Dawn in the West: How the Thought of Indigenous People Ushered in Modernity

This book argues that the Indigenous peoples of colonial North America won the war of ideas with their European interlocutors: not just once, but twice. Indigenous culture, it will demonstrate, has substantially impacted modern, non-Indigenous thought in two transformative waves as influential as they have been unacknowledged: an epistemic wave in the seventeenth century, and an ontological wave which began to build in the 1960s, and is cresting in our own times.

Arguably, the seventeenth-century Indigenous-European encounter in colonial North America was as if not more transformative intellectually, theologically, and culturally for Europeans than it was for Indigenous societies. For, in their momentous meeting with the Indigenous nations of northeastern North America, Europeans encountered peoples whose way of thinking was recognizably modern in a way that theirs was not – yet.  What we are accustomed to thinking of as a European Enlightenment actually has its roots deeply within the epistemology of the Indigenous peoples of North America, who were, in a sense, “enlightened” before the “Enlightenment.” 

For, in contrast with the authoritarianism and exclusivism of their European interrogators, seventeenth-century Indigenous peoples were cultural relativists who favored religious toleration and the respect of individual conscience, and who utilized rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism in weighing religious claims.  Moreover, in contrast with Christianity’s crisp dualisms, Native spirituality was monistic and holistic.  What European Christians differentiated as “body” and “soul,” Indigenous peoples envisioned and experienced as a seamless whole.  Indigenous peoples also utilized situational ethics: eschewing the extreme characterizations of “good” and “evil” to describe the behavior either of human beings or of the wider category of “persons,” which for them encompassed animals and forces of nature.  This interpersonal respect resulted in community structures that were not only conceptually broad but also relatively “flat” and proto-democratic: presenting a sharp contrast with both the absolute monarchies of Europe and with papal supremacy.

Finally, Indigenous peoples’ lack of familiarity with Christian assumptions, worldview, and pantheon made them formidable critics of its central theological tenets, as they were unmolded by Christian conventions and ideology, allowing them to ask questions that were literally unimaginable for Europeans steeped in the creed. 

That Indigenous perspectives made it to Europe was due in large part to the writings of Jesuit missionaries.  Written with the intention of glorifying Jesuit self-sacrifice in the New World, the justly famous Jesuit Relations helped to attract human and financial capital for the mission.  But, over time, the Relations gradually became the unintended transmitter of powerfully attractive Indigenous philosophy, ontology, epistemology, and political models to a changing Europe.  Its readers increasingly read its narratives across and against the Jesuit grain, appreciating the often pointed critiques made by Native peoples about European beliefs and behaviors and sharply questioning both the evangelical imperative and the colonial project itself.  Over the passage of a century, Jesuit religious exclusivism and ethnocentrism would increasingly be rejected by European readers who favored religiously tolerant, philosophically monist, and hierarchically flat native cultures as a progressive model for a new Europe.

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