When the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere the Cherokee were a free people and a sovereign nation. Both the English and the French wanted to make alliances with this nation for protection and benefit. The United States recognized its sovereignty in 1785 and 1791, guaranteeing that land not ceded then would remain in Cherokee hands. Whites could not even hunt on Cherokee lands, according to the agreements.
In 1721, South Carolina made a treaty with the Cherokee, the first cession of Cherokee lands. The process was to be repeated so often that by 1835 the Cherokee had concluded more treaties with the United States than any other tribe. Almost without exception every treaty stated that it would be the last one. Treaties contained impressive promises:” The United States solemnly guarantees to the Cherokee Nation, all their lands not hereby ceded”; this treaty will stand “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” Each treaty stole more from the original land until the Cherokee government finally passed a law making it a capital offense for any tribal member to cede land to the U.S. government.
One of the main ideological arguments used by the Europeans to take the land was that the indigenous were savages and roamed the land as hunters rather than “settling down” and farming the land as “civilized people” do. The Cherokee, however, adapted to many European customs, hoping to maintain their lands not by warfare but through accommodation. By the 1820’, the Cherokee had their own written languages and a bilingual newspaper published in English and Cherokee. They had a constitutional government and an elaborate judicial system. Some of them had accumulated considerable wealth and were living on large farms with spacious homes.
The discovery of gold in 1828 in Georgia sent hordes of fortune seekers into Cherokee territory. That same year the Indian fighter Andrew Jackson campaigned on a platform of removal on the Indians to west of the Mississippi. After Jackson became president, Congress granted him power to negotiate treaties that exchanged land in what is now Oklahoma for their original Smoky Mountain land.
Before a treaty was made, Georgia divided up the Cherokee lands and gave it by lottery to whites. Even improved property with houses and barns, cultivated fields, mills, gardens, and orchards was simply given to whites.
On December 29, 1835, a few Cherokee without authority signed the Treaty of New Echota which ceded the remaining territory east of the Mississippi. Chief John Ross, who had recently been released from prison in Georgia, collected over fifteen thousand Cherokee signatures denouncing the treaty as a fraud. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that it was quite evident that the Cherokee had made it a capital offense to cede territory in order to stop just such a trick, Congress ratified the treaty and gave the Cherokee two years to move.
From 1825, until the moment of their removal, the Cherokee constantly and peacefully petitioned the U.S. government for justice. They sent representatives to the president and to Congress. They testified before committees, passed their own laws, signed petitions, developed their own constitution. Their bilingual newspaper the Cherokee Phoenix, clearly spelled out Cherokee objections to the removal policy. All to no avail!
In 1838, the newly elected president, Martin Van Buren, stated: “No State can achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress in safety as long as Indians are permitted to remain.” So the Cherokee were to be forcibly removed—the bilingual Cherokee whose language was so complex that professional ethnologists at the time could not figure out how it was written. The Cherokee Sequoyah invented an alphabet of eighty-five characters so accurately expressing the roots of the language that any Cherokee could learn to read and write in a few days. The Cherokee rate of literacy was higher than that of the “white rabble” coming to take their lands in the name of “civilization.”
In June of 1838, the Train of Tears began as seven thousand troops marched the Cherokee to concentration camps while the whites looted their houses, burned their crops, and drove off their livestock.
On December 2, the Georgia legislature passes a law withdrawing the right of occupancy on the land by the Cherokee and requiring their removal to the West. They carefully tell in the preamble the real reasons for their actions so that no one would think it is for greed for the land or hatred of the red skin.
…their primary object in the measures intended to be pursued, are founded on real humanity to these Indians, and with a view, in a distant region, to perpetuate them with their old identity of character, under the paternal care of the government of the United States; at the same time disavowing any selfish or sinister motives towards them in their present legislation.
Tecumseh finds General Procter plying the natives with whiskey and goading them into killing unarmed prisoners. Tecumseh rushes to the scene, sword raised and says, Are there no men here? The killing stops. He criticizes General Proctor, who only says that Indians cannot be controlled. You are unfit to command, Tecumseh counters. I conquer to save, and you to murder.
What has become known as the French and Indian War (1754-1760) ended with the French defeat in Quebec. The English expected the Shawnee, Miami, Kickapoo, Sauk, Potawatomie, Fox, Chippewa, Illinois, Ottawa, and Delaware, who had all allied with the French to meekly accept the presence of English settlers and traders.
In 1762, an eloquent chief and brilliant military strategist rose to power among the indigenous of the Northwest (what is now Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana). He organized a confederacy of eighteen tribes that seized every British post in the Northwest Territory, except Forts Pitt and Detroit. But even at Fort Detroit they managed to hold a siege for eight months—the longest in American history.
Chief Pontiac and his Confederacy won from the British the famous Crown Proclamation of October, 1763. The Proclamation set an official line of demarcation running the length of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains, separating colonial from indigenous land. The Proclamation even demanded those colonists who had gone across the mountains to remove themselves.
Britain had its own reasons for such an agreement. The Crown wanted to stop the native rebellions but also wanted to limit the expansion of the colonies in order to keep them more dependent on the mother country. Land speculators, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin, had already purchased millions of acres in what was “Indian Territory.”
Chronicles of American Indian Protest, 41-44
Tecumseh and the War of 1812
Siege of Fort Detroit
Both Britain and the United States attempted to gain the indigenous as allies during the War of 1812.
At the beginning the war went well. Tecumseh rallied tribal unity and his military skill helped to force Fort Detroit to surrender with hardly a fight. More tribes began to join the fight on the side of the British. The Potawatomie captured Fort Dearborn, and the Miami laid siege to Fort Wayne. Tecumseh even convinced the great Creek nation in the South to join.
A change of British command brought in men who were cowards and hated Indians. Tecumseh was finally killed in battle, protecting the fleeing British troops. Those at the battle recalled seeing him being hit several times, with blood pouring from his mouth and covering his body; yet he was still yelling like a “tiger,” urging his braves on.
If we knew and understood fairytales—any by extension the myth—we would not need the scriptures.
Myths are complex. Many people view myths as fantasy stories and as forms of entertainment. Indeed there are some myths that fit this description. However, there are myths that fit a different definition. These are myths that teach about morals, give directions about living and aid individuals in communicating with the supernatural. Myths of this kind are viewed as “religious’ in the lives of indigenous people. They are the source of spirituality and the guidepost for passing on values and morals from one generation to the next. Myths are a powerful way memories of a people are kept alive and not forgotten.
Read the myths that follow and discuss their significance and possible meanings. How might these myths be viewed as “religious”? What values are conveyed and what worldviews are transmitted in these stories?
Sliding Down a Rainbow
The ancestors of the Taos people have lived in their valley since the Stone Age. Before that, they lived in a less-favorable place in the north. So dissatisfied did they become with their home, they called upon the gods to move them.
The gods listened. They sent a rainbow to carry the people to a new home. After a long journey, the rainbow came down in beautiful Taos Valley. It settled down to the ground at such a sharp angle that the men folk who came off last had a fast slide in getting off. They came down so fast, indeed, that the seats of their trousers were completely worn off. They had to cover themselves with blankets.
Even to this day, a Taos man never has a set in his trousers. He never leaves his village without his blanket.
Maurine Grammer, The Bear That Turned White, 11-12
How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun
When the Earth was first made, there was no light. It was very hard for the animals and the people in the darkness. Finally the animals decided to do something about it.
