Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Civilization and the Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[The article on civilization found below should be more appropriately called: "the impact of Western culture on the Amerindians". It proceeds clearly from the perspective that "higher civilization" marked the European world; that it was normal and natural for European culture to be imposed on Indians; that the process could only have one result: the assimilation of the Amerindians into white culture; that this assimilation was beneficial for the Amerindians. While it admits freely that there were some unfortunate by-products to the process of acculturation of the Amerindians, essentially, it does not quarrel with its end result and stresses that the younger generation has adapted very well to the new "ways". This perspective was typical of the views held, and policies promoted, in the period before the First World War. Evidently, the contemporary social scientist would not be as judgmental and optimistic. Still, the article has merit as it describes accurately some of the effects of the coming of Europeans on Indians.]


[Those who can read French may want to examine brief texts on the concept of civilization (civilisation) and cultural relativity ( relativisme culturel ).]



To the aboriginal inhabitant of this continent, civilization entailed the overturning of his ancient form of government, the abolition of many of his social usages, the readjustment of his ideas of property and personal rights, and change of occupation. No community of natives was devoid of a social organization and a form of government. These varied, some tribes being much more highly organized than others, but all possessed rules of conduct which must be obeyed, else punishment would follow. Native organization was based on kinship, which carried with it the obligation of mutual protection. The tribe, wherever it chanced to be, whether resting at home in the village, wandering on the plains in pursuit of game, or scattered in quest of fish on the rivers or sea, always preserved its organization and authority intact, whereas the organization which civilization imposes on the native is based on locality, those living within certain limits being, regardless of relationship, subject to common laws and having equal responsibilities; mere kinship warrants no claim, and the family is differently constituted. In the tribal family husband and wife very often must belong to different units. According to the custom of the particular tribe the children trace descent through their father and belong to his gens, or through their mother and are members of her clan. Modern civilization demands the abrogation of the clan or gens, and children must inherit from both parents and be subject to their authority, not that of a clan or gens.


Most of the common occupations of tribal life are wiped out by civilization. Inter-tribal wars have ceased, and war honours are no longer possible; the herds of buffalo and other animals are gone, and with them the hunter, and the makers of bows, arrows, spears, and other implements of the chase. The results of generations of training are of little avail to the civilized male Indian.


Under tribal conditions woman held, in many cases, a place in the management of tribal affairs. Upon her devolved partly the cultivation of the fields, the dressing of skins, the making of clothing, the production of pottery and baskets, the preparing of food, and all that went. to conserve the home. Civilization puts an end to her outdoor work and consigns her to the kitchen and the washtub, while the white man's factories supply cloth, clothing, pots, pans, and baskets, for none of the native industries can survive in competition with machinery. Woman, moreover, loses her importance in public affairs and the independent ownership of property that was her right by tribal law. No group of peoples on the continent were destitute of religious beliefs or of rites and ceremonies expressive of them. These beliefs were based on the idea that man, in common with all created things, was endowed with life by some power that pervaded the universe. The methods of appealing to this power varied with the environment of the peoples, but the incentive was the desire for food, health, and long life, while the rites and ceremonies inculcated certain ethical relations between man and man. As among all races, priestcraft overlaid many of the higher thoughts and teachings of native religion and led to unworthy practices. Nevertheless the breaking down of the ancient forms of worship through the many changes and restrictions incident to the settlement of the country has caused the natives much distress and mental confusion. It is not surprising that it has been a slow and difficult process for the aborigines to accept and conform to such radical changes of organization, customs, and beliefs as are required by civilization. Yet many have done so; showing a grasp of mind, a power to apprehend the value of new ideals, and a willingness to accept the inevitable, and evincing a degree of courage, self-restraint, and strength of character that can not fail to win the admiration of thinking men. The younger generation, born under the new conditions, are spared the abrupt change through which their fathers had to struggle. Wherever the environment permits, the employments of the white race are now those of the Indian. In one branch of the [Inuit] change has come through the introduction of the reindeer. Already the Indian is to be found tilling his farm, plying the trades, employed on the railroads, working in mines and logging camps, and holding positions of trust in banks and mercantile houses. Indians, of pure race or of mixed blood, are practising as lawyers, physicians, and clergymen; they have made their way in literature and art, and are serving the public in national and state offices, from that of road master to that of legislator. The school, the missionary, and the altered conditions of life are slowly but surely changing the Indian's mode of thought as well as his mode of living, and the old life of his tribe and race is becoming more and more a memory and a tradition.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 101-102.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College