Sunday, 27 February 2011

White Indians

So much myth and mystique surrounds the topic of "white Indians" that it's often difficult to tell fact from fiction. In this article, I address those individuals who made the transition to adoptive status. Documented cases exist of white children being raised by Native tribes, but those who never rejoined European life rarely wrote memoirs. I have already written about the ten-year-old boy discovered by George Percy in 1607. There is no other historical record of him, and we can only speculate as to who he was, but most likely he was born within the Arrohatec tribe and one of his parents had been from said tribe.

Life was extremely harsh for the Europeans when settling the North American continent, and some preferred to take their chances with the Indians, rather than starve to death among their kinsmen. George Percy wrote in Trewe Relacyon that "many" ran off to join the Indians. The fact that such an act became punishable by death suggests that it was more commonplace than historians care to admit.

Not many records remain from 17th-century Virginia, except for a few individuals who returned to English society. One woman was shipped back to England in fear that she would run off again to rejoin her Indian family.

Few tribal people willingly joined European society, but why did so many Europeans remain living with their "captors" even when given opportunities to return? Was the draw simply due to survival, or was something more at work? Survival was certainly a large issue. The indigenous people knew the land, where to find food and how to gather it. More importantly, they usually shared food equally.

In spite of all of the stories the colonists spread about the indigenous people being "savages," women were rarely raped by Indians in the 17th and 18th centuries. The tribes that the first Europeans encountered had strict incest taboos. A warrior simply did not violate his future kin, or he would have been disgraced.

Captives went through various adoption rituals that included dressing like a member of the tribe, and being introduced to their new families. In some tribes, men were required to run the gauntlet or some other act of bravery in order to survive. Women and children were taken in more frequently, and in time, those who were adopted, regardless of gender, were given equality within the tribe. Some captives even attained the level of chiefs.

Mary Jemison, a late-18th-century captive had this to say, "They were strictly honest; they despised deception and falsehoods...," and another 18th-century captive, John Brickell said, "The Delawares are the best people to train up children I ever was with. They never whip, and scarce ever scold them." J. Hector de Crevecoeur, an outside observer in Letters from an American Farmer, probably says it best why many of the captives remained,

"...there must be in their social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having choice become Europeans! There must be something more congenial to our native dispositions, than the fictitious society in which we live; or else why should children, and even grown persons, become in a short time so invincibly attached to it?"

In the mid-18th century, peace treaties came into existence that all white "captives" were required to be returned. Many only responded to Indian names, spoke Native languages, and preferred the less restrictive clothing. Some had to be tied or jailed in order to keep them from returning to their Native families. While most captives didn't try to escape, they were outcasts in the culture that had "saved" them, especially the women who had married Native men and given birth to "mixed" children.

Kim Murphy


Catherine/Suburban Vampire said...

Such an interesting topic. I'd never heard of whites running off to live with Natives until I read your novel. It's a shame it's become yet another subject suppressed by history.

Kim Murphy said...

Thanks, Catherine. I truly hadn't realized the extent of it either until I started writing the book.