The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America

By James Axtell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE Last Rights: The Acculturation of Native Funerals in Colonial North America

AFTER HEARING MY HISTORICAL TESTIMONY ON BEHALF OF THE Mashpee tribe in October 1977, a Boston reporter quipped that much of it had "the flavor of a college seminar," which I chose to take as a compliment. But during my days in court I felt as often like a student as a teacher. One of the most vivid lessons I took away from the trial, a lesson that strongly reinforced what I knew largely from books, was that, while Indian societies made many surface changes to accommodate their white adversaries, they retained over long periods durable substrata of values and beliefs which sustained their distinctive Indian identities. The lesson gained from reconstructing 350 years of Mashpee history and meeting the undeniably Indian heirs and guardians of that legacy was fresh in my mind as I wrote the following essay for delivery at the Iroquois Conference a year later.

Every student of European missionary efforts in North America must be struck by the fact that no aspect of native life was immune from attack. Armed with the belief that pagans must be "civilized" before they can be Christianized, the missionaries sought to recast the whole of native culture in a Western European mold. In order to convey the palpable reality of that goal, I have focused on some of the seemingly trivial aspects of Indian life that carried extra symbolic weight for the Christian reformers, such as hairstyles, menstrual practices, and burial customs.

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