Truth Exposed in An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man

Truth Exposed in An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man

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Truth Exposed in An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man   

   William Apes, in his essay "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," argues that to profess Christianity and still distinguish between races is a hypocrisy not supported by the Bible. In the first part of his essay Apes asks several questions such as why, if God loves white people so much, did he create fifteen colored people for every white one; and of all the races, who has committed the most heinous crimes? He goes on to emphasize that neither Jesus nor his disciples were white skinned. He also questions the white person's right to control Native Americans. Apes asks his predominately white, Christian audience to reexamine their own prejudices and concludes his essay pleading "pray you not stop till this tree of distinction shall be leveled to the earth, and the mantle of prejudice torn from every American heart--then peace shall pervade the Union."

Apes accurately portrays the racism that Native Americans suffer. Racism exists in both the individual and within politics. During the late 1800's, when this article was written, it was illegal in Massachusetts for whites and Indians to intermarry. He labels this as a clear infringement on individuals to make their own decisions. He also raises the point that many white people do not even consider the Indian to be qualified for the rights of an individual. This dehumanization allows white people to steal the Indians' land and murder them with out a second thought. He calls on the whites, as Christians, to reassess these racist views. People cannot call themselves Christians and persecute others, based on skin color, in the name of Christianity. Apes says that words must be supplemented by actions, backing himself up with scripture such as I John 3:18, "Let us not love in word but in deed." Although Apes convincingly argues against the biases within the Christian community, he bases his arguments on several assumptions, neglecting to address problems such as the language barrier and problems that arise when two different cultures try to occupy the same land.

When Apes uses Christianity as his tool to dispel racism he makes several unbacked assumptions. To begin with, he forgets that whites and Indians rarely use the same language let alone have the same religious values, therefore no one tool can be used for both cultures. Besides just the obvious language barrier, whites and Indians use entirely different words and phrases to express concepts.

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The original language barrier was broken down by teaching the Indians Spanish, English or other European languages, but problems in communication did not end here. Steiner in his essay "The Great White Father Myth" discusses the differences in language between the white man and the Indian. Steiner quotes many people pondering the eloquence of the Native American languages. Scholars agree that the Native American languages are built with sweet, sonorous, bold, admirable structure (77-78). Many of these structures do not translate in European languages. Words can be translated but feelings cannot; something is always lost in the translation. When Native Americans and Europeans were able to understand each others words, they could comprehend the meaning but not what was underneath.

Another assumption Apes makes is that Indians and whites exist on the same social level. From the beginning of European and Indian relations, Europeans have reduced Indians to a sub-human level thereby justifying cruel treatment towards Native Americans. Columbus, in his search for gold, God and glory, discovered not only a new land but a new people. He favorably described their physical attributes, yet "in his mind they were just another animal" (Nash 12). While collecting botanical specimens he even "collected seven natives" (12). These beliefs of native inferiority permeated Europe and stayed with settlers when they colonized the New World. John Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts over one hundred years after Columbus with the same feelings of superiority. Like Apes, Winthrop was a religious man. However, he used the Bible, not to promote peace and equality, but to justify stealing Native American land. Quoting Genesis 1:28, "fill the earth and subdue it; you are the masters of the fish and birds and all the animals," he assumes the right to cultivate and control the land. Winthrop felt people, such as himself, were sent by God to civilize the land, and like Columbus he did not consider the Indians to be human beings (Nash 29). Apes, too, describes the theft of the Indians' land and resources: "they...think it no crime to go upon Indian lands and cut and carry off their most valuable timber, or anything else they choose. . . ." To him, though, the people losing the land are not savages but his people; and it is not just land they are losing but a home. Apes assumes he is talking to an equal group of people when he addresses whites and Indians. What he ignores is that many white people do not even consider Native Americans human, let alone on equal social standing with white people.

