Gifts to the Indians
Hubert Bancroft, an energetic New Englander was successively, secretary of the Navy, ambassador to Great Britain, Prussia, and the German Empire, and the president of various scholarly societies during the nineteenth century. Writing in 1883, he asked some critical questions:
What should we do were a foreign power to come in ships to our shore and begin to slaughter our animals, to stake off our land and divide it among themselves? We should drive them away if we were able; but if we found them the stronger, we should employ every art to destroy them, and in so doing regard ourselves as patriots performing a sacred obligation.
This is the Indian’s crime; and in so doing we call him cunning, revengeful, hateful, diabolical. But the white man brings him blankets, it may be said, brings him medicine, tells him of contrivances, teaches him civilization. These things are exactly what the savage does not want, and what he is much better off without. The white man’s comforts kill him almost as quickly as do his cruelties; and the teachings of Christ’s ministers are abhorrent if they are coupled with the examples of lecherous and murderous professors of Christianity….
White men have killed fifty Indians where Indians have killed one white man, and this, notwithstanding that nine-tenths of all injuries inflicted have been perpetrated by white invaders.
A thousand Indian women have been outraged by men whose mothers had taught them the Lord’s prayer, where one white woman has been injured by these benighted heathen. At any time in the history of America I would rather take my chances as a white woman among savages, than as an Indian woman among white people.
H.H. Bancroft, Collected works in 1492: Discovery/Invasion/Encounter, 72
Victims of Wounded Knee
…In other areas, the Indian whom typhus does not kill dies of hunger or hardship.
There are corpses in the fields and in the plazas, and there are houses filled with them in which all died and no one remained to tell of it.
Throughout Mexico the pestilence is raising such a stink of putrefaction and smoke that we Spaniards have to about holding our noses.
Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Genesis, 150
From the second voyage, the two others later undertaken by Columbus, and the many mounted thereafter by other explorers from not only Spain but also other countries in Europe, comes the legacy of a resounding clash between strikingly different cultures. The overpowering of one by the other led to many of the agonies we suffer from today. Racism and environmental destruction are two that immediately come to mind.
Very quickly, the inhabitants of the “new world” discovered that the Spaniards and, later, colonizers from other parts of Europe, notably England, France, and Holland, wanted only their gold, or silver, or pearls, or fur, or land. They themselves were most likely to be killed or enslaved.
Furthermore, the Europeans brought the diseases that ran rampant in the area that had once been so filled with health. “The raging epidemics of Europe’s most tragic centuries repeated themselves in America. Not even the most brutally depraved of the conquistadors was able purposely to slaughter Indians on the scale that the gentle priest unwittingly accomplished by going from his sickbed ministrations to lay his hands in blessing on his Indian converts” (Jennings, 22).
Researchers now give the figure of ninety percent decline in population within a century after European contact, much of it due to the viruses and microbes introduced from the “old world.” The natives of the West had no immunity to such diseases as influenza, typhus, pneumonia, tuberculosis, measles, pleurisy, diphtheria, or smallpox.
Statistics aren’t reliable for many reasons, including the inaccurate estimates of the original size of the population, but the region of Hispaniola can serve as an example. A detailed census taken in 1514 listed twenty-eight thousand people in the area that housed eight million twenty years earlier. “That is more than decimation; it is carnage of more than ninety-nine percent, something we must call closer to genocide, and within a single generation. By 1542, according to Las Casas, who was there at the time, only two hundred Tainos remained” (Sale, 161).
It is also known that in central Mexico, the population decreased from thirty million to four million in a few decades. The rapid, massive decline in population, referred to as “the most extreme demographic disaster in human history” (Ortiz, 8), was caused by colonial warfare, massacres, massive deportations of natives as slaves, overwork in the mines, starvation or malnutrition after food production broke down, and suicide, as well as epidemics.
All the socioeconomic factors increased the Indians’ vulnerability to the strange new diseases that began to plague them. They were psychologically as well as physically unprepared for such an overwhelming onslaught.
Day of the Indian
Pedro Alvarez Cabral
In 1997 representatives of nine different tribes issued the following message:
…We want to say that the 22nd of April, 1500, when Pedro Alvarez Cabral stepped for the first time on these lands, was the beginning of the expansion of western civilization and the beginning of the end of the indigenous societies.
With the passage of the years, our destruction was intensified, carried out by western civilization. The most diverse instruments of degradation were used in the massacre of the indigenous groups. Factors contributing to this process were sicknesses brought by the white man which had until then been unknown to us, the plundering of our lands, and the application of colonialists and ethnocentric educational methods which did not respect our political, economic and religious structure.
