J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

I am a stranger and a sojourner with you. Give me a possession for a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight. ~ Abraham to the Canaanites, Genesis 23:4

Wherever you go, there you are. ~ origin uncertain; perhaps Buckaroo Banzai said it first, certainly not Jon Kabat-Zinn

In 1511, Gonzalo Guerrero and several other Spaniards were shipwrecked on the coast of the Yucatán (Temple, 2014). Captured by the local Maya, most of the Spaniards were killed and eaten. Guerrero and one companion escaped and lived as slaves among a rival tribe. In time, Guerrero won his freedom and earned prominence as a warrior (‘guerrero’). He had a wife and kids and became “completely Mayanized” Guerrero had become a nacom, he had gone fully native.

The phrase going native invokes images of European men in the Americas living like or living with indigenous tribes. They master the language, take wives, and beget children. They make a living not by the gun alone, but also by using skills learned from the locals. These images tend to feature European men in a colonial context or at the U.S. American frontier, coming from a putatively more advanced civilization, penetrating a lesser one, and helping to prepare (perhaps unwittingly) its demise. Some of these images feature women or children, although they are typically shown as going native against their will, though reluctant to return to civilization when given a chance. For egocentric reasons, and in deference to the master narrative, I will focus on the men.

The idea of going native is emotionally ambivalent. On the one hand, there is the Rousseau-esque romance of the noble savage. He who goes native is thus ennobled. On the other hand, there is European ambition, which regards natives as primitives in need to be civilized. He who goes native is a traitor. By choosing barbarism over civilization, he calls the superiority of the latter in question. A middle ground is that at least temporarily both cultures, the native and the colonial, benefit from this transitional figure. The native-goer is a connector, a trader, and civilizer; he is the grand-dad of the academic who does interdisciplinary research. However intriguing the legend of Gonzalo Guerrero may be, it does not fit the stereotype well because he went native out of necessity, not for the sake of profit or the wish to civilize the savages.

The picture I am painting is a glossed prototype, full of assumptions and projections. But think of it: the notion of going native is resonant. Is there perhaps something for everyone to enjoy? Have you had the experience of going native and what was it like? Taking the liberty to forage in psychoanalytic Gedankengut (way of thinking), I submit that the rewards of going native are rich and deep. Going native is returning to the womb, to a primeval state of congruence with nature. Going native is rejecting oppressive paternal authority, it is successful rebellion (fathering children with native women). Going native is embracing an alternative social paradigm without committing the fallacies of hermitism or asceticism. From the perspective of shallow psychology (Dawes, 1976) going native is reaping the rewards of travel and broad experience sampling. It is looking over the rim of the domestic soup dish (über den Tellerrand schauen), to use a phrase my uncle Jürgen W., himself not a native-goer but a seasoned traveler, once wielded in conversation.

Once we look beyond the storied frontiersman, we see many variants of the native-goer, and his alter ego, the tourist. The tourist is a pretender. He buys native trinkets, proclaims his love of local folklore, and then returns to Ludwigshafen. The native-goer stays awhile, adopts local folkways, and perhaps immigrates. A friend of mine, Werner M., experimented with nativizing when doing field research in Jamaica. He lived among subsistence farmers who also labored on a sugar cane plantation. He lived in a hut and drank unfiltered water. One of his friends went blind for a few days, for reasons unknown. Werner himself, a tan man with a permanent (which lasted long enough to get him through the adventure and make him look creole), studied how the natives survived. It was all about cooperation and mutual aid (Kropotkin, 1902/1955). Werner adopted some local skills, for his own good. When taking the bus, he noticed that there were two fares, one for the natives, and another for everyone else. Going native, Werner boarded the bus, handed the driver exact change for the local fare, looked him deep in the eyes, and intoned “Cool, mon.” The driver had no choice but to respect this chutzpah, and Werner went places.

Native-goers like Werner and immigrants of the native-goer type do not come in large groups. They work alone, or in very small groups. Traditionally, most immigration comprises the large-scale movement of groups that seek to re-create their communities of origin in the new environment. They often express strong anti-native sentiment, seeing the local cultures as something to be overcome. Individual immigrants, even today, are in a way forced to be native-goers. My own experience is – though comparatively pale (I am no Guerrero) – not entirely uninstructive. I entered the USA twice to live there, in 1983 and again in 1991. Two ideas dominated my thinking in 1983. One was the belief that the USA was the most progressive and ‘coolest’ country in the world, and the other was its entailment: the desire to assimilate as quickly and as fully as possible. I thought this could be done. After a year or so, I figured, I would be able to convincingly simulate an American presentation and attitude. In other words, I thought it possible to go 100% native. This was an illusion, and in hindsight a silly one. The Birkenstocks-and-socks were always a dead give-away. Still, significant assimilation took place. It was a gradual process that mostly went on outside of my awareness. Visits to Germany brought the effects to light. Friends noted my slowed gait and elongated vowels. I would say ‘jawb’ instead of ‘dzhopp’ as speakers of Denglish would. Other changes were attitudinal. I felt an American sensibility when a German town bureaucrat queried me about my religious affiliation and changes in my marital status. These, I felt, were private matters that are irrelevant to the task of registering one’s residence. In short, my having gone native stateside manifested in the contrast with the status quo ante. A European assimilating to US folkways in the Jetztzeit (present time) is not a paradigm vis-à-vis the stereotype of native-going (Guerrero). The present-day United States and its native-born population may not be perceived, or wish to be perceived, as a comparatively primitive or savage society. But this is just a matter of how narrowly we define the concept.

I think the concept of “going native” deserves a broad interpretation and attention in psychological theory and research. Existing work on immigration, acculturation, assimilation, and multiple identities is a start, but much of it is dominated by particular group interests. Acculturation and assimilation are projects have been prized historically in the context of the U.S. American experience and recently in Western Europe (see Berry, 1997, for a classic summary). Diversity and identity issues are part of the project to protect small, indigenous, or otherwise vulnerable groups from losing their character and ultimately their existence (e.g., Vertovec, 2001). Going native, in contrast, is an adventure of the individual, perhaps the greatest adventure of all – if you survive it.

Here’s a short list of some my favorite Native-Goers: 

Aimé Bonpland, friend of Alexander von Humboldt’s. Humboldt studied everything; Bonpland loved everything. 

Lawrence of Arabia, spiting the Ottomans

Joseph in Egypt, spiting his brothers

Squanto (in reverse)

Frida Kahlo, connecting with her Nahuatl ancestry

Pharaoh Hatshepsut, where the men were the natives

Leonard Zelig, fictional chameleon man

Robert Sapolsky, why stop at humans?

Berry, J. W. (1997). Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46, 5-68.

Dawes, R. M. (1976). Shallow psychology. In J. Carroll & J. Payne (eds.). Cognition and social behavior (pp. 3-12). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kropotkin, P. (1902/1955). Mutual aid. Boston, MA: Extending Horizons Books.

Temple, R. D. (2014, Feb. 8). The shipwrecked sailor who fathered a race. The Yucatán Times. http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2014/02/the-shipwrecked-sailor-who-father...

Vertovec, S. (2001). Transnationalism and identity. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 27, 573-582.

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