Apes's final assumption is that Native Americans and Europeans have the same feelings towards the land. Struggles over the land stem from one basic point: the two groups simply view land in two different ways, and are never able to reconcile their opposing views. The land that Winthrop thought needed to be tamed and cultivated to be of any productivity was already providing resources for thousands of other people. Europeans only considered cultivated land to be owned by tribes, thereby not accepting the validity of prior claims to hunting grounds (Norton 30). Native Americans did not believe in ownership of the land, they thought of it as a gift; therefore they did not assume the right to buy or sell it. In dealing with the Europeans, Native Americans carried these views with them. Native Americans saw themselves not as selling the land but merely allowing the Europeans the right to share it. Europeans felt much different about the negotiations. Land was the property of the person who had paid for it, they were not borrowing the land but purchasing it. It was impossible for Europeans and Native Americans to reach an understanding over the land because of their different cultural beliefs.

Nash and Graves's biography of Tecumseh details these different perceptions of land. The same principles of taming the land that Winthrop used in the foundation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony horrified Tecumseh. He, like most other Indians, believed in the sacredness of the land. What was known as cultivating by the Europeans was perceived as rape by the Indians. Shawnee tradition did not allow the use of metal tools to plough the earth (160). Fundamental differences such as these made it impossible for Europeans and Indians to agree on the correct usage of the land.

Indians originally wanted to share the land and resources. Amerigo Vespucci and others noted their amiable nature (Steiner 77). Europeans did not understand this concept and wanted the land to themselves. One reason for the excessive greediness was the search for gold. Columbus was known to dole out harsh punishments on Indians who did not provide a sufficient amount of gold (Nash 14). One Native American woman says of the situation, "We welcomed you with open arms. . . . Maybe that is where we made our mistake" (Steiner 77). Native Americans quickly lost their giving spirit and began to retaliate.

Native Americans have been murdered, cheated and exploited from the first moment Europeans arrived in this hemisphere. They have repeatedly trusted Europeans and made treaties only to have those treaties ignored by the same white men who made them. Steiner's essay is encouraging Native Americans to stop taking this treatment silently and fight back. Apes simultaneously asks the whites to treat Native Americans better as he tells Native Americans to once again turn the other cheek. Steiner completely disagrees; he believes that turning the other cheek is the reason Native Americans have received the treatment they have. Caught in a no win situation, by retaliating Native Americans are almost in as bad of position as they were when they were silent. Through the retaliations Native Americans gained the reputation as vicious savages. Generals in the frontier, such as Custer believed the Indian had a "cruel and ferocious nature" (Steiner 79). Steiner refutes this by describing the white man's pernicious crimes against the Indian. He vividly describes the butchery of innocent women and children. He makes the claim that the violence of the Indians does not come close to the violence committed against them. Steiner and Apes agree that of all the races whites have committed the most heinous crimes against another race (Apes 543). But while Steiner is working solely towards the advancement of the Native Americans, Apes is still hoping for equality between the races. Apesss goal is equality and brotherhood between the Native Americans and Indians. This dream is nearly impossible when two different groups cannot even come to terms with their fundamental differences. Fear of each other led to prejudices and hatred which eventually led to war. Indians and Europeans have been in continuous struggle from their very first meeting through less than 40 years ago. Apes wants Native Americans and Europeans to put aside their differences and engage in a discussion, but people cannot start talking until they stop fighting.

In his essay, Apes makes one valid point very clear: no one race of people have the right to control any other race of people. However, to make his point he glosses over many vital problems. Not all people are Christians or even speak the same language, and not everyone has the same respect of the land that is common among Native Americans. Native Americans have been ill-treated for hundreds of years and it is uncertain if they would even want to make peace with white people. Apes tries to bridge the gap between two warring sides using one religion and one language, but he is caught with an unanswerable question When talking to two different cultures; whose terms should be used, the white man's or the Indian's?


Works Cited

Apes, William. "An Indian¹s Looking Glass for the White Man." Inventing America: Readings in Identity and Culture. Eds. Gabriella Ibieta and Miles Orvell. New York: St. Martin¹s, 1996. 540-546.

Nash, Roderick and Gregory Graves. From These Beginnings: A Biographical Approach to American History. 5th ed. Volume 1. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. 4th ed. Volume A. Boston: Houghton, 1996.

Steiner, Stan. The New Indians. New York: Delta, 1968.


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