Category Archives: Indigenous People After Contact

Are we repeating what Europeans did to Indigenous People in the “New World?”

 

I have been blogging a lot about the incredible destruction by Europeans of Indigenous people of the western hemisphere after they first made contact. Lately I have wondered if the descendants of those Europeans, together with the immigrants who came from the west and their descendants have been unwittingly repeating the crime some 500 years later. Only this time they are doing it again to indigenous people but also to the rest of us. Are we doing it to ourselves in other words?

Kate Jones and her team of researchers found that 335 new diseases emerged between 1960 and 2004, and at least 60% came from animals. There is really nothing surprising about this. Many human diseases evolved from contact with animals. Europeans much more than people in the western hemisphere domesticated animals for centuries. As a result over millennia they developed immunities to many of those diseases. When they arrived in the “New World” and contacted people in the new world who did not have that long history of contact with such animals and as a result had on immunities to the diseases the Europeans brought with, they were devastated by the diseases. Within a century 95% of the indigenous people were dead according to some experts.

As John Vidal reported in the Guardian:

“Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.”

Kate Jones has discovered that these zoonotic diseases are increasingly linked to environmental changes caused by human activity. We disrupt pristine forests by logging, mining, and road buildings through remote areas without paying any attention to what we are doing. We think the world is ours for the taking. We see ourselves as lords of the universe with the divine right to do with it as we please. By doing that we bring people into ever closer contact with animal species we have never encountered before. As a result we have built up no immunities to any new diseases or pathogens they carry just like the Indigenous people of the Americans when the first European explores arrived. Could that happen again and basically for the same reason? Are we doing to ourselves what we carelessly did to the indigenous people of the western hemisphere? It’s beginning to look that way.

Maybe we need a new attitude to nature.

Royal Proclamation

 

Many Canadians have been heard to say, the protesters of the pipeline must obey the rule of law. The rule of law is the basis of Canadian society. I agree. But what does that mean? It means everyone–the Indigenous people, white settlers, businesses, must obey the law. Lets not just pick on the Indigenous people. Canada is a country governed by law. That is what the rule of law means.

But this is complex. It is not enough to say that protesters must obey injunctions. Everyone must obey the law, even the majority who control the government of Canada or British Columbia.

To understand the point I want to make you have to look at some very old law–the Royal Proclamation of King George of England in 1763

There was a deep conflict in North America in the 18th century. One big issue was who would control the expansion of European-Americans into Indian Country? The governments of the United States after 1776, and Britain after its victory over France in the Seven Years War that began in 1756 and ended in 1763, jostled over who would get that control.

In 1763 just after the end of the Seven Years War, and before the American Revolution, the British Monarch, King George, issued a Royal Proclamation in which he asserted his absolute claim to exclusive authority to acquire by purchase (not conquest) aboriginal title in the lands that he reserved for Indian peoples as their hunting reserves. That land included most of North America and all the land west of the Mississippi River.

By this proclamation, that is still valid law in Canada, the British sovereign monopolized the exclusive authority to transfer lands from Indigenous people (Indians as he called them) to non-indigenous people. No private deals could be made! By this act, the British crown usurped the right to control and regulate the westward expansion of Anglo-American settlements. Really, the British King said he and he alone had the authority to decide who would own North America. Talk about hubris! However, by this Proclamation, King George also acknowledged that the land in North America (including in 1763 much of what is now the United States) was owned by the original inhabitants and ownership (title) could only be acquired by purchase! And only the crown could buy.

Americans of course, were loath to accept this and it was this proclamation and later taxes imposed on the Americans that led to their revolt against British rule. Indigenous people who had lived on this continent for millennia, never acknowledged that the British King had this authority. But they liked the acknowledgement that no one could acquire ownership of land after that time except the Crown and then only through purchase from indigenous people.

This Royal Proclamation is the basis for English (and later Canadian) authority over much of North America.  It really was the basis of law in Canada. The English realized that their claims over North America had a dubious foundation. The Royal Proclamation was intended to make that foundation sound. It was the foundation for empire–the British Empire–in North America.

