stretch out the captive’s agony as long as possible, starting with the extremities and working toward the vital organs over the course of one, two, or even three days. The prisoner did his best to show no fear of death, singing his war song or mocking his torturers despite unimaginable pain. If the prisoner was especially courageous in dying, the captors would eat his heart so as to gain his bravery. The captors would also sometimes cut incisions in the upper part of their necks and allow some of the dead man’s blood to mingle with their own, again to gain his power. Even if the prisoner was weak and cried out, ritual cannibalism marked the final triumph of the victors over the prisoner

To those unaccustomed with even the basics of Native American history, paragraphs like the above might come as a shock. There might be an instinctive revulsion against such barbarity and cruelty perhaps, or maybe defiance and a flaring anger declaring such descriptions the work of Christian missionaries, bent on besmirching peaceful Native cultures. In reality this is a relatively mild-mannered narration of a practice which stretched from the Southern Plains to the Eastern Woodlands. My intention here is not to gloat that Native Americans deserved to be eradicated, nor to make them into paragons of unusual primitivist lusts, but rather to start a discussion about how and why these cultures have been reduced to t-shirt images and pithy eco-slogans.

It seems to me that Native Americans have been shrunken and crammed into a tiny social box, one which permits them only to be the stoic and long-suffering carriers of some primordial golden age, one where humans lived in harmony with each other and with nature. The real histories and stories of these rich cultures have been largely smothered and homogenised until we are really only familiar with some wrinkled old wise man in a feather headdress. Growing up I and many others were told this was the result of the march of conservative, right-wing and racist forces in America and that the progressive Left was the guardian and defender of a continent of primitive communism. What I want to show here is how wrong this narrative is, and why we should celebrate the full and troubling truth of Native history. The Left is no longer fit to safeguard these stories, they cannot cope with the overwhelming cold bath of violence, patriarchy, slavery, imperial ambition, genocide, land dispossession and martial celebration which partly characterised so many Native societies. I write this neither in condemnation, nor in exaltation, but as someone keen to see the truth of human nature in all its glories and horrors. Native, tribal, indigenous - these words have become loaded and saturated with an unbearable moral character and it's only right that we strip it away and reconcile with what is beneath. This article is then, in some strange way, a love letter to those cultures which have been warped into something bereft of true dignity, and so I dedicate this to the martial and proud peoples of the Americas.


Creating the ‘Ecological Indian’

The phrase ‘noble savage’ must rank among the most misunderstood in literary history. Attributed incorrectly to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and used as a label of derision or attack, it originally referred to the ‘noble’ pastimes of certain male Native Americans, many of whom were free to practice the aristocratic trades of hunting and warfare. Nevertheless it is deployed today to undermine an author who is seen to be overly romanticising the carefree and virtuous life of the ‘savage’ as opposed to the corruption and hypocrisy of ‘civilised’ man. Writers and thinkers of all political persuasions have made use of this dichotomy, and it was foremost in many intellectual discussions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Authors such as Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, baron de Lahontan, who wrote New Voyages to North America (1703) enjoyed great success with tales of the rational, calm and balanced Indian who was at one with his environment. Others like James Fenimore Cooper and Ernest Thompson Seton helped create the lasting image of an ancient, magnificent but doomed people who possessed a greater wisdom of the natural world than Europeans ever could.

The anthropologist and ethnographer Lewis H. Morgan, in his observations of the Iroquois Nation, provided the intellectual grist for Marx and Engels in their development of the idea of ‘primitive communism’. Morgan centred his account around the Iroquoian ‘longhouse’ and the matrilineal system of social organisation. In 1877 he first used the term ‘communism in living’, to describe a way of life totally at odds with the voracious and patriarchal colonial societies. His work helped create an image of a collectivist, matriarchal people, freed from the yoke of marriage and private property - a vision which still lives on today in a Rousseaun archetype for human flourishing. One which took place before the Fall of property and domination. Engels took this and bolted it to a theoretical framework which insisted on the primacy and fundamental nature of ‘communist man’, who must suffer through the stages of History before his place in the sun can return with the dawning of proletarian rule.

The long-term effect of Marxism on anthropology cannot be overstated. Even today it is standard to consider ‘economic production’ and ‘surplus’ to be vital components of how egalitarian or hierarchical a society can be. The Marxist logic is ironclad, if a surplus is made, then a ruling class of some form will emerge to manage and appropriate it. This fictional analysis, grounded in the idea that original societies were egalitarian and communist in character, has embedded itself into both Left and Right wing thought. The Left idolises this state of human development, the Right often scorns it. As the development of ‘green’ and ‘ecological’ politics has grown through the last century, it has come to place a great moral weight on the supposedly harmonious and virtuous traits of these primitive cultures. Indigenous people are thought to possess a special wisdom through their more organic and natural connection with the land, as opposed to European civilisations.

Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer provides some standard examples of this mentality on her book Braiding Sweetgrass:

“Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land… In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn— we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”

This has been echoed a thousand times in a thousand different slogans, posters, placards and banners - Native people know better, they are more in touch with the reality of Nature, you, a wicked coloniser, know nothing but greed and theft. Having sprinted through some of the misty-eyed lenses which have distorted the reality of pre-Columbian Native life, we can now turn to some of those harsher truths.



Likely no topic can be as incendiary in today’s academia as slavery. More accurately though, this is because, unfortunately, all discussion of slavery is filtered through one particular episode and its consequences. In all probability most remain ignorant of Native American slavery as an institution, how it functioned and how it differed across the continent. The recurring theme of this article will be: ‘it’s a great shame’, and it is. The total historical blindness to the universality of slavery has made it almost impossible to discuss without a series of normative prescriptions surrounding the manner and tone of debate. In reality, Native cultures widely practiced bonded labour, slavery and war/sexual captivity.

Elsie Francis Dennis, in her three volumes on slavery in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) culture area, wrote:

“Slavery among the Indians of the northwest coast of America is chronicled by every writer who treats at length of the Indians. Early explorers of all nations, who visited the coast and remained long enough to be conversant with the customs of the natives, mention slavery as more or less prevalent. Navigators who remained for any length of time, such as Vancouver, Jewitt and Meares, mention the custom, as do the early fur traders, such as Franchere, Ross Cox, Alexander Henry and employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. The early missionaries, such as Jason Lee and Dr. Elijah White, mention it in their records.”

This snapshot tells us that the vast PNW territories, covering the nations of the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian and others, were home to an institutionalised form of human slave exploitation. Slave raiding by the Haida reached down to the Californian coastline. Some have estimated the numbers of PNW slaves to be up to 25% of the population. Comparable to other civilisations, the PNW cultures also ensured slavery would be a generational institution and often tortured and killed their property during ritual events such as potlatches or erecting new totem poles.

Outside of the PNW there were plenty of other examples. The Plains cultures, such as the Apache, Kiowa, Arapaho and Comanche, all practised slavery of one form or another. Probably the most famous example was the Comanche kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836, who went on in her newly assimilated role, to give birth to Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches. While labour was essential for the Plains way of life, in particular hide scraping and preparation, the intense movement and use of horses meant these societies had very low birth rates, and so kidnapping women to help boost numbers was a common occurrence. Similarly in the North-East, the Iroquois launched a devastating series of ‘Mourning Wars’ in 1650 against the Huron, Neutrals and Erie. Their numbers had been decimated by new diseases and they went to war with the aim of capturing and forcibly assimilating other Native peoples. A final example of Native slavery and the subsequent academic handwringing around the issue comes from the so-called ‘Five Civilised Tribes’ of the South-East: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. These tribes engaged in widespread chattel slavery of Africans and African-Americans, to work on their plantations and agricultural settlements. A major theme of academic research into this time period has been to place the blame for this onto the Europeans. In her book on southern Native slavery, Christina Snyder highlights the complexity of slavery in a kin-based system, such as the Native cultures were, but also gives room for the Cherokee and others to have made their own choices about extending chattel slavery into their own territories. Even allowing such a modicum of agency has provoked the wrath of other scholars, with Kathleen Bragdon writing:

“…this book represents a dangerous trend: Like several other recent histories that focus on the American South, this book erroneously implicates the Native Americans who lived there not only in their own displacement but also in the development of racialized slavery.”

The tone here is clear, Native Americans are not and cannot be held responsible for southern plantation slavery, despite fully engaging and extending the practice. As ever, what is key is to deny Native Americans full and complete autonomy over decision making, leaving them forever at the mercy of European colonialism. Despite the fact that the Cherokee have been refusing to admit black descendants of this practice into their tribe for many years, this can only be viewed as the Cherokee ‘internalising anti-blackness’, rather than a decision the Cherokee have made for themselves.



