The Savage We Need to Civilize is Within Us

By Robert C. Koehler

We crossed the Atlantic, encountered a bunch of savages, defeated them, claimed the continent. We won! This is the history I remember learning, as satisfying and stupid as a John Wayne movie.

The myth is crumbling and cracking, its certainty now as precarious as the statue of a Confederate general. Truth flows in through the holes, e.g.:

By the late 1830s, most of the native residents had been “removed” from a big chunk of the South — a few million acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida — so white men could start growing cotton there. In 1838, a final group of stubborn Cherokees were deported to Oklahoma Territory, as President Martin Van Buren sent 7,000 soldiers to do the job.

The soldiers, according to, “forced the Cherokee into stockades at bayonet point while his men looted their homes and belongings. Then, they marched the Indians more than 1,200 miles to Indian Territory. Whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation were epidemic along the way, and historians estimate that more than 5,000 Cherokee died as a result of the journey.”

And that was just the final installment of the Trail of Tears, which forced some 125,000 Native Americans — Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee — out of their birth lands. And the Trail of Tears was just a small part of white America’s history of conquest and arrogance as it claimed the continent.

Indeed, the U.S. government authorized “over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, the most of any country in the world against its Indigenous people,” tells us, noting that, by the end of the 19th century, there were less than a quarter million indigenous people left on the continent, compared to an estimated 5 to 15 million of them in 1492.

Apparently, this is what “victory” looks like, at least the small, dead kind of victory that is based on moral ignorance, which is to say, on dehumanization: the necessary precursor to war.

How is it that humanity has managed to advance in so many ways yet still clutch to its core the right to dehumanize part of itself, whenever it chooses? Why do we find it simpler to remain prepared to kill a declared enemy rather than to reach for ways to understand that enemy and, in so doing, evolve? Perhaps evolution — moving beyond our settled certainties, entering the unknown — is simply too scary to face.

And war isn’t always waged with guns and bullets.

“In the century and a half that the U.S. government ran boarding schools for Native Americans,” Rukmini Callimachi writes in the New York Times, “hundreds of thousands of children were housed and educated in a network of institutions, created to ‘civilize the savage.’ By the 1920s, one group estimates, nearly 83 percent of Native American school-age children were attending such schools.”

The war being waged by boarding schools was a war on culture. Children were robbed of their language, of their cultural context, which are crimes I can hardly imagine enduring. Who they were was beaten out of them. They were beaten, so one woman remembers, with brooms and mops, with belts, hangers, shoes, branches, sticks, wire.

But the beatings were only stage one. One boarding school “graduate” — or rather, escapee — told Callimachi that the cruelest thing he experienced was not the routine beatings. His grandfather had taught him how to carve a flute out of the branch of a cedar tree. He brought the flute he had carved to the school . . . uh oh, big mistake! His teacher “smashed it and threw it in the trash.”

This was not simply the confiscation of a toy. The theft pierced the boy’s soul: The teacher had stolen his music from him. Callimachi writes: “‘That’s what God is. God speaks through air,’ he said, of the music his grandfather taught him.”

What magnifies the cruelty of this moment almost beyond comprehension is that this wasn’t an individual act of mean-spiritedness. This was national policy! The boy’s flute was simply an object of savagery and the purpose of the boarding school was to civilize him: “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

And this is the history that needs to be taught, but not, I would add, merely in a good-guy/bad-guy context. The collective human consciousness needs to open, as we dig collectively to grasp: why? Why did white Europeans then — and why do whoever we are now — devote so much of our energy and resources to destroying what we don’t understand? Why do we honor — and fund — our impulse to hate?

Once again, I ask these questions not in regard to individual, but rather collective — governmental — behavior. I fear that as we unite, we diminish our ability to respect, and understand, the complexity of the universe, and of our fellow humans. We unite around simplistic certainties, and these certainties seem always to involve an enemy, or Other. And empowerment means being able to kill, rather than understand, embrace and learn from — or hear the music of — that Other.

This is history’s primary lesson: The savage we need to civilize, continually, is within ourselves.

Robert Koehler(, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.

This article was sent on July 22 to the PeaceWorker by Tom Hastings, Ed.D., Director, PeaceVoice Program, Oregon Peace Institute. Tom notes: We are located in the traditional homelands of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Watlala Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other indigenous nations who made their homes along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. By recognizing these communities, we honor their legacies, their lives, and their descendants.

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