The Impacts of European Colonialism on the Sexual Identity of Native Inhabitants of America

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As European colonization reached the American south and southwest, a tragic modification of Native populations occurred as strict religious doctrines were forced upon innocent Indigenous people. The Spanish established a system of mission communities that aimed to civilize a barbaric and naïve Native society. Forced to adhere to an entirely new form of moral behavior, Natives attempted to balance traditional values with recently learned Christian beliefs. These mission communities now harbored a collection of Indigenous people suffering from disorganized moral understandings, which in turn led to uncharacteristic violent behavior as some historians have suggested. Colonialism can take full responsibility for this undesirable moral transition among the Native people of the southwest. European forceful institution of religion was a tragic example of colonialism suppressing native traditions and creating a new population of conflicted Indians.


European assessments of Indigenous populations often labeled them as savage or barbaric due to lack of clothing. This initial view on Natives would only serve as a precursor to the destructive nature of colonialism enacted by the Europeans. The Natives in discussion are tribes located in what is now the southern United States and southern California. The French interacted with the native people that inhabited Louisiana and up the Mississippi river to the region that is now Illinois. Relationships between Indian and French most commonly were for the purpose of trading. At times enamored with Native women, French men would wed a native and in turn be allowed access to trade within the tribe the woman belonged to. The marriages between French men and women created a sense of urgency however, as many believed the men would take on the savage traits of the Indians. Spanish interaction with Natives differed slightly however. Located farther west, the Spaniards established a system of Missions in what are now the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California. These missions attempted to convert the Natives to Christianity as instructed by the church. Native traditions were suppressed while foreign moral values were taught to Indians who now became fully immersed in Spanish culture. While the Spanish and French interactions with Native people differ slightly, they provide evidence of a disparity among sexual practices among Native culture and moral understandings of Christian beliefs.


The most important aspect associated with sexuality among Native people was the social implications that arose through marriage. There is evidence that elite men would use marriage as a way to establish an alliance with a person of their own tribe or another. This alliance would allow both parties to acquire increased status and resources. The use of marriage as networking assisted Indians in trade amongst each other. An individual’s social status among the tribe would be heavily influenced on the amount of partners one could obtain. The higher number of families one was associated with through marriage the better the opportunities one had to increase their status among the tribes. As French influenced increased within the south, men would marrying a Native woman and in turn be granted permission to trade with members of the tribe. French men however, adhering to religious beliefs, would not engage in the marriage of multiple partners. Men would often find themselves in dismay and bewildered when their Native wife left them without much difficulty. This represents a rather large disparity between Native and European views on marriage, possibly creating an urge within the French to drastically change Native behavior.


The French observed Native individuals in a negative capacity, however there is documentation that tells of greater numbers of French men establishing relationships with Native women. This was influenced by the high trade among French merchants and Indians and the abundance of men whom took interest in Indigenous females. As marriages between Europeans and natives became abundant, differences between the two parties were noticed. French men were deeply worried as the native women displayed their insensitivity towards termination of a marriage. Like the Spanish, a strict Catholic following believed in marriage as a life-long endeavor that Native people did not share a belief in. French colonists did not forcefully impose a religious doctrine on Indians as was seen farther west, but still desired to remove them from so called “savage nature”. The French believed that Native women displayed a sexual tendency that was unacceptable within the confines of their religion. To contain this sexual nature, marriage to a French male would allow the women to adopt a respectable amount of sexual behavior. Unfortunately for the French, this aspect of colonialism was not successful, and in some cases actually led some men integrate slightly into Native customs. There was no ambition on the part of the French to attempt to live within the traditions of Native culture; colonialism had taken hold firmly even if it was not particularly successful.


Farther west, marriage among Native Californians did not constitute being attached to one person for an entire life, nor was it common to have one partner through a lifetime. In order to move through society successfully, it was beneficial to have separate relationships with others. This focus on social ties associated with the relationship rather than a deep affection for a person might tell that sexual intercourse did not hold a strict moral value. Sex among people within a Native tribe was not influenced by any moral or religious code that was collectively followed. This lack of a regulation on sex allowed gender separation to become less concrete, males did not hold as much power in society as European culture dictated. While traditional gender roles were still present within Native people, the male figure was unable to control the marriage based on his gender. This handling of marriage was often described by Europeans as being unstable and the result of women being unable to satisfy their sexual urges. However, to normal eyes, one might view this relationship between Native men and women as being substantially fairer and promoting growth of both genders. A man was a provider for his family, a woman nurtured the home and children, but a man did not hold any significant authority over women in regards to sex. A man carried power in a marriage, but was not granted the authority to personally make decisions based on the fact he was man. European’s did not agree to this type of activity among the indigenous due to the interest of their religious practices and they were quick to ensure that others conform.


