As a matter of fact, Native Americans had highly diverse cultures and religions before and after European colonialists’ arrival. At the same time, in Europe, Christianity was an intrinsic part of people’s lives when the New World was discovered. Thus, it goes without saying that the meeting of people from completely different cultural and religious backgrounds has led to particular consequences. The purpose of this paper is to examine how religion affected the attitude of the Europeans towards Native Americans in their initial contact and what factors contributed to this approach.
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First of all, it is necessary to say that Native Americans’ religion cannot be regarded as a juxtaposition to European values. Long before the colonization, the territory of North America was characterized by cultural and religious variety (First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians par. 1). In other words, the indigenous peoples were separated by landscape, language, ritual practices, cultural myths, and lifestyle. While some settled into considerably developed agricultural civilizations organizing ceremonial centers, others were nomads in communities of whom legends and rituals were passed on by word of mouth. Some nations lived harmoniously and productively interacted despite tribal differences; others preferred independence. Some neighboring groups were even entrenched in rivalry on the basis of not only natural resources but the difference in values and beliefs as well.
However, when the Europeans occupied the territory of North America, they did not consider the presence and variety of indigenous people’s religious beliefs and cultural traditions. Instead, they believed that Native Americans had no religion or culture at all (First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians par. 2). This assumption has led to two opposite attitudes of the Europeans to indigenous communities formed by additional factors as well. Thus, profit-minded French fur traders and Spanish conquistadores who infiltrated the New World in the 16th century were extremely violent to native people. From the position of religion, their actions were justified by force and the support of killing in the name of God and faith.
As a matter of fact, the early history of Christianity was characterized by pacifism. Later, that approach was transformed to accept violence to defend the innocent. However, some religious leaders began to advocate the use of force against infidels and heretics in favor of the expansion of the faith. Finally, the period of the Crusades cemented religious intolerance, and the colonization of the New World was regarded as continuing religious conquests as well. The establishment of Christian global dominance was strongly supported by particularly Catholic nations, including Portugal and Spain. Thus, Native Americans who were regarded as non-Christians were massively killed and enslaved by conquerors or forcibly removed from their land.
Another approach to the contact of the Europeans with native Americans on the basis of religion was directly connected with a Christian missionary. In their belief of being the ambassadors of Christ, missionaries traveled to spread faith, teach the Word of God, and make disciples. As a matter of fact, the importance and value of integrity and all human may be defined as a recent development. Only in the 20th century, anthropologists started to emphasize the significance of understanding all nations in their own unique terms. However, before then, the Europeans opposed themselves as the representatives of civilized society to uneducated and irrational communities with primitive traditions, values, and beliefs. These ideas have partly affected Christian missionaries who arrived in North America to make indigenous people “civilized” under European supervision and “save their souls” (First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians par. 2). All in all, this approach was more mild and peaceful in comparison with the brutality of early invaders.
The majority of Christian missionaries who were occupied with the spread of religion to Native Americans saw themselves as protective and compassionate saviors and educators. They were highly motivated by their mission to bring the Word of God to people who had never heard it. Moreover, missionaries’ activities were determined by the attitude of the Church to Native Americans – in 1537, Pope Paul III declared that “Indians were not beasts to be killed or enslaved but human beings with souls capable of salvation” (First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians par. 3). As a result, some colonial settlers were managed to establish positive relations with indigenous people who had never hurt Christian without any obvious reason (First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians par. 6). At the same time, the number of Native Americans who had accepted Christianity was constantly growing.
However, the most negative consequence of the initial contact between the Europeans and Native Americans was the spread of new diseases brought by colonists. Influenza, measles, smallpox, chickenpox, and other illnesses were deadly to indigenous communities due to the absence of immune resistance to them. Transmitted through direct contacts or trade, European germs led to the death of millions of Indians. All in all, the colonization of the New World may be characterized by the Europeans’ total ignorance of other people’s values and beliefs, desire for profit, and paternalism.
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“First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians.” Harvard University, Web.