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The West and the North: the Indians

Indian Moccasins, Gustave de Beaumont

Indian Moccasins, Gustave de Beaumont © AD Manche

The first time that Tocqueville and Beaumont came face to face with Indians, they were in the city of Buffalo. They were tremendously disappointed: far from the romantic images of savages "upon whom nature had left the trace of some of those virtues from which the spirit of freedom was born," they found instead drunken, depraved creatures, dressed in European garb although still adorned with feathers and shells, and who appeared to have lost all of their nobility after contact with civilization. This dire impression was, however, quickly rectified by other encounters that corresponded more exactly to the two travelers' expectations. Certainly, they found it easy to point out, with a smile on their lips, the huge gap between the canons of Indian beauty and the legendary and Chateaubriand's very romantic Atala. And yet, they also discovered, in the heart of the virgin wilderness, the amazing agility of their Chippewa guides The two young Indians, aged fourteen and eighteen, moved through the forest almost like animals, instinctively avoiding pitfalls, while the two Europeans were practically unable to move.

« And what has become of the Indians? » I asked. « I'm not really sure where the Indians have gone, » our host responded, « somewhere out beyond the Great Lakes. They're a dying race. They aren't made for civilization: it kills them »
(Two Weeks in the Wilderness)

But Tocqueville also found the Indians independent, proud, and majestic in their wisdom and temperance, as well as serious and remarkably resilient - manly qualities that made these Old World inhabitants' behavior comparable to the aristocratic values of the Old Regime. And ultimately, weren't both these worlds destined to disappear? Tocqueville was aware of this, and although he showed real interest in the ways and customs of the various Indian tribes, he had no doubt that this "ancient people" - which he never saw as inferior - would yield to civilization in a generalized and shameful indifference.   play sound extractlire l'extrait sonore  

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Portrait de chef indien : 'Wa-ta-wa-buck-a-nack'

Paintings by Georges Catlin

Title page of 'Travels in North America', Karl Bodmer

Title page of "Travels in North America" by Prince de Wied, Karl Bodmer
© RMN/Philippe Bernard

Indian with rifle, Jules-Emile Saintin

Indian with rifle, Jules-Emile Saintin
© RMN/Gérard Blot


Letter to his cousin Eugénie de Grancey about Indians

Letter to his cousin Eugénie de Grancey about Indians © AD Manche

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