Why do hippies seek transformation in tepees? From the sandy wastes of Burning Man to the mud-filled pits of music festivals, enthusiastic seekers emulate Native American cultures in an attempt to throw off the “inauthenticity” of the modern world. While the traditions that hippies idealize may be divorced from the particular histories of the tribes within which they originated, they hold great importance within the counterculture. For many, these lifeways are the key to self-realization.
It’s not just American festivals that bear witness to this trend. Australian “doofs” and South American gatherings also sample from various indigenous histories in the marketing of their events. These counterculture spaces, often marketed as “transformational” music festivals, are replete with references to native cultures and claim to “re-enchant the default world by helping attendees get in touch with the rhythms of nature.” The implication is that indigenous peoples and nature are conceptually inextricable.
As it turns out, hippies are not the first to see the "Indian" as part of the landscape. The association of indigenous peoples with natural forces has a long history in European thought. It is closely tied to the concept of the “noble savage,” and often surfaces in descriptions of the state of nature. For millennia, philosophers and artists grappled with the idea of the noble savage and juxtaposed it against whatever crisis of morality happened to deserve their derision. In other words, despite their best efforts to escape the corroding influence of European civilization, hippies are very much within the mainstream of bourgeoisie attempts to rediscover authenticity in the modern world.
Their assumptions are so inextricable from the Western tradition that they can be found as far back as Plato. In the second book of his Republic, he lays the foundation for an ideal society in which humans cooperate without progressing, satisfied with only life’s bare necessities—shelter, food, simple clothing. Only when the desire for luxuries arises, when his State becomes a “luxurious State,” is there a need for the noble lie that divides society into classes and disturbs the natural equality and simplicity of the polis. The implication is that there can be no true justice so long as man has more than he needs. If civilization arises to produce the many goods that people enjoy—from couches to cars—then human relations can no longer be called pure.
Perhaps the most direct philosophical exploration of this idea comes from Rousseau. Although he never mentioned the words “noble savage,” his work on inequality, as well as his social contract theory, presupposes an idealized state of nature in which people are kept from wrongdoing by “the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice” (A Discourse Upon The Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind 1782, 71–73). Only with the development of civilization is this innocence corrupted by the very progress that allows man to contemplate his alienation: “As every advance made by the human species removes it still farther from its primitive state, the more discoveries we make, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of making the most important of all. Thus it is, in one sense, by our very study of man, that the knowledge of him is put out of our power” (ibid., 43). This story, by no means a creation of Rousseau’s, is familiar to many Americans because it has played a central role in the conduct of Europeans on the North American continent from colonial times.
When American colonists left the Old World, they self-consciously framed their journey in religious terms. Pilgrims and Puritans sought to establish a “city shining on a hill,” an earthly paradise free from the oppression of tyrants. There has always been a sense of utopianism to America. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that colonists often described the landscape in fantastic terms, and mythologized its indigenous inhabitants. Here, European settlers found the antithesis to their own civilization, while at the same time seeking to transplant civilization into the wilderness.
Thus, Native Americans were almost immediately cast in the mold of the noble savage, an idealized counterpoint to the corrupt Continental culture that the colonists had escaped. Throughout colonial times, the mythologized Indian served as a foil for modern civilization by symbolizing nature, even while real tribes were being evicted from their territory. This practice extended into the Jeffersonian Age, when visions of America were often expressed in terms of an Eden-like “Pastoral Garden.” As Bernard Sheehan writes, “it was axiomatic that the noble savage lived in paradise, and it was just as plainly assumed that paradise might be improved.” That this “improvement” often involved the displacement of the locals is typical of what Sheehan calls the “contradictions surrounding America’s long and ambivalent engagement of Indianness.” Noble in poetry, savage in policy.
It is worth restating that this pattern is not at all unique to America. Parallels have been drawn between the role of the Indian in America’s cultural imagination and that of the "Oriental," the Arab, and the African in Europe’s. In each case, an exotic other is used as a literary placeholder upon which the dual burdens of Edenic innocence and primitive savagery are placed. And even as America hurried along the path of westward expansion, progress breathed new life into the narrative of the noble savage.
As the West welcomed modernity, anxieties abounded, and this makes sense: it wrought a rapid break with tradition in the form of unprecedented mechanization and urbanization. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire defined the modern as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and immovable.” For many, modern civilization was defined by rapid change while premodern (and primitive) societies were perceived as changeless. The first was anxious and frenzied, the second, peaceful and innocent.
Perhaps ironically, the avant-garde’s response to modernity was highly reactionary. In his study of the American obsession with Playing Indian, Phillip Deloria describes a generation of intellectuals and artists caught in “an empty sense of self generated by the historical chasm that served as a signpost for the modern.” This chasm was “perceived and characterized [...] in terms of an older authenticity and a contemporary sense of inauthenticity.” Artists all over the continent struggled with the realization that mass consumerism could turn even the most radical of statements into a commodity, safe for mainstream consumption. Thus, cultural elites often framed the issue as a struggle for authentic individuality amid mass conformity.
Primitivists certainly made this move. Drawing upon the same undercurrents that influenced Jeffersonian perceptions of Indianness in the formulation of their artistic mission, men like Stravinsky and Picasso turned to “primitive” subjects to discover more than novelty: a sense of authenticity in a world that was fast becoming unrecognizable. This trend was epitomized by Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journey of 1891, in which the painter abandoned his wife and family to take adolescent Tahitian mistresses and appropriate native artistic techniques.
