Communitarian Way of Life

By Eurasian standards of the sixteenth century, these American tribal societies were far behind in the several crucial areas that would matter most -- population size, systems of agriculture and manufacturing capable of producing large surpluses, the development of weaponry and the technology of warfare. Initial numerical superiority thwarted European incursions but this advantage quickly disappeared as the sixteenth century progressed. Samuel Morison and Henry Commager describe the tribal societies in the Americas as largely independent of one another, not yet reaching the stage in their development were alliances and fixed settlement stimulated the building of walled cities or fortifications:

Outside Peru, Mexico, Central America, and the Iroquois country, the Indians were completely decentralized; each tribe controlled but a small territory, lived in a state of permanent hostility with its near neighbors, and knew nothing of what went on elsewhere.

The case is certainly overstated, insofar as hostility is concerned. Warfare was frequent, yet most tribes were headed by civil chiefs whose leadership roles dominated until the actual occurrence of war. In most cases, wars between tribes represented long running feuds traced to some distant (or recent) atrocity rather than a desire by one tribe to gain control of Adam Smith the territory of another. Even the Iroquois League was a defensive alliance that, although secured a large territory, was not utilized for territorial expansion. Empire-building remained limited to the southern hemisphere.

The protection of territory held by tribes for many generations and, hence, considered by the individual tribe as its traditional hunting and fishing grounds was, however, a dominant factor in the periodic conflicts that arose. For this reason, even the more peacefully inclined tribes selected warriors as sub-chiefs to lead war parties against their enemies. In other tribes, particularly those who lived in close proximity to one another and which were larger in population, displayed organizational traits similar to their Eurasian counterparts. At the time of the European migration to the Americas, however, the tribes of North America remained primarily communitarian and without the capacity (or desire) to produce a large surplus of wealth. The arrival of Europeans, who introduced both the horse and more efficient weapons, escalated the destructiveness of warfare and pulled the tribal societies rapidly toward a more warrior-dominated socio-political structure. Unfortunately for these tribes, their relatively low populations and primitive systems of wealth production left them ill-prepared to resist the storm rising over the Atlantic Ocean. One of the early exponents of modernization theory, Adam Smith, concluded that in the end the life of the indigenous peoples of the American southern hemisphere (who survived the disease and warfare brought by Europeans) was actually enhanced and their long-term survival assured:

In spite of the cruel destruction of the natives which followed the conquest, these two great empires [Aztec and Inca] are, probably, more populous now than they ever were before: and the people are surely very different; for we must acknowledge, I apprehend, that the Spanish creoles are in many respects superior to the ancient Indians.

Smith did not ignore the issue of whether universal principles existed for all members of the human species. However, his analysis was plagued by inconsistency in the application of principle to existing socio-political arrangements and institutions. Out of context, the above passage served the interest of those who would self-righteously suggest that because less technologically advanced societies were inherently inferior, those in the more advanced societies were morally obligated to lead their inferiors out of a primitive state. "In judging [the] capacity [of the indigenous people] the Spaniards never doubted that their own standards were the logical ones to apply," writes Lewis Hanke. This attitude resulted, conversely to Smith's view, in the decimation of the quality of life for these indigenous people:

Not one of the colonists considered the Indians capable of living in freedom. ...[More than one Spaniard observed] Indian prodigality and considered that, inasmuch as Indians showed no greediness or desire for wealth (these being the principle motives ... impelling men to labor and acquire possessions), they would inevitably lack the necessities of life if not supervised by Spaniards. ...[One Spanish colonist in the Americas] conceded that the Indians must have had ability of a sort because they had raised crops, built houses, and made clothes before the Spaniards arrived, [and that the] Indian chieftains, likewise, appeared to him to have a good method of keeping together and protecting the people under their administration, but in all other matters neither Indians nor chieftains manifested sufficient ability to live like Spaniards.

To live like Europeans was not in the nature of the indigenous people of the Americas, yet a small number of leaders (recognizing their great disadvantage in numbers and ability to carry on sustained warfare) attempted to secure a degree of protection from European encroachment by seeking peaceful relations and adopting European methods of agriculture, manners of dress and culture. In the end, these efforts failed to preserve tribal independence. Individuals intermarried with Europeans and were absorbed into the majority society. The tribal, communitarian way of life slowly gave way until the few surviving groups were relegated to the status of wards of the State and required to live on lands the Europeans deemed worthless for themselves.