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By Paul W. Valentine

March 30, 1991 at 7:00 p.m.

    AFTER MONTHS of acclaim, topped by last week's Oscars, Kevin Costner's film "Dances with Wolves" has become an important psychological purgative for white America. We have finally expelled from our imagery the traditional Hollywood Indian -- the shiftless savage who can't hold his liquor -- and replaced him with the more complex and authentic characters of Costner's story.

    Yet in our guilt-laden rush to embrace the new images, we risk creating a new stereotype prompted at least in part by the Costner film, a sort of romanticized flip side caricature of the native American as all nobility, wisdom and oneness with the earth.

    History suggests that that vision, like all stereotypes, is oversimplified. It lumps all Native Americans into a monolithic whole, rather than distinguishing among their rich, varied and sometimes not so pretty parts.

    The temptation to exalt the Indian nevertheless is great, given the Euro-American depredations against him over the last 500 years and the instinct to compensate for our sins. Indeed, for the last several years (and well before Costner's film was conceived), Indians have enjoyed a resurgence in cultural pride and received support from a wide range of white activists, authors, politicians, environmentalists and back-to-nature advocates. To varying degrees, these advocates have made three assertions about the American Indian: that he is endowed with a unique reverence for the earth and its ecological systems; that his social conduct, buttressed by an ancient wisdom, is universally guided by humane and egalitarian instincts; and that he has an immutable ancestral claim to every acre of America.

Listen to the voices:

    The Indian feels a "sacred attachment to the land and a reverence for nature that is incomprehensible to most whites," wrote Alvin M. Josephy Jr., noted historian and editor, in his book "The Indian Heritage of America."

    He is a "virile, structured, unafraid, truly noble personality," said John Collier, a former (white) Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department. Before the white man arrived in the New World, Collier said, the Indian lived in "perfect ecological balance with the forest, the plain, the desert, the waters and the animal life."

    Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux and respected spokesman on matters Indian, wrote in "Custer Died for Your Sins": "Most mysterious was the Indian reverence for the land . . . . Earth, they believed, was mother of all."

    But history tells us that Indians, like all other groups on the face of the earth, are a mixed lot with an enormous and varied capacity for both good and evil.

    It is well documented, for example, that while many tribes prior to the Europeans' arrival carefully husbanded the land and hunted animals selectively, others, such as the Arapaho of eastern Colorado, stampeded herds of bison into death traps by igniting uncontrolled grass fires on the prairies. Only the best animals were butchered. The rest were left for the vultures or the Utes and other tribal competitors.

    "For many years afterward, animals could not find food in such burned-over areas, and starvation would finish the destruction," wrote historian Elizabeth Beaty in "Americans Before Columbus."

(When Europeans introduced the horse to the New World in the 16th century, plains Indians began hunting more selectively, using swift riders to cull only the best bison for meat and hides, while letting the rest go. The white man continued to slaughter, often shooting the animals only for hides and assorted trophies, leaving the carcasses behind.)

    Agricultural Indians in New England cleared land by slash-and-burn technique, while more nomadic hunters and gatherers moved from spot to spot seeking food, and strewing refuse in their wake. While such despoliation was modest compared to the industrial pollution of late 20th century America, in the scale of the times, it was considerable. The second assertion -- that the Indian enshrined the virtues of brotherhood and egalitarianism -- also finds spotty support in history.

    Indeed, while there were tribes that were free, open, peaceful and humane, others were totalitarian, warlike and extremely brutal. Some practiced slavery, torture, human sacrifice and cannibalism and imposed rigid social dictatorships.

The Tahltans of western Canada, who fought constantly with their neighbors, killed male prisoners and enslaved the women. Many Choctaws, Creeks and Cherokees in the southeastern United States in the 19th century owned African slaves, just like their white neighbors.

    Among some tribes of the famed Iroquois Confederacy, the punishment for murder was death to the perpetrator or, if he fled, to a male member of his family. Adultery was also sometimes punishable by death, but more frequently the offender had his ears or lips cropped or the end of his nose cut off.

    The Iroquois and some other groups, Josephy acknowledges, "were extremely cruel, torturing captives to test their courage and indulging occasionally in cannibalism."

    Until the 19th century, he noted, the Pawnee Indians observed an annual Morning Star ceremony "in which a captured maiden was sacrificed and her heart cut out . . . ."

    While tribes as diverse as the Hopis of the Southwest and the Slaves of subarctic Canada were known for their gentle ways and humane treatment of the old and infirm, other groups were brutal in the extreme. The Crees and Chipewyans of central Canada killed or abandoned their old people who could not keep up with tribal migrations.

