Native Americans are the strongest environmentalists. Their cultures vary hugely but always embody: Water and Land are Life. And many Native American communities concentrated on individual freedom and happiness. This surprised and shocked Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries. Who enlightened the Enlightenment? Not perhaps who we are told.
What follows are indirect quotes from the first chapters of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything—records from the peoples of the Great Lakes region, east and north to Montreal and south to present day Pennsylvania.
Smoking tobacco and drinking chocolate came to England and Europe from the Americas (coffee from Africa as well), and with those intriguing substances came discussions. Everyone wanted to know what the people were like and what each thought of the other. The explorers, settlers and missionaries learned native languages and Native Americans learned Spanish, English, Dutch and French. The Great Lakes societies, mostly Iroquoian speaking, of “New France”, where Canada is now, placed great value on reason and debate. They did not have a good opinion of the French who were materialistic, always competing, arguing and fighting except with their superiors—then they were obsequious—little better than slaves in fear of their superiors.
No such fear existed in the Great Lakes societies. Here, from Father Jerome Lallemant’s correspondence, 1644, is some of what stunned Europeans: No people are freer. Each submits only when convinced. No punishment is inflicted upon the guilty. No criminal’s life or property is in danger. The Huron-Wendat system of justice makes the entire family or clan pay compensation for a crime. This makes it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control. It is not the guilty but the public that makes amends. If a Huron had killed an Algonquin or another Huron, the whole country assembled to agree on the number of gifts due to the grieving relatives to ‘stay the vengeance that might take place.’
The Jesuits were shocked by no punishment given to criminals, by the freedom of youth (‘wild ass colts’) and the freedom of women. But they remained fine recorders of what they learned. Brother Gabriel Sagard’s book of traveling in Huron country was cited by both Locke in England and Voltaire in France, and many others who acknowledged the Native Americans’ social critiques. Sagard contrasted French lack of generosity with Native American communities where there were no homeless, no beggars, everyone was cared for. Sagard’s book was a best seller in Europe and The Jesuit Relations, which came out in 71 volumes, was widely read between 1637 and 1673. Europeans agreed that individual Native Americans lived in generally free societies, including women. Women had full control of their bodies, unmarried women had sexual liberty and married women could divorce at will. The debate was whether liberty was desirable. The Jesuits were vehemently opposed to individual liberty. For them the greatest sin of liberty was that it prevented submitting to the law of God.
Wendat women and men had wealth but it was very different from our present-day wealth with its terrible social and environmental cruelty, or from wealth in 17th century Europe. Land was not personal wealth, it was held communally. Wealth was ornaments and crafts. It was lavishly offered to settle grievances, offered with pride and to maintain social cohesion.
Because wealth could not become power over others it had little effect on individual freedom. The French had more material assets but Native Americans believed they had more valuable assets: ease, comfort, time. Wealth might contribute to political office but no one needed to follow orders given by office holders, they had to be convinced to do so by reasoned argument. Similarly, since no compulsion or punishment was allowed, social cohesion came from debate and agreement. Trying to force people to behave well would be unnecessary for the French if they did not maintain systems that encouraged people to behave badly—money, property rights, the pursuit of self-interest. And, like the religious doctrine of eternal damnation, European punitive law is not necessitated by any inherent corruption of human nature, but rather by social organization that encourages selfishness and acquisitiveness. The qualities the Wendat believed ought to define humans—wisdom, reason, equity—are destroyed by material interest. A man motivated by wealth cannot be a man of reason.
Kandiaronk was a warrior, chief and diplomat of the Wendat. Because of his wit and brilliance, he was often invited to the table of the Montreal-based governor, Count de Frontenac, where he contrasted the more peaceful, happier Wendat with European hierarchies and strife. He explained the Wendat avoidance of wealth disparity which prevents legal systems of punishment. He negotiated for the peoples of America and was a signer to the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701. His thoughts were recorded by the French but almost immediately appropriated and altered and put in others’ mouths obscuring their origin and depth.
Another Native American contribution linked to individual freedom is the fluidity of power and hierarchies. Some Plains Indians had strict hierarchies during the seasonal bison hunt with men given the power to imprison, whip, even kill those who interfered. Roles changed for the next hunt. The man who had power one year could be under the man he had disciplined or punished. The hierarchy and powers dissolved after the hunt. People were again in smaller groups. Coercion was forbidden. Plans and disputes were handled by deliberation and debate, and complied with by mutual and individual agreement.
Different forms and goals of societies pour out of the Dawn of Everything together with the accomplishments, experiments and playfulness of indigenous societies. History reveals, as The Dawn of Everything documents, that we are not by nature people of war and cruelty or people of cooperation and altruism. The authors hope that myths like these, with the inevitability of inequality and war, will be swept away and good questions will be asked to achieve sustainable solutions without hierarchy, without dehumanizing each other and destroying our fellow creatures and earth.