Thursday, April 5, 2012

Eurocentric Interpretations of Native-American Torture

A. Walker. LAC, Acc. No. R9266-2362
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, grisly tales of torture performed by the so-called "savages" of the New World, were read with delight by a European audience whose arrogance and pride were reinforced by torrid tales of "barbaric" action.

One such account was aghast at the role of women in torture ritual, yet clearly delighted in the details: "You should have seen these furious women, howling, yelling, applying fire to the most sensitive and private parts of the body, pricking them with awls, biting them with savage glee, laying open their flesh with knives; in short doing everything that madness can suggest to a woman.  They threw fire upon them, burning coals, hot sand; and when the sufferers cried out, all the others cried still louder, in order that the groans should not be heard, and that no one might be touched with pity." (Miller, p.60)

Jim Miller's Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens notes that this "ethnocentricaly inspired misunderstanding" discounted that most captives of war were adopted by the families of the victors to replace kin killed in battle, or enslaved for work or barter with the French. (p.60)  Miller writes that when torture was used it was as a part of sun-worship, and was used to break the enemy's will.  The Natives treated women captors much better than the Europeans.  For the white newcomers, Miller claims the spoils of war included "brutal rape and collective violence." (p.61)
"Indians Returning From War" P. Rindisbacher, 1825. LAC Acc. No. 1981-55-72
Europeans were particularly shocked at the cannibalism involved in Native torture ceremonies.  As CJ Jaenen suggests, Christians were particularly short-sighted in not understanding the spiritual side of cannibalism, what with the beliefs in "transubstantiation and literally eating their Lord in their communion service." (Cited in Miller, p.61)  Miller notes the taking of scalps for trophies should have been more comprehensible, given that Europeans "guillotined, hanged, drew, and quartered those guilty of any hundreds of offences, and who put heads on pikes as warning to others." (p.61)


  1. This reminds me of Michel de Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" (1580). He also contrasted European atrocities with those committed by Natives. He concluded that really the Europeans were the barbarians as they had alienated themselves that far from nature and the simple life. Native rituals and practices should not be judged against European standards of morality and ethics. Although Montaigne went somewhat further and perhaps provided an early image of the 'noble savage', he nonetheless made the case for understanding Native practices in their own right. I wonder if Miller talks about Montaigne at all?

  2. What a strange set of thoughts - all in one paragraph. European standards? What standards are you alluding to? During the times in which these native tortures were being applied, they were burning people in Europe. There was the slaughter of the French Revolution - people just hacked to pieces. There was "breaking on the wheel" and so on and so forth. If Europeans had a negative reaction to the natives, I would hope that more or less as today - that violence and horror are abhorrent to decent people. No matter what, I find the descriptions of native (and European) torture practices abhorrent. If I were a god with power to vaporize either group, I would have. If I had the capacity to sort the indecent from the decent people I might try to do so, but then, how could one ever be sure. How can you justify horror by saying "but it's their religion." Europeans were "native rituals and practices should not be judged against European standards of morality and ethics..." ?? Again, and what are those? Europe's own murderous past should have left the travelers to this country more or less at home with the native barbaric behaviors. I'd like to know _why_ there would be a perception that there was something really substantively _different_ in regards to European standards? Lord, in _their_ religious practices - occurring contemporaneously with these American Native accounts - they would put a person's leg into a special device in order to pulverize its bones little by little. The Natives in this country had _nothing_ on the Europeans when it came to torture. If there was a bad reaction to the Native practices, it must have been by people who were running from their brethren in Europe!