“I have heard there is something called the Sun,” said the Bear. “It is kept on the other side of the world, but the people there will not share it. Perhaps we can steal a piece of it.”
All the animals agreed that it was a good idea. But who would be the one to steal the Sun?
The fox was the first to try. He sneaked to the place where the Sun was kept. He waited until no one was looking. Then he grabbed a piece of it in his mouth and ran. But the Sun was so hot it burned his mouth and he dropped it. To this day all foxes have black mouths because that first fox burned his carrying the Sun.
The Possum tried next. In those days Possum had a very bushy tail. She crept up to the place where the Sun was kept, broke off a piece and hid it in her tail. Then she began to run, bringing the Sun back to the animals and the people. But the Sun was so hot it burned off all the hair on her tail and she lost hold of it. To this day all possums have bare tails because the Sun burned away the hair on that first possum.
Then Grandmother Spider tried. Instead of trying to hold the Sun herself, she wove a bag out of her webbing. She put a piece of the Sun into her bag and carried it back with her. Now the question was where to put the Sun.
Grandmother Spider told them, “The Sun should be up high in the sky. Then everyone will be able to see it and benefit from its light.”
All the animals agreed, but none of them could reach up high enough. Even if they carried it to the top of the tallest tree, that would not be high enough for everyone on the Earth to see the Sun. Then they decided to have one of the birds carry the Sun up to the top of the sky. Everyone knew the Buzzard could fly the highest, so he was chosen.
Buzzard placed the Sun on top of his head, where his feathers were the thickest, for the Sun was still very hot, even inside Grandmother Spider’s bag. He began to fly, up and up toward the top of the sky. As he flew the Sun grew hotter. Up and up he went, higher and higher, and the Sun grew hotter and hotter still. Now the Sun was burning through Grandmother Spider’s bag, but the Buzzard still kept flying up toward the top of the sky. Up and up he went and the Sun grew hotter. Now it was burning away the feathers on top of his head, but he continued on. Now all of his feathers were gone, but he flew higher. Now it was turning the bare skin of his head all read, but he continued to fly. He flew until he reached the top of the sky, and there he placed the Sun where it would give light to everyone.
Because he carried the sun up to the top of the sky, Buzzard was honored by all the birds and animals. Though his head is naked and ugly because he was burned carrying the Sun, he is still the highest flyer of all, and he can be seen circling the Sun to this day. And because Grandmother Spider brought the Sun in her bag of webbing, at times the Sun makes rays across the sky which is shaped like the rays in Grandmother Spider’s web. It reminds everyone that we are all connected, like the strands of Grandmother Spider’s web, and it reminds everyone of what Grandmother Spider did for all the animals and the people.
Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, Keepers of the Earth, 49-50
Song of the World
Pima Woman, Photograph by Edward S. Curtis
In the beginning there was only darkness everywhere—darkness and water. And the darkness gathered thick in places…crowing and separating until at last out of one of the places where the darkness had crowded there came forth a man. This man wandered through the darkness until he began to think; then he knew himself and that he was a man; he knew that he was there for some purpose.
He put his hand over his heart and drew forth a large stick. He used the stick to help him through the darkness, and when he was weary he rested upon it. Then he made for himself little ants; he brought them from his body and put them on the stick. Everything that he made he drew from his own body even as he had drawn the stick form his heart. The stick was of greasewood, and of the gum of the wood the ants made a round ball upon the stick. Then the man took the ball from the stick and put it down in the darkness under his foot, and as he stood upon the ball rolled it under his foot and sang:
I make the world, and lo!
The world is finished.
Thus I make the world, and lo!
The world is finished.
So he sang, calling himself the maker of the world. He sang slowly, and all the while the ball grew larger as he rolled, till at the end of the song, behold, it was the world. Then he sang more quickly:
Let it go, let it go
Let it go, start it forth!
So the world was made. And now the man brought from himself a rock and divided it into little pieces. Of these he made stars, and put them in the sky to light the darkness. But the stars were not bright enough.
So he made Tau-muk, the Milky Way. Yet Tau-muk was not bright enough. Then he made the moon. All these he made of rocks drawn forth from himself. But even the moon was not bright enough. So he began to wonder what next he could do. He could bring nothing from himself that could lighten the darkness.
Then he thought. And from himself he made two large bowls, and he filled the one with water and covered it with the other. He sat and watched the bowls, and while he watched he wished that what he wanted to make in truth would come to be. And it was even as he wished. For the water in the bowl turned into the sun and shone out in rays through the cracks where the bowls joined.
When the sun was made, the man lifted off the top bowl and took out the sun and threw it to the east. But the sun did not touch the ground; it stayed in the sky where he threw it and never moved. Then in the same way he threw the sun to the north and to the west and to the south. But each time it only stayed in the sky, motionless, for it never touched the ground. Then he threw it once more to the east, and this time it touched the ground and bounced and started upward. Since then the sun has never ceased to move. It goes around the world in a day, but every morning it must bounce anew in the east.
Frank Russell, “The Pima Indian,” in Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1904-1905, 206, 230, 277
What follows are prayers from various indigenous groups of the Americas. As you read them consider the following:
What is being viewed as sacred in these prayers?
How is the land viewed?
How would you describe the nature of God in the lives of Native Americans?
How does the Native American view his/her relationship to God?
I go about pitying myself
While I am carried by
Across the sky. (Chippewa song)
Teach us live, compassion, and honor
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other. (Objibway Prayer)
May the earth continue to live
May the heavens above continue to live
May the rains continue to dampen the land
May the wet forests continue to grow
Then the flowers shall bloom
And we people shall live again. (Hawaiian Prayer)
Beseeching the breath of the divine one,
His life-giving breath,
His breath of old age
His breath of waters,
His breath of seeds,
His breath of riches,
His breath of fecundity,
His breath of power,
His breath of all good fortune,
Asking for his breath
And into my warm body drawing his breath,
I add to your breath
That happily you may always live. (Zuni Chant)
I God, my mother, my father, lord of the
hills, lord of the valleys, lord of the
forest, be patient with me. I am about to
do what has always been done.
Now I make you an offering, that you may be
warned: I am about to molest your
heart. Perhaps you will have the
strength to endure it.
I am going to work you in order that I may
Let no animal pursue me, no snake, no
scorpion, no wasp annoy me, no falling
timber hit me, no ax, no machete catch
With all my heart I am going to work you. (Kekchi Maya Prayer)
The Morelia Declaration
In October of 1991, for the first time in history, environmentalists, scientists and representatives from indigenous groups throughout the Americas met in Morelia, Mexico to discuss the state of the world. This group of people, coming from twenty different nations, created a declaration that expressed their concern for the planet. The reverence for land appeared throughout their statement. Before reviewing excerpts from the Morelia Declaration given below, create your own declaration considering what needs to be done regarding the following ecological problems:
Distribution of resources
Start your statement by providing a rationale, then address all or some of the issues listed above and outline an action statement that the people of the Americas should follow. Include as many facts in your statement as you can gather.
We the participants of the Morelia Symposium urge the leaders of the world at the Earth Summit to be held in June 1992 in Brazil to commit themselves to ending ecocide and ethnocide, and we propose the creation of an International Court of the Environment modeled on the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Twenty percent of the world’s population consumes eighty percent of its wealth and is responsible for seventy-five percent of its pollution. We believe there is sufficient knowledge and technology available to reduce the obscene disparity of wealth. We demand a genuine transfer of knowledge and resources from North to South, not the dumping of obsolescent and inefficient technologies and products. There must be an immediate end to the international traffic in toxic waste, urgent reduction of the pollution of rivers and oceans by industrial waste and human sewage, an end to the unprincipled export of banner pesticides and other chemicals to the economically desperate countries of the Third World, and the immediate availability of information and means to allow people to individually and voluntarily pursue the goal of population stabilization.
