American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 4: Encounter with Native Americans

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

Encounter with Native Americans

Christianity, Enlightenment ideas, and greed often colluded to produce a result that annihilated the natives and built up America into a super nation. These three forces are summarized below: 

Biblical Myths 

● Lieven explains that the biblical myths were a driving force for settlers from the very beginning: “The Old Testament gave the settlers . . . both a language and a theological framework in which to describe and justify their dispossession of the land’s native inhabitants” (Lieven 2004, p. 101). 

● Long before the term Manifest Destiny was explicitly proposed, the English Protestant reinterpretation of millennium theology was brought over to America and it claimed America as having a special place in God’s plan.4 The United States became seen as the key agent in bringing the millennial prophecy to fruition. Protestant ministers of the nineteenth century used it to fire up nationalism leading to the notion that was later named Manifest Destiny. America’s special status in the Divine Plan was also accepted among many Christian experts in Europe.

● The Puritans initially had high hopes of converting the Indians, and their zealotry made them assume that Indians would happily abandon their own customs and religion to accept Christianity and White “civilized” life. (This is analogous to the American certainty that Iraqis would welcome the U.S. military as liberators and would enthusiastically embrace American ways.) 

● Disillusion followed when the Native Americans rejected religious and cultural conversions, and fought wars to protect their traditions and lands. When they rejected the “true” religion of Christianity, they began to be seen with venom and hatred as agents of the devil, and at the very least as a stumbling block to civilizational progress (Slotkin 2000, pp. 18, 66 and 522). 

● Horsman explains that “the Indians by the latter years of the seventeenth century were despised because they have tried to remain Indian and had shown little desire to become Christian gentlemen. The Indians could therefore be thrown off the land, mistreated, or slaughtered, because in rejecting the opportunities offered to them they had shown that they were sunk deep in irredeemable savagery” (Horsman 1981, p. 105). See also Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian in the American Mind (Pearce 1967), 

Robert Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (Berkhofer 1978), and Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The metaphysics of Indian hating and Empire Building (Drinnon 1997). 

● Nevertheless many die-hard missionaries argued in a more nuanced way that the Native Americans could be redeemed, and they continued to be hopeful of saving them from their own cultures and religions. This process was only made easier when accompanied by the stresses of defeat and displacement from native lands (Deloria 1988, pp. 101–124). 

Enlightenment Thought 

● Just as the early leaders of the seventeenth century had seen the natives as targets for religious conversion, the leaders of revolutionary America in the 1770s and later saw them as targets for their notion of civilization. They believed that if the Native Americans could be civilized by accepting the White settlers’ way of life then they could be accommodated in the vast country being “explored.” 

● Enlightenment ideas from Europe brought the notion that man could progress infinitely, and that all mankind belonged to the same species6 and hence every race was capable of improvement. 

● Thus the “savagery” of Native Americans was a temporary stage in their “evolution” and they could be eventually improved through European civilization. Enlightened and liberal Americans such as Jefferson formulated arguments and policies regarding the natives in which they tried to “civilize” and “settle” them. 

● While seemingly benign, this argument provided a convenient rhetoric to later justify “savage war” against the Native Americans— involving their ethnic cleansing from state after state of the union while simultaneously claiming that this was in their best interests. 


● Individual and corporate greed to seize lands was especially prevalent in the frontier. Ambitious White settlers looking for “empty” land to settle and farm kept encountering different native tribes who were already the owners and users of the land. 

● The frontier was a “safety-valve” for the economic needs of the White population, providing endless vistas of “unsettled” land presumed to be waiting there to be taken. Thus poor White immigrants (like the Irish, etc.) could find opportunities away from cities and hence not cause social unrest. 

● After the Civil War, the Native American tribes were in the way of coast-to-coast railroad building, which was undertaken partly to open up lucrative trade with China and India. 

It was profitable to see the Native Americans as merciless savages, both by Christian and Enlightenment standards. 

● A whole host of “news” accounts, popular literature, and illustrations and images constantly reinforced this point by emphasizing atrocities by natives. 

● When there was no immediate goal to capture lands, the east coast metropolitan attitudes toward Native Americans (as “noble savages”) were often positive or at least neutral. Some urban intellectuals decried the violence of the White settlers in the frontier and even acknowledged that the Native Americans were fighting to protect their lands and people. One sees many examples of interest in the native way of life and praises for their culture. In the end this sympathy proved transitory and ineffective in preventing their extinction. 

Such was the conflict between the selfish need to expand westward and various positive ideologies that expounded America’s mission to build a new and just civilization. I suggest a four-phase framework to explain the development of policies toward Native Americans—a framework which may be useful in exploring later examples of American policy, up to the present day. These phases were not strictly chronological, but this framework helps understand the process by which the “dangerous savage” Native Americans were exterminated, the benign “noble savages” were domesticated in reservations to be raised as children, and eventually the native peoples were turned into an ornament glorified in museums. This framework traces the role played by the discourse among the intellectuals, the political leadership, and public opinion. I will also examine how institutional power was systematically deployed in a legalistic manner as per the rhetoric of “due process,” but cleverly designed to exclude the Native Americans and preserve White privilege. The four phases were as follows: 

I. Theorizing about “noble savages” and “merciless savages” during early expansion.

II. Guilt management while committing genocide.

III. Indians as children to be “raised” in reservations.

IV. Academic research to support museumizing and digestion.

To be continued ..

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

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