So much so that in the sixteenth century the Indians were considered irrational animals, and it was necessary for Pope Paul III to declare to the public of the time that we were human beings, with body and soul. But in spite of this, the destruction of the indigenous people continued.
Roger Moody, ed., The Indigenous Voice, 356
Making dirt cookies to feed hungry children in Haiti
A legacy of those colonial days which continues is the custom of eating dirt. Lack of iron produces anemia, and instinct leads Northeastern children to eat dirt to gain the mineral salts which are absent from their diet of manioc starch, beans, and—with luck—dried meat. In former times this “African vice” was punished by putting muzzles on the children or by hanging them in willow baskets far above the ground.
Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, 75
Destruction of old growth forests
The ripple effects of the environmental destruction wrought on the land by the colonists were far-reaching.
The destruction of old-growth forests meant the elimination of certain intricate econiches and their microbial and faunal patterns, the emigration of bird and animal populations, and the invasion of pioneer species that prevented the natural succession from every producing again the great trees or the carpets of native wildflowers. Local and regional climatic changes followed, with new conditions of wind, temperature, humidity, and soil moisture, and even seasons that proved inhospitable to many kinds of plants and animals but to which the vast numbers of new European species—cattle, pigs, horses, rats, dandelions, and so on—adapted rapidly, without predators or pathogens to hinder them.
All in all, the presence of just a few hundred thousands of the European branch of the human species, within just a century after its landing, did more to alter the environment of North America, in some places and for many populations quite irretrievably, than the many millions of the American branch had done in fifteen centuries or more.
Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 291-292
Destruction of the Environment
Besides killing the people with their weapons, demands, and diseases, the Europeans brought about great destruction to the physical environment. Plant forms were imported with no thought of their effect on the land. Wheat and chickpeas, staples of the Mediterranean diet, withered and died in the heat, and although other plants fared slightly better, at least at first the Spanish seemed to make no effort to adopt the much more productive Taino crops and methods of agriculture.
The animals brought by the Spanish: dogs, cattle, horses, and pigs, dominated and then destroyed native habitats, including carefully-nurtured conuco farms which featured companion planting. They depleted the native grass species and stripped the ground cover, thereby causing erosion.
Invasive plants also had a very negative effect, especially some that were produced for profit such as sugar. Mono-drop open-field planting, in long rows, required cutting and clearing the forests, as opposed to the Taino method of digging a hole and dropping in a seed, which had nourished both human being sand the eco-system for centuries.
Another long-lasting negative legacy was the new system of land ownership that created an elite class and denied ownership to indigenous populations, so they couldn’t possibly continue their careful cultivation methods.
In a few decades soils were eroded, rivers began to fill up with silt and sometimes went dry, forests were destroyed, and the climate was altered. By 1498 Columbus wrote that in the Cape Verde Islands he couldn’t see a single green thing and observed that everything had become dry and sterile.
Two decades after Columbus’s tenure as governor, Alonso de Zuaso wrote to a friend at the Spanish court, “If I were to tell you all the damage that has been done, I should never make an end….Although these islands had been, since God made the earth, prosperous and full of people lacking nothing they needed; yet…they were laid waste, inhabited only by wild animals and birds, and useless indeed for the service either of God or of Their Highnesses.” Some years later de Las Casas wrote of Hispaniola: “It was the first to be destroyed and made into desert” (Sale, 165-166). But, as we now know all too well, not the last.
Later, in North America, environmental devastation continued. Beavers and other fur-bearing animals; herbivores like deer, moose, antelope, caribou, elk, and wood bison; and game birds like turkeys, ducks, geese, and passenger pigeons were vastly depleted in numbers if not totally exterminated by 1640.
Forests were cleared both to get lumber and to make room for cash crops like tobacco. In Virginia by the end of the seventeenth century, half a million acres had been deforested and such species as white oak, white cedar, and black walnut were exterminated.
Chief Luther Standing Bear
There was a great difference in the attitude taken by the Indian and the Caucasian toward nature, and this difference made of one a conservationist and of the other non-conservationist of life. The Indian, as well as all other creatures that were given birth and grew, were sustained by the common mother—earth. He was therefore kin to all living things and he gave to all creatures equal rights with himself. Everything of earth was loved and reverenced. The philosophy of the Caucasian was, “Things of the earth, earth”—to be belittled and despised.