Upon arriving in the Americas, both the French and Spanish brought disciplined religious practice with them. When confronted by the Native people of America, an initial order of business of the Europeans was to convert a savage group of people into models of religious observance. Not abiding to any strict religious concerning sexuality, the Natives would now become the subjects of colonization. As the Native population was introduced to the mission regime, the Spanish truly realized that they were people without any type of moral understandings. As the conversion to Christianity was initiated, the indigenous were expected to observe acceptable gender roles while becoming a subordinate class in service to the crown still located in Spain. As Christian doctrine was imposed, the indigenous learned how to properly handle sexual discipline and to identify immoral behavior. The aim of the church was to force out the pagan past, and to adopt a civilized relationship with God. A Native subject was taught to express guilt toward sins that had been previously committed and to establish limitations on sexual practice and marriage. Feelings of guilt and restrictions on sexual activity only made conversion far more confusing to a Native man’s mind.


Within California, a European colonization project was successfully converting Native people, but with rather unpleasant results. To the naked eye, the environment of a Spanish mission in southern California would hide the truth of what was transpiring inside the confines. As previously discussed, indigenous people of America did not adhere to a strict religious doctrine in regards to sexual practice. The European desire to implement a strange religion into the daily lives of primitive, indigenous people only created an identity issue within them. Radical changes to views on sexual practices left Native men and women stuck between old traditions and previously unknown, strict rules. This often times meant that decisions were made without having a complete understanding on how a sexual act properly fit into moral code. Before colonization, there was no moral code that influenced sexual actions, or at least not one as strict as a chosen religious belief demanded. It is unfair to assume a conglomerate of indigenous people would be able to adopt religious beliefs and dispose of their own. Hundreds of years of tradition among numerous tribes would not be suppressed easily. The aspects of Christian faith that was adopted by Natives became dangerously mixed with the views they had been raised to follow. Colonialism was failing to understand that Native communities respected and followed their own path of morality. To the Spanish, any behavior that did not respect the authority of the Christian faith was to be eradicated. There was no sense of understanding for differences seemingly; a Native subject was to become a Christian regardless of previous values.


The institution of marriage within the Christian faith represented a joining of two people who vowed to love each other until death. Married couples were to only engage in sexual intercourse with each other and in the attempt to conceive a child. As this view was imposed on the Natives residing in missions, relationships became more inclined to feature violence during an incident of unfaithfulness. For many indigenous tribes marriage between two people did not always require a strong emotional connection to the each other. Native females did not strive to maintain only one sexual partner throughout their whole life, severely contrasting the Christian marriage agreement. In a traditional native model of marriage this situation might end with both parties terminating the marriage to pursue other partnerships, as was a common practice regardless. This was not the case with native people who had attempted to transfer their faith to Christianity. The strict moral code within the religion was now implanted in the Native body, alongside the traditional customs. This mix created a dangerous dilemma within the mind of a Native man. The unfaithful wife was now seen as committing an immoral act when she slept with another man outside of marriage. Regardless of the emotional impact of the incident, there was now a break in moral code according to the new beliefs that had been adopted. Adultery represented a serious crime, and confusion about handling the situation arose. If the implementation of Christian beliefs had been less forceful within the mission population, confusion could have been minimized. The Spanish not allowing the Natives practice of their conventional customs only facilitated a very rigid form of morality. It is unfair to expect an individual to completely abandon rich tradition in favor of a very strange religion facilitated by very foreign people. Colonialism was not going to respect the differences of Indigenous people and expected them to soon submissively convert.


Colonialism nearly eradicated the Indigenous inhabitants of South America and can be blamed for corrupting the Natives of America as well. Forced to convert to a religion of radical differences, Natives became morally disorganized and suffered greatly from. The missions of California are just a small sample of the system as a whole in the American southwest. There is no doubt countless other atrocities that were taking place within them, but the California missions provide a look at how conflicted Native people became as a result of forced religious conversion. Understanding that an aspect of colonization is to transform, Europeans aimed to completely change the Indigenous population of America without much regard for long standing traditions. Their actions left the sexual identity of Natives in tatters, forcing them to suffer from a completely disoriented moral personality. To the Europeans, America truly became the New World, leaving any tradition looking very old.