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American Pentimento

The Invention of Indians and the Pursuit of Riches

Patricia Seed

Publication Year: 2001

Americans like to see themselves as far removed from their European ancestors’ corrupt morals, imperial arrogance, and exploitation of native resources. Yet, as Patricia Seed argues in American Pentimento, this is far from the truth. The modern regulations and pervading attitudes that control native rights in the Americas may appear unrelated to colonial rule, but traces of the colonizers’ cultural, religious, and economic agendas nonetheless remain. Seed likens this situation to a pentimento-a painting in which traces of older compositions or alterations become visible over time-and shows how the exploitation begun centuries ago continues today.

In her analysis, Seed examines how European countries, primarily England, Spain, and Portugal, differed in their colonization of the Americas. She details how the English appropriated land, while the Spanish and Portuguese attempted to eliminate "barbarous" religious behavior and used indigenous labor to take mineral resources. Ultimately, each approach denied native people distinct aspects of their heritage. Seed argues that their differing effects persist, with natives in former English colonies fighting for land rights, while those in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies fight for human dignity. Seed also demonstrates how these antiquated cultural and legal vocabularies are embedded in our languages, popular cultures, and legal systems, and how they are responsible for current representations and treatment of Native Americans. We cannot, she asserts, simply attribute the exploitation of natives’ resources to distant, avaricious colonists but must accept the more disturbing conclusion that it stemmed from convictions that are still endemic in our culture.

Wide-ranging and essential to future discussions of the legacies of colonialism, American Pentimento presents a radical new approach to history, one which uses paradigms from anthropology and literary criticism to emphasize language as the basis of law and culture.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Series: Public Worlds


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Series Page, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

List of Maps

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

One need only cross any international border to see that history, unlike fiction, rarely transcends international boundaries. Having spent summers over the past ten years haunting bookstores in Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, I am no longer surprised to find popular American fiction in translation or bound in different covers for foreign editions. ...

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American Pentimento: An Introduction

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pp. 1-11

On a wintry afternoon in November 1992, I was sitting in a conference room at the University of Essex listening to a group of activists on behalf of indigenous people. Many were themselves natives, others their allies from the United States, Europe, and the United Nations. ...

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1 Owning Land by Labor, Money, and Treaty

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pp. 12-28

When a representative from one of the many native communities at the 1992 Essex conference introduced the subject of land rights for indigenous peoples, individuals in the audience from English-speaking regions of the Americas responded enthusiastically. Securing land rights, they agreed, should be the first priority for Native Americans. ...

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2 Imagining a Waste Land; or, Why Indians Vanish

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pp. 29-44

When Queen Elizabeth first formally authorized New World colonization, she alluded only to spaces, not to people. Declaring that Englishmen were entitled to take over “Cities, Castles, Towns and Villages,” she said nothing about the people who already lived there.1 ...

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3 Gendering Native Americans: Hunters as Anglo-America’s Partial Fiction

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pp. 45-56

A unique characteristic of early English-language writings on the native peoples of the Americas is their fixation on the gendered division of labor. In North and South America there were many societies in which women were the farmers, planting and harvesting crops close to home, while men trekked further afield in pursuit of fish, game, fowl, or exotic plants that could be traded. ...

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4 Ownership of Mineral Riches and the Spanish Need for Labor

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pp. 57-71

Iberian settlers believed that all the valuable mineral reserves—gold, silver, emeralds, and diamonds—in the New World had become theirs once they had firmly established themselves. Whereas English colonists believed the land was rightfully theirs, Spanish and Portuguese colonists considered that precious mineral deposits belonged to them.1 ...

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5 Tribute and Social Humiliation: The Cost of Preserving Native Farmlands

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pp. 72-90

Unlike English officials, who actively encouraged settlers to seize productive native land, Spanish colonial officials made such seizure difficult. Although some have attempted to claim moral superiority for the Spanish based on this, the origin of this policy lies less in a moral terrain than in the Spanish officials’ economic and political interests in such communities. ...

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6 Cannibals: Iberia’s Partial Truth

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pp. 91-112

In 1992, at the Essex conference attended by many indigenous activists from Spanish America, a prominent English historian, John Hemming, gave a talk about the sixteenth-century peoples of Brazil.1 When I politely taxed him after the presentation with the fact that his extensive historical description of the sixteenth-century coastal Tupis was missing an important dimension of their lives, namely, cannibalism, ...

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7 Sustaining Political Identities: The Moral Boundary between Natives and Colonizers

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pp. 113-134

The partial fictions that Europeans created of native peoples contain two puzzles. First is that in the American colonies, categorical labels—hunters and cannibals—remained unchallenged by actual contact with the natives. Second is that the popularity of these labels endured throughout the colonial era. ...

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8 Indians in Portuguese America

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pp. 135-150

Whereas English colonists expropriated Indian land overseas and Spaniards expropriated Indian labor, Portuguese colonists at first seized neither. Rather, their pattern, which was subsequently imitated successfully by Dutch and other European merchants, left the means of production in the hands of aboriginal inhabitants. ...

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9 Fast Forward: The Impact of Independence on Colonial Structures

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pp. 151-162

Independence from Spain and England occurred roughly during the same period for most of North and South America, but the new citizens’ attitudes toward their former colonizers differed strikingly. North of the tropic of Capricorn, independent Americans embraced the cultural traits— accents and social attitudes—of their former colonizers. ...

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10 Continuities: Colonial Language and Images Today

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pp. 163-178

In Africa and Asia, most decolonization occurred when native peoples led costly fights that forced Europeans to withdraw. In the Americas, however, the descendants of European colonizers led the independence movements. ...

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Conclusion. No Perfect World: Contemporary Aboriginal Communities’ Human and Resource Rights

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pp. 179-192

From Australia to Brazil, and from Alaska to Patagonia, the economic beliefs and political languages of three small European states—Spain, England, and Portugal—continue to operate in often unacknowledged ways, dividing contemporary nations as well as aboriginal communities on issues as important as human rights and the claim to ownership of minerals and land. ...

Appendix: On the Names of Some North American Aboriginal Peoples

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pp. 193-196


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pp. 197-286


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pp. 287-300

E-ISBN-13: 9780816692613
E-ISBN-10: 0816692610
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816637669

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2001

Edition: First edition
Series Title: Public Worlds
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OCLC Number: 191930398
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Pentimento

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of North America -- Land tenure.
  • Indians -- Colonization.
  • Indians -- Civil rights.
  • Land tenure -- Government policy -- America -- History.
  • Right of property -- America -- History.
  • Europe -- Colonies -- America -- Administration.
  • America -- Colonization.
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