Forests were mowed down, the buffalo exterminated, the beaver driven to extinction and his wonderfully constructed dams dynamited, allowing flood waters to wreak further havoc, and the very birds of the air silenced. Great grass plains that sweetened the air have been upturned; springs, streams, and lakes that lived no longer ago than my boyhood have dried, and a whole people harassed to degradation and death. The white man has come to be the symbol of extinction for all things natural to this continent.
Chief Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle in Rethinking Columbus, 84
European explorers and invaders discovered an inhabited land. Had it been pristine wilderness then, it would possibly be so still today, for neither the technology nor the social organization of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had the capacity to maintain, of its own resources, outpost colonies thousands of miles from home. Incapable of conquering true wilderness, the Europeans were highly competent in the skill of conquering other people, and that is what they did. They did not settle a virgin land. They invaded and displaced a resident population.
The basic conquest myth postulates that America was virgin land, or wilderness, inhabited by non people called savages; that these savages were creatures sometimes defined as demons, sometimes as beasts “in the shape of men”; that their mode of existence and cast of mind were such as to make them incapable of civilization and therefore of full humanity; that civilization was required by divine sanction or the imperative of progress to conquer the wilderness and make it a garden; that the savage creatures of the wilderness being unable to adapt to any environment other than the wild, stubbornly and viciously resisted God or fate, and thereby incurred their suicidal extermination; that civilization and its bearers were refined and ennobled in their contest with the dark powers of the wilderness; and that it all was inevitable.
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America, 15
The story is not a pleasant one. The dramatic meeting of two civilizations had dire consequences that continue to plague the descendants of the main players. One of the greatest tragedies is that the conquerors failed to recognize the true riches they had stumbled upon: the fertile, life-giving land; the wide variety of experiments in human relations practiced by the inhabitants, and especially the patterns of respect for nature and “right living” honored throughout the hemisphere.
Even as the settlers took advantage of the primeval richness of the soil to grow their crops, the pristine quality of the lakes and rivers to provide fish and fur, and the teeming wildlife to give them meat, they saw the land only as a wilderness to be brought under man’s control. Even as they used the government of the Iroquois Confederacy as the model for their own and adopted the crops developed by natives as the basis of the agriculture, they thought of Indians as “savage.”
Never once in their arrogance did they stumble upon the single fact that in subsuming the wilderness and the Indian within their synthesis they were irrevocably cutting themselves off from the very substance of the new life they were forging in North America.
Winona LaDuke, “Natural to Synthetic and Back Again,” Marxism and Native Americans, ii
Challenge by the Natives
From the beginning of the conquest, individuals and groups within the nations encountered by the explorers challenged the worldviews of the invaders. Tundama was the defender of the Sogamoso area in what is now Columbia, which contained an ancient shrine. In 1541, Baltasar Maldonado made Tundama an offer of peace that included a demand of tribute. His reply hints of the hundreds of years of resistance to come:
I am not so barbarous, famous Spaniard, not to believe peace to be the center on which the bounds of this world depend; but do not think I’m unaware that the gland words with which you offer it to me are much belied by your harsh behavior.
Who will say that Tundama should give to the vassal the tribute due to the king? I cannot serve someone who serves his king so badly. According to your own accounts of the King of Spain’s clemency, it is not credible that he should send you to kill and rob us so.
More barbarian than the Panches and the Muzos [rival tribes], you bath your horses’ mouths in our blood, which they drink out of hunger and thirst and which you spill to display your cruelty. You desecrate the sanctuaries of our gods and sack the houses of men who haven’t offended you. Who would choose to undergo these insults, being not insensitive? Who would omit to rid himself of such harassment, even at the cost of h is life?
You well know that my people were bred with no fewer natural privileges than yours. We now know that you are not immortal or descended from the sun. Since your people refuse tax and tyranny you cannot be surprised that mine do, with determination.
Note well the survivors who await you, to undeceive you that victory is always yours.
Gordon Brotherston, ed., Image of the New World, 48
The legacies of the conquest will be with us for years to come. Now it is time to look at the history of the event in a new way, to let the voices of the oppressed speak to us, to tell us their memories and share their wisdom, to teach us from their vast experience of living on earth.
Unless the conditions that foster oppression are addressed with the urgency and direction they demand, we will continue to suffer from the ignorance, blindness, and greed that have diminished human possibilities during the centuries since 1492.
Roots of Racism
Discrimination began when the Spanish arrived, invading our land, destroying our culture and our lives. They tied up our kings and burned them alive because our king would not betray the population to the foreign invaders who only brought deceit, pain, destruction, and death as they attempted to seize a rich history and culture….The indigenous population, the true owners of the lands, were related to the bottom of the new society.
