Indians' Plight Influenced Europe's View Of America, Scholar Says

March 31, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When European readers of Chateaubriand's famous "Atala" looked into the Mississippi Valley, they saw not the bustling trade of Yankee frontiersmen, but the noble image of Indians upholding an honorable code of conduct.

Native Americans had an impact on French and German travelers far different from the standard viewpoint of Anglo-American settlers, which in turn influenced the culture wars that raged through Europe in the 19th century, Harry Liebersohn, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, concludes in his new book, "Aristocratic Encounters" (Cambridge University Press).

Continental observers, many of them displaced by the French Revolution and other upheavals, portrayed American Indians as fellow victims of revolutionaries. "It was a bitter quarter century of seeing the world upside down that prepared Continental travelers for a sense of identification with the suffering they observed among Native Americans," Liebersohn noted.

Writers such as Chateaubriand and Prince Maximilian of Wied turned their journeys to America "into symbolic quests for contact with a primitive aristocracy that put them in touch with their own inmost selves." Maximilian, author of a detailed ethnography of the Plains Indians, was shocked by the disregard of Indians by the Anglo-Americans, saying, "It is unbelievable how the original American people is hated and neglected by the foreign usurpers."

Even Alexis de Tocqueville, who was generally sympathetic to the new republic, turned his trip to an Ojibwa tribe in Michigan into a critique of Anglo-American society -- "so well-policed, so prudish, and so pedantic about morality and virtue [except] where the natives of America are concerned."

The effect of such writings was to recast the cultural debate in Europe. "To a great extent a kind of neo-aristocratic revival was started in Europe thanks to the plight of the Indian," the U. of I. professor said in an interview. "The aristocrats who had been mocked as effeminate and decadent in the 18th century became heroic adventurers in the 19th century. And from this one sees such aristocratic traditions as dueling, hunting and safari revived and exerting a tremendous aura to the rising middle class."

What's more, the defeat of the Indians led many Europeans to become wary of American culture. The German Karl May fashioned his phenomenal best seller "Winnetou" (1892) with an overt anti-Yankee bias. Frontiersmen, learns the German hero of the book, are opportunists who stand for nothing more than brute force, while Indians such as Winnetou -- the ones not yet corrupted by Anglo-American civilization -- are born noblemen.

"When boys and girls played cowboys and Indians, and this became a craze in Germany, the Indians were the good guys," Liebersohn said. "To this day Europeans tend to have a different view than most Americans of how the West was won."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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