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Comparing European and Native American cultures

KC‑1.2.III.A (KC)
Unit 1: Learning Objective F
WOR (Theme)
In this video, Kim discusses how mutual misunderstandings between Europeans and Native Americans often defined the early years of interaction and trade as each group sought to make sense of the other.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In the first years of interaction between Native Americans and Europeans, there were a lot of aspects of each other's cultures that each group found, well, just plain weird. Europeans and Native Americans looked, dressed, and thought differently in fundamental ways that lead to misunderstandings and even violence between them. So let's take some time to compare some ways in which Native American cultural ideas differed from European cultural ideas. So how is it possible to make a direct comparison between Native American cultures and European cultures? One way is to choose a few categories of social interaction and belief and identify how each group conceived of them. Here, I've chosen ideas about land and property ownership, gender roles, and religion as areas to compare. Now before we start, I wanna put a big asterisk here and say that these are generalizations, just as the English, French, Spanish, Dutch didn't have all exactly the same religion or a concept of proper gender roles. The Algonquians, Iroquois, Pueblos, and Mississippians weren't identical either, but there were some similarities among European groups and among Native American groups that allow us to compare and contrast them more broadly. So let's start identifying these differences and exploring what effect they may have had on how the two groups perceived and interacted with each other. One major difference between Europeans and Native Americans was in their ideas about land ownership. To Europeans, land was owned by individuals and passed down through families. They had the right to fence off a plot of land and prevent trespassing. For Native Americans, land ownership was less defined and more temporary. One tribe might claim control of a hunting range or one family might farm a plot of land for a season but they didn't own it forever. Most land was free for everyone to use but not to own. So when Europeans arrived, Native Americans might agree to let them farm and hunt in their territories but they didn't expect that Europeans would then fence off that land and prevent others from using it. Likewise, Europeans were confused when Native Americans continued to use land that they thought they had purchased to own forever. Native Americans also tended to have a more communal approach to property and trade. To them, trading relationship were important and they require a lot of feasting and gift giving to cement ties between tribes. Europeans were frequently frustrated by the amount of pomp and circumstance Native Americans demanded to complete what they saw as a simple business transaction. Partly, this had to do with how Native Americans viewed property in general. While Europeans gained high status in society by owning a lot of things and therefore being rich, Native Americans achieved high status by giving a lot of things away, being a source of riches for others. So unlike in Europe where there were huge gaps between the rich and the poor, Native American societies were comparatively egalitarian. It was pretty rare for someone to go hungry if their neighbor had food to spare. Europeans couldn't tell if Native Americans were just naturally generous, kind people or if they maybe just didn't get how business worked and to Native Americans, Europeans seemed greedy and selfish, allowing others to starve and do without so that they could enrich themselves. Differences in gender roles also confused the groups. In European societies, men were the heads of household and they were in charge of outdoor labor. Women took care of the home but they also have relatively few rights. They couldn't participate politically, own property, or get divorced. In Native American societies, men hunted and fished and conducted warfare which often meant that they were away from home for weeks or months. Consequently, women did the farming since they were home to tend the crops. Native women also had a lot more freedom than European women. They could get divorced, they could give political advice to councils. Many Native American societies were matrilineal so children belonged to their mother's family rather than their father's and when a couple got married, the man moved in with his wife's family, not the other way around. To Europeans, gender roles in Native society almost seemed like they were flipped upside down and they took this as evidence that Native people were uncivilized. To Native Americans, it looked like Europeans could barely care for themselves. They had to be taught how to farm, how to fish, even how to hunt effectively in the new world. Finally, Native and European religious practices differ, at least, on the surface. Native Americans tended to believe that one great creator had made the world and that nature was imbued with spirits who would reward or punish them based on how well they took care of the land. In fact, this actually wasn't that much different from the Catholicism of Europeans who believed in a single god but also many helpful saints. But where they differed was in exclusivity. When Europeans introduced them to Jesus and Mary and the saints, many Native Americans were happy to include them in their pantheon of helpful spirits. But this angered Europeans who insisted on exclusive worship of the Christian god. All of this differences lead to fraught interactions between Europeans and Native Americans. But despite these differences, they also adopted many useful aspects of each other's culture over time especially in terms of trade. Native Americans were keen to get their hands on the metal implements for cooking and farming and hunting that Europeans possessed as well as guns and horses which were great for transportation and also for making war. Europeans were also willing to take part in the social rituals and trading rituals of Native Americans, sometimes even marrying into Native American families so they could get access to furs hunted by Native Americans and to Native Americans as allies in their wars against rival European powers and the Americas. So as we wrap up, I encourage you to take a closer look at this chart. Is there anything you find particularly surprising about these differences? Where do you think that Europeans and Native Americans were most likely to find common ground between them? And lastly, which of these cultural aspects do you think was the most significant difference between Europeans and Native Americans and why?