The image of the native american in the early days of antropology

by Christer Lindberg
© Christer Lindberg, Conference Paper

On several occasions I have made presentations that can be collected under one single heading such as “The noble and ignoble savage”. Teaching and writing has also guided me back in time to the pioneering anthropological work done by Schoolcraft, Fletcher, Densmore, Powell, Mooney, Bourke, Cushing and others. Lately, I have made a couple of presentations of the life and times of Franz Boas and I am presently preparing a biography of Baron Erland Nordenskiöld. At first this may seem to be pretty diverse research themes – although they do pertain to Native Americans covering different periods, different stages in the development of anthropology and, of course, major shifts in theoretical discourses. Yet, I do find some observations that transfer historical, theoretical and geographical borderlines.

A friend of mine, writing a paper on Frances Densmore and her research in ethnomusicology, made some interesting observations that might serve as a point of departure:

1. Overall, the knowledge collected about peoples…has meant a type of social engineering research framework bent on euro-centric visions of a dream-like past, one truly unconcerned with the future Native peoples or less with their ever-present struggles to survive as separate cultures.

2. There was at times a type of contest to be either the first or one of the most respected ‘expert(s)’ regarding collecting data/information in many new social scientific fields springing up in North America.

3. The waves of ethnologists/anthropologists/archaeologists who entered the field…met the aftermath of native societies forced into assimilation for survival. Yet, there is little if any reporting of this everyday existence.

From these observations we could make connections to several classical themes concerning the noble/ignoble savage and their images in art, fiction and philosophy:

1. The noble savage as a representation of a lost paradise. Happy societies. Noble savagism expressed in childish innocence.

2. The counter-image: Savagism as a sign of Satan’s presence on earth; one calling for active conversion to Christianity.

3. The savage community lacking systems of social and political organization.

4. The savage mind (usually seen as unpredictable and/or irrational): a complex theme covering moral order, religion, and language.

5. The savage as an erotic threat.

In addition, we may consider some major stereotypical mythical themes deeply embedded throughout the history and culture of American civilization – an untamed country, open space as freedom, turning the wilderness into a garden (as Robinson Crusoe), the “west” as frontier, etc. American Indians also played an important role in the nineteenth century reinterpretation of eighteenth-century assumptions, especially regarding literal interpretation of the Bible, helping to make it crumble before the fields of geology, biology, and archaeology.

Perhaps it is necessary to declare that the use of the terms image and myth used in this text, do not implicate such meanings concerning image versus reality or myth versus a true story. Here, the use of image and myth refers to themes, particularly ways to repeat a certain message over and over again. As such they can be fictive, but more often a mixture of fiction and reality, and especially interesting in reducting complex realities to stereotypes.

The problem of representation

As contemporary anthropology becomes more and more aware of the colonial (and neo-colonial) implications and Euro-centric perspectives in its representation of the other. On the other hand, as somebody said: “what’s written remains there forever.” Anthropology has indeed been one major agency for the production of reoccurring stereotypes and hierarchically fixed categories of them and us.

This should not be misunderstood as a dismissal of the 19th and early 20th century anthropology pertaining to the Native Americans. On the contrary, in working in the borderlands of history and anthropology I am a firm believer in the usefulness of early recorded ethnographical data. A sound critical evaluation of pre-conceptions does not in any way destroy our anthropological heritage, merely providing different perspectives. As Pierre Bourdieu once put it, ‘only history can free us from history.’ Two examples, one about classifications and the other concerning rationality, illustrate my point of view:

1. Lewis Henry Morgan wrote his classic Ancient Society in 1877, using savagism, barbarism, and civilization as categories for tracing human evolution. Some 250 years before, José de Acosta had published History natural y moral de las Indias, using the same combination of concepts deriving from Latin and Greek terms. Obviously, we are not dealing with mere coincidence, but a very fundamental notion of these concepts.

2. In a quite recent textbook, Brian M. Fagan makes a convincing explanation of Hernando Cortes destruction of the Aztec Empire.  The natives believed that Cortes was the returning Quetzalcoatl and made no resistance until it was too late. Sure, it makes sense – but on the other hand our sources do not tell us this story. Here we face a certain notion of rationality, the question is; whose rationality are we actually talking about. Fagan does not present his case as one possible interpretation, but as the actual historical event.

Pursuing such issues might lead us to quite a different realm, one to challenging the very basics of anthropology. This is, of course, not my intention. This preliminary report is a brief effort to present some early anthropologists representations of Native Americans, trying to reveal pre-conceptions as a result of being an American doing research in one’s own geographical space. As a mirror, I will use Franz Boas as a case of European-born researchers studying North American Indians and Baron Erland Nordenskiöld as an example of a European (Swedish) ethnographer studying South American Indians.