The United States saw no need for such a basis for their expansion. They were content to rely on conquest. Canada never did that. It really did not do a lot of conquering. It took the position that it was governed by the rule of law.  Canada saw how the Americans were spending vast fortunes in its Indian wars and did not want to replicate that here. In one year 25% of the entire American federal government budget was spent on Indian wars.

It is important to recognize that the English government and its laws, which were later assigned to Canada after 1867, deliberately provided that land not purchased by the Crown from Indigenous People belonged to the inhabitants–the indigenous people.

That is still the basis of Canadian law in the wild territories. And this is still important today in understanding issues such as the melee over Wet’suwet’en land and pipelines over it.

Why is this relevant?  Because the Wet’suwet’en never ceded their territory except over those 6 parcels of land now included in those 6 First Nation Reserves established as such under the Indian Act. That means that no one has acquired those lands. The original owners, whoever they are, continue to own those lands. With ownership comes the right to say what can and what cannot be done on that land. What gives the Province of British Columbia the right to issue permits for developments, such as pipelines, over that land? What this means is that this is not ancient history; this is law.

Resilience

 

For a while in the 18th century it looked as if indigenous people had weathered the storm. Indigenous people are nothing if not resilient. Non-indigenous people often falsely accuse indigenous people of being too married to their traditions. Richard White a Professor of History at Washington University has shown how false this assumption was:

“If the Indian peoples of the eighteenth century had been wedded to tradition, then there would have been no horse nomads on the Great Plains, no Navajo sheepherders or silver workers or weavers. There would indeed be, no Navajos, no Lakotas, nor Muskogees, nor numerous other groups who first began to think of themselves as separate and distinct peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In a world of disaster, Indian peoples forged opportunities. In the midst of a population collapse that turned villages into funeral pyres, they created new peoples and new tribes and confederacies. In a world where old ideas seemed incapable of explaining so much change, so much misery, and such staggering possibilities, they spawned prophets, rebels, and saviors in a seemingly unending profusion. Since Europeans could not be banished, Indians sought to include them in a common world and pursued new ways and forms to control and contain them. And, for a while, it all seemed possible.’

In many cases Indigenous people after contacting Europeans, created new traditions, which they passed on to their youth. They adapted. In fact they had to be great adapters in order to survive an onslaught more horrific than that faced by any other people anywhere at any time.

 

Speed of Diseases

 

The speed of the devastation brought about by European diseases on contact with Indigenous people, for which the native people had no inherited defences as the Europeans did, was astonishing. Even the Europeans did not fully appreciate what had happened. They had never experienced anything like it either.

As historian Jay Miller explained, “Again and again, throughout the Americas, as Europeans advanced, they moved into regions already emptied by disease.” That seems incomprehensible. The European diseases travelled faster than they did!

As a result as the Spaniards in the south and later French and English farther north, moved on from ravishing one native community they would arrive at another only to find them already depleted.  As depopulation ensued local indigenous people could not muster enough people to carry on their traditional ceremonies, thus disconnecting the people from their land and hence their source of spiritual sustenance. Political and spiritual leaders were also lost. It left the native communities in disarray and reeling and unable to resist the European invaders.

Jay Miller described the contact between Europeans and Indigenous people like this:

“The end result of the European quest for riches, slaves, and land, was the reshaping of the native social order.  But it was not the direct action of Europeans themselves that produced this vast change. Rather, it was their inadvertent introduction of virulent diseases.  The germs that Europeans carried to the so-called New World visited utter and complete devastation on its indigenous inhabitants. Diseases unknown in the Americas, to which the natives had no immunity, struck whole communities with fierce and heartrending violence.’

What makes this even more surprising and disorienting, was that the indigenous people were so healthy. They were actually healthier  than the European invaders! As Miller said,

“Except for parasites, occasional malnutrition, and minor germs, the native population of the Americas was remarkably healthy. The people lived an open, uncrowded life, knew a great deal about herbal medications, and practiced cleanliness in sweat baths. This was sufficient to deal with most common illnesses. But this way of life proved no match for the germs cradled and nurtured in the filth of European cities and ports.”