Traditional societies are generally the best managers of biodiversity. For the last five hundred years the knowledge and the rights of the native American peoples have been ignored. We believe that respecting the interests of indigenous peoples, both in the Americas and throughout the rest of the world, who have become exploited minorities in their own countries is crucial for the preservation of biological and cultural diversity. We deplore the cultural pollution and loss of tradition which have led to global rootlessness, leaving humans, through the intensity of mass-marketing, vulnerable to the pressures of economic and political totalitarianism and habits of mass-consumption and waste which imperil the earth.
At the Earth Summit of June 1992 we demand that world leaders sign a Global Climate Change Convention. Industrialized countries must make a minimum commitment to a twenty percent reduction of their carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2000 A.D. We insist on rigorous implementation of the Montreal Protocol on Protection of the Ozone Layer. We also demand the signing of a convention to protect biological diversity, and the evidence of concrete progress in negotiations for a global forests treaty.
The proven economic folly of nuclear power coupled to the probability of environmental catastrophe necessitate the urgent substitution of nuclear energy by clean, safe and efficient energy systems. The military establishment must cease the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and convert a significant proportion of military expenditure to expenditure on environmental security. To ensure this, we demand an end to secrecy and a right to freedom of information in all matters concerning the world’s environment.
The participants at this conference wish to stress that environmental destruction cannot be confined within the boundaries of any nation state. We urge our fellow writers, environmentalists, scientists, members of indigenous minorities, and all concerned people to join us in demanding the creation of an International Court of the Environment at which environmentally criminal activity can be brought to the attention of the entire world.
As the latter half of the twentieth century had been marked by human liberation movements, the beginning decades of the second millennium will be characterized by liberation movements among species, so that one day we can attain genuine equality among all living things.
Roots of Democracy—European or Native American?
John Verelst, Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row, Emperor of the Six Nations
Whereas the original framers of the Constitution, including, most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concept of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy:
Whereas the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself;
Be it resolved by the Senate that…the Congress, on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, acknowledges the historical debt which this Republic of the United States of America owes to the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian nations for their demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of Government and their example of a free association of independent Indian nations.
Excerpts from a Congressional Resolution passed by the House and Senate, 1988
The United States takes great pride in its democratic tradition. It is not widely known that this tradition has a good portion of its historical roots in the Iroquois League’s Great Law of Peace. The framers of the U.S. government looked to the Iroquois Confederacy as a model. Furthermore, even the early colonialists took back to Europe the notions of participatory decision-making that they observed in the Native American nations. To a Europe steeped in autocracy, the Native American governmental structures were a beacon of ideas which did not go unnoticed by philosophers and social theorists. Eventually these ideas made full circle and came back to the colonies when they began to frame the U.S. government.
Before reading the Iroquois Law of Peace, define “democracy.”
What does the word mean to you personally?
Is this meaning different than what might be meant by the political definition of democracy?
What do you perceive as the differences/similarities in these meanings?
What follows are some excerpts from the Iroquois League’s Great Law of Peace. The Great Law was not written down until about 1800. It was an oral law which took two days to fully recite. As you read excerpts from the Great Law, note specific aspects of the Law which might correspond to aspects of the U.S. Constitution and governmental structures. What aspects were NOT borrowed into the U.S. government model? You may wish to research this issue in greater depth. Several books are noted in the bibliography which will provide you with resources.
The Great Law begins with the planting of the Tree of the Great peace, the white pine, which symbolizes the unity of the tribes that made up the league.
Roots have spread out….one to the north, one to the west, one to the east and one to the south. There are the Great White Roots and their nature is peace and strength.
If any man or nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and shall make this known to the statesman of the League, they may trace back the roots to the tree. If their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Council of the League, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.
The Great Law began to outline a complex system of checks and balances on the power of each nation against that of the others. The Great Law ensured that no measure (such as declaration of war) would be enacted by the Council of the League without the consent of all five represented nations, each of which would first debate the question internally:
The council of the Mohawk shall be divided into three parties….the first party shall listen only to the discussion of the second and third parties and if an error is made, or the proceedings irregular, they are to call attention to it, and when the case is right and properly decided by the two parties, they shall confirm the decision and refer the case to the Seneca statesman for their decision. When the Seneca statesman has decided in accord with the Mohawk statesman, the case or question shall be referred to the Cayuga and Oneida statesman on the opposite side of the house.
After a question had been debated by the Mohawks, Senecas and Oneidas and Cayugas on both sides of the “house,” it was passed to the Onondagas, the “firekeepers,” for their decision. The Great Law provided that every Onondaga statesman or his deputy be present in council and that all agree with the majority “without unwarrantable dissent”….While holding membership on the confederate council, the Great Law provided that a chief should be tolerant and attentive to constituent criticism.
The Chiefs of the League of Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. The thickness of their skins shall be seven spans, which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive action and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with the yearning for the welfare of the people of the League. With endless patience they shall carry out their duty. Their firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for the people.
Bruce Johansen, Forgotten Founders, 23, 24, 27
The Native Americans Share with the World
Brainstorm your images of the Native American people. What things in your life are “connected” with their lives and heritage? Go through a day in your life and identify what things you use or do that can trace their roots back to the Native Americans’ gifts to the world.
The contributions given to the world by various nations of the indigenous peoples of the Americas is an almost inexhaustible list. Learners can divide the task of finding out specific contributions within each of the following categories and then share these with the group. A few specifics are given in each case to get you started.
Farming techniques (raised field agriculture of Peru)
Medicines and Practice
Quinine, thousands of plants used for external and internal curatives, dental
Thousands of vocabulary words “borrowed” into English (e.g., kayak, Chicago,
State/federal system; balance of powers; impeachment; caucus
Building techniques without contemporary tools of measurement
Great Spirit; the Sacred Circle
The U.S. Policy War against Culture
Trail of Tears
Role play a short scene which enacts one of the following aspects of the centuries long war against culture waged by the U.S. government against the Native Americans. Some details are in this chapter and some appear in Chapter 2 (Resistance). This list represents only a few of the acts and laws.
Policy of Separation; Lands taken away from Indians and given to English colonists moving west
Cherokee Removal Act; Trail of Tears
Allotment Act; Dawes Act
Curtis Act; about the allotment process in the lands of the Five Tribes
A Constitution, Economy and Environment for All
Colonists fighting Native Americans
Divide into three groups: Native Americans, African-American Slaves, and White Colonists. Each group should write their own constitutional statement as if they had the power to do so at the time the Constitution was written.
Allow approximately thirty minutes in groups to complete the task. Then have each group share their “constitution” with the entire group. Allow another thirty minutes to discuss the differences in the way each group constructed their “law of the land.”
Have groups reconvene. This time each group should write out a description of the type of economy the group would have created if they had the power to do so.
Allow approximately twenty to thirty minutes for the completion of the task and another twenty minutes to share the results of each group.
In the same groups decide what kinds of environmental protection laws each group would adapt.
Allow fifteen to twenty minutes for each group to arrive at its policy and another equal amount of time for sharing among the groups.
