Before the arrival of the first European settlers, numerous tribes of Native Americans were allowed to establish themselves across the American continents in isolation and without interruption from outside forces. When the Mayflower finally arrived in 1620, the English settlers and Native Americans were so vastly different it is easily apparent as to why they so fundamentally misunderstood each other on even the most basic levels. Since neither the colonists nor the Native Americans had interaction with one another until this point, their values were so integrated into their respective cultures that they were unable fully to understand each other. These differences are most visible between the settlers’ and natives’ understanding of class, economics, and gender.
A striking example of the difference between the understanding of class structure is found in the leadership customs of these two impossibly differing cultures. Despite leaving England due to fundamental differences in religious belief, the settlers at Plymouth still held King James, who enforced the Church of England upon his subjects, in high regard.
This respect comes from a conditioned belief formed at birth that they should remain loyal to the monarchy. At the time, it was believed the English monarchy was favored and its members were chosen by the English Christian god. The Mayflower settlers found themselves representatives of the English monarchy during their interactions with the Wampanoag people, possibly even referencing King James during their initial meeting and eventual alliance. From an English perspective, the equivalent of King James to the Wampanoag people is an individual known as the Massasoit.
While it is possible that the Massasoit could be favored by the spiritual belief system of the Wampanoag people, he in actuality received his position due to his ability to lead by example, rather than by birthright as per the English monarchy. The Massassoit received his position due to respect he received from others, respect which was gained by his ability to carry himself superior in all facets of his life including hunting, combat, and diplomacy. As a result of this difference, the native people see King James as a powerful warrior and intelligent diplomat, whereas the settlers see the Massassoit as a supreme ruler over the rest of his people. Their warped viewpoints, unfortunately, could not be farther from the truth.
Another harmful misunderstanding between these two cultures comes from wampum, a bead made from the shells of the whelk ate by the native people. Before the arrival of the English settlers, the Wampanoag people used these shells to painstakingly craft wampum beads. Since creating these beads happened to be very difficult, they were used in trade but were mostly symbolic in value. Often times they were used to commemorate special events such as alliances between clans or marriages. Receiving an item made from wampum was believed to be a gesture of great respect. When the Wampanoag people used this practice with the English settlers, the colonists believed the wampum beads were used by the natives as a form of currency rather than a symbolic gift of good will.
Due to their differing cultures, the meaning of wampum was lost and as a result, the English settlers created an economic system similar to their own rather than what the native people were accustomed to. Using iron drill bits, the process of creating wampum was greatly accelerated. Entering a sort of state of mass production, the value of wampum for the settlers increased dramatically as they were able to create a currency as needed, but their inability to understand its cultural significance gave room for them to unintentionally misuse it when dealing with native people.
A common belief among Native Americans is the general understanding of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Fulfilling separate but equally important roles, these two deities helped to define the gender roles of the early native tribes. Unlike Christian belief that women are subservient to males, the native tribes depended upon one another for support within their family circle and ultimately the entirety of the tribe. Males acted as hunters whereas females were farmers and gatherers. Given that women had the ability to bring life into the world, it was believed they had the natural ability to tend to the land.
Whereas European settlers were based from a patriarchal society, Native American culture showed hints of a matriarchal society, where men joined a woman’s house upon marriage and their children
often would form a strong bond with their mother’s brother. The leader of each house was usually a matron, the oldest female of the family. Without a clear understanding of gender roles within native society, the early colonists underestimated the pull of Native American women.
In hindsight, the relationship formed between the early English settlers and Native Americans was doomed from the start. Upon first meeting, their cultures were both unfamiliar and they could only relate to one another from their own single perspectives. As a result, their interactions were misunderstood and misguided, eventually both the early settlers and Native Americans forming a mutual distrust between each culture.