The poet Robert Frost defines home as ‘the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in’. The word tribe is somewhat harder to define, but it equates roughly to a ‘group of people with whom we feel obliged to share what is left of our food’. Tribal civilisations can teach us a great deal about loyalty, a sense of belonging, and the eternal human desire to give our life meaning.
According to the author, America is the only great modern power that struggled against a native population that, technologically, was stuck in the Stone Age: while the very first factories were being built in Chicago, the Native Americans, only a few hundred miles away, were still fighting with arrows and axes. Over the course of three centuries, America became a nation divided by class struggles and deep racial conflict, while abiding by a body of laws that, in theory, came to define all men as equals.
The Native Americans, on the other hand, lived communally within nomadic or semi-sedentary camps governed by a system of consensus: authority was assigned on the basis of merit, and those who did not agree with the general consensus were free to leave the group.
The coexistence of these two forms of society gave rise to a completely unexpected turn of events, which many Westerns had not seen coming: a great number of white people who, for various reasons, came into contact with the Native American tribal way of life, actually chose it over western society. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend that white prisoners who had been captured and then released from tribal societies soon grew sick of the western way of life once they returned home, and fled again at the first opportunity. In 1782, French-American writer Hector de Crevecoeur wrote that thousands of Europeans had adopted the American Indian way of life, but that there was not one single case of a Native choosing to become European. De Crevecoeur said that the Native American social bond held far greater appeal than the one found in western society.
Mary Jemison was abducted by a Native American tribe from her family’s farm on the Pennsylvania frontier when she was 15 years old, but hid from the search parties that came looking for her, in order to prevent them from taking her back home. She later explained that women in the tribe were responsible for gathering wood and making bread, but that their duties were no more strenuous than those given to white women. “There were no masters, no one controlled us, and we could work in peace. No people can live more happily than the Indians did in peacetime,” she said. Another woman captured around the same time told the secretary of the Sovereign French Legation, Austin Texas: “I am free, I will marry if I want to, and I will be free again if I want to be. Is there a single woman in your cities as independent as I am?”.
The Indian American way of life held just as much appeal for white men, because hunting with the tribes was more exciting than harvesting the fields, their clothes were more comfortable (they wore suede suits and leggings, and muslin bands as loincloths fastened by a belt), and sexuality was embraced more freely among the Natives. In the American settlement of Cape Cod in the 17th century, for instance, boys could be whipped for talking to a woman who they were not related to. What’s more, the Natives embraced egalitarianism, so personal property was limited to what each person could carry, and earnings were not passed on from one generation to the next, which discouraged people from greedily accumulating wealth. A person’s social position depended solely on their success in hunting and warfare.