Isabel Gutierrez, “Constructors of Our Own History: The Indigenous of Guatemal,” Basta! December, 1990
Though the word itself did not exist at the time, the incidents which transpired between Columbus, the European nation-states, and the indigenous people of the Americas could today be labeled racist. Many historians and social critics have suggested that these incidents triggered and extended into the Western Hemisphere a system of economic, political, and social assumptions and of aggressive institutional and individual behavior against people which prevails to this day and is known as racism.
Select an approach from among the following activities to examine your own concepts of racism, its existence today, and its connections with the history presented in this chapter and in this entire book of Dangerous Memories.
Debating the Roots of Racism
Quilt by Christine Adams
Choose a debate topic from the following or create a statement of your own for debate.
Resolved: That the roots of racism which took hold in the Americas when Columbus reached the shores of this continent were inevitable, given the religious, economic, political, and social conditions of the European nation-states of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Resolved: That the Europeans brought civilization to the Western Hemisphere.
“Shades of Diversity” quilt by Christine Adams
Step 1: Developing a Code
Understanding the ways in which we are connected to this history of five hundred years ago requires that we look at our own experience today and recognize the ways in which the economic, political, and social systems begun by colonization extend into our lives. For this activity you will be asked to developed a “code.” A code is:
A concrete example of a common experience or problem situation;
A familiar situation/dilemma with no particular solution presented;
A problem that can be broken down into parts; and
A motivator for thinking about situations and dialoguing about them
After the presentation of the code, members of the group or class dialogue about the incident portrayed, analyze the situation, try to connect it to their own experience, and generate alternatives and resolutions. The codes you develop here should reflect present-day experiences of discrimination and/or racism.
Within a small group develop the code (a story, a role-played scene, a drawing, a cartoon, a photograph, or a collage) which can be presented to a class or larger group. This story or representation should reflect an incident, a concrete common experience, or a physical image which demonstrates some aspect of discrimination and/or racism.
Examples of Codes:
A dialogue heard at a school board meeting:
President: We’ll open the meeting now to comments from the public.
Parent: I want to bring up a concern of mine—and of several other parents who’ve been meeting formally. We think the school should spend less money on teachers who have only small groups of children.
President: What kind of classes are you referring to?
Parent: Those classes with only ten or fifteen children in them where they are always speaking in Spanish. That takes too many teachers. Furthermore, they should be speaking in English.
Person #1: I want my pen.
Person #2: You gave it to me to use.
Person #1: Well, now I need it back.
Person #2: You’re an Indian giver.
Step 2: Defining Racism
Use the following description to help you develop codes which show critical aspects of racism.
“…any attitude, action or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of their color….Racism is not just a matter of attitudes: actions and institutional structures can also be a form of racism.” (From Racism in America and How to Combat It, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1970)
“…when whites use power to perpetuate their cultural heritage and impose it upon others, while at the same time destroying the culture of ethnic minorities.” (From Teaching Ethnic Studies, National Council for the Social Studies, 1973)
“…imposition of a system of exploitation and elimination of a culture and people.” (From “Listen, People of the World: Racism in Guatemala, Daniel Eduardo Matul Moralies in Basta! December, 1990)
“…a tool used by the dominant society to keep people divided and distracted from the real issues of life.” (From “A Voice from Home,” James Yellowbank in Basta! December, 1990)
“…is not a desire to wake up every morning and lynch a black man from a tall tree. It is not engaging in vulgar epithets. These kinds of people are just fools. It is the day to day indignities, the subtle humiliations that are so devastating. Racism is the assumption of superiority of one group over another, with all the gross arrogance that goes along with it. Racism is a part of us….” (Whitney Young, Congress for Racial Equality
“…is enforced and maintained by legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political, and military institutions in societies.” (From “Policy Statement on Racial Justice,” National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.,” in Basta! December, 1990)
“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we yet know. IF the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.” (From Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound)
On child development and racism
“Children who develop in this way (white-centered and reacting to skin color) are robbed of opportunities for emotional and intellectual growth, stunted in basic development of the self so that they cannot experience or accept humanity. It is quite possible to build into children a great feeling and compassion for animals and an unconscious fear and rejection of differing human beings. Such persons are by no means prepared to live and move with either appreciation or effectiveness in today’s world.” (From A. Citron, “The Rightness of Whiteness,” in Judity Katz, White Awareness)