Culture Clash: The Puritans and the Native Americans


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In 1608, a group of Christian separatists from the Church of England fled to the Netherlands and then to the "New World" in search of the freedom to practice their fundamentalist form of Christianity (dubbed Puritanism). The group of people known as the Native Americans (or American Indians) are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Northern and Southern American continents who are believed to have migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia around 30,000 years ago. When these two societies collided, years of enforced ideology, oppression and guerrilla warfare were begun. The great barriers of religion, ethics and world-views are the three largest factors which lead to the culture clash between the Puritans and the Native Americans.

Religion played a very important role in both Puritan and Native American society, though their ideologies differed greatly. According to Puritan beliefs, God had chosen a select number of people to join him in heaven as his elect. The Native Americans, on the other hand, believed that everyone was the same; no one was better than anyone else. As Sitting Bull once said, "Each man is good in [the Great Spirit's] sight. (Quotes from our Native Past). This theory was in direct conflict with the Puritan's view. The means through which the beliefs of these two groups were carried on also differed greatly. The Puritans had their Bible which detailed their entire religion and held the answers to all possible questions. The Native Americans on the other hand relied on oral transmission of their theology. Thus, while the Puritans had a constant place to turn to when they wanted to figure out what they believed, Native Americans were forced to fill in the blanks between stories they had heard when it came to their basic ideals. This aspect made them both unable to relate to one another. The most prominent difference between the two religions were their gods. The Puritans believed in one God and one God only. The Native Americans, though also worshipping their own almighty "Great Spirit," took further reverence for all living (and once living) things, worshipping the trees and their ancestors as well as their omnipotent Tirawa (or Wakan Tanka). The Puritans, holding all aspects of the Bible literal and as divine mandate, saw this worship of beings other than their God as idolatry (which was in clear violation of the first commandment). Therefore, the Puritans held the Native American society as a society wallowing in sin.

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Sin was the basis for another big hurdle in Puritan/Indian relations; their differing sets of moral and ethical values. The Puritans valued their faith above anything else. They believed that their conviction for God held precedence over anything else. Even their actions were of less consequence than their faith. The Native Americans, on the other hand, lived their faith and used their actions as tools of their beliefs. Rituals like food preparation and dancing were all actions giving veneration to the spirits of nature. Puritans also believed in the buying and selling of land, a practice completely foreign to the Native Americans. As Crazy Horse said, "One does not sell the land people walk on" (Quotes from out Native Past). As for the augmentation of terrain, utilization of natural resources and "beautification" of the land (which the Puritans took part of and advocated), the Paiute Indian Wovoka was quoted,
"You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear at my mother's bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stones! Shall I dig under her skin for bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut the grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men, but how dare I cut my mother's hair?" (Quotes from our Native Past)
The Puritans were unable to understand why the Indians viewed their cultivation of the land as barbarism, and the Native Americans were also unable to understand why the Puritans viewed their lack of clothing and lack of forced organized worship as savagery.
The final, and arguably most important, of the factors leading to the Native American and Puritan culture clash was the conflict of self and world views held by the two groups. The Puritans viewed themselves as flawed and (basically) evil. According to Eagle Chief, a Pawnee Indian, "In our minds we are two, good and evil." (Quotes from our Native Past). Also, the Puritans believed that the mortal world was temporary and of little consequence. They believed that the only place of significance was the next world; Heaven or Hell. The Native Americans, on the other hand, believed that the world they inhabited was the next world. They thought that by dying, they simply returned to the earth. With this train of thought, it seems unlikely that they would be forced into worship through fear if they knew that they were headed home no matter what practices they held in life.
The Puritans believed in a specific set of religious ideals, while the Native Americans had a less conformist view of worship. The Puritans held things like faith and use of the land over the Native Americans' daily ritual and reverence for nature. The Puritans considered themselves all evil and considered life as a momentary transition, while the Indians thought of themselves as equal halves of good and evil and mortal life (and its logical successor) as fundamentally the same thing. These three things all contributed to the cultural conflict that plagued the Native Americans and Caucasians for years.


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