The language of 'civilization'

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 5 14:20:27 UTC 2007

The language of 'civilization'

 Indian Country Today March 02, 2007. All Rights Reserved Posted: March
02, 2007 by: Editors Report / Indian Country Today

What do the terms ''savages'' or ''barbarians'' imply in the context of
contemporary understandings of civilization, and how have Indian peoples
come to be described by these expressions? Double-edged words like savage
and barbarian have changing meanings and often carry with them social and
political agendas, especially as those agendas relate to the assimilation
of Indian people and communities. Savage, a word from old French, means
wild or uncivilized. French colonists and traders applied the term to the
Indian people of North America, but with an understanding that American
Indians were a people with a culture different from theirs. In this
expression, Indians were savages because they did not live by and adhere
to French cultural understandings and ways of life.

This French colonial expression of Indians as savage is very similar to
the contemporary understanding of the ''other.'' Other is a group of
people who are outside one's own community of social and cultural
relations. In the French expression of savage, the term does not
necessarily imply inferiority, but the word translates into English as
different, wild and primitive. The French expression, however, recognized
that North American Indians had distinct communities, cultures and
institutions, and they sometimes spoke highly of Indian social and
political processes. Scholars note that American Indians are sometimes
viewed as noble savages when we are seen living by honorable ideals and
ways that are considered ''traditional.'' But more often Indians were, and
continue to be, dehumanized and seen as wild savages and enemies of the
State. In either usage, the expression implies people who are of a
different culture and do not live according to the notion of Western
culture or urban ways.

The expression ''barbarian'' has roots among the ancient Greek and refers
to people of a different language (and by default, people from non-Greek
culture). Similarly, the expression ''outlander'' or ''outlandish'' is
often translated from classic Greek texts, and means something akin to
foreigners; people of a different non-Greek culture and language. The
Romans used ''barbarian'' to describe peoples or tribes that did not live
according to Roman, Greek or Christian culture. The concept of
civilization referred to people who live an urban life and who practice
the lifeways of the Greek, Roman or Christian nations. Those described as
barbarians were considered primitive, rural, and could be civilized only
by adopting the dominant society's culture and ways of life. During the
early centuries of the colonization of the Americas, Western nations
believed that Christian nations were civilized and individuals were
civilized if they lived an urban lifestyle, pursued individual economic
accumulation of wealth and were faithful subjects of a Christian kingdom.
According to this view, few American Indian nations or individuals lived
in a civilized way.

Our ancestors lived in hundreds of different political, cultural and
economic arrangements that usually bore little resemblance to Western
cultural patterns. In this old view of civilization, there is an inherent
sense of social and cultural evolution or progress and an assumption that
all rational people gravitate toward a similar cultural form of
civilization. Western nations, churches and individuals sought to
Christianize and civilize Indian peoples in order to bring them into
Western civilized life. Today, the idea of one culture claiming
civilization, while viewing all other cultures as primitive or
uncivilized, is considered ethnocentric.  The word ''civilization'' now is
applied to many non-Western cultures, and has come to mean an empire or
nation with enduring rules, order and institutions. This contemporary
understanding of civilization is applied (by others) to our Indian
cultures, in the sense that we have order, continuity, rules and enduring

A distinct policy of the United States - and the notion of much of
American society - is that Indian tribes and nations should assimilate and
become part of the mainstream. From the Civilization Acts passed by
Congress in the 1790s, through to the termination era of the 1950s,
American policy sought to ''save'' Indian peoples from savage or barbarian
cultures and move them as individuals into civilized American society. At
the beginning of the 21st century, many American Indians have a high
school education and live in urban areas. Many pursue economic livelihood
through government or market-based employment, and are reasonably
comfortable with dual tribal and U.S. citizenship. By historical Western
standards, most American Indians are considered civilized.

However, continuing efforts by Indian peoples to reclaim traditional
languages, religions and cultures suggest that communities and individuals
are choosing cultural and community pathways that are not based on or even
similar to American culture and ways. By drawing on community culture and
values, many Indian communities seek political, educational and economic
solutions to contemporary issues that build on their own institutions and
values. If Indian nations succeed in their goals to build a future that
draws upon traditional community institutions and lifeways, then they will
uphold cultural, political, economic and community institutions that will
continue to differ significantly from American society and the Western
vision of civilization.

The absence of common cultural ground between Indian communities and
mainstream American culture will remain a defining characteristic
affecting political, legal and cultural relationships on many levels. Most
likely, many of us will continue to resist assimilation and, in the
absence of more modern terminology, will consequently remain as ''other''
to American culture and civilization. Perhaps a new term such as
indigenous civilization may become increasingly meaningful and necessary
to give expression to American Indian nations that participate in
contemporary markets for livelihood while maintaining
government-to-government relations, and preserving community and values.


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