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American Intellectual History 101: A Native American Reflects on White Culture


The American Intellectual History 101 series explores major public intellectuals and their contributions to the developmental process of American intellectual history from the American Revolution to the Civil War through the discussion of significant texts that adds to the public issues of the moment. This article series aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the establishment of the new republic and its institutions of individualism, transcendentalism, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the cult of domesticity and slavery by diving into the core values that have shaped the United States. Aiming to present the ideologies and worldviews of the United States of America, this analysis includes many thinkers and cultural pioneers to demonstrate the roots of some notions which made the U.S. a unique nation with distinct goals and ideals that have influenced the world.

This series will be divided into seven articles:

  1. American Intellectual History 101: A Native American Reflects on White Culture – Kandiaronk vs. Lahontan

  2. American Intellectual History 101: Effect of Enlightenment Thinkers

  3. American Intellectual History 101: Ideals of Founding Fathers

  4. American Intellectual History 101: American Individuality from Tocqueville’s Perspective

  5. American Intellectual History 101: Transcendentalism

  6. American Intellectual History 101: Cult of Domesticity in American Society

  7. American Intellectual History 101: The Institution of Slavery

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Islands in 1492, he encountered Native American people who were inhabitants long before European explorers even stepped foot on the Americas and this marked the start of interaction between these two distinct groups of people. Native Americans lived a much more simplistic life and were isolated, not only from the rest of the world population but also from advancements in various fields, ideologies, cultures and many other aspects of human life. Christopher Columbus informed the Treasurer of Aragon Luis de St. Angel in the letter he wrote on his first voyage to America about the Native people and the wealth of resources in the land.

Columbus labelled the Natives as savages and considered them unfit to the perception of “civilization” that Europeans adhered to which included the use of advanced weaponry or clothing to signify social statue (Columbus, 1493). However, he also touches upon the tools made by Natives to be used in daily life. Columbus indicates that they had canoes to travel from one side of the island to the other that “go with incredible speed” (Columbus, 1493). When Europeans observed Native Americans, they realised that their lifestyles, worldviews, systems of belief and power differed greatly from that of Europeans. The question surrounding Native Americans developing their own distinctive society on this island became: “Are native people ‘savages’ or an isolated society that has developed on their own terms and according to their own needs?” For centuries, many scholars and political figures argued that European settlers first brought civilisation to the Native Americans who were assumed incapable of progressing as a society. However, David Graeber and David Wengrow describe in their book, the Dawn of Everything, that they wanted to establish “a new science of history, one that restores our ancestors to full humanity”, one that would speak up for the forgotten and restore the agency of ancestors from different societies (McFarland, n.d., p. 99).

Figure 1: Christopher Columbus's first landing in the Americas in 1492 (San Salvadore, 1492).

Authors claim that Native American culture and customs in turn influenced the European way of thinking through philosophical discussions that brought Natives and Europeans closer. For instance, dialogues between the indigenous Petun Huron chief Kandiaronk, and a French officer, Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan (Fenton, 1969) were thought to be quite influential amongst Europeans. La Hontan and Kandiaronk dived into many aspects of European and Indigenous lifestyles, systems of power and beliefs in their discussions. In this article, Kandiaronk’s critique of white European culture will be explored, demonstrating how the 17th-century Native American perspective is applicable to Enlightenment ideals in the pre-Enlightenment era.

Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan (1666 – 1716), a French minor aristocrat, was known for his travels around New France, current Canada, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Alosso, 2009). He chronicled his travels in a multi-volume book, the second volume of which included his memories of a long talk that he had with a Huron chief by the name of Kandiaronk (Alosso, 2009), known as Le Rat by the French, who he met during peace negotiations between the tribes of the Upper Lakes and the Iroquois (Fenton, 1969). Kandiaronk, referred to as Adario by Lahontan, lived near Fort Michilimackinac and had fought alongside them against the Iroquois, and was often invited to dinner with French General Frontenac because of his excellent oratory skills (Alosso, 2009).

Wengrow and Graeber (2021) indicate that “Kandiaronk was a man who had been engaged in political negotiations with Europeans for years, and regularly ran circles around them by anticipating their logic, interests, blind spots and circles” (p. 51). He was praised for his “naturally eloquent” style by negotiators because they enjoyed “his repartees, always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable” (Wengrow & Graeber, 2021, p. 51). He was a strong counterargument from the general perception Europeans had about Natives and supported the view that “Native Americans are far from being ignorant but they are the most ingenious men” (Columbus, 1493). He obtained broad knowledge about French society and culture thanks to the studies he conducted for over a decade (Alosso, 2009); therefore, he was able to present himself as someone sophisticated enough to criticise the white European punitive law system, social order, Christianity and other moral issues.

Figure 2: An illustration of The Huron Chief Kondiaronk (Alamy, 2021).

Kandiaronk criticised European laws which were of a coercive nature: “For my own part, I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human, what species of creature, must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to do good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment?” (Lahontan, n.d., p. 553). Kandiaronk opposes the idea that individuals should decide what is good or bad based on their own moral capacities rather than knowing that what they do will have a consequence. Kandiaronk points out that while Europeans upheld a legal system that attempted to prevent criminal activities through deterrent punishments, Native Americans did not need any judges or laws to regulate their society as they believed that human beings had the ability to acknowledge that they should refrain from immoral behaviour themselves.

