Eurocentrism: a Foundational Error

The inspiration for this long series of post on my blog about Indigenous people was some comments I received about a year ago from two friends. If I recall correctly, they suggested that we could help them by showing up for a weekend or so and build some homes for them. In other words they suggested we white guys knew what was good for the Indigenous people  and could solve their problems. That is a terrible mistake, because it assumes that we know best and all they need to do is do what we suggest they do. This is mistake is what I call Eurocentrism–i.e. the assumption that we are superior and know what’s good for them. We are as subject to his prejudice as early Europeans were when they first encountered Indigenous people. This is exactly the attitude that we need to expunge.

The Initial misunderstandings between Europeans and Indigenous People that occurred from their first meetings in 1492 proved to be fundamental and ensured that the relationship between them would never be stable.  Historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. put it this way:

“To a large extent, the fundamental problem stemmed from (and continues to stem from the non-Indians’ Eurocentrism, an ingrained conviction on the part of those who came first to the Americas from Europe, as well as by their American descendants, that their cultures, values, religions, lifeways, abilities and achievements were more advanced or of a higher order than those of the Indians. It followed therefore, that they deemed the Indians to be inferior peoples–uncivilized Stone Age savages, perhaps even subhuman–and their cultures irrelevant or barbaric and dangerous to civilized mankind.

More importantly, through the centuries, the belief in their own superiority justified, to the white invaders, the enslavement of Indians, the seizure of their lands and resources, the destruction of their societies, the cultivation of anti-Indian prejudice, and the patronization that still treats Indians as inferiors and denies them self-determination, sovereignty, and respect for their spiritual life.”

This was unfortunate for both of these worlds. Had this Eurocentrism not been there both sides could have learned immense things of value from the other. Both could have benefitted immeasurably. The history of the world could have been radically different and we are all the losers as a result.

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