Discovering European settler perspectives of Native Americans

Gilcrease historic document

Jane Ackerman, associate professor of religion, conducted research in the Gilcrease Museum archive during summer 2009. The collection was a wonderful place to launch an inquiry into European colonists’ and settlers’ views of the Native Americans with whom they had contact. 

Colonist interaction with native peoples

Ackerman wanted to know to what degree 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century émigrés to the New World depended on European definitions of the “noble savage,” the “natural man,” “civilization,” and “barbarism.”

Nowadays these definitions are still often presumed to have ruled the mindset of whites in the New World. Did European transplants to this continent duplicate what Europeans on the other side of the ocean were saying about Native Americans? To what degree did direct contact with Native peoples affect beliefs about who Native Americans were? 

Using diaries, treaties, correspondence

Many of the diaries of explorers and tourists, all of the records of treaty negotiations between tribes and European-descent groups, much of the military and legislative correspondence, and a variety of other documents that Ackerman examined showed traces of presumptions concerning the nature of Native Americans.

Occasionally passages were explicit and lengthy. Work with a wide variety of rare American books and manuscripts indicates that for a long while, lasting well into the 18th century, European-descent residents of this continent varied from each other in what they thought Native Americans were.

Thoughts expressed in writing about Native Americans could be complex. Even whites sharing the same experiences, such as the military lieutenant Juan Mateo Manje and a missionary with whom he made exploration trips, Eusebio Kino, differed in what they wrote about the basic nature of Native Americans.

Settlers and pioneers also at times wrote other things than did the Spaniards, French, and English living in Europe who were penning opinions about Native peoples.

Publication plans

Ackerman’s archival work will continue for some time. Her immediate publication plans include two brief pieces on particular Gilcrease documents. The first will be a translation from Spanish to English made for use by the Gilcrease of Chapter III entitled “Origin of the American Indians,” from the 1720 book whose title in English is Light on Unknown Lands in Northern America, the Western Indies of New Spain, written by the lieutenant Manje.

The second will address theories of identity that seem to underlie what Spanish kings say about themselves and Native Americans in a set of 16th- and 17th-century royal decrees that are among the Gilcrease holdings. 

Summer 2009 work also yielded a new University of Tulsa course offering, Rel/Phil 3973, Imagining Native Americans. 

The collection

Thomas Gilcrease’s purchases of rare books and manuscripts made during the 1920s and 1930s form the core of the archive. His pan-tribal and pan-continental interest in the changing interactions between Native and European Americans led to the creation of a rich collection full of research possibilities. 

The 100,000 items in the archive date from 1492 to the twentieth century.  The collection contains holdings of potential interest to tribal, military, and legal historians; anthropologists; political theorists; sociologists; art historians; and even possibly field biologists with an interest in the flora and fauna that grew on this continent in earlier centuries.