Smallpox, measles, and other common European diseases wiped out entire communities before most of their inhabitants had actually seen a European. Whole regions were depopulated.

New diseases have come to plague people in the past, and in fact are doing so now as I write this with the introduction of a new, deadly, and scary disease, namely coronavirus. This has had dreadful effect on people around the world. But  imagine what the effect would be if we were faced with multiple new diseases! This is exactly what indigenous people experienced after contacting European invaders. If an indigenous community survived one deadly epidemic it would soon be met with another. If not small pox, then measles, or whooping cough, or scarlet fever, or influenza. The list of deadly new killers was astonishing.

In the result, some have estimated that 95% of the indigenous people vanished within a century of European contact! Nothing beats that.

The European Invaders brought Invisible and Deadly Weapons of Mass Destruction 

 

Many people think that most Indigenous people died after contact with Europeans because the European invaders were so powerful and the natives were so weak. This is of course grounded in that Original sin. The Europeans assumed they were superior and they have taught this prejudice to those that followed them to the “New World”.  It is commonly believed that the natives of North and South America succumbed because they were primitive, from weak societies, there were so few of them, and they were superstitious. As Ronald Wright said in his book Stolen Continents, “Such explanations explain nothing, even by their own false premises.”

It is true that Europeans came to the “New World” with powerful weapons. Astonishing ships, blades of steel, guns, vicious dogs, and horses.  But those were not their most powerful weapons. Their most powerful weapon was disease. As Wright explained,

“Europe possessed biological weapons that fate had been stacking against America for thousands of years. Among them were smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera, and malaria—all unknown in the Western Hemisphere before 1492. Somehow they had not made the journey to the New World with the remote ancestors of the American Indians during the last Ice Age. Perhaps they were frozen to death on the way; perhaps they had not yet evolved. Whatever the reason, Native Americans, having had no exposure, had little immunity; they caught the new sickness quickly, and infection was extremely virulent. “The Indians die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost,” one eyewitness wrote.  Even today, isolated tribes can be decimated by something as “minor” as the common cold on the first contact with missionaries or prospectors.”

Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, speculated that the original Europeans who travelled across the land bridge between Asia and North America during the last Ice Age came to the “New World” before they themselves had built up immunities. He suggested that the first people of the Western Hemisphere came before they domesticated animals in Europe and most of these diseases evolved from animal diseases to human diseases. At first they were just as deadly to Europeans as they were much later to Indigenous people of the Americas. It took many millennia for the Europeans to build up immunity. By the time they arrived in the “New World” after 1492, the invaders were not affected by the deadly germs they carried. The people in the “New World” were not so lucky; they were ravaged by those diseases.

Ronald Wright described the onslaught this way:

“It is now clear that Old World plagues killed at least half the population of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilization shortly before their overthrow. The sheer loss of people was devastating enough (Europe reeled for a century after the Black Death which was less severe), but disease was also a political assassination squad, removing kings, generals, and seasoned advisors at the very time they were needed most.

The great death raged for more than a century. By 1600 after some twenty waves of pestilence had swept through the Americas, less than a tenth of the original population remained. Perhaps 90 million died, the equivalent, in today’s terms, to the loss of a billion.  It was the greatest mortality in history. To conquered and conqueror alike, it seemed as though god really was on the white man’s side.”

I often wonder why I did not learn this brutal history in school. Was someone trying to hide something?  It seems like a surprising oversight.

The Greatest Holocaust Ever

 

We in the west don’t like to think about it, but the facts are stark.  As Tzvetan Todorov said about the founding of New Spain and Portuguese Brazil “the sixteenth century perpetuated the greatest genocide in human history.” (emphasis added) We are the products of that genocide.  We are the beneficiaries of that genocide! We must never forget that awful, uncomfortable fact, no matter what we might like to do.   Marks Crocker was even more extreme in his description of this fact when he said,

“…when viewed as a single process, the European consumption of tribal society could be said to represent the, greatest, most persistent act of human destruction ever recorded.”