Primitivists grounded their unabashedly indulgent lifestyles in the philosophical footwork of nineteenth-century thinkers like Nietzsche. Many of their ideals found eloquent expression in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. In the work, the German philosopher-madman expounds upon a world in which man’s original state is one of perfect harmony with nature, in which people are guided completely by unrepressed instinct. However, due to social pressures, repression becomes necessary, causing a distinct loss of authenticity and power that manifests itself in the form of guilt, a lessening of perceived self-value. (Later, Freud incorporated much of this framework into his psychoanalytic theory.)
Nietzsche’s thoughts hit hard in an era when the avant-garde was reacting to accusations of over-individualization, widely termed “decadence.” “The reason for cultural decline, they reported, was not because modern society had become too individualistic but rather because it was not individualistic enough,” as Mary Gluck puts it. Following Nietzsche, Primitivists championed decadence, arguing that only through the rejection of conformity and the embrace of radical individuality could authenticity be found. As Hermann Bahr wrote, “We ourselves have to become barbarians to save the future of humanity from mankind as it now is. As primitive man, driven by fear of nature, sought refuge within himself, so we too have to adopt flight from a ‘civilization’ which is out to devour our soul.”
But what did this flight from civilization consist of? For most Primitivists, flight to the frontier was not physical; it was mental, aesthetic, “spiritual” in that undefined sense characteristic of irreligious mythologies of the modern era. Rather than fend for themselves in nature, many Primitivists reimagined themselves in the (also imaginary) state of nature. In doing so, they transformed the ethnographic “other” that inhabited the frontier into an archetypal facet of the human soul.
Ironically enough, the very “primitives” that were called on to activate individuality and re-enchant everyday experience for disillusioned artists in the United States often had a very different idea of individuality than that found within the avant-garde. As Shari Huhndorf puts it in her take on Going Native, “the fixation on self-discovery and self-healing articulate the very Western ideologies of bourgeois individualism […] this particular concern with personal growth finds no place in Native traditions.” Indeed, in America, the cult of individuality had to be forcibly impressed on Natives in institutions such as the Carlisle Indian School.
This bitter irony did not deter Continentals and Americans from their righteous path in the early 1900s, nor did it bring pause to hippies in the 1960s and ’70s (or for that matter, today). By this time, the forces of mechanization and centralization unleashed by modernity had crystallized in the form of the technocracy, a political and social system so complex in its nature that even comprehending its inner workings necessitates years of specialized training. This, argued Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (the book in which he coined the term “counter culture”), was the menace against which the hippies protested.
He, and prominent dissident leaders such as Timothy Leary and Allan Watts, clamored for a return to the “shaman’s way,” in which man and nature are united in a state of constant ecstasy—or, just maybe, magic mushrooms. Conveniently enough, many American youths had already heard of people who were united with nature. Thus, hippies turned almost immediately to the myth of the noble savage in their quest to break with mainstream society. Once again, idealized versions of Native American lifeways were to serve as foils to civilization.
This explains the abundance of Indian-themed gatherings, clothes, communities, and artworks found throughout the hippie movement. From Grateful Dead concerts to ill-fated communes, tepees, headdresses, and moccasins were part and parcel of the supposedly new counterculture. Just like the Primitivist, the hippy sought to actualize their own individuality by adopting symbols originating in cultures commonly understood to be “pure” of modernity’s defilements. Through the assimilation of these symbols, the hippies declared themselves free of the hierarchical structures under which they chafed. In this reactionary fashion, they imagined a revolution that might re-enchant the world.
This is not to say that hippies had (or have) bad intentions. (Many played a part in the Red Power movement of the ’60s and ’70s, which saw mass protests from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee.) It is clear that many sought a genuine philosophical or religious alternative to the status quo. Yet the alternative that many settled on was not at all new—it was precisely that of Primitivism.
Writing in 1906, Primitivist theorist Wilhelm Worringer claimed that a society that exhibited interest in primitive art and religion would seek a “happy pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world”—the shaman’s way of the counterculture. In this pantheistic relationship, man “regards the divine as being contained in the world and identical with it… the unity of God and world is only another name for the unity of man and world.” On this monist account, material and biological forces are imbued with anthropomorphic qualities of affect and spirit: the environment and the self are entangled. Thus, by exploring a deeper decadent individuality, the Primitivist and the hippy (think they) achieve not only authentic self-expression, but authentic connection with the world as well.
Today’s counterculture may be half a century removed from that of the 1960s, but it still relies on Primitivism. Walk through the grounds of any transformational festival and you’ll be sure to spot more than a few references to the Indian, often nestled within a framework oriented to aid participants in rediscovering supposedly authentic lifeways. Paradoxes abound—in their critique of the contemporary world, the new generation of hippies display exactly the sort of “cosmopolitan, expressive, and reflexive trends arising from the very modern dynamics they criticize,” as D’Andrea notes.
For example, at one widely attended counterculture event in California last year, the “Ancestral Arts Village” hosted Tarot readings, West African dance workshops, Hopi Star Prophecy lectures, and classes on Dreamcatcher making—an international group of ancestors indeed. One academic observer (Gina Fatone in Rave Culture and Religion) of the ’90s rave movement argued that references to “primitive” cultures in these settings only serve to “affirm the romantic, self-perceived identity of raving as part of something ‘primal’ and resistant to the mainstream.” That is why the references tend to be so general that anyone might claim them as their own.
For all its contradictions, Primitivism remains a powerful ideology, and in a time when many Westerners feel increasingly disconnected from their heritage, it’s no surprise that they look for answers in other cultures. Yet as they do so, they often adopt the assumptions of the mainstream they so loudly criticize—which may be the most interesting contradiction of all.
Adam De Gree is a freelance writer and homeschool history teacher based in Prague. He studied Philosophy at UC Santa Barbara and can be reached by email here.