Mohawk: Three Indian contributions to Western Civilization

When Roger Williams first arrived in New England,he set about the task of converting the heathen Indians to Christianity

He, one of the authors of the American tradition of freedom of religion and founder of Rhode Island; his life is instructive of what “freedom of religion” really means. Williams had ideas about freedom of religion before he left England, and his views about the rights of the Indians to their property were not popular among the English. He also was strongly against forced conversion of the Indians to Christianity. Williams is thought to be the first Euro-American to advocate complete freedom of conscience, and complete separation of church and state. This latter advocacy resulted in his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and that, in turn, led to the foundation of Providence, which welcomed the first Jewish synagogue.

Shortly after his arrival, Williams found some Indians, learned their language, and taught them his version of Christianity. The Indians were receptive and proceeded to embrace the new teachings. Shortly after this triumph, however, Williams discovered that while his new converts were practicing Christianity, they were also practicing their ancient religion as well. Williams hastened to explain to them that they had to choose one or the other, that Christianity was to be the religion to the exclusion of all others.

America is the birthplace of a single contribution to world philosophy: pragmatism. Its roots extend into the Indian cultures of the Americas. Pragmatism relies not on an ideology about how the world ought to be but rather on thinking about what the outcome should be. It is characterized by Sitting Bull’s admonition about putting minds together to create a world for our children, an admonition to work for a desirable outcome. Those who know of the Iroquois Great Law will recognize this impulse in the admonition that the chiefs should weigh their actions against the impact it will have on seven generations into the future. Williams had wandered into a set of cultures which embraced outcome-oriented thinking.

When Williams insisted that the Indians set aside all their beliefs and follow the one true religion, some Indians would have summoned him to a sidebar conversation. “Mr. Williams,” one would have said, “we do not insist that people believe this or that. We are relatively small in number, and it is very important that we maintain peace and harmony in our world. If we told people what to believe, there would be nothing but discord and disharmony. People would spend all their time arguing about religion. The more insistent we became, the more discord and disharmony. In the end, we would be a society which did nothing but argue about things that no one knows for sure. And we don’t do that, like some people we have heard about.

“Among us, some people believe things that other people do not believe. Some people believe that the otter, for example, has the power to cure disease. They have called upon the otter spirit when they were sick, they were administered medicine, and they became well. Now they believe in the otter spirit’s power to cure. Surely, it cured them. But there are others who would be very skeptical. So we have a custom. The people who believe in the otter form a “secret society.” Those who seek cures from the otter, if they live, join that society. But it has rules. It is a secret society. People can’t tell what they know about it. You cannot proselytize. When it comes to religion, we leave people to their own conscience.”

Williams seems to have gotten the message. He also understood the nature of the European government, and he felt it was important to protect religion from the corrosive force of the state. Williams spent years living with the Naraggansett Indians and wrote the first book about their language and customs. He seems to have had an inclination to defend the rights of individuals against the coercive powers of the state and this was reinforced by his time with Indians whose society lacked even a notion of the coercive state. This was but the first of three areas of impact of Native American culture on relationships within Western Civilization.

Other Europeans, especially members of the British military, noted that women were often present at peace negotiations. This was considered men’s affairs, and Indian men did do most of the talking, but there was a definite female presence. As they came to know each other better, Europeans realized that women had a far greater role in Indian society than in white society. In European society of the early contact years, a woman had no right to property, divorce, or even personal safety from her husband. Indian women of the Northeast woodlands enjoyed all of these. When young English women were captured or otherwise came to join Indian societies, they were treated with respect. Quite often, when offered repatriation with English society, they declined and chose to stay instead with their adopted Indian families. Although the English found Indian customs of women’s rights peculiar, the Indians might have pointed out that European practices excluding women were in fact impractical and rendered half of the society as marginally productive and deprived society of the wisdom of half its people.

A third area involved treatment of children. Early Jesuit missionaries were exasperated that their new converts did not beat or otherwise force their children to their will. A book on the subject, “Chain her by One Foot,” recounts how Jesuits browbeat their charges to do something because a young woman insisted on seeing a young pagan male. English customs of the time favored using the rod as an instrument of discipline. It was not a practice based on class. Even children at exclusive boarding schools such as Eaton were beaten with such force that were a headmaster to do so today, he or she would be arrested and charged with felony child battering.

These were three ideas from the Americas which must be forever vigilantly guarded. Freedom of religion encompasses ideas of freedom of speech and freedom of association. Women’s rights are the key to solving problems of the world’s poor and dispossessed. And children’s rights involve those of the most powerless in society. On reflection, Western Civilization has adopted ideas from the Americas which render the common thinking in most western societies around these three issues much more like the thinking of the Indians than like the thinking of seventeenth century Europeans. Good thing.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.