Category Archives: Indigenous People After Contact

Civilized People and Savages

 

Europe was not as civilized as we have been taught. Not all Europeans were blinded by a sense of superiority, but many were. There are always sharper minds.  Take Montaigne for example. In this book On Cannibals, he described what happened when Europeans kidnapped 3 Tupinamba natives from Brazil and brought them to “civilized” Europe so that they could see what “savages” were like. They were brought to France so that the boy-king Charles IX could see them in 1562 and this is what Montaigne said:

“The King talked with them for some time; they were shown our way of living, our magnificence, and the sights of a fine city. [I] asked them what they thought about all this, and what they had found most remarkable. [They said] they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty.  They found it strange that these poverty stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”

The “savages” of Tupinamba knew the truth about European civilization. They saw it was a corrupt shell. Actually, it reminds me a lot of what seems to be happening in the world now (both east and west) with its incredible widening inequality where Jeff Bezos earns $1million dollars every 50 minutes while his employees earning minimum wages are not allowed to take bathroom breaks. Some of them have to wear adult diapers to work on the job. In our own society we also have to ask who are the savages? As Ronald Wright said, “The Tupinamba saw through Europe’s alien splendor to the flaws of society. The answer to their question, as they perhaps knew only too well, was that the poor of Europe were cutting throats and burning houses in America.”

The Invaders of North America

The invaders of North America represented (sort of) the Holy Roman Empire. Europe at the time of 1492 and for a couple of centuries after that was filled with tribal territories often with boundaries that were not fixed or agreed upon. At the time there were few countries. Nationalism really came later. At the time there were mainly city-states and small nations. Napoleon was really right when he said, “the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

When two imperialists from worlds apart met, the Castilian of Spain and the Aztecs of Mexico, they represented two expanding empires that both had a tribal origin. Both had gained control of other people. Mexico of course was much larger. The Aztec capital on the site of what is now Mexico City contained one quarter of a million people. That was 4 times as many as Tudor London.  About 20 million people were under their control. At the time the British islands had about 5 million people and Spain about 8 million.

Europe was not really as civilized as Europeans might want us to think. Ronald Wright in his book Stolen Continents described Europe this way,

“European secular government was a tangle of decayed feudal loyalties and personal ambition.  The last proper roads had been built by the Romans more than a thousand years before.  The rapidly growing cities were unplanned, ramshackle, without sanitation, seething with poverty and disease. If famine struck a region, the state was quite unable to provide relief. Life expectancy oscillated between the high teens and low thirties, lower than in the most deprived nations of today. The achievements of Europe were technological, not social. It had the best ships, the best steel, the best guns; it also had conditions desperate enough to make its people want to leave and use these things to plunder others. Spain, in particular, was scarcely touched by the Renaissance; 700 years of war against the Moors had produced a warrior culture filled with loathing and contempt for other ways of life, not a new spirit of inquiry.”

The invaders of North America  were dirty, hairy, uncouth, and, let us be clear about this, savage. I am not saying the Indigenous people were angels, but the Europeans were certainly not.

Lies, Damn Lies and History

 

Mark Twain got it wrong. It is not true that there are ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics,” as he claimed.  There are lies, damn lies, and history. I said that.

The facts of the invasion of the western hemisphere by Europeans are to a large extent unknown by people who make no effort to find them. Which of course means they are largely unknown except to scholars. The rest of us have a learned a very one-sided history—the history of those who saw themselves as victors.

Yellow Wolf, of the Nez Percé, an indigenous nation of the western United States, put this accurately in 1877: “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true.  Only his own best deeds,, only the worst deeds of the Indians, as the white man told.”

I want to look at both sides, but the fact is that the side of the whites has been well told for centuries.  I learned their stories in school. For example, I learned how mean and cruel the Iroquois were to those nice kind priests from France. I never learned the other side the story at at all. It took me many  years to learn otherwise. So I want to redress that. I want to look at all sides.

As Ronald Wright said in his wonderful book Stolen Continents,  “Few things are so dangerous as believing one’s own lies”. The first lie, a vital part of what I have called the Original Sin, was that the Europeans were civilized and the people of the Western Hemisphere were savages. That is a lie we should stop believing. It was a convenient lie. It allowed the Europeans to ravage the western continents with a clean conscience.

For example, and this is just a beginning, it is not true that most of the people living in the western hemisphere were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Many of them were exactly that. But many of them lived settled lives in towns and cities.  There were some amazing cities in North and south America.  One of those cities was Cahokia. I will talk about that later. According to Wright, “Hollywood may have convinced us that the ‘typical’ Indian was a nomadic hunter, but in fact the majority had been living in villages, towns, and cities since long before Columbus.”

In fact there is a lot of evidence now that the real barbarians, the real savages, came sailing in on big ships!

A New World

 

The Europeans that followed Christopher Columbus to the western hemisphere referred the western hemisphere as “the New World.”  Of course it was no more a new world than it was India. The people of Europe were wrong—again.

The history we learned in school taught us that this “discovery” was one of the  greatest achievements of mankind.  The people that were “discovered” had very different views.  The people in the western hemisphere, as it has come to be called, with a little more justification, believed that their world was the only world. They were also mistaken. They believed that they lived on a great island floating on an ancient sea.  Some of them referred to this world as “Turtle Island.”

These people on the western hemisphere were amazing people. They had occupied all habitable areas of this hemisphere  (and some like Manitoba are arguably not really habitable at all) from the Arctic tundra, to the plains, mountains, forests and deserts of North America. They occupied the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central America and the incredible rainforests, deserts, plains and mountains of South America. They developed many different kinds of society. They included nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers to settled farming communities and cities as large as any in the rest of the world. Numbers vary, but by 1492 there may have been 100 million Native Americans in the South and North combined. This was about 1/5 of the entire human race.

To the people of the Americas, their encounter with people from Europe was not a discovery, it was an invasion! It was an invasion with profound effects for both sides.  As Ronald Wright said, “Within decades of Columbus’s landfall, most of these people were dead and their world barbarously sacked by Europeans. The plunderers settled in America, and it was they, not the original people, who became to be known as Americans.” “Unlike Asia and Africa, America never saw its colonizers leave.”

The original people did not however disappear.  As Wright put it, “Many survive, captive within white settler states that built on their lands and on their backs.”