Axtell and Kupperman

James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America, 1985

Karin Kupperman, Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640, 1980

These two books very pointedly examine cultural contact, as opposed to warfare and politics, in the early colonial period. Axtell specifically examines projects of cultural conversion, by both the French and the English upon Native Americans, and to a small extent, by Native Americans upon their European captives. Kupperman’s work focuses exclusively upon the English and their initial perception of the inhabitants of North America. While making a broad survey of colonial experience in interacting with natives across the northeastern area of the continent, Axtell concludes that, with the exception of the Jesuits, missionaries made little headway in their project of conversion and that even when conversion did occur, it actually served to protect ethnic identity. In contrast to Axtell’s disparaging account of the English colonists and missionaries, Kupperman, in her more narrowly-focused study, portrays the early colonial years as a time before racism, when colonists viewed and judged the Native Americans they encountered in terms of class and status. Most interesting to me are the directly opposing arguments these authors make about English perceptions of the Indians.

Axtell sets out to study three groups in North America: the French, the English, and the Indians, and the “educational and acculturative impact of each society upon the others.” (ix) To do so, he focuses on projects of conversion. Initially, all European settlers believed they had encountered a land where the native inhabitants would be docile, tractable, and easily converted to Christianity and a European way of life. Both the French and the English were quickly disabused of their notion that Indians would freely flock to their way of life, and after this realization settled in, French and English tactics diverged, the former proving more effective in winning souls to Christ.

When discussing the French, Axtell focuses primarily on the Catholic Jesuits, who were the most successful Christian missionaries in the New World. Aided by the fact that the French crown offered Indian converts all the rights of “natural born Frenchmen,” (39) and their belief in the innate goodness of the natives, the Jesuits began a rigorous and ultimately successful program. In contrast to the English, who would pursue the exact opposite course, the French Jesuits adopted a policy of Christianizing the Indians without “Frenchifying” them. This method allowed other Indian cultural institutions to remain largely intact while the Jesuits supplanted the local shamans. Jesuit priests committed themselves to life with nomadic tribes, learning the language and culture and winning native confidence before undertaking devastating campaigns of humiliation against the shaman. This method, although, slow, was highly successful. The Jesuits were aided by the fact that Indians in French territory were not alienated by a colonial land grab (as were those in English territory), the appeal of Catholicism’s salvation through works and impressive ritual, as well as the superior education and cultural relativism of the Jesuits, whom Axtell claims were able to respect, value, and to some extent adopt, native culture.

In contrast, argues Axtell, the English were miserable failures in their project of conversion. With the exception of the Puritans, who found some success with already weakened and powerless coastal groups, the English followed a deadly pattern of initial failed attempts at conversion, followed by eventual bloody destruction. Axtell attributes this failure to the cultural chauvinism and nascent racism of the English settlers. The English were so convinced of the superiority of their culture, and so unimpressed with that of the Native Americans, that they insisted that Indians fully adopt an English lifestyle before being instructed in religion. Even if they did adopt European ways and convert to Christianity, the “praying Indians” were still subject to censure, ridicule, and abuse from the English settlers, who would never regard them as fully human, let alone fully English. In addition to this budding racism, the English mission was also hampered by inexperience and lack of education in their ministers and the unappealing nature of a Calvinist religion that condemned all worldly pleasures and randomly declared some saved and others damned.

The Jesuits emerge as the heroes of Axtell’s work. Indeed, the French missionaries escape with minimum criticism, and Axtell admires them for their ability to win not only native, but also protestant converts from New England. In his very brief chapter on Indian conversion of European captives to their lifestyle, Axtell simply concludes that the Native Americans were very, very good at it, in fact, even better than the French, based on the number of captives who elected to remain with their adoptive Indian families. Axtell’s treatment of white captives is really too brief to offer anything new, although he does give a thorough account of the process by which a captive was adopted as a member of the tribe. The book is also a little confused in its treatment of the French and the English, who are often lumped together. Although he makes clear at the beginning that the Jesuits were not the only Catholic missionaries in Canada, by the end of the book, “French” and “Jesuit” have become nearly synonymous. Similarly, there is often not enough of a distinction made between the various Protestant denominations among the English. The Puritans, for example, seemed to make much better headway in their conversion efforts than did the Anglicans. One of the most interesting things about this book is comparing Axtell’s argument about the English perception of the Native Americans to Karin Kupperman’s in her book Settling with the Indians.

Kupperman’s argument is straightforward: people who describe English treatment of the Indians as racist are reading later attitudes backward into history. In reality, the English who settled North America were much more primitive, superstitious, and basically medieval than they are now understood to have been. This just-off-medieval mindset came with a built-in obsession with status. When the English saw the Indians (and she makes a sharp distinction between English writers who actually visited America versus speculative armchair travelers), Kupperman argues, they did not see them as universally marked by race or savagery. In contrast, Kupperman argues, English saw natives as belonging to the same “race” as themselves. The distinction settlers did make was based on status, and the English saw some natives as belonging to a higher class worthy of respect, and some as belonging to the base, lower order, just like the English peasantry. Ultimately, this resulted in the same bloody mess we are all familiar with. Kupperman is not arguing that this reinterpretation means that the English treated Indians better than we thought; it means that the settlers treated everyone of low status, including English commoners, fairly horribly. Because the majority of Indians were seen as commoners, they became another group open to exploitation by the higher classes.

What was most interesting to me about reading these two books together was how completely Kupperman and Axtell disagree about the way the early English colonists perceived the Native Americans. Axtell sees an extreme cultural chauvinism in the English, suggestive of the racism that is to come, while Kupperman perceives vestiges of a status-obsessed past (and present) in English writings about the inhabitants of North America. Perhaps this difference can partially be explained through understanding Axtell as writing with an eye on what is to come and Kupperman writing with an eye on the English past. I do not, however, find this a totally satisfying explanation. Why did Axtell’s English look to the Indians and see creatures little better than animals while Kupperman’s settlers saw civilized people?

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