Discussion: To what extent were the interests and voices of all groups of people addressed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution and the economic-political system? How might things have developed differently if the Iroquois Confederacy and the African Americans and the women been included in the framing of the system?
Puerto Rican Jayuya Uprising, 1950
Answer the following questions:
What is a colony?
What does it mean to be colonized?
What conditions enable one group of people to colonize another group of people?
Are there any circumstances that would justify colonization?
What is a reservation?
Why are reservations needed? Are there any circumstances under which reservations should be created? What are the reasons?
Does the United States government maintain colonies? Reservations? If so, what are they? Where are they located?
Acting out Colonialism
Divide the participants into four groups. Two groups should be instructed to develop a skit, construct a picture or create a pantomime which defines or reveals what colonialism is. The two groups should then present their creation to the entire group. In effect, each of these groups will be presenting a code (see strategies under Invasion Chapter to review the meaning of codes). The groups presenting should not explain their presentation—the skit, picture, or pantomime should speak for itself. The audience should then be led to “decode” or tell the presenters what they saw in the code about some key aspects of colonialism. When the entire group exhausts their interpretations, the presenting groups should share their ideas about their product and react to the insights the entire group brought to the topic.
The two remaining groups, who made up the audience for the former groups, can develop presentations that depict remnants and forms of U.S. colonialism as it exists today.
Commemoration: A National Debate
Divide a large group into small teams, each of which assumes one of the roles described below. Discuss the national resolution from your group’s perspective. Decide whether you agree or disagree with the resolution below.
If you basically agree with it but want to change it some, feel free do so. If you decide to support or modify it, list as many reasons as you think of for why this is a good resolution.
If you disagree with the resolution, list the reasons. Then, from your group’s point of view, write a new resolution on how to deal with this anniversary. List reasons why your new resolution is better than the resolution below.
Whereas: Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a “new world,” but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith, and
Whereas: Columbus’s journey took just thirty-three days, but changed the outlook of the world forever, and
Whereas: His explorations in 1492 led mankind on a path of discovery that has never ceased to challenge and surprise us.
Therefore, be it resolved: That people in every country should plan to celebrate Columbus’s great accomplishment and the “new world” it created, and
Be it finally resolved: That every American should support the Columbus celebrations and discover the significance that this wonderful milestone in history has in his or her own life.
Celebrating from Different Perspectives
Columbus Day is observed as a national holiday in the U.S. Consider and debate the scenarios that follow:
You are a Taino Indian who lived on Bohio (Hispaniola) before Christopher Columbus arrived. In 1492, there were millions of Tainos in the Caribbean, possible as many as three million on the island of Bohio, alone. Within fifty years the Spanish had wiped out all but two hundred Tainos on Bohio. The Spaniards under Columbus’s leadership stole land, took slaves, tortured people, raped women, and murdered untold numbers. Others were worked to death in the mines or on Spaniards’ plantations. In your view, absolutely nothing good came to Columbus’s arrival.
The Tainos were the first to suffer from the arrival of the Europeans, but not the last. The Spaniards invaded the land of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas, and countless others. The story was always the same: rape, theft, murder. Lather the English, Portuguese, French and Dutch also exploited and killed Native peoples. With the Europeans came their diseases—measles, smallpox, diphtheria, etc.—which wiped out millions, weakened by forced labor, poor nutrition and demoralization. In 1992, native peoples of the America still suffer. In the United States, Indians have the shortest life expectancy, the highest unemployment and have been left on the least desirable patches of land.
Europeans raped native women, but they also raped the earth. Native people had lived in the Americas for thirty thousand years or more without harming the environment. The Winnebagos had a saying: “Holy Mother Earth, the trees and all nature, are witnesses of your thoughts and deeds.” Mother Earth provided the Tainos with great abundance, and with little labor you were able to live in harmony with other living creatures. But the Europeans wanted to control nature, and called it wilderness, “wild land.” They brought new animals and plants that destroyed much that had existed. In the North, they killed millions of buffalo and beaver. Today, in the Amazon region and Central America the Europeans continue to make war on the Earth, cutting down ancient forests; in James Bay, Canada they destroy huge areas of land and rives with massive dams; everywhere., they pollute the air and spill their chemical and nuclear poisons. Europeans refused to learn from the Indians that the Earth is not be conquered and abused, but to be loved and nurtured.
When Columbus first arrived, you were willing to share what you had. He had a love of gold, so you gave him some and told him where you thought he could find more. You fed him and his men. When his ship the Santa Maria crashed in December, 1492, one of your leaders, Guacanagari, wept. He organized a group of Tainos to help Columbus unload his cargo. Not a shoelace was stolen. When Columbus began to treat your people cruelly, one of your leaders, Guarionex, even volunteered to plant field of crops to feed all the Spaniards. But Columbus didn’t want food, he wanted gold. Had the Europeans wanted to live with you in peace, you would have accepted. You had much to teach them about life and about the earth. Perhaps the Europeans could have taught you something. We’ll never know.
And now they want to celebrate. Celebrate? Exactly what is to be celebrated? You believe there should be a commemoration marking the contributions of the Indians, but what kind?
In the beginning there was Columbus. If not for his vision, bravery and skill, the discovery of America would have been postponed. Who knows for how long/
But a celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage is not just a tribute to Columbus the man. It is more a tribute to the modern world, and what Columbus’s voyage made possible. The first and most tangible result of his journey in 1492 was a vastly broadened picture of the world. Europeans now knew that by sailing west they could make contact with new peoples, establish new trade routes and locate new resources. It pointed all Europe towards the west as well as the east and launched an exciting and productive era of exploration, the scale of which the world had never before seen.
Ultimately, Columbus deserves credit for founding the American colonies and settling the American frontier. Columbus’s descriptions of the Indies were almost immediately translated into over a dozen languages. English colonists had Columbus to thank you for the knowledge that there was a “new world” awaiting settlement. Thus, it’s not an overstatement to say that America owes it very existence to Christopher Columbus. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, ideas of individual rights, and other freedoms all originated in the Americas that Columbus discovered. Likewise, the American ingenuity that developed the radio, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the television, and thousands of other devices that make our lives richer can be traced back to Columbus’s discovery in 1492.
None of this is to overlook the contributions of the Native Americans. They contributed a great deal to the world. They grew many important food crops: potatoes, corn, squash, tomatoes, avocados, chilies. All these foods were native to the Western Hemisphere. Indians gave inventions like the canoe and hammock to the world. Tremendous amounts of gold and silver found their way to Europe and boosted industry and commerce. Observance of Columbus Day also celebrates these important contributions.
The values Columbus brought to the “new world” are cherished by today’s Americans. Independence: Columbus wouldn’t take no for an answer; he refused to be discouraged by the smaller minds of his time. Faith: Columbus drew strength and hope from his deep religious beliefs; his trust in God never wavered. Perseverance: He never gave up his dream of sailing west, even when turned down by kings and queens time and again. Courage: Columbus sailed into the unknown, leaving safety and the comforts of home behind; he was willing to risk everything for his dream. Leadership: Columbus inspired, cajoled and, at times, bullied his men; he pushed them to overcome their fears and to believe in this dream. Skill: Quite simply, Columbus may be the greatest sailor of all time. In a certain respect Columbus is America. (It’s no wonder the country was almost named The United States of Columbia.)
Now is the time to remind ourselves and teach our young about the significance of Columbus’s great accomplishment.
