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Impearls: AFitW: The search for a savage life

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

The search for a savage life   by Alexis de Tocqueville

Written on the Steamboat “The Superior.”  Begun on (1st August 1831)
 

One of the things that pricked our most lively curiosity in going to America, was the chance of visiting the utmost limits of European civilisation, and even, if time allowed, visiting some of those Indian tribes who have chosen to retreat into the wildest open spaces rather than adapt themselves to what the whites call the delights of social life.  But it is harder than one would have thought to get to the wilds nowadays.  Leaving New York, the further we got to the northwest, the further did the end of our journey seem to flee before us.  We passed through places celebrated in the history of the Indians; we found valleys that they had named; we crossed rivers still bearing the names of their tribes, but everywhere the savage’s hut had given way to the civilised man’s house.  The forest was felled; solitude turned to life.

But still we seemed to be following the tracks of the natives.  Ten years ago, we were told, they were here; there, five years; there, two years.  In the place where you see the prettiest village church, a man would tell us, “I have cut down the first tree of the forest.”  “Here,” another told us, “the grand council of the Confederation of the Iroquois used to be held.”  — “And what has become of the Indians,” said I?  — “The Indians,” our host replied, “are I do not quite know where, beyond the Great Lakes.  It is a race that is dying out; they are not made for civilisation; it kills them.”

Man gets accustomed to everything.  To death on the field of battle; to death in hospital; to kill and to suffer.  He gets used to every sight.  An ancient people, the first and legitimate master of the American continent, is vanishing daily like the snow in sunshine, and disappearing from view over the land.  In the same spots and in its place another race is increasing at a rate that is even more astonishing.  It fells the forests and drains the marshes; lakes as large as seas and huge rivers resist its triumphant march in vain.  The wilds become villages, and the villages towns.  The American, the daily witness of such wonders, does not see anything astonishing in all this.  This incredible destruction, this even more surprising growth, seem to him the usual progress of things in this world.  He gets accustomed to it as the unalterable order of nature.

In this way, always looking for the savages and the wilds, we covered the 360 miles between New York and Buffalo.

The first sight that struck us was a great number of Indians, who had assembled that day in Buffalo to collect the rent for the lands they had handed over to the United States.

I do not think I have ever suffered a more complete disappointment than the sight of those Indians.  I was full of memories of M. de Chateaubriand and of Cooper, and I had expected to find in the natives of America savages in whose features nature had left the trace of some of those proud virtues that are born of liberty.  I expected to find them men whose bodies had been developed by hunting and war, and who would lose nothing by being seen nude.  You can guess my astonishment as I got close to the sight described here:

The Indians that I saw that evening were small in stature; their limbs, as far as could be seen under their clothes, were thin and far from muscular; their skin, instead of being of the copper-red colour that is generally supposed, was dark bronze so that at first sight it seemed very like that of mulattoes.  Their shiny, black hair fell with a peculiar stiffness over neck and shoulders.  Their mouths were generally disproportionately large, and the expression of their faces ignoble and vicious.  Their physiognomy told of that profound degradation that can only be reached by a long abuse of the benefits of civilisation.  One would have said they were men from the lowest mob of our great European cities.  And yet they were still savages.  Mixed up with the vices they got from us, was something barbarous and uncivilised that made them a hundred times more repulsive still.  These Indians carried no arms; they wore European clothes; but they did not use them in the same way as we do.  One could see that they were not at all made for their use, and they found themselves imprisoned in their folds.  To European ornaments they added articles of barbarian luxury, feathers, enormous ear-rings and necklaces of shells.  These men’s movements were quick and jerky, their voices shrill and discordant, their glances restless and savage.  At first sight one was tempted to think that each of them was but a beast from the forest, to whom education had given the appearance of a man, but who had nonetheless remained an animal.  These weak, depraved beings belonged however to one of the most renowned tribes of the ancient American world.  We had before us, it is sad to say it, the last rem[n]ants of that famous Confederation of the Iroquois, who were no less well-known for manly wisdom than for courage, and who long held the balance between the two greatest European nations.

But one would be wrong to try and judge the Indian race by this shapeless sample, this straying sucker from a savage tree that has grown up in the mud of our cities.  That would be to repeat the mistake that we ourselves commit and of which I shall have occasion to speak later.

We went out from the town that evening and, not far from the last houses, we saw an Indian lying at the edge of the road.  He was a young man.  He made no movement and we thought him dead.  Some stifled sighs that hardly forced their way from his breast made us realise that he was still alive and struggling against one of those dangerous forms of drunkenness that are brought on by brandy.  The sun had already gone down and the ground was getting more and more damp.  There was every indication that the wretched man would breathe out his last sigh there, at least unless he was helped.  It was the time at which the Indians were leaving Buffalo to return to their village; from time to time a group of them came and passed close by us.  They came up, roughly turned their compatriot’s body over to see who he was, and then went on their way without deigning to answer our questions.  Most of these men were themselves drunk.  Finally a young Indian woman arrived, who at first seemed to come up with some interest.  I thought that it was the wife or sister of the dying man.  She looked at him attentively, called him aloud by his name, felt his heart and, being sure that he was alive, tried to rouse him from his lethargy.  But when her efforts were in vain, we saw her burst out in fury against his inanimate body lying in front of her.  She struck his head, twisted his face with her hands, and trampled on him.  While she applied herself to these ferocious acts, she uttered such inarticulate and savage cries that, at this moment, they still seem to vibrate in my ears.  Finally we felt we must intervene and peremptorily ordered her to draw back.  She obeyed, but as she went off, we heard her burst into a barbarous laugh.

When we got back to the town, we told several people about the young Indian.  We spoke of the imminent danger to which he was exposed; we even offered to pay his expenses at an inn.  All that was useless.  We could not persuade anyone to bother about it.  Some told us: these men are accustomed to drink to excess and sleep on the ground.  They certainly will not die from such accidents.  Others admitted that the Indian probably would die; but one could read on their lips this half-expressed thought:  “What is the life of an Indian?”  That indeed was the basis of the general feeling.  In the midst of this society, so well-policed, so prudish, and so pedantic about morality and virtue, one comes across a complete insensibility, a sort of cold and implacable egotism where the natives of America are concerned.  The inhabitants of the United States do not hunt the Indians with hue and cry as did the Spaniards of Mexico.  But it is the same pitiless feeling that animates the whole European race here as everywhere else.

How many times during our travels have we not met honest citizens who said to us of an evening, sitting peacefully by their fire: the number of the Indians is decreasing daily.  However it is not that we often make war on them but the brandy that we sell them cheap every year carries off more than our arms could kill.  This world here belongs to us, they add.  God in refusing the first inhabitants the capacity to become civilised, has destined them in advance to inevitable destruction.  The true owners of this continent are those who know how to take advantage of its riches.

Satisfied with this reasoning the American goes to the church where he hears a minister of the gospel repeat to him that men are brothers and that the Eternal Being who has made them all in the same mould has imposed on them the duty to help one another.



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