The polygenism view of the Indian race – Samuel G. Morton

Theories of separate creation as an explanation for a biological inferiority of the Indian race gained ground in the 1830s and 40s. Although collapsing in the 1860s due to devastating new research, Samuel G. Morton’s “ethnological proof” for many seemed to be in accord with the facts. Among them the celebrated historian Francis Parkman.

Historian Robert E. Bieder has in Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880 (1986) in length (and excellently) dealt with the “Enlightenment Ethnology” of Albert Gallatin and with Morton’s “Calculations of Inferiority”. Here our purpose does not require a through investigation in this matter, but it might be valuable to halt for just a moment in order to get a general view of the “defects” of the Indian’s physical and mental characteristics. For Morton, beneath different external appearance lay the original Indian race-type. The intellectual faculties of the Indian was low, indicating he could never rise to the same intellectual level as the Caucasian. For Morton, inequality was a decreed by God.

Discussing race and mental capacity, Morton set the standards for many years to come. Always referring to the Indian, while at the same time neglecting individual variation in the studies of Native Americans, they proceeded more or less according to an old device: “He who had seen one tribe of Indians has seen them all!”

Thirty years with the Indian tribes – Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

The concept of savagism in early American anthropology was to a large extent elaborated by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft – the major authority of Native Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, at least in the eyes of the United States government. Launching a career as an Indian agent, Schoolcraft ended up as a semi-professional anthropologist editing Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States in six volumes (1851-57) under direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Prior to his magnum opus, Schoolcraft in 1851 published his recollections as Indian agent, Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes, covering the period between 1812 and 1842. The Native American in Schoolcraft’s presentation was characterized as follows:

Left to the repose of himself, mentally and physically, without being placed in the crucible of war, without being made the tool of selfishness, or driven to a state of half idiocy by the use of liquor, the Indian is a man of naturally good feelings and affections, and of a sense of justice, and although destitute of an inductive mind, is led to appreciate truth and virtue as he apprehends them. But he is subject to be swayed by every breath of opinion, has little fixity of purpose, and, from a defect of business capacity, is often led to pursue just those means which are least calculated to advance his permanent interests, and his mind is driven to and fro like a feather in the winds.

Schoolcraft’s confirmation of the noble savage goes like this:

Their leader stood as a prince, majestic and frowning. The wild, native pride of man, in the savage state, flushed by success in war, and confident in the strength of his arm, was never so fully depicted to my eyes. And the forest tribes of the continent may be challenged to have ever presented a spectacle of bold daring, and martial prowess, equal to their landing.


The instances in which and Indian is enabled to give proof of a noble or heroic spirit cannot be expected to occur to frequently.

Schoolcraft regarding Indian mythology:

Nothing has surprised me more in the conversations which I have had with persons acquainted with the Indian customs and character, than to find that the Chippewas amuse themselves with oral tales of a mythological or allegorical character. Some of these tales, which I have heard, are quite fanciful, and the wildest of them are very characteristic of their notions and customs. They often take the form of allegory, and in this shape appear designed to teach some truth or illustrate some maxim. The fact, indeed, of such fund of fictitious legendary matter is quite a discovery, and speaks more for the intellect of the race than any trait I have heard. Who would have imagined that these wandering foresters should have possessed such a resource?

The Indian’s mathematical capacity:

The Indian mind appears to lack the mathematical element. It is doubtful how far they can compute numbers.

On progress:

A few years will carry the more aged men, whose prejudices are strongest, to their graves. The young are more pliant, and will see their interest in strengthening their intercourse with the Americans, who can do so much to advance them…

Although Schoolcraft sometimes was surprised when he discovered unexpected “mental capacities”, he spent most of his time portraying the pagan Indian as an inferior human being, in a state of degeneration, and as a child. Apparently, he later changed his view regarding their possibility for progress, arguing that the savage was caught in his savage way of life. Their wildness of life became meaningful for religion and myths, thus forming a savage mental character. A mentality that kept them in the savage state. He concluded that Indians might always remain like children. “Their moral and their intellectual condition have been equally stationary….”  Joining the Presbyterian Church in 1831 Schoolcraft increasingly viewed the Indians in moralistic terms and determined that their lack of progress lay in their moral depravity rather than in their economic insufficiency.  These statements led Schoolcraft to a feud with his former friend Ephraim George Squier. This young and ambitious archaeologist challenged the older Schoolcraft’s recognition as the dean of ethnology – and labeled him the “monogenist fossil”. For Squier Native Americans were noble and held a great promise for future accomplishments of mental progress.