African in Hispaniola
You were born in northwestern Africa. When you were young, you were seized, marched in chains to the coast, branded with a hot iron and loaded onto a stinking, filthy, crowded ship with hundreds of others. The journey to Spanish Hispaniola took several weeks. Many Africans died. On arrival you were put to work as a slave on a sugar plantation.
You have Christopher Columbus and the profit system he represented to thank for destroying your life and the lives of millions of other Africans. The very first day Columbus arrived in the Americas he took Indian captives and began talking about what great slaves they’d make. On his second voyage, he captured hundreds of Tainos and sent them to Spain as laves. As Indian slaves began dying off, the Spaniards got the idea of bringing in slaves from Africa. In 1501, Spain issued the first laws regulating the African slave trade—the first slaves arrived shortly thereafter.
From the beginning, Africans resisted slavery. In 1503 the Spanish governor of Hispaniola complained that runaway African slaves were getting together with the Indians and encouraging them to disobey. He said that they were impossible to recapture. The first reported African slave revolt on Hispaniola was in 1522 and within ten years Spain had to establish a special police force to chase after escaped slaves. You Africans were used to freedom and weren’t about to quietly accept the Spanish ships. (Three centuries later, in Florida, Africans and Seminole Indians fought side by side against the U.S. Army, which was on a mission to re-enslave Africans and take Indian land.)
In the meantime, Europeans got rich off African labor. Slave-harvested sugar was first shipped back to Spain in 1515 and after that, every year, thousands of Africans were captured and sent to work in the Americas. Soon other European countries realized that huge profits could be made and began to ship slaves to the “new world.” Many millions of Africans were enslaved or killed in raids.
As Europe got richer and richer, Africa got poorer and poorer. In the late 1800s, weakened by over four hundred years of the slave trade, Africa was carved up into colonies by Europeans. The invaders began to steal even more massive amounts of gold, diamonds, ivory and other resources. Forced to go to work to pay taxes to European colonial authorities, Africans again became a cheap source of labor and created enormous wealth for their white masters.
In 1492, when Columbus first arrived on Bohio (Hispaniola—new the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he reported seeing only well-fed contented people. Today, the island’s mostly African inhabitants are among the poorest in the world. In Haiti, one child dies every five minutes from malnutrition, dehydration and diarrhea. Out of every 1,000 babies born there, 135 die before their first birthday—the worst infant mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere. In the countryside, wages average less than $1.50 a day. Thank you Christopher Columbus, father of slavery and poverty in the Americas.
Still, African people in the Americas can be proud of a long tradition of resistance from Toussaint L’Ouverent’s slave revolution in St. Domingue (Haiti) against French rule, to the runaway slave maroons of Jamaica, to the 1930s tenant farmer organizing in Arkansas to the 1991 struggle for educational equity in Selma, Alabama. Several years ago the Haitian people toppled a brutal dictatorship and today are still working for democracy and justice. You Africans never suffered your oppression without offering some kind of fight.
You may be biased, but you believe that your voyage over five hundred years ago is, after the birth of Christ, the greatest event in world history. Its anniversary should be celebrated in grant style.
You opened up vast new areas of the world to the influence of Christianity. You first landed on islands in what you believe at the time were the East Indies, but later became known as the West Indies. True, the people were kind, gave you gifts, and tried to give you helpful directions. But they were pagans, heathens, and unbelievers. They went naked and had no knowledge of the Bible. Thanks to your voyage, millions of people were discovered and could be converted to Christianity, the one true faith.
Five hundred years after your discovery, it looks even more significant. Countries all over the Americas are now predominantly Christian. This Christian and civilizing presence in the Western Hemisphere has replaced the cannibalism, idol worshipping and laziness of the Indians. If not for you, where would these savages be today?
Your voyage gave the Christian world a tremendous source of wealth. From the mines of Hispaniola came gold. Later, still more gold came to Spain from the Aztecs and Incas. The silver which flowed to Spain greatly expanded the money supply and thus made possible much more business and trade. Other valuable minerals, spices and foods were also imported to Spain and other Christian countries from the colonies in the New World. At the time, you may not have fully understood the importance of the land you discovered. What you had thought to be Asia turned out to fabulous new continents. But every ounce of gold, every bar of silver, every cup of sugar returned to Spain was a direct result of your courage, skill and determination.
There were some who complained that you were not a good governor of the islands, that you played favorites, and treated some cruelly. During your third stay in the Indies you were even arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. History teaches us that many great men are misunderstood and mistreated by their inferiors. You had to deal with frightened, lazy and greedy men—men who did not share your deep belief in God and your commitment to the kind and queen. Yes, at times you dealt with them harshly and even had some of them executed. But yours was a difficult, even impossible job. Whatever mistakes you may have made are greatly outweighed by the glories of your enormous accomplishments.
You are an historian and a Cherokee Indian. You’ve read a great deal about Christopher Columbus.
Your first reaction is: How can they celebrate the killing of millions of Indian and African people? By now everyone should know that Columbus stole Indians’ land, took hundreds of Indian slaves, cut the hands off Tainos who did not bring in enough gold, forced thousands upon thousands to work in Spanish mines, and, in killing off the Indians, created the conditions which led to the bringing to America of millions of African slaves. His so-called “discovery” led to tremendous human misery. This is something to celebrate?
But as an Indian yourself, you don’t just want the world to think of Indian people as victims. For over five hundred years Indians have fought back against the European invaders. From the very beginning, when the Taino leader, Caonabo attacked and killed the thirty-nine rapists and murderers Columbus left behind on Bohio (Hispaniola), Indian people have fought for their rights. In the 1830s, Seminole Indians in Florida fought side by side with escaped black slaves against the U.S. Cavalry, sent to throw the Seminoles off their lands and to re-enslave the blacks. In 1876, a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne wiped out the 225 men led by Colonel George Armstrong Custer. It wasn’t the worst defeat Indians had handed the U.S. government, but it came close. In more recent times Indians have fought against toxic waste dumps on their land, against loggers destroying forests and to restore land and fishing rights. No, Native Americans are not just victims.
On the anniversary of the arrival of Columbus there is much America should learn and remember about the people who were here first. When Spain, Great Britain and France were ruled by rich kings and queens, the Hurons built a society without social classes or bosses. As one Huron explained to a visiting Frenchman, “We are born free…while you are all the slaves of one sole man.” In 1739, over thirty years before the American Revolution, Yaqui Indians in what is now northwestern Mexico demanded free elections with one person, one vote. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves, the Iroquois permitted no slavery.
Some who observe Columbus Day admit that foods like corn and squash came form the Indians. But Indians didn’t just find these foods, they developed them. They were scientists. By the time Spaniards arrived, the Incans had cultivated three thousand different varieties of potato. They even had learned how to freeze-dry potatoes so they could be transported more easily. Indians taught the whites how to dry meat. Our work “jerky” comes from the Quechua word, charqui. From lima beans, to corn, to tapioca, Native Americans taught Europeans how to grow and process new foods. Sixty percent of all the food grown in the world today originated with the hard work and creativity of the American Indian.
The Incans discovered the healing powers of the bitter-tasting Peruvian bark. They called it quinaquina (bark of barks, what the Europeans called quinine when they extracted the active ingredient). Prior to the availability of quinine it’s estimated that malaria killed about two million people a year throughout the world. Novocain, ipecac (an Amazon Indian word), petroleum jelly—all originate with medical discoveries of Native Americans.
