Buffalo Dance of the Mandans, 1833 - 1834

19th Century Nitty-Gritty: Out of Savagery into Civilization

By Melissa Rayner

Native American rights have been in the news quite a bit lately, especially as they relate to the Redskins controversy. That got me thinking:  How were things back in our favorite century?

And what I found broke my heart, much in the same way reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison breaks my heart every single time (yes, normally, these blog posts are kind of hilarious, and I promise to return to hilarity next week).

My search turned up an autobiography by Joseph K. Griffis (formerly Tahan), Out of Savagery into Civilization, in which he recounts–and even dumbs down–his many adventures as a wild man of the plains and how he eventually found his place among learned, civilized society. Here, the introduction lays out his many experiences:


What fascinates me is this acceptance and perpetuation of racism by its victim. Much like in Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Tahan has chosen to believe that he and his people were savages in need of civilizing. The author of the introduction, however, sees this dilemma differently. Instead, he raises the eternal question of nature versus nurture, although it is full of “less-than” talk:

Tahan 2

Tahan, himself, delivers to expectations in his autobiography, citing the need for the Red man to catch up to the White on the evolutionary scale:


This fits in nicely with the rhetoric of the day. Just look at these other sources from 1890 (The Indian Can No Longer Live by Hunting) and 1892 (How to Bring the Indian to Citizenship, and Citizenship to the Indian):

Kingdom of Godignorant indian

However, in the end of his account, Tahan proves absolutely brilliant. First, Tahan hooked his audience by meeting their expectations and desires, then he delivered a compelling tale of adventure, and–at the last–he take his stand and tells us the real reason for his journey “out of savagery into civilization”:

Tahan - adapt or perish

Tahan, while remarkable, is in now way unique. Check out the resources below for more on the intersection of Native and White life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And, if you have time, read more from Tahan’s autobiography–you’re in for a fascinating adventure, I promise!


Previous Posts in this Series:


This is Tahan after his transformation into Joseph K. Griffis.
This is Tahan after his transformation into Joseph K. Griffis.




Melissa for Caricature (2)About the Author

Melissa is obsessed with books, birds, and bonbons. She is a new mom and holds an MA in Applied Sociology. She also writes fiction and skips about the interweb as Emlyn Chand.




7 thoughts on “19th Century Nitty-Gritty: Out of Savagery into Civilization

      • I stumbled upon that while researching very different topics and worked with actual documents at The British National Archives in Kew Gardens. There is so much that things go unnoticed, and historians can also be very political and one sided.
        I would love to welcome you with one of these posts, can be reposted if allowed to my site, based on the Voltaire saying; “History is the commonly agreed upon lie.” especially in regards to India, I have never had a guest address India from any POV.

          • I looked for World’s Fair Indian Exhibition but did not see link on recent posts. I have visited Kew a lot personally as the files I worked with were so obscure. I still source them and get documents from them, as many open on a monthly basis. Many extraordinary documents about the American Revolution are housed there as we were a colony. Their on-line resources get better all the time, they are FAB.
            As I have lived in various countries I have had the perspectives of the different views on historical events, one county’s heroic freedom fighter is another’s terrorist and foe. Please post link to article, or you can TAG me with it on FB. Great work Melissa.

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