Lewis Henry Morgan


Adam Kuper in “The Development of Lewis Henry Morgan’s Evolutionism” (1985) set out to identify the sources and context of Morgan’s thought, coming to the conclusion that his inspiration was drawn from philogy and history rather than biology.  That is to say, Greek history in the writings of George Grote. Morgan’s acceptance of Grote’s model put the Iroquois in a stage of monarchy and despotism – “natural to a people when in an uncivilized state, or when just emerging from barbarism.”  Portraying Morgan as a “fine thinker” who provided ethnology with a theoretical model, historian Robert E. Bieder admits that he “…lent a certain scientific respectability to earlier ethnological stereotypes of the Indian.”

The overriding myth in America was the necessity of the progress of civilization, and Morgan’s most influential book Ancient Society appeared in 1877, coinciding with the “winning of the West” by the completion of the transcontinental railway.

The concept of the Indian as savage, “primitive”, and outside the society of the white man, sanctioned the inhumane treatment of the Indians and their removal to reservation camps. The visualization of the American pioneer as the super-hero encouraged western migration, justified geographical expansion, and fostered ideas about “rugged individualism.”

By 1890 the Indians had gone from the range to the reservation, and the frontier – the meeting point between savagery and civilization as historian Frederick Jackson Turner defined it – had passed by. The progress of civilization had triumphed. “The history of the human race is one in source, one in experience, and one in progress”, Morgan wrote.  The Native American was temporarily left behind, but encouraged to utilize their area’s unique resources that would provide for their own advancement. “Only through experience would their brains increase to the size of civilized man’s.”

John Wesley Powell and the Bureau of American Ethnology


By order of Congress, dated March 3rd 1879, the Bureau of American Ethnology was formed. A governmental institution, located in Washington D.C., in headed by major John Wesley Powell was to become the center of American anthropology for the next quarter of a century. The official results sought by the Bureau were:

– [The] Acquirements of a thorough knowledge of the tribes, their origin, relationship to one another and to the whites, locations, numbers, capacity for civilization, claims to territory, and their interest generally, for the practical purposes of government.

– The completion of a systematic and well-rounded record of the tribes for history and scientific purposes before their aboriginal characteristics and culture are too greatly modified or are completely lost.

The realization of Bureau of American Ethnology marked an important turning-point for the emerging of social sciences in the United States – in terms of specialization as well as institutionalization. Around him, Powell gathered ethnographers like Frank Cushing, Alice Fletcher, James Mooney, J. Owen Dorsey, John Gregory Bourke, Frederick Webb Hodge, Matilda Stevenson, and many others.

The overall governmental goal was to assimilate the Native American – the old idea of Henry Schoolcraft. That is, to improve him and make it possible for him to leave savagery or barbary and become civilized through proper knowledge. “The great boon to the savage tribes of this country, unrecognized by themselves, and, to a large extent, unrecognized by civilized men, has been the presence of civilization, which, under the laws of acculturation, has irresistibly improved their culture by substituting new and civilized for old and savage art, new for old customs – in short transforming savage into civilized life.”  To reach civilization Native Americans were supposed to change their family organization, abandon communal in favor of individual ownership (enforced by the Dawes Act), and above all, learn the English language.

In the official goals set by the Bureau, we recognize a rational exercise of authority – the natives claims to territory were regarded as very important. We also face a continuation of the old frontier themes: capacity for civilization and the dying race of Native Americans.

Powell’s theoretical assumptions were a continuation of both Herbert Spencer and Lewis Henry Morgan. Narrowed down to Native Americans alone, they more or less sound like echoes from the voice of Henry Schoolcraft. Evolution, Powell wrote, is the elaboration of the mind. Only a developed mind could construct rational and meaningful institutions. The Indian people had not yet gained the instruments for this evolution, and would not get them as long as they stuck to their old ways. Civilized men express their thoughts by more or less arbitrary vocals, so fully differentiated that they become essentially denotive. The mechanism of expression was so fully developed that the oral and visual elements were interwoven with thought so completely that most men think in denotive symbols. Indians, belonging to savagery and barbarism, have not managed to refine this kind of symbolism, and “in lieu thereof an extensive and cumbrous system of connotive or associative symbols is employed.