Of course, much native agricultural and medical wisdom has been ignored by the European invaders. In their rush to control land and people much has passed them by, and much has been destroyed. Sadly, what seems to have been almost totally ignored is the Indian knowledge that the Earth is our mother. Because our mother continues to give us life we must care for and respect her. There is a saying your people have: The frog does not drink up the pond it lives in. In a country of toxic chemical dumps, nuclear power plants, and polluted air, isn’t it about time we learned this piece of native wisdom: Isn’t it about time people tried to really discover the Indians’ America?
Bill Bigelow, Rethinking Columbus, Washington, D.C., NECA, 1991.
The gold of her promise
has never been mined
Her borders of justice
not clearly defined
Her crops of abundance
the fruit and the grain
Have not fed the hungry
nor eased that deep pain
Her southern exposure
black death did befriend
Discover this country
dead centuries cry
Erect noble tablets
where none can decry
“She kills her bright future
and rapes for a sou
Then entraps her children
with legends untrue.”
I beg you
Discover this country.
Maya Angelou, in Daniel Gioseffi, ed., Women on War
Over one-half a millennium ago, two vastly different cultures met on the shores of this continent. The “discovery” of America with which Columbus has been credited was not only not a discovery of something new. In many ways, on the contrary, it was exactly the opposite, an inability to see.
Dangerous memories are ones which enable us to see some very painful aspects of our history. But they are also enabling memories. They enable us to take hold of a real discovery of the cultures and perspectives and richness that has been suppressed and devalued. As we read the poem of Maya Angelou, let us listen to a voices that challenges us to begin now the real discovery?
In 1663 in the mountains of northeastern Brazil, black slaves fled to Palmares. The governor general of Brazil sent expeditions to route the dissenters, to no avail. The Portuguese sent twenty-three expeditions against Palmares and failed to crush them. It is in Palmares that the many “petals” of language and custom become a “a single rose.”
Palmares remained dangerous memory, the place of resistance and new culture, black culture, the culture of the Quilombos, those escaped blacks who formed settlements in the mountains and jungles of Brazil. The culture which they made was mix of many different languages, cultures, and national identities.
As a precursor to the slave revolts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Palmares symbolizes the formation of an autonomous “state” within empire. Only one slave revolt, however, became a sovereign national power. The Haitian revolution, led by Touissant l’Ouverture and Dessalines, embodied the struggle for freedom and rights epitomized in the French revolution. But the Haitian revolution added a historical depth lacking in the French revolution. It was led by slaves. Such a fire threatened to spread.
The tragic counterrevolution which followed reduced the island to isolation, savage poverty, and rule by brutal dictators. Yet the spirit of resistance rises from the ashes of history. A new leader, devoted to the impoverished majority, has given the people hope. On his presidential inauguration day Jean Betran Aristide invited the masses into the palace for a banquet. President Aristide, a Catholic priest who the people called “our Liberator,” moved throughout the courtyard offering the Haitian poor an inaugural meal as a sign of his desire to serve the people.
Aristide’s uncompromising defense of the poor masses so angered the elites and military that he was captured and exiled in October 1991. The generals soon learned that they country might be ungovernable. Resistance remains clandestine, wily, and massive. The people do not forget the revolutionary priest who believed in them, who believed that the poor of Haiti are its future. So they wait as their ancestors waited for the tight moment. They will fill the years with sabotage, defiance, underground organizations, secret cods, and memory. They will remember Aristide as they remember l’Ouverture. Poet Ntosake Shage calls on leaders’ l’Overture, Petion, and Dessalines to observe the suffering of the people:
can you satand it Dessalines?
can you stand it Petion\l’Ouverent?
can you stand these children
with the red eyes and Dacron brassieres for sale…..
will you come again\some of you
sweep through the alleys and the stink\come here
with yr visions
l’liberte l’egalite l’fraternite.
come visit among us that we might know
Ntosake Shange, “A Black Night in Haiti, Palais National, Port au Prince,” A Daughter’s Geography, 33-34
L’Ouverture, Petion, Dessalines can never, of course, return. But the spirit of their resistance can. It is the memory of that spirit that Shange calls upon. This book has sought to remember the l’Ouverents’ of history. But the book’s dedication is to those anonymous masses that make such liberators possible. Those nameless peasant, slaves and workers are the spiritual and material forces that drive history. Shange calls upon the spirit of Haitian revolutionaries to return. But it is, and it was, the peoples’ spirit of resistance which will determine the struggle for justice, not an individual leader. L’Ouverture cannot return. Aristide can. The people say he’ll come again. They’ll see to it.
This weight on her back—which is the baggage from the Indian mother, which is the baggage from the Spanish father, which is the baggage from the Anglo?
Gloria Anzaldua, The Borderlands/La Frontera, 82
The dark-skinned woman has been silenced, caged, gagged, bound into servitude with marriage, bludgeoned for 300 years, sterilized and castrated in the twentieth century….she has been a slave, a source of cheap labor, colonized by the Spaniard, the Anglo, and by her own people (in Mesoamerica her lot under Indian patriarchs was not free of wounding). For 300 years she was invisible, she was not heard….Every increment of consciousness, every step forward, is a travesia, a crossing….Every time she makes “sense” of something she has to “cross over,” kicking a hole in the old boundaries.
In a few centuries, t he future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our language, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of the rape, of violence, of war….
As a mestiza I have no country…yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creating of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that which not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meaning.
We are the people who leap in the dark; we are the people on the knees of gods. In our very flesh (e)evolution works out the clash of cultures….Indigenous like corn, the mestiza is a product of crossbreeding, designed for preservation under a variety of conditions. Like an ear of corn a female seed bearing organ, the mestiza is tenacious, tightly wrapped in the husks of her culture. Like kernels she clings to the cob; with thick stalks and strong brace roots, she holds tight to the earth—she will survive the crossroads.
Anzaldua, The Borderland/La Frontera, 22-23, 48-49, 80-81
Who is America? Where is the America that Langston Hughes says has yet to be? Official history remembers one America. Red, black, brown, and yellow people remember another America, the American whose memory is a danger. That rainbow America continues to create history and to be a sign of blood and hope.
The America of the conquerors identifies with whiteness, manliness, and keeping a correct order. The other America has mixed things up and is full of color; its song and art break the rules. The other American is the real frontier, the place where something new can happen, the place where history is made. It is a place of possibility, but it is also a dangerous place. It is the border.
Borders are made by the powerful, but they can be subverted. Sometimes the border is a nineteen hundred mile wire fence with armed border patrol guards, checkpoints, and helicopter surveillance, like the Mexican/United States border; sometimes the border is a line drawn around the Black Hills. Sometimes border lines divide suburbs from slum neighborhoods where police question anyone from the ghetto for crossing over. Sometimes the border is in the mind. This is what Franz Fanon calls taking on the mind of the colonizer, believing the official America’s version of history.
The first step to creating history, according to Fanon, is to decolonize the mind. Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldalgia, who is considered the new de Las Casas of the Americas, has this to say about decolonization: “Decolonizing, reaching back for Latin America’s identity, means allowing the overall Latin American culture—which is the sum total of many cultures, first of many indigenous peoples, and of the black people, enslaved and brought to Latin America, and then of the resulting mixture in many places—allowing this culture to be expressed…” (Casaldaliga, 2). How is culture to be recovered when it is no longer simply the culture it once was but the “sum total of many cultures…indigenous… black… the resulting mix”? Dangerous memory must take back its own bruised and bold history. But even more than that, it must reckon with the fences that held captive the native, the black, red, brown peoples of the Americas, the fences staking land and the terrain of the heart and mind.
