Western Perceptions of the American Indian Essay

Western Perceptions of the American Indian Essay

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Western Perceptions of the American Indian


In this reflective essay, I discuss how the Europeans perceived the American Indians and the factors that shaped these perceptions. I have paid particular attention to the first-hand accounts of the encounters with the natives, written by Western explorers, missionaries, and visitors to the New World. It is particularly interesting to note how these accounts were distorted and exploited by different groups, each trying to mold the situation in their own way.

We shall start with a reflection on cannibalism, and the myriad myths it engendered, since it can be argued that nothing about the Indians alienated the Europeans as much as this bizarre practice. Cannibalism, formally known as anthropophagy, was an anathema to Europeans armed with Christian precepts about morality and kindness to one’s fellow man. It was evidence of these acts that served to perpetuate many of the negative portrayals of the Indians that spread throughout the old continent.

While the Europeans were certainly disgusted by cannibalism, nevertheless, it still served to intrigue them. Indeed, many explorers, upon arriving at the Americas, sought to witness it for themselves. We can deduce from these tales that there is something inherently exotic about the concept of eating human flesh that has captivated the human imagination for millennia. The noted anthropologist William Arens is known to have said that “Cannibalism is so good to think about that the human appetite is not easily satisfied.” Some theorists have suggested that myths of cannibalism were exploited to demonize those whom the Westerners sought to colonize. (Some radical historians even propose that tales of cannibalism may have been mere fabri...


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[1] Kimberle S. Lopez, Latin American Novels of the Conquest (London: University of Missouri Press, 2002) 30.

[2] Geoffrey Symcox, ed. Italian Reports on America 1493-1522: Letters, Dispatches, and Papal Bulls. (Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2001) 43.

[3] Bartholome de las Casas, Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies. (1542) <http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/02-las.html>

[4] Michel de Montaigne, “Of Cannibals”, In Selected Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame. (New York: Walter J. Black, 1943) 85-6.

[5] Lynn Glaser, America on Paper: The First Hundred Years (Philadelphia: Associated Antiquaries, 1989) 161.

[6] Bart L. Lewis, The Miraculous Lie: Lope de Aguirre and the Search for El Dorado in the Latin American Historical Novel (New York: Lexington Books, 2003) 8.

[7] Lewis 12.

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