The primitivistic view of Native Americans – Franz Boas and his contemporaries

The rise of Boasian anthropology in the United States marked a significant theoretical break with the old school of classical evolutionism. With Franz Boas, we also face explicit political aims, eventually turning his attention away from Native Americans to Afro-Americans and eastern Europe Immigrants; “What I want to live and die for, is equal rights for all, equal possibilities to learn and work for poor and rich alike!”  Liberalism, anti-racism, relativism, holism, skepticism and other labels show the basics of Boasian anthropology – a scientific approach searching for a much deeper understanding of Native Americans. Nevertheless, a very brief review of Franz Boas’ writings reveals a number of stereotypic notions – some he was trying to get rid of, others he nurtured. In “Human Faculty as Determined by Race”, Boas criticized outstanding notions of primitive behavior and mentality:

It is said that the conservatism of primitive man is so strong that the individual never deviates from the traditional customs and beliefs.

Among the emotional characters impulsiveness is considered the most fundamental.

Another trait which has been ascribed to primitive man is his inability of concentration when any demand upon the more complex faculties of the intellect.

On the other hand, the Boasian school sided with their predecessors by presenting a vision of Native American societies as they had once looked like. Boas himself, covered all signs of modernity when pictures were to be taken in a Kwakiutl village. Older men and women were used as informants – a way of recreating the traditional Kwakiutl way of life. Yet, Boas at the same time was arguing for a dynamic concept of culture based on constant changes as a result of external influences as well as internal processes. Reconstruction of cultural growth was indeed an important way for Boas to understand Native Americans, but surprisingly he did not record the very current changes due to the incorporation of reservation systems.

We may choose between two ways of interpreting Franz Boas lack of interest in describing and analyzing cultural change due to forced assimilation. One can say that he, in a way, felt that Native Americans were “contaminated”, therefore trying to describe them as they looked in their prime. If so, we must question his static notion of the past and the traditional – and with it his presentation of a dynamic concept of culture.

A better way to make sense of the North West Coast Indians traditional cultures that we meet in Boas’ writings is to connect the mythical past with the ever-present mythical notion of “salvage ethnography”. It does not solve the paradox of a dynamic past frozen in time as a representation of the traditional, but becomes logical in light of the reality that certain knowledge will disappears with the older generation. Thus, the present situation was of lesser importance because acculturation was something that could be recorded later.

Like anthropologists in the previous generation, Boas was caught up in the understanding that true Native Americans could not survive, at least not as cultures. In fact, government pronouncements as early as 1824 had predicted the rapid extinction of Native Americans.  This notion is repeated in a curious way today when anthropologists claim that Native Americans are recreating their culture – even worse, they are recreating false cultures since they do not really know what they are doing. Culture is the essence of human life, still Native Americans lost it sometime during the 19th century, lived in a vacuum for some hundred years, and are now desperately trying to find it again.

The glory of the past was manifested in most of the writings during the first decades of the 20th century – both within and outside the Boasian paradigm of historicism. The most outstanding example is the writings of George Bird Grinnell and his description of the Cheyenne Indians located far away from the reservations where he conducted his interviews. In The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life (1923) we can only feel this travel in space and time by a frequent use of past sentence structure. With Cheyenne Campfires (1926), Grinnell used oral histories to make his journey back to the days of better times.

James R. Walker collecting ethnographical data at Lakota reservations for Clark Wissler and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, also concerned himself with the “traditional society, beliefs and ritual”. Walker, however, did not exclude the reservation reality in the same way as Grinnell. His old informants are often dressed in gray suits instead of any majestic chief’s regalia, and more than once they, and Walker, admits that the ways of the old days has been forgotten.

Erland Nordenskiöld

With Baron Erland Nordenskiöld we move to an entirely different geographical setting, namely the Gran Chaco and the rain forest areas in Bolivia. Nordenskiöld made a total of six expeditions to South America, four of them with Bolivia as his destination. A museum collector at heart, Nordenskiölds travels could be labeled as journeys rather than fieldwork – on the other hand Nordenskiöld was a remarkable man, adapting himself to Indian ways of life, and with a keen eye for making observations. Furthermore, he was very well aware of the limitations of his excursions, referring to Curt Nimendajú as a true field scientist.

Theoretically, Nordenskiöld followed the middle ground somewhere between an outdated evolutionism and a fanciful kultur-kreis theory. Mapping independent innovations and diffusion of material cultural traits, the cultural history of the South American Indians become his trademark. His method combined the comparative study of material objects with field observations and through knowledge of early Spanish literature. His work was met with approval by the contemporary Boasian school:

Somewhat in a class by itself is the work of the late Erland Nordenskiöld. It is concerned primarily with typology and restricted to material culture. The dangers of such an approach are manifest, but Nordenskiöld himself realized this and was extremely cautious in the inferences he drew. He kept himself remarkable free from the errors into which so many ethnologists, who had made material culture their specialty, have fallen – for instance, Wissler and Graebner. He always remained an historian with a clear perception of what was the role of an historian.