The question of how violent Native American peoples were has undergone a number of dramatic changes over the centuries. Both visions of the ‘savage’, as either pacifistic or belligerent have waxed and waned as circumstances have altered. Today we find ourselves more able to accommodate the realities of violence, torture, aggression and so on, but we still have the legacy of the post-war and 60’s era to contend with. In his 1984 book, Now That the Buffalo’s Gone: A Study of Today’s American Indians, author Alvin Josephy describes the Native Americans as “essentially preoccupied with the pursuits of peace” and goes on to bracket Native warfare as a last resort engaged in by a people who feel they have no other choice. I sense that this would be seen as a touch naive today, but for many lay people there is still the impression that Native cultures were far less violent than the European colonists who ultimately won out. Without the space to explore each and every cultural form of warfare in the Americas, it is worth highlighting perhaps a lesser known type of ritual violence - ‘Heroic Torture’.

‘Heroic Torture’ is a term I am inventing for the purposes of describing a phenomenon specific to the North-East Woodlands and Plains Natives. I don’t know of any other academic term for it. Tribes such as the Huron, Oneida, Winnebago, Mohawk and Seneca routinely engaged in a practice of torturing war captives, but with the spiritual goal of testing the will and endurance powers of the condemned. The exacting and gruelling details of this have come down to us from multiple first-hand sources, including from Jesuits and other early missionaries. Despite counter moves within academia, the general consensus seems to be that this did occur, and in the manner described.

Typically a war captive would be tied to a tree or scaffold and have their body burnt all over with hot coals, often by young children. Small splinters of wood could be jabbed into them and set alight. Fingernails could be ripped out and the finger bones smashed and bent into crooked shapes. The intention here was to cause extreme pain, but also to allow the captive the opportunity to face death heroically. Often the prisoner would sing or chant defiant songs, mock his captors and boast about bearing anything they could do to him. The torture could take several days, with the captive taken down, fed and watered and the agony resuming the following day. If he could cope with being flayed, burnt, broken, being scalped alive and hot sand rubbed onto his skull, then he would be granted the mercy of death. Depending on how bravely the man had faced his ordeal, his body might be discarded as so much refuse, or butchered, cooked and eaten by the assembled tribe.

The spiritual test that the condemned faced would potentially ensure his immortality, as his heart and flesh were consumed for their power. But also his name might be sung and remembered, his family informed of his courage during such an unimaginable trial. It’s likely that certain accounts have been exaggerated, and no doubt the Jesuit retelling of their executions as a Passion narrative has opened up all such descriptions as potentially false. But given the similarity of accounts from those in contact with the Plains tribes, there is more than a ring of truth to this. The Apache and Comanche in particular were notorious for devising cruel and unusual punishments and executions, including: staking out victims in the burning sun and removing their eyelids, skinning their victims alive, slowly roasting captives over a bed of coals and so on.



Probably the greatest moral virtue associated with Native Americans, and more broadly with all indigenous people worldwide, is their supposedly greater concern for and knowledge of, the natural environment. Now clearly there is a reductio ad absurdum to dismiss here - obviously tribal peoples who lived by hunting, gathering, fishing, farming and foraging had greater awareness and experience with their ecology. However, the opposing nonsense occurs when environmental and green activists create a false image of indigenous people as both morally and spiritually superior, demarcating them as naturally endowed with the quality of ecological vision and foresight. Many argue that their religious and even linguistic systems are better adapted to a holistic and eco-friendly Weltanshauung.

In the 1970’s, a number of ‘Keep America Beautiful’ public service announcements showed a weeping stereotypical Native American, visibly upset whenever someone threw rubbish on the ground. The actor, a Sicilian called Espera Oscar de Corti, was known to Hollywood as ‘Iron Eyes Cody’. The ‘Crying Indian’, as he became known in the announcements, spent his entire career pretending to be of Native heritage. In many ways he is the perfect metaphor for the ‘ecological Indian’ that he was supposed to represent to the American public, in essence a conjured and fictitious character. In 1997 the anthropologist Shepard Krech III published, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. In this work Krech outlined a number of cases which he felt contradicted the ecological image which the ‘Crying Indian’ was supposed to embody. From the overhunting of the megafauna to the mismanaged resources of the Hohokum, from the wholesale destruction of the beaver, to the indiscriminate use of fire - each example serving to build Krech’s argument that Native Americans may well have eco-minded religious beliefs, but in practice they could be just as destructive as any other group of people.

