Of a Different Color

There were many circumstances that gave the Englishman of Colonial America contact with the Indian culture, from hostile captive situations to amicable trade. The potential outcome of the contact possessed a lure to the white man that could cause him to abandon his own culture and live life as an Indian, and the phenomenon caused Hector de Crevecouer to report that "thousands of Europeans are Indians." These "converts" were sometimes known as "White Indians." Whether it was the kind treatment that the captured white would report or the benefits of a native lifestyle that the Englishman perceived in exchanges with the Indian, there was a free, peaceful environment in the Indian society that the white man would hesitate or refuse to give up.

There is a record from the 1600’s of captives demonstrating reluctance to leave their Iroquois captives to return to Canada. A small stretch could even lead one to say that "every captive left the Indians with regret." In contrast to the failed conversion of Indians in the English societies’ missionary efforts, and the generalization that: "It is very easy to make an Indian out of a white man, but you cannot make a white man out of an Indian," there arises the need to discover why the Indian methods of changing their prisoner’s mind and "color" were so successful.

One reason for the success was probably that the Indians’ motive for capturing a white person was usually to replace one of their own family members. If an Indian died during a battle with the whites or succumbed to a white man’s disease, the Indian’s family "ran the gauntlet" through a white settlement. With a "Live-Shout" call to bring in live prisoners (as opposed to a "Dead-Shout" which was a call to bring in scalps), they took the number of persons needed to fill the moccasins of their beloved. And moccasins were often the first order of business in the assimilation procedure. Then, sometimes, there would be a adoption ceremony--one report claimed a type of "baptism" that felt like the "whiteness" was being washed out. After the ceremony, or perhaps part of the ceremony, the captive was presented to the new family, who would wail and cry in mourning for the lost relative, and then receive the captive into their family with hugs of acceptance and joy. It probably was this factor of acceptance that eased the transition for the captive, who was often a woman or child. The Indians probably were prudent enough to know that the acculturation process would be easier if they selected a woman or child even if the deceased relative was a man or old person. The "replacement" was often carried so far as to give the new family member the name of the lost relative. Then the training of the "White Indian" included a diligent education in language, physical training for endurance, and survival skills. The "Indian of a different color" enjoyed social equality in the tribe that he was adopted into, some whites even achieved the honor of being elected chief. Another evidence of complete acceptance and equality was the fact that even when food was short, the Indians would share with their captive. As far as the rest of the life with the Indians, the work was not too strenuous and the religion and morality of the Indians was thought of as better than the whites. After some time in these peaceful conditions, the final step of having the "white Indian" think like a "real Indian" could be accomplished.

As the white man of Colonial America began to realize that the Indians methods and ways were not as "savage" as reported, he would join the Indians. The most frequent "deserters" were called "fronteirsmen," and they were chided by the white society as having lapsed into the "worst of both worlds." In reality, the techniques that the Indian lifestyle offered the fronteirsman—who was often a trapper or trader—were probably necessary for his livelihood and survival. This included adopting the moccasin as footwear to assist in the stealth of hunting, and ranged to learning the Indian language to communicate in trade more effectively.

The Indians’ willingness to share their knowledge, culture, and possessions with either an adopted captive or a wayward fronteirsman was perhaps a good reason that the "White Indians" allowed their "color" to be changed. Reports from captives were full of the favorable evidence discussed here. Another factor was the way of Indian life included tasks, such as fishing and hunting, that in English society were considered sport. Although some of the whites back in the English society would dismiss this sort of excuse as the captive’s own savagery being allowed to go unbridled in the Indian society, the real force seemed to have no explanation other than the intangible facets. James Axtell lists those as "a strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity." In light of news reports and startling statistics in our present society, it does not appear that the English methods brought to this country have been able to compete. It is a shame that the "White Indians" chose to stay with their red families, keeping this tradition isolated. If they had returned and taught these ideals to the influx of European settlers, perhaps we could boast of community, love, and integrity in our nation today.

natbutton.gif (7607 bytes) cowhome.gif (2032 bytes)