Western Perceptions of the American Indian Essay example

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Western Perceptions of the American Indian

In this reflective essay, I discuss how the Europeans perceived the American Indians and the factors that shaped these perceptions. I have paid particular attention to the first-hand accounts of the encounters with the natives, written by Western explorers, missionaries, and visitors to the New World. It is particularly interesting to note how these accounts were distorted and exploited by different groups, each trying to mold the situation in their own way.

We shall start with a reflection on cannibalism, and the myriad myths it engendered, since it can be argued that nothing about the Indians alienated the Europeans as much as this bizarre practice. Cannibalism, formally known as
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Consider the account of one Giambattista Strozzi, of Cadiz, who writes of “many brown men with wide faces like tartars, with hair extending to middle of shoulders, large and very quick and fierce, and they eat human flesh and children and castrated men whom they keep and fatten like capons, and then they eat them; the aforesaid are called Cannibals”[2] Strozzi’s letter reads like classic propaganda, intended to generate fear and repulsion in the reader. It is not surprising, then, that many learned Europeans reached the conclusion that the Indians had to be conquered, defeated, and enslaved, for their own good. For clearly, they reasoned, people who engaged in such acts could not be left to their own whims.

For the defenders of the Indians, accounts of their cannibalism also prompted them to action, but with a different goal in mind. They sought, not violent take-over, but peaceful conversion. They perceived their mission to be to bring the light of God to the savage heathens, and to bring about their modernization and assimilation into civilized society. In the last few decades, much criticism has been focused on the religious order for aiding the conquerors by

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