Historically the mixed blood person represented an affront to both the colonizer and the colonized. Mulattoes in the Caribbean were despised by the Europeans because they had black blood; they were rejected by the maroons and slaves because they were upwardly mobile and sought status in the white colonial society.
Even some colonized hold to the myth of pure blood and reject those who sympathize with or marry the colonizer. For the colonized, adherence to one’s race is a necessary part of the decolonization process in which the colonized throw off the dominant culture and recover their own. Yet after five hundred years we have a racial mix that makes the notion of pure blood a myth. Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., says that seventy to eighty percent of blacks have white and Indian ancestors. Moreover, he cites a study by Professor Robert Stuckert which indicates that one out of five American whites have African ancestors.
The most authoritative and scientific study in this area was made by Melville J. Herskovits…[whose study of 1551 blacks found] 71.7 percent of the same had white ancestors and 27.2 had some Indian ancestry. Since that time the number of mixed blacks has increased, not only because of additional black-white marriages but also because of the marriage of blacks (mixed) and blacks (unmixed). In the Herskovits sample, only 22 percent of black Americans were of unmixed ancestry. Nantu, Mandingo, Yoruba, Akan, Semite, British, Irish, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Creek, Choctow, Seminole, Pequot, Marshpee—the American black is an extraordinary amalgam of different amalgamations. The end product of 260 years of amalgamation, he is a genetic metaphor of the impossible possibilities of the people of the world, who are not so much equal as complementary, which is, as Teillard Chardin and Leopold Senghor said, a higher form, perhaps the highest form of superiority.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 325
The mix of races reveals “the impossible possibilities of the peoples of the world.” But the colonizers have not welcomed the crossing of genetic borders. Ironically, the early colonists of North America lacked the taboos that would circumscribe such intermingling. Contrary to most accounts, there were many marriages between blacks and whites in the early U.S. colonial period before slavery was introduced. Bennett argues that a system of racism had not yet developed which could focus white fears and that marriage between blacks and whites was a commingling of the poor black and white indentured servants who made up the majority of the early colonial population. The state of Virginia was composed largely of mulattoes resulting primarily from the union of black men and white women who, without social prohibition, chose each other across race lines.
When the colonial planters sought more mass agricultural labor in the latter part of the seventeenth century, slavery was introduced and with it systematic separation of the races. This took some orchestrating because, according to Bennett, whites didn’t as yet understand the concept of whiteness implying racial superiority.
To teach them their roles, the colonial ruling class organized a systematic campaign against mixing, which was perceived as a threat not only to Puritan morality but also to Puritan economics. “The increasing number of mulattoes, through intermarriage and illicit relationships,” Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene wrote, “soon caused alarm among Puritan advocates of racial purity and white dominance. Sensing a deterioration of slavery, if the barriers between masters and slaves were dissolved….they sought to stop racial crossing by statue.”
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 309
Hernan Cortes and la Malinche
If the colonists of North America tried to hold color lines fast, the Spanish colonists did not. Sexual relations between the Spaniards and the Indians produced a mixed race, the mestizos. Mesitzas were represented by la Malinche (La Chingada), the Indian woman who “betrayed” her people and slept with Hernan Cortes. The mix of bloods which resulted from mating between the Spanish and the Indian is the Ladino. Even today the most vulgar put-down one can say to a Mexican woman is to refer to her as la chingada (whore). Writer Gloria Anzaldua insists that such an interpretation of history fails to analyze Aztec class and gender relations. The Aztecs’ weakness was their apparent strength. The Aztecs were themselves conquerors of other tribes who hated them because of the rape by the Aztec nobility. The conquered Tlaxcalans helped the Spanish defeat the Aztecs. “Thus the Aztec nation fell not because [Malinche] interpreted for and slept with Cortes, but because the ruling elite had suberted the solidarity between men and women and between noble and commoner” (Anzaldua, 34).
The culture of the mestizo and the mulatto is the culture of the wretched of the earth. This is the juncture in history where worlds collide. It is the borderland, the land of nobodies, those cast-offs who “belong” to no one—but themselves. The mestiza is the mixture of races, the flesh in which the blood of oppressor and oppressed flows. The mestiza, sign of contradiction, rejected, shoved to the margins of history, stands at our border, those racial, and often class lines that separate us from each other. The border is the place of reckoning and hope. There, in the places of “fences,” is another culture which transforms the old but remembers everything.
This is not an “integrated” or assimilated culture which imitates or seeks acceptance from the dominator. It is its own culture, struggling to know its identity, to make sense of the senseless, to make meaning of suffering, of absurdity, of duality. “We question the ‘integration’ of these cultures and people into what is supposedly a greater nation or a better culture. We do say we would be willing to accept an inter-integration, one continent meeting another….Latin America can and must provide Europe with a great deal in the way of ecology, nature, sense of gratuity, joy, color, hospitality, solidarity, hope, utopia….” (Casaldaliga, 2).
Who can see a world without fences, imagine the world beyond walls of captivity? Certainly not the fence-makers whose legacy to their children is a legal system which upholds their right to land, to boundaries that scar the earth with possession, and armies to enforce the “rights” of fences and walls. Those whose children and dreams were broken on the walls know the perniciousness of “ownership.” Theirs is the vision showing that “boundaries are all lies” (Hogan, 68).
Poet Gloria Anzaldua expands the idea of Mexican philosopher Jose Vascocelos who spoke of the synthesis of races, a mezcla (mixture) resulting in a cosmic race. It is the mestiza who bridges borders, having been torn apart by them. Anzaldua is not speaking of a kind of universal mestiza, that is, an idealized human person without a concrete history mired in the pain of colonialism. The new frontier, peopled with those whose minds are free of fences, is not a “melting pot,” or a place for “individuals without an anchor, without a horizon, colorless, stateless, rootless, a race of angels” (Fanon, 218). On the contrary, those who stand at the borders refuse to forget their people’s history of slavery, of colonization. They embrace the border as a meeting place rather than a place of separation. Whether the border is a state of mind or a fence in the earth, crossing over is an act of defiance, an act of decolonization. The mestiza understands that colonialism’s intention is to obliterate her people’s culture.
Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding people in its grip and emptying the natives’ brain of all forms and content….it turns to the past of oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it….We have taken everything from the other side; and the other side gives us nothing…unless by a thousand wiles and a hundred tricks they manage to draw us toward them, to seduce us, and to imprison.
Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 210.
Decolonization is the process in which the colonized person refuses seduction. The task of the oppressed person is to discover his or her identity free of the definitions of the dominant culture. To be free is to affirm one’s own stolen history. But what of the mix, the new breeds created in the clash of cultures: Are they the cast-offs of the world or the harbingers of culture, and signs of a new humanity? People who identify with the dominator die internally, strangled by their own betrayal. The racially mixed person who embraces her subjugated selves recognizes the gifts of mixed blood, having suffered the pain of difference. The mestiza incorporates in her flesh our common blood.
For Fran Fanon, “It is not enough to try to get back to the people in the past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in the fluctuating movement which they are just giving shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question….IT is [in] this zone…where…our souls are crystallized and our lives are transfused with light” (Fanon, 227).
It is there at the border, in the shadows of fences that light pours in, dispelling the clouds of forgetting. The struggle of the borderland is a struggle for culture. But this liberation struggle is not without anguish. “The area of culture,” says Fanon “is then marked off by fences and signposts….Every effort is made to bring the colonized person to admit the inferiority of his culture” (Fanon, 236).
