The White Man's Indian

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., has written an important study concerning the white man’s image of the Indian in American history, intending “to exemplify as well as to explicate the constant interaction between the past and present in molding current understanding of the Indian and therefore in turn the changing comprehension of past undertakings as well.” Unlike other scholars of the American Indian, such as Roy H. Pearce, Richard Slotkin, and Francis Jennings, who have specialized in their approach, Berkhofer attempts to synthesize the wide range of earlier writings by emphasizing the general themes that make up the basis for white comprehension of the Indian.

The two predominant images of the Indian which have prevailed in the white man’s thinking for five hundred years have been those of the noble savage (healthy, courageous, manly, and free) and the ignoble savage (violent, dirty, stupid, and untrustworthy). Blended in with these stereotypes in American culture has been the belief that all native Americans are basically alike and that their way of life is clearly inferior to the white man’s. Based upon these assumptions, the policy of the white man has been to take the land of the Indian and either meld him into the white world or eliminate him. Even the so-called friends of the Indian were not unsupportive of these ideas, although they were less willing to acknowledge the Indian’s supposed inferiority.

If there is a basic flaw in this book, it is the author’s excessive emphasis on the basic white man’s view of the Indian, to the neglect of the variations upon the theme. Although there was probably such a basic image, at various times, individuals and groups have evaluated the Indian from different perspectives.

Berkhofer’s strengths lie in his thorough study of primary and secondary literature, his ability to synthesize materials on a complex subject, and his success in writing a book that will offer students from diverse disciplines a penetrating look at the American past.

Along with the blacks, Indians have been part of the great American “other”—we versus them, white versus red, civilized versus savage. Even when the Indian has been considered in a positive light—the “good” Indian—he was still an outsider in American society. Using the white man’s standards of classification, we seldom see the real Indian; but we do understand the white man and his intellectual presumptions throughout our history.

Berkhofer writes that it is finally to the study of white ideas and concepts that we must turn for the basic categories, classifications, frameworks, and moral judgments by which whites of the past and present understood, noted, evaluated, and depicted native Americans, both as literary and artistic images and as topics of scientific interest and philosophy.

The author points out how, as the methods of perceiving himself changed, the white man’s way of considering the Indian also changed. Much of the definition and exposition of the Indian as a historical figure and image is intertwined with the white man’s views. Today’s relationship is only the most recent phase of the three century effort by whites to comprehend themselves through an interpretation of the Indian.

As the indigenes of North America were neither a collaborative whole nor definable in a single word, both the concept and the word “Indian” were white inventions. The term Indian derived from a misconception of Columbus. Such a stereotype, which neglects the differences in tribes and cultures, has created a reality of its own.

Columbus’ description of the Indian as “guileless and generous” was the beginning of the image in which he was held to be friendly and free but lacking European greatness. This image was later to develop into the European concept of the “noble savage.” Columbus was also the first to present a negative view of Indians. In describing the Caribs, he wrote that they were warlike and cannibalistic. From these early roots sprang the image of the “ignoble savage.” Thus, from the literature of Spanish discovery and conquest there developed the ambivalent images of the Indian that would continue to dominate so much of the white man’s view.

Three fundamental errors help to account for the white man’s continuing false image of the Indian. The first has been the generalizing from one tribe’s way of life to that of all Indians; the second was in viewing the Indian as opposing the white man, rather than as a fellow equal; and the third was the practice of making easy moral judgments about the Indian and his way of life and then using those judgments to define him.

The first appearance of the Indian in literature was in France...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 940.

New Leader. LXI, August 14, 1978, p. 20.