In Anthony Pagden’s essay, The Savage Critic: Some European Images of the Primitive, he suggests that “only a fool or a villain needs rules to help him distinguish between good and bad”, from Kandiaronk’s point of view (1983, p. 38). Kandiaronk continues his argument by saying that the pursuit of material interests was a cause of misery among Europeans (Wengrow & Graeber, 2021). Kandiaronk states “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can't think of a single way they act that's not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ’mine’ and ’thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living” (Lahontan, n.d., p. 554). According to Kandiaronk’s examination of French people, money, material pursuit and proprietorship created divisions in society and would lead people to betray each other for the sake of worldly pursuits that have no moral contribution to humanity. Amongst Native Americans, material possessions meant nothing and did not create the foundations of their society.

Lahontan states in defence that money is needed so that royals, nobles and priests would be able to preserve their place in the hierarchical system by adding that a “world without money would plunge Europe into chaos and create the most dismal confusion imaginable” (Lahontan, n.d., 558). Kandiaronk’s response to this is remarkably similar to that of the Enlightenment-era line of thinking, as he states:

“You honestly think you're going to sway me by appealing to the needs of nobles, merchants and priests? If you abandoned conceptions of mine and thine, yes, such distinctions between men would dissolve; a levelling equality would then take its place among you as it now does among the Wendat… Over and over, I have set forth the qualities that we Wendat believe ought to define humanity-wisdom, reason, equity, etc.-and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interests knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason” (Lahontan, n.d., p. 560).

Kandiaronk refers to some very crucial concepts that would eventually form the foundations of U.S. ideals such as equality, highlighting that rather than deteriorating everyone's humanity by making everyone’s lives revolve around worldly desires, the emphasis should be on encouraging wisdom, equality and reason to create a prosperous living space for the whole community. In that regard, Kandiaronk not only refuses to submit to the class division which is fed by money and material possessions, but he also lays out the standards of modern humanity.

Figure 3: An illustration of contact between Native Americans and European explorers (Occupy, 2017).

Lastly, Kandiaronk and Lahontan debated about Christianity which is a religion far removed from the Indigenous belief system. Kandiaronk expressed his opinion that Christianity was inherently unreliable due to the contradictory statements in the holy scriptures. During their discussion, Lahontan attempted to convince Kandiaronk that Christianity is the only “true” religion; however, Kandiaronk only responded thus:

“These same Jesuits have put before me so many other contradictory passages that I am astounded that anyone could still call them holy scriptures. It is written that the first man, whom the Great Spirit made by his own hand, ate a forbidden fruit, for which he was punished, along with his wife, each being as guilty as the other. Let's suppose the punishment for the apple to be whatever you like; it ought to be obvious that this Great Spirit, knowing ahead of time that the man would eat it, had just set him up for disaster. Look at their offspring who, according to the Jesuits, are also implicated in this fall. How are they guilty of the gluttony of their father and mother? If a man killed one of your kings, would his entire blood line be punished, including fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, and all his other relatives?” (Wengrow & Graeber, 2021, pp. 65-66).

Kandiaronk, while critiquing the Christian belief system, aimed to guide Lahontan to think about the structures of Christianity as he was aware that Europeans would blindly submit to authority without pondering on the underlying issues and would never use their reason when it came to the beliefs and ideas imposed on them. Kandiaronk indicates that Europeans were presented with all these “holy scriptures” that they are not allowed or advised to question since their childhood (Wengrow & Graeber, 2021), focusing on the importance of using one’s own reason and questioning beliefs and structures. The reason, as a touchstone of the Enlightenment ideas, seems to be taken very seriously by Kandiaronk and his Native culture as he saw it as a gift to humankind which should be used in every aspect of life as the leading thought system.

In light of Kandiaronk and Lahontan’s dialogues, the reader is presented with both the European and Indigenous ways of thinking. Given the chance to observe the broad differences between them, these dialogues provide another perspective on the argument that Native American society was only civilised by European influence In addition to the present-day effects of dialogues. It is thought that Kandiaronk’s ideas made their way to Europe and were transmitted among philosophers and intellectuals alike. Voicing many popular present-day concepts such as equality and reason, Kandiaronk stands as a figurehead in promoting the exercise of questioning as opposed to submission, equality over hierarchy, and reason before dogmas. Many scholars use these dialogues as proof of the fact that Europeans did not actually integrate civilisation into the lives of the Indigenous people and instead, only introduced the European way of living and thinking to the Native people in a kind of cultural exchange. Therefore, opposing the idea that Enlightenment ideology was spread to the world from Europe, these philosophical discussions between Native Americans and European explorers on the essence of humanity, religion and social systems showed that Indigenous ideology may have been a much more significant contributor to the movement.

Bibliographical References

Alosso, D. (2022). US History and Primary Source Anthology (Vol. 1) [Book]. Pressbooks.

American Beginnings: 1492-1690, Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature, Toolbox Library, National Humanities Center

Biography – KONDIARONK, Le Rat – Volume II (1701-1740) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (n.d.).

Biography – LOM D’ARCE DE LAHONTAN, LOUIS-ARMAND DE, Baron de Lahontan – Volume II (1701-1740) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (n.d.).

Columbus, Christopher. (1492). [Letter from Christopher Columbus to the Treasurer of Aragon, Luis de St. Angel, 1492]. Retrieved from De Lahontan, B. (1970). New Voyages to North America: Reprinted from the English Ed. of 1703, with Facsims. of Original Title Pages, Maps, and Illus., and the Addition of Introd., Notes, and Index. New York : B. Franklin, 1970 printing.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Penguin UK.

McFarland, B. J. (2022). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Christian Scholar's Review, 52(1), 99-101.

McGill University Library, and Lahontan, baron de, 1666-1716. New Voyages to North-America. Chicago : A.C. McClurg, n.d.

Pagden, A. (1983). The savage critic: some European images of the primitive. The Yearbook of English Studies, 13, 32-45.

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Author Photo

Hazal Kazancı

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