Reasons Why Native Americans Were Viewed as Uncivilized by Europeans

The nomadism of some tribes appeared antithetical to the development of European industry.
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Native Americans fascinated early European observers, due largely to the circumstance of their development outside the European sphere. Native Americans also presented the rare example of an indigenous people that Europeans were forced to negotiate with in regards to trade and territory, as in the example of the Iroquois League. Despite this, key cultural differences, along with Europeans’ technological advancement in some areas and their ethnocentrism, led to a common perception by Europeans that Native Americans were backward "savages."

1 Religious Differences

The spiritual beliefs of many Native Americans bore striking similarities to Christianity. For example, many Native Americans believed in a single, all-powerful god and the immortality of the soul. Despite this, native spiritual practices appeared barbaric to European observers. Some Native Americans believed in the efficacy of material sacrifice and sought to enlist supernatural forces, behaviors which reeked of magic to Europeans. Many Europeans saw the decimation of Native American populations as divine retribution. In 1739, Reverend John Callender, a Baptist clergyman, stated in reference to the decline of Native Americans, "Their few miserable remainders are left, as Monuments of the Anger of a righteous God."

2 Lack of Economic Development

To some Europeans, Native American tribal societies reflected a lack of organization, akin to the distribution of animals in nature, with so-called "barbaric institutions and customs" noted by observers like the Spaniard Juan Gines de Sepulveda. Though trade networks existed among the Native Americans, the Americas had nothing comparable to Europe's tightly knit economic systems. Though no definitive reason exists for the technological gulf between European and American civilizations, scholars like Jared Diamond credit Europe’s high population density as fostering the competitiveness and cooperation that result in innovation. European capitalism grew out of feudal societies’ perception of land as private property. Native Americans generally did not see land as a trade item, which prevented the broad accumulation of capital that supports industrial development.

3 Different Artistic Standards

European art at the time of American contact was a high-value commodity that adorned private galleries. Additionally, the Renaissance had created a vogue for classical ideals and proportions in the visual arts. Native American art generally relied upon impressionistic depictions of natural objects and was seen as an integral component of everyday life. Native American art tended to decorate utilitarian objects and depicted cosmological forces that belied realistic representation. Europeans interpreted this as an inability to appreciate art for its own sake, and saw the absence of artistic realism as indicative of primitiveness and a lack of ability.

4 Standards of Dress and Ornamentation

Some of Columbus’ earliest observations on Native Americans had to do with their lack of European modesty, and how they "go around as naked as their mothers bore them." While some European observers saw this as indicative of an uncorrupted state, others considered it a sign of savagery. Prior to contact with Europeans, Native Americans relied on animal products and fibrous plants for dress and ornamentation. These materials contrasted markedly from the agricultural products, such as cotton and wool, used in European clothing. The availability of these goods appeared as another hallmark of Europeans’ apparent cultural advancement.

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.