Not being an American working with North American Indians, but a Swede working with South American Indians, Nordenskiöld still shared many pre-conceptions with his American colleagues. The notion of salvage ethnography is very obvious in his writings, and so his eagerness to be first in the field. In the field he always searched for a “true” Indian society, one that never had seen a white man. When he finally located one, the natives, to his very great disappointment, possessed knives made of iron anyway.

In contrast to many of his fellow American anthropologists, Nordenskiöld skillfully avoided falling into the trap of presenting either a noble or ignoble savage. He described the people he meet as they appeared before his eyes – some of them “good-looking”, others “ugly”, some clean, some dirty, many of them very friendly, a lesser number showing inhospitality, and so on. A very special trait of Nordenskiöld’s writings was his urge to present the natives as individuals (that is, he did’nt use ugly/dirty and clean/good-looking as categories in terms of ignoble and noble). He often provides the reader with their names and descriptions of personal appearance and character.

Although searching for a “genuine savage”, Nordenskiöld never tried to present a dream-like past. In his most famous book, Indianlif (1910), Nordenskiöld describes societies in a state of rapid change, trying their best to adapt to the current situation. Comparing relatively untouched Indian societies with those located close to a town or a missionary station, he was able to describe the loss of traditional values, criminality, drunkenness and prostitution as a result of the progress of “civilization”.

Nordenskiöld was, of course, not free from the cultural biases of his time. Like Boas, he was a cultural relativist and primitivist using his research to criticize political issues in his own society. At the same time he was very much a part of a Swedish nationalist project – seeking fame as a world explorer and scientist (the European elite in an explorers tradition).


Even such a preliminary discussion as this one, indicates an important field of research. Both history and anthropology have access to a huge amount of important empirical material gathered sometimes during “the winning of the west” – documents ready to serve our efforts to really understand what happened in the encounter between the American Indian and the White Man (and the problems of interpretation). We can learn from the experience, both as scholars of Native Americans and as investigators of our own past.

The notion of the savage was an idea that encompassed the good and the evil. The ignoble savage expressed the harsh reality facing European immigrants in a foreign land, the noble savage a Golden Age of a free man in a land unravaged by civilization. For those participating (and with a blind faith) in a modernist project of civilizing a wilderness, the American Indian seemed like an ignoble savage – a hinder to a manifest destiny. To those reacting against the notion of civilization, the Native Americans became noble – representing a natural way of life, the way things ought to be. Primitivism does not mean the refusal of evolution or progress – only a replacement of positive meaning with a negative one. Evolutionism (modernism) and primitivism are not two different things, but different sides of the same coin.

Morton, Schoolcraft, Powell, Boas, and others, were not only a part of American anthropology – they were also a part of the American national project which some saw as good and some as bad, or why not, as noble or ignoble.

When we enter he realm of image through works of art and literature about the West (USA), or through the mythical patterns that are reflected in all manners of American utterance and attitude, it becomes immediately clear that the frontier and the Native American have always been and remain today one of the central imaginative preoccupations of our culture, and that to explore the many different images which Americans have woven around them since the beginning (?) of American history is to encounter some of the deepest and most complex ambiguities and conflicts of value in our culture.
    Joshua Taylor


Bieder, R. E.
Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman and London 1986.

Boas, F.
“Human Faculty as Determined by Race.” A Franz Boas Reader, edited by G. W. Stocking. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London 1974.

First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1879-’80. Government Printing Office. Washington 1881.

Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1891-’92. Government Printing Office. Washington 1896.

Cole, D.
“The Value of a Person Lies in His Herzensbildung: Franz Boas’ Baffin Island Letter-Diary, 1883-1884.” Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, edited by G. W. Stocking. The University of Wisconsin Press. Madison 1983.

Fagan, B.
Clash of Cultures. W. H. Freeman and Company. New York 1984.

Grinnell, G. B.
By Cheyenne Campfires. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln 1962.

Grinnell, G. B.
The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln 1972.

Hills, P.
“The American Frontier: Images and Myths”. Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973.

Knopff, B.
“The Life and Times of Frances Densmore”. Manuscript.

Kuper, A.
“The Development of Lewis H. Morgan’s Evolutionism”. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol 21, Jan. 1985.

Morgan, L. H.
Ancient Society. University of Arizona Press. Tucson 1985 (1877).

Nordenskiöld, E.
Indianlif. Albert Bonniers Förlag. Stockholm 1910.

Radin, P.
The Method and Theory of Ethnology. McGraw-Hill. New York 1933.

Walker, J. R.
Lakota Society. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln 1982.

Walker, J. R.
Lakota Belief and Ritual. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln 1986.