Without trying to spitefully dismiss any rationale for Native cultures as sound guardians of their environments - which in many cases they certainly aspire to - the real core of Krech’s thesis is not so much how inadequate they are as earth defenders, but that the concept of environment and ecology is so fundamentally Western. Native cosmologies cannot mesh so easily. Traditional Native cosmological and ontological conceptions of nature are not ‘rational’, nor are they necessarily even legible to the modern eco-mind. In just one of many examples, during the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline Protests the tension between the ‘scientific’ western green activists and the ‘religious’ Native protestors could not have been more stark, and yet the whole affair followed a well rehearsed pattern. Claims by the Sioux that the pipeline would interfere with sacred land, disrupt the bonds between people and water - a gift from the ‘Great Spirit’ - are skillfully converted into a professionalised discourse about water tables and carbon emissions, the concerns of the Sioux relegated to ‘sites of religious and cultural importance’. Nevermind that the Sioux have their own prophetic tradition of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, with her dire warnings and sacred objects. In a similar way the Algonquin, who over-exploited the beaver, don’t fit neatly into a materialistic analysis of conservation efforts, given that their traditional approach involved carefully setting aside the bones of the animal for reincarnation, thus ensuring bounties for future generations. 


The LARP Continues

My original motivation for this piece was to take aim at a certain kind of modern Native American, one I think is guilty of LARPing (live action role playing). As outlined above, various tenets of the fictional Indian are simply wrong. There is no justification for viewing Native cultures as especially peaceful, anti-slavery or even ecological, by Western categories. Yet what has happened, perhaps predictably in some ways, is that Native people have been subject to two powerful cultural forces: One that has created a ‘Pan-Indian’ identity and the other which has foisted onto them every binary opposite of the wicked West that the Left holds to be true. Thus the new ‘good Injun’ is matriarchal, peaceful, wise, ecologically minded, stoic, long suffering, resists violence, is culturally opposed to domination in all forms, a more natural parent, instinctively anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-consumerist. This burden, placed onto them by liberal Westerners, has resulted in some very strange new ideas being presented as tradition.

The term ‘Two-Spirit’ has slipped into modern American parlance, along with the dazzling new identities of the LGBTQIA2S++ movement. Few challenge its position as the ‘Native’ equivalent of some kind of queer non-conformist and curiously exotic persona. Even fewer know that the term ‘Two-Spirit’ was created by several gay white men with little to no input from the Native American community, such as it is. In 1990, the third annual Native LGBT conference, held in Winnipeg, introduced the term and projected its authenticity backwards in time by translating it into Ojibwe (niizh manidoowag). This translation is often given as the ‘original’ definition. The inventors of the term, most likely Will Roscoe and Harry Hay, belonged to the hippy gay group ‘Radical Faeries’ who partly define themselves as a “non-Native community that emulates Native spirituality”. In the decades following the conference, ‘Two-Spirit’ has been deemed the formal inheritor of anthropological descriptions of gender non-conforming behaviour observed over the past few centuries in North America.

This co-option of complex and socially contingent phenomena goes to my point exactly. The individual and unique facets of different Native tribes have been glossed over in favour of a general civil rights movement with an explicitly left-wing agenda, one which casts the Native peoples as always having been on the side of the modern progressive Left. In a similar way, the ecological concerns now positioned as an eternal Native philosophy have been pushed onto, and adopted by, Native tribes as an explicitly political project. To quote Adrian Tanner’s review of Krech:

“Whether or not Indian groups historically acted with environmental responsibility, the contemporary claim that they are, by their nature and heritage, 'ecological' is also part of their counter-hegemonic political ideology. Another study that has looked for the origins of 'Mother Earth', a concept related to that of the Ecological Indian, concludes it first appeared in the context of nineteenth century aboriginal political discourses with whites. Krech's data seem to concur with those of Gill that it was relatively recently and by comparison to whites that they began to explicitly attribute 'closeness to nature' to themselves.”


A Few Thoughts

The caveat I gave at the beginning of this piece still stands - I don’t wish to see Native Americans disappear or stand condemned as uniquely troublesome people, they are not. My position remains that human nature, by and large, generates the same tendencies towards violence and expansion and I wish to see the moral flagellation over this lessened. It is a shame that many Native people see allying themselves to the forces of progressive modernity as a way to bolster and make visible their plight. Certainly in comparison to other minorities in America, the Native people have received a raw deal in recent decades. Their representation in pop culture and mass media is tragically low and the burgeoning influx of white Americans looking to assuage their guilt by identifying as Natives on the census should be resisted. Equally though I don’t wish to patronise their decisions, and if the future of Native Americans is as a token mascot and battering ram for the Left, then it’s up to them to decide their fate. For myself I wish only to see truth prevail and for a glorious recovery of the dynamic, bellicose and vital energies which once dominated the plains, the coasts, the woodlands and the valleys.