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De-stereotyping the Native Americans

Both historians and Hollywood have often stereotyped pre-Colombian Native Americans as either noble people who lived in constant harmony with nature or mindless knuckleheads who sat around in the dirt when they weren’t brutally killing one another. The truth is somewhere in between. Like people everywhere else, Native Americans had both virtues and faults.

They showed remarkable ingenuity in areas like astronomy and architecture, yet lacked important cultural advances like the plow, the wheel, and sailing ships. Some tribes had no clue what a war was; others lived and died for little else.

Although different tribes and cultures sometimes traded with one another for necessities, they generally kept to themselves — unless they were fighting one another. Groups tended to refer to themselves as “human beings” or “the people” and referred to other groups as simply “others” or something less flattering.

Some Native Americans acted as environmental caretakers, at least to the extent that they took care not to overuse natural resources. Others engaged in environmentally tortuous acts such as clear-cutting forests or setting fires to catch game or clear land.

But it wasn’t character traits, good or bad, that ultimately hurt Native Americans. Instead, it was a conspiracy of other elements: an unwillingness or inability to unite against the European invader, a sheer lack of numbers, a lack of biological defenses against European diseases, and the unfortunate tendency of many newcomers to see Native Americans not as human beings but as just another exotic species in a strange New World.

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