    There was sexism aplenty. Women in some subarctic groups did most of the heavy work and ate after the men had finished. Carrier Indians were so named because they required widows to carry their husbands' bones on their backs.

(Women were the beneficiaries of another change wrought by the arrival of the horse: The animal replaced women in hauling the clumsy two-stick travois used to transport a family's belongings on the nomadic seasonal treks).

    Many Indian societies were highly stratified and ruled by authoritarian tribal elders. The Natchez, for example, were dominated by a small elite of Great Sun's relatives, nobles and honored men. The riff-raff, that is, almost everyone else, were called stinkards. The Weeden Island people along the Gulf Coast lived under an intricately stratified theocracy whose leaders claimed divine kinship to a sun god. Privileges and rank were hereditary among the Hopewellians of the Midwest.

    Tribes usually held one another in contempt, referring to themselves in lofty phrases such as "We the People" and designating their neighbors as "barbarians" or "sons of she-dog."

    There were exceptions. There were peaceful and even timid tribes that kept to themselves, especially in the harsh environment of northern Canada. The great Iroquois Confederacy embraced some democratic institutions for determining individual and tribal rights among its members. But inter-tribal violence, mutual contempt and social domination prevailed over much of the land -- patterns not unlike those found today in the Mideast. Which brings us to the third and greatest assertion: that the American Indian has clear and unsullied title from time immemorial to the land now occupied by whites.

    Let there be no doubt: Invading Europeans since the 16th century literally took America, much of it by force or subterfuge. But in the millenia before the white arrival, the Indians were doing precisely the same thing to each other.

    The history of Indian migrations into the New World from Asia is the history of group after group displacing one another, fighting over land, water and hunting grounds, redrawing the lines, making temporary alliances and often remaining in one spot only briefly before moving on.

    Large inhospitable chunks of North America were never settled at all or only so sparsely and erratically that human occupation was in name only. Some tribes like the Hopis, Slaves and Hares were peaceful, but many others were not only warlike but actively imperialist. "The Papagos regarded war as a form of insanity, the Comanches gloried in it," noted author William T. Hagan in "American Indians." The Ojibways, Crees and Tlingits of Canada constantly expanded their frontiers, pushing less aggressive neighbors to the periphery of usable land.

    As Josephy observed, even the Iroquois Confederacy, with its avowed ideas of unity and conciliation, was "almost constantly engaged in wars with Algonquians or with other Iroquoian peoples." Such tribal boundaries as existed were constantly being realigned or overrun.

    The entry of Europeans onto this scene 500 years ago was thus, in an historic sense, simply an elaboration, an extension, of what had been occurring during the millenia before their arrival -- expropriation, war, imperialism. But the new imperialists had the horse, the wheel and the gun. Their influence, thus, was more pervasive and more lasting.

    In the never ending see-saw of land grabbing and political deal cutting, Indians frequently allied themselves with whites against other whites or other Indians. There was no sacred loyalty or unity among them. "The Anglicans and Catholics who came to found Maryland in 1634," wrote historian Roy Harvey Pearce, "encountered peacably disposed Indians, eager to welcome them. As a matter of fact, the local Indians, the Patuxents, hoped for English aid against the raids of their fierce neighbors, the Susquehannocks," and a treaty was struck.

    These patterns challenge the idea that specific Indian groups have possessed specific tracts of land for millenia and their claims are thus inviolate. Even though many tribes came to possess their lands by brute force or treachery, the Europeans' use of the same tactics is somehow viewed as far more heinous.

    The best example of contemporary Indian claims to ancestral lands is the claim by segments of the Sioux Indian nation to the Black Hills area of South Dakota and Wyoming.

    In a narrow legalistic sense, the Sioux's claim is correct. The whites took the land illegally, by force, and the U.S. Supreme Court has so ruled. But in a broader, moral sense, the Sioux are on less firm ground. The truth is that they came into possession of the Black Hills in the same way -- by main force -- as the white man, and their claim is just as tenuous.

    The Sioux in fact are relative newcomers to the Black Hills, arriving only in the mid-17th century, and then driving out the Kiowa and Cheyenne tribes. The Sioux, in turn, had been forced from Minnesota and southern Ontario by the hostile Ojibways. That is documented history. Less reliable oral history and archeological evidence indicate that the Crows occupied the Black Hills prior to the Kiowas and Cheyennes, and before them, nearly 1,000 years ago, the Arapaho were there. One thing is certain: No single group lived in the Black Hills permanently from the mists of time. Rather, tribe after tribe, all culturally disparate, speaking different languages, praying to different gods, squabbled over the land.

The only difference is that some of the later tribesmen had white faces.

Paul Valentine is a Washington Post reporter.