European Perceptions of Native Americans

Initial European perceptions of Native Americans viewed them as uncivilized savages who, with time and effort, could be educated and assimilated into European culture. Christopher Columbus reported his opinion of the Indians in the following manner:

They should be good servants and of quick intelligence, since I see that they very soon say all that is said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for it appears to me that they had no creed. Our Lord willing, at the time of my departure, I will bring back six of them to your Highness, that they may learn to talk (Hurtado 46).

This passage shows that Columbus believed the Indians intelligent and would be easily converted to European ways, but did not think them equal to Europeans. Columbus demonstrates his ethnocentricity by disregarding Native American religious beliefs, and by assuming that because they did not speak a European language they could not “talk.”

Europeans viewed the Indians as having inferior cultural practices such as their laws, government, economics, mode of living, religion, property ownership, and education/writing. However, the Europeans believed that these cultural traits of the Native Americans could with little difficulty be changed to resemble European cultures. In 1620, the first college for Native Americans was established to educate Indians in European ways, and in 1640, Harvard opened a college for Indians. This proves that the main objective of the Europeans was to assimilate the Native Americans into European culture by way of education. Europeans justified their conquest of the Indians because they believed they had a divine purpose to convert them to Christianity. Also Europeans believed they could “redeem the savages” in much the same way the Roman Empire had conquered and civilized the rest of Europe.

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Indians did not come to be viewed as inherently different in regards to color until the mid-eighteenth century and the label “red” was not used until the mid-nineteenth century. Some causes of the changing perception were an increase of Europeans, bloody conflicts and atrocities, codification of laws designed to control Native peoples, and the view of Europeans began to unify as being “white.”

The changing perception of Indians also caused a change in how Europeans dealt with them. In the beginning, Europeans intermarried with them, and used teachers and missionaries to convert them to European culture and religion. Later, education ceased and Europeans moved to subjugate the Indians through displacement on reservations and by war/genocide.

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The Dawes Act of 1877 reverted back to assimilation of the Indians through education and the practice of farming. The reservation lands were divided up into individual sections for private ownership. Also the federal government came to believe that educating the Indian children would be the quickest and most effective manner to destroy Indian lifestyles. Boarding schools were established for Indian children to teach them American values and customs, while eroding their Native American beliefs.

At first contact, Europeans believed Indians could be assimilated into European culture. Then they shifted to the removal and reservation policy. In the late 1800s, Americans returned to assimilationist policies, and in the 20th century Indians have struggled to resist total assimilation by striving to maintain their cultural and religious beliefs.


Hurtado, Albert, Peter Iverson, and Thomas Paterson, editors. Major Problems in American Indian History: Documents and Essays. Houghton Mifflin Company Collegiate Division, 2000.

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by Mary Arnold