Myths & “Everybody Knows” in historical Native America


Hope you all had a terrific Memorial Day.  It was a wonderful day off .  Hope you all enjoyed it tremendously.  And since it was a day for remembering the past, I thought I’d post a little bit on common myths and those things that “everybody knows” about Native America…  Are some of the ideas we have correct?  I’ll leave it up to you.  Read on…

Interestingly, when we think of early America, many of us might tend to think of it as a lawless land.  I know that there were certainly gunfighters and outlaws and such.  Stories of the West are filled with these characters.  But there were probably — by far and large — many people who lived their lives in safety and security.  One of the things that I love about writing Indian romance is that I often find favorite myths and ideas in conflict with what really happened.  So I thought I’d mention a few tidbits of law and order that I’ve learned over the years.

Probably the first myth to break is the idea that the land and the people were savage and given to satisfying their lusts.  George Catlin writes of traveling the West alone, with only his pony as his companion.  He traveled in this way for many weeks and not once was he molested by Indians, buffalo, bears or wolves or coyotes.  He draws many pictures of his adventures, to be sure and one can really sense the power of the land…that it healed the spirit instead of the opposite.

George Catlin also writes of traveling through Indian country, living with the Indians, painting their pictures and being at their mercy.  He writes quite eloquently about the fact that not once was he molested, nor had any item stolen from him, though the opportunity to do so was always there.  In fact, he writes of a particular young man who found a book of Catlin’s and, in the style of the land and people, the lad waited until Catlin was leaving to give the book back to him.  Not because he wanted to keep it, but to give it to Catlin as he was leaving would have prevented Catlin from returning the favor.  The young man wanted it plain that his was a strong heart and that Catlin need not return the favor.

Sometimes I think of Native America as a series of small towns, scattered all over America.  Because hunting and warring was the profession of most men, their villages were kept small.  Mostly family.

Only in the summer, spring, or late fall months would the entire tribe meet, giving lovers a chance to meet and others the opportunity to renew acquaintance.

Honesty, integrity and fortitude were valued above many other things.  In fact, in some tribes a liar was put to death.  (It would have been a sad state of affairs for most politicans in our modern society to have lived then – I think Bob Hope put it best when he said  — in a movie — that he was a politican and that the profession came naturally to him, since he was from a long line of liars.)  Sigh…

There were no jails in Native America.  I remember reading a book called Buckskin Brigades by L. Ron Hubbard, where the hero (who is a blond-haired Indian) was put into jail in one of the traders outposts.  It was such an unnatural state for our hero, that he could little understand it.

On the plains, if one had a grievance with another, it was up to him to make it right.  If one member of a tribe killed another member of the tribe, he was often forced to leave, which was often a sentence of death.  In some cases amongst the Lakota, the murderer — through agreement with both families — took the place of the person who was murderered.  And often these people became the very best members of the family.  Revenge was considered a duty — and it was the law of the land.  If one were wronged severely (and it had to be severe), it was considered the duty of one of the male members of the family to seek revenge.  Sometimes this worked out okay, but sometimes not.

As a matter of fact, it was this mind set of revenge that caused the Iroquois to come together in peace and to establish their League of Five (and eventually Six) Nations.  Because at this time, wars were caused by revenge — which became unweildly due to the constant need seek remedy in revenge — the Iroquois sought to wipe away war from the face of the earth by curing grief — not only in oneself but of the dearly departed one, also.  In this way, the Iroquois established a peace that filled America long before the white man arrived on Eastern shores.  By all calculations the Iroquois Nation lived in peace as a genuine and true Republic for about 500 years.

I’ll leave you with these thoughts:  “…Historicans forget that there were free men in America before the first white settlers arrived here who had been slaves (serfs) and indentured servants.  There is more truth in a popular account of America widely circulated in Great Britain in 1776:  ‘The daring passion of the American is liberty and that in its fullest extent; nor is it the origianl natives only to whom this passion is confined; our colonists sent thither seem to have imbibed the same principles.”  Truly the passion for liberty as practiced by the Iroquois was a contagious thing.

From the book, Roots of the Iroquois by Tehanetorens.

