Scholarly Source: Bruce G. Trigger, “Early Native North American Responses to European Contact: Romantic versus Rationalistic Interpretations”

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

Bruce G. Trigger, “Early Native North American Responses to European Contact: Romantic versus Rationalistic Interpretations” The Journal of American History 77, no. 4 (March 1991): 1195–1215

Bruce G. Trigger was a Canadian archeologist, anthropologist, and ethnohistorian and Professor of Anthropology at McGill University who was widely recognized for his study of the Huron people. He was an early, leading voice in the effort to accurately portray native American cultures.

Both history and anthropology are being strongly influenced by the resurgence of cultural relativism, which accords to the beliefs transmitted within specific cultures a preeminent role as determinants of human behavior. This view has challenged and largely eclipsed the rationalist claim that human behavior is shaped mainly by calculations of individual self-interest that are uniform from one culture to another. . . . I will seek to demonstrate that, while cultural beliefs may have significantly influenced Indian reactions in the early stages of their encounters with Europeans, in the long run rationalist calculations came to play a preponderant role . . . .Indian folk traditions, often recorded generations after the events occurred, suggest that native North Americans believed the first European ships they saw to be floating islands inhabited by supernatural spirits and sometimes covered by white clouds (sails) from which lightning and thunder (cannon) were discharged or else the mobile dwelling places of powerful spirits whom they prepared to welcome sacrifices, food, and entertainment. These stories indicate that there was much about Europeans that offered itself to supernatural interpretation in terms of religious concepts. European records of early contacts with native Americans appear to corroborate the claim that in numerous instances native people interpreted the newcomers as supernatural. The Spanish who explored and settled the Caribbean islands in the late fifteenth century were convinced that native beliefs in their divinity were a source of power that they could use to control these people. In 1492 Christopher Columbus concluded that the inhabitants of the Bahamas believed that he had come from the sky. The Spanish recounted natives holding prisoners under water to determine whether Europeans were immortal. Accounts from Spanish and Aztec sources provide detailed descriptions of how. . . Aztec ruler Moctezuma Xocoyotzin's fears that Hernan Cortès might be the god Quetzalcoatl returning to rule Mexico caused him not to resist the Spanish invasion directly . . . . At some point those native groups that initially reacted to Europeans primarily on the basis of their traditional religious beliefs came to regard Europeans as human beings with whom, while continuing to take account of their special customs and sensibilities, they could do business as they did with any other foreign group. The Indians' increasing familiarity with Europeans led to a "cognitive reorganization" in which the rational component inherent in the mental processes of every human being began to play the dominant role in guiding native relations with Europeans, while religious beliefs ceased to play the important part that in many cases they had done in the early stages of the encounter.