Gloria Anzaldua expresses the internalized shame and self-hatred produced by colonial domination:
In the Gringo world, the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprivation. Around Latinos he suffers from a sense of language inadequacy and its accompanying discomfort; with Native Americans he suffers from a racial amnesia which ignores our common blood, and from guilt because the Spanish part of him took their land and oppressed them. He has an excessive compensatory hubris when around Mexicans from the other side. It overlays a deep sense of racial shame….
Chicanos and other people of color suffer economically for not acculturating. This voluntary (yet forced) alienation makes for psychological conflict, a kind of dual identity—we don’t identify with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don’t totally identify with the Mexican cultural values. We are a synergy of two cultures with varying degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness. I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel that one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.
Gloria Anzaldua, The Borderland/La Frontera, 63, 83
Amoja Three Rivers
Amoja Three Rivers describes the burden of not knowing the racial mix that constitutes one’s peoples as a fate as damaging as trying to straddle the known mix of one’s race.
One of the most effective and insidious aspects of racism is cultural genocide. Not only have African Americans been cut off from our African tribal roots, but because of generations of whites pitting African against Indian, and Indian against African, we have been cut off from our Native American roots as well. Consequently most African Native Americans no long have tribal affiliations, or know for certain what people they are form.
Amoja Three Rivers, “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide,” Ms., 42
Guillermo Gomez Pena sees whole generations “as the world’s biggest floating population” –the refugees, the war and border displaced the impoverished seeking work only the desperate want. The colonial project set in motion, and continues to drive, vast displacement of peoples. Gomez Pena calls this the borderization of the world.
The borders either expand or are shot full of holes. Cultures and languages mutually invade each other. The South rises and melts, while the North descends dangerously with its economic and military pincers….Europe and North America daily receive uncontainable migrations of human beings, a majority of whom are being displaced involuntarily….
The demographic facts are staggering: The Middle East and Black Africa are already in Europe, and Latin America’s heart now beats in the United States. New York and Paris increasingly resemble Mexico City and Sao Paulo. Cities like Tijuana and Los Angeles, once socio-urban aberrations, are becoming models of a new hybrid culture, full of uncertainty and vitality. And border youth—the fearsome “cholo-punks,” children of the chasm that is opening before the “first” and the “third” worlds, become the indisputable heirs to a new mestizaje [the fusion of the Amerindian and the European race].
Guillermo Gomez Pens, in Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, eds., Multicultural Literacy, 131
What emerges from the mezcla of cultures, from five hundred years of fences, is not only cultural damage and psychic scars but a new wisdom, a new path. Creoles, mulattoes, and mestizas, the issue of crossed blood, of people who have crossed over the forbidden frontiers, are people who represent a new human enterprise. The new path is made by the despised. It is not an easy road; it is a way that reveals our common journey and common frailty.
The mixed blood person, like all subjugated people, bears the memory of lash, shackles, humiliation, and rape. Here is the testimony of Mary Crow Dog, a Lakota woman who gave birth during the siege of Wounded Knee.
…After I had a baby during the siege of Wounded Knee they gave me a special name, Okita Win, Brave Woman, and fastened an eagle plume in my hair, singing brave heart songs for me. I am a woman of the Red Nation, a Sioux woman. That is not easy.
I had my first baby during a firefight, with bullets cracking through one wall and coming out the other. When my newborn son was only a day old and the marshals really opened up on us, I wrapped him in a blanket and ran for it. We had to hit the dirt a couple of times. I shielded the baby with my body, praying, “It’s all right if I die, please let him live.”
When I came out of Wounded Knee I was not even healed up but they put me in a jail at Pine Ridge and took my baby away. I could not nurse. My breasts swelled up and grew hard as rocks, hurting badly. In 1975 the feds put the muzzle of their M16s against my head, threatening to blow me away. It’s hard being an Indian woman.
My best friend was Anna Mae Aquash, a young, strong-hearted woman form the Mic Mac Tribe with beautiful children. It is not always wise for an Indian woman to come on too strong. Anna Mae was found dead in the snow at the bottom of a ravine on Pine Ridge Reservation. The police said she died of exposure, but there was a 38 caliber slug in her head. The FBI cut off her hands and sent them to Washington for fingerprint identification; hands that helped my baby come into the world.
My sister-in-law Delphine, a good woman who had lived a hard life, was also found dead in the snow, the tears frozen on her face. A drunken man had beaten her, breaking one of her arms and legs, leaving her helpless in a blizzard to die.
My sister Barbara went to the government hospital in Rosebud to have her baby and when she came out of anesthesia found that she had been sterilized against her will. The baby lived only two hours and she had wanted so much to have children. No, it isn’t easy.
When I was a small girl at St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic Sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience.” At the age of 10 I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age 12 the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age 15 I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are white and male.
Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes, Lakota Woman, 1-3
Born in this suffering is a defiance that offers hope. Indian poet Joy Harjo uses the metaphor of houses to describe Indian shame and defiant hope in response to the white way.
She had some horses who whispered in the dark,
who were afraid to speak.
She had some horses who screamed out of the fear of silence,
who carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.
She had some horses who waited fro destruction.
She had some horses who waited for resurrection….
These were the same horses.
Joy Harjo, in Rayna Green, ed., That’s What She Said, 45
The borderland is woman’s “place” because it is no man’s land. It is woman who locates in her bodiliness the wounds of centuries. It is woman who envisions a new humanity without borders, without a “place” for women, for the elderly, for those who are outcasts, who are “different” racially, sexually, culturally.
Pretty Shield was a medicine woman of the Crow Nation. Medicine Woman of the Crow, Shield’s autobiography written with Frank Linderman is the first record of the “women’s side” of Native American Life.
I saw Strikes—Two, a woman sixty
years old, riding around the camp on
a grey horse. She carried only her
root-digger, and she was singing her
medicine-song, as though Lakota
bullets and arrows were not flying
When the men and even the women
began to sing as Strikes-Two told
them, she rode out straight at the
Lakota, waving her root-digger and
singing that song. I saw her, I heard
her, and my heart swelled because she
was a woman.
Pretty Shield in Paul Gunn Allen, ed., Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, 33
Down the root of Conquest our bodies receive the insult.
Meridel Le Seur, Ripening, 268
Let us all return
It is the people who give birth to us,
to all culture, who by their labors
create all material and spiritual values….
only they have the future in their hands.
Meridel Le Seur, Ripening, 219
Native American philosopher John Mohawk links the birth of racism to the conquest of the fifteenth century and a white European worldview that continues its mission of conquest through today’s mission of bringing “progress” to less developed nations.
It is said that the Conquistadors spilled more blood than any group of people ever spilled up to that time….[Their]mentality also said that they had to dehumanize the victims of the conquest….Even modern scholars identify the period of the conquest as the birth of racism in the modern world. It was the first time that arguments were seriously put forward in courts of Spain, especially at Vallaloid, arguing that the Indians were biologically inferior beings, that they were not even human beings at all, that they were really beasts of burden, that they were sub-humans as you would treat a burro or as you would treat a monkey. Some of the same things are still being argued in the Western Hemisphere, whether peoples of different physical characteristics are fully human and have full human rights and have full civil rights. All those arguments still go on right to the 1980s, certainly in places like Guatemala, and Peru, and Mexico where the conquest, I say, is not ended.
John Mohawk, “The Indian Way is a Thinking Tradition,” Northeast Indian Quarterly, 15