LAKOTA PRINCESS is one of those books that is a myth or rumor “breaker.”   Set on two continents, LAKOTA PRINCESS goes a long way in sorting out the fact from fiction (although of course LAKOTA PRINCESS is a work of fiction).

I’ll leave you today with this question: If you could, would you have liked to live back in the time when Native Americans ruled our land?  For myself, in many ways, I believe it would have been a good home, one filled with love and family.

What do you think?




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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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27 thoughts on “Myths & “Everybody Knows” in historical Native America”

  1. Great post! I enjoyed reading this and being reminded about the myths or myths. A lot of the times, I would wished that have I have been living back in the time when Native Americans ruled our land. I think I would preferred the Native Americans way of living compared to now where a it seems like a lot of people come from a long line of liars.

  2. Yes, I think I would have liked it. I totally think we’ve lost our way and that the American Indians had the right idea.

  3. Mornin’ Kay. I always love your posts for their excellent perspective. I didn’t know until I taught American Lit that our U.S. Constitution was based on the Iroquois! And that the term “savages” came about because the Native Americans believed in other gods and spirits. Sheesh. Yet the Pilgrims couldn’t have made it without Squanto. Reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a must-read for anybody interested in the true American west. Thanks again, filly sister.

  4. What a great blog today Karen.. You pose a good question and if I am honest, I don’t really know. I would have to give that some deep thought..

  5. Karen, what a great post today. Thanks for debunking some myths for us. I always figured if the West was really as bad as Hollywood portrays, then why did anyone bother to settle there???

  6. Thanks for an inspiring post, Karen. Sometimes I try to imagine how beautiful America must have been before the Europeans came to “civilize” it. It must have been just spectacular. Sad that there are only small pieces of wild America remaining today.

  7. Karen thanks again for always sharing such interesting posts with us about Native Americans. I enjoy these little bits of history each time.

  8. What a thought provoking post, Karen. As usual you make me ponder on the Native American way of life.

  9. Yes I think I would. Native American culture that I learned in school (many years ago) and what I saw on old Western movies and TV shows are so inaccurate. When I think of it we are probably the savages.

  10. Please excuse my being away from the blog today — I’ve been on the road and have just arrived and so am up to my ears in unpacking and such. So sorry.

  11. Oh, Becky, I so echo your wise words. I, too, wish we lived in a land that valued truth and made lying something that only the insane do. Whoops — maybe those who do it are insane?…

  12. Thanks Catslady. I agree with you. I do think that we have lost our way — and to some degree lost our religion, which was our guiding light originally. : )

  13. Hi Kathleen!

    Let me enter some more data into the equation in order to help you sort through some other thoughts. In my own way, I think technology has betrayed us all. With technology we now have ways for the gov’t to spy on everything you do or say. We have people more involved in their cell phones or smart phones than in live communication.

    We have those whose intentions should be questioned telling us what to think and how to think about other individuals — without us ever speaking to anyone or investigating the information as it is.

    Some of the happiest and healthiest people that I know are Amish. I’m beginning to think they have the right idea in rejecting technology.

    To the extent it makes life better, great, but I fear that before we’re through it will have enslaved us all…

  14. Hi Lori!

    Actually I don’t think we were the savages. I think “white people” got a bad rap because of some “white people” that represented certain corporations or intolerant religions — the common man, I think, was tolerant for the most part and I think the “war” between Indian and white were fostered by false reports from those whose intentions should always be questioned — false reports on both sides.

    My thoughts.

  15. Hi Sherri!

    Some really good observations, Sherri — yes, it did lead to endless revenge — and getting rid of it, they thought they’d gotten rid of war — little did they know of greed, huh?

  16. Interesting Karen. I think they had renegades, just like our people did. And,, I believe they most would have been friendly if the whites would have allowed it. But, there are always bad on both sides. who cause trouble. But when some of our white men started killing the Bison, which was a lifeline to the Indians,, who wouldn’t want to strike back. I And, I could never stand the way in which our people took over their lands and broke promise after promise
    just to get what they wanted. So wrong. I too had great great grandmothers on both of my parents sides. I wish I could have known them and that I knew more about them. And,,, my husbands mothers side of the family went back to Pocahuntus, Joe’s mother was a Bowling which were of one of the children of her and her husbands 7 or 8 children I love Indian books. MAXIE

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