Admittedly, it is not a simple task to count the number of dead caused by European expansionism. Estimates of deaths of Indigenous peoples vary widely.  Yet one thing is clear.  Vast numbers of Indigenous peoples did not survive European arrivals.  Russell Thornton is a serious scholar who has given a lot of attention to this issue He concluded that the Aboriginal population in the Americas had declined by 1900 to about 6% of its size of about 72 million when Europeans first made contact with the peoples of the western hemisphere. He blamed diseases as the primary cause, but warfare and genocide added to the terrible toll.

Holocaust” is really an appropriate word.  It’s an ugly word but it’s the right word. This becomes even clearer, when one learns that this was accompanied by destruction of more than 75% of the Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in the Americas when Europeans arrived. As we know now, destruction of language means the destruction of a culture, and with that destruction a people is often rendered limp—ready to roll over and die. It must be remembered that this trend has not stopped. In 2000 the pace of language destructions has continued unabated. In fact it has accelerated worldwide. We will all suffer this loss.  As Canadian scholar, Anthony Hall said, “The disappearance of so many linguistic windows of human understanding is robbing posterity of vital media of thought and articulation to convey, perpetuate, and augment our inherited cultural richness.”

We in the west are now quick to condemn genocides in Germany, Rwanda, Serbia, Kosovo, Cambodia, and other places. We should not forget what happened in our homeland. These were war crimes, ethnic cleansings, and crimes against humanity that have rarely been acknowledged, and have never been punished or brought to justice.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission danced around the issue of genocide. It called the results of the Residential schools “Cultural genocide”.  I find this concept disconcerting. What is cultural genocide as opposed to genocide?

At first, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg did the same thing. It used the similar expression “cultural genocide” as well.  I always felt that it used this expression rather than the harsher expression “genocide” because it did not want to offend its reluctant sponsor, the Conservative federal government of Canada led at the time by Stephen Harper.  Later, after that government was replaced by the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau, it referred to it as “genocide.”  I believe that this is now its official position.

Anthony Hall does not shrink from describing the actions of European conquerors as genocide. He described it this way,

“In North America in particular the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples has been so systematic, longstanding, and pervasive that it has been rendered all but invisible, except to the victims or their survivors and to those with the honesty and fortitude to face the stark evidence of the historical record.  One marker of the extent and terrible effectiveness of this genocidal assault is Thornton’s estimate that, between 1492 and 1900, the number of Indians and Inuit in the region covered by Canada and the United States dropped from around 7 million to fewer than 400,000.”

We, who now live in North America, are the beneficiaries of that genocide.  How comfortable are we about that? Most of us never admit it. Most of us never even think about it. Colonization was made possible by genocide. That colonization continues to this day. Our society is based on that.

False Premises Lead to False Conclusions

As I have been saying the false European sense of superiority Europeans had over the indigenous people they found in the Americas provided a poor basis for their continuing relationship. Racism is never a sound basis for a good society. It really is that simple.

First, that attitude led to the Indigenous people and their cultures being crushed. The consequence was a stubborn sense of superiority and deep vicious racism. As historian Alvin Josephy Jr. said,

“Patronization, condescension, policies of forced assimilation–the determined attempt to stamp out Indianness–continued on through the first part of the twentieth century. And all were manifestations of the white American’s deep-rooted prejudice, sense of superiority, and belief that little in the Indian’s world was worth saving, or even knowing about…if they thought about Indians at all, their thoughts were dominated and colored by inherited feelings of superiority and new stereotypical images of contemptible “drunken Indians,” “lazy Indians,” and “Indians who don’t pay taxes like the rest of us.”

This is exactly what I have called the Original Sin. Sadly, in both Canada and the United States such longstanding biases continue to plague their societies. Such racism has had a strongly detrimental effect on both indigenous and non-indigenous people. That is actually the inevitable consequence of racism, though often it is unacknowledged.

For example as I write this in Canada there is another confrontation between indigenous and non-indigenous people, this time over a pipeline in British Columbia, which confrontation, is benefiting no one and harming many. A better understanding between them would help everyone in the dispute.