Skip to main content

When Parrots Learn to Talk, and Why They Can't: Domination, Deception, and Self-Deception in Indian-White Relations

  • Gerald Sider (a1)

If the expansion and consolidation of state power simply undermined, homogenized, and ultimately destroyed the distinctive societies and ethnic groups in its grasp, as various acculturation or melting-pot theories would have it, the world would long ago have run out of its supply of diverse ways of life, a supply presumably created in the dawn of human time. To the contrary, state power must not only destroy but also generate cultural differentiation—and do so not only between different nation states, and between states and their political and economic colonies, but in the center of its grasp as well. The historical career of ethnic peoples can thus best be understood in the context of forces that both give a people birth and simultaneously seek to take their lives.

Hide All

The first draft of this article was written in 1981 for the Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte/Maison des Sciences de l’Homme preparatory conference on “Herrschaft as Social Practice.” The second version was prepared during a residence at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in the fall of 1982. I would like to especially thank Prof. R. Vierhaus and M. Clemens Heller for the hospitality of their institutes, and for their support. The over-all perspective of the article owes a great deal to five years of continuing discussions on history and anthropology with Alf Lüdtke, Hans Medick, and David Sabean of the Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte in Göttingen. Discussions with Karin Hausin, Rhys Isaac, Michael Merrill, Regina Schulte, and Elizabeth Traube were particularly helpful.

1 This translation appears in several places. It was originally done by Jane Cecil, revised by Vigneras L. A., and published as The Journal of Christopher Columbus (New York, 1969), 2324. The standard transcription of the original, Bartolemé de Las Casas's “abstract” of Columbus's journal, is in Raccolta di documenti e studi pubbl. dalla R. Commisione Columbiana (Rome, 18921896). The transcription was made by editor-in-chief Cesare de Lollis and Julian Paz, from the las Casas manuscript in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. The last two sentences of the quotation, in the original, are: “Yo, plaziando a Nuestro Senor, levare de aqui, al tiempo de mi partida, seys a Vuestras Altezas, para que deprendan fabular. Ninguna bestia de ninuna manera vide, salvo papagayos, en esta ysla.”

2 The point here is not to try to understand whether or not this was Columbus's real intention, nor is it relevant here whether this text was in fact written by Columbus on the day he landed or was subsequently put together, or even invented, by las Casas. The point is that the unfolding contradictions of the text serve as an introduction, historically and structurally, to some seemingly fundamental and very long-lasting patterns of domination and coinvolvement in the relations between Europeans and native Americans.

3 The fact that Columbus hoped he was not far from the mainland of Asia, or near Japan, does not explain his transformation of what he heard, although it may have been a contributing factor.

4 The Cellere Codex of Giovanni da Verrazzano, Adams Fred B., transcrib., Tarrow Susan, trans., Wroth Lawrence C., ed. (New Haven, 1970).

5 Although Europeans are, on the average, far more hairy than native Americans, it is of course unlikely that they would make this a point of comparison, and our understanding why this should be so informs us about our knowledge of cultures of domination.

6 Hariot Thomas, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (London, 1590), 30. Hariot stayed the summer of 1587 and then returned to England; all those who remained behind were lost.

7 (Capt.) Smith John, A Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (London, 1612), reprinted in The Indian and the White Man, Washburn Wilcomb, ed. (New York, 1960), 718.

8 While particular forms of domination cannot be understood without also understanding the shape of resistance, and vice versa, each has its own wellsprings.

9 This and the following two quotations from Hilton William are from his A Relation of Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida (London, 1664), reprinted in Narratives of Early Carolina, JrSalley A. S.., ed. (New York, 1939), 4852. The paragraph breaks have been added to make the texts easier to follow.

10 The full passage from which this quotation is excerpted is particularly evocative of the second version of the story of creation in Genesis 2:8–20.

11 [Bueno, bueno(?)] These native people had been in contact with the Spanish at Guale (Georgia) and had learned some Spanish words.

12 The definitions of “skerry” are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1971).

13 Lawson John, A New Voyage to Carolina (London, 1709), 1920. Lawson notes that the pox here is syphilis.

14 Lawson , A New Voyage, 1112. Hudson Charles, Catawba Nation (Athens, Georgia, 1970), 4041, suggests a parallel between this incident and modern Melanesian cargo cults, which evokes the possibility that the increasing technological gulf between native and industrial societies has both blinded us to, and partly transformed, the profound rationality and insight of present-day native movements that we regard, in the same way that Lawson did, as irrational “religious” responses.

15 Several key theoretical issues concerning the connections between culture and social organization, just suggested here, are developed in my Culture and Class in Anthropology and History: A Newfoundland Illustration (New York, 1986), chs. 1, 3, 5, 6.

16 Particularly useful in unravelling the multiple and competing uses of native Americans in the southeast are Crane Werner, Southern Colonial Frontier (Madison, Wisconsin, 1928); Rogin Michael P.Fathers and Children (New York, 1975); and Willis William, “Divide and Rule: Red White and Black in the Colonial South,” Journal of Negro History, 48:3 (07 1963), 157–76.

17 Mooney James, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, Wallace Anthony F. C., ed. (Chicago, 1965), 139–40. See also Jorgensen Joseph, The Sun Dance Religion (Chicago, 1972).

18 “The Doctrine of Smohalla,” in Spicer Edward, A Short History of the Indians of the United States (New York, 1969), 275–76.

19 As it also becomes when a glorification and romanticization of nature is conjoined with a brutal enterprise. See Miller Perry, “Nature and the National Ego,” in his Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), 204–16.

20 Central to this literature are Essays on the Problem of Tribe, American Ethnological Society Proceedings, Helm June, ed. (Seattle, 1968); and Fried Morton H., The Notion of Tribe (Menlo Park. Calif., 1975).

21 This point is powerfully presented and analyzed in the Timorese poem recorded, translated, and interpreted by Traube Elizabeth, in Transgressions within an Order: The Critique of the Rightful Rulers on Colonial Timor (Chicago, forthcoming). A fragment, by way of encouraging reading of the full poem and the book:

When there is hunger, it overcomes you

When there is thirst, it possesses you

Maybe it is the rifle that you carry on your shoulder

Maybe it is the gunbelt that you gird around your waist

Because it is you who is stupid

It is you who is ignorant

We two might simply converse

We two might simply talk together

But you come with the sharp thing

To come chase me like a deer

To come pursue me like a pig

As if I had no speech

If we two do not speak together, we do not speak together

because of this.

If we two are not kin, we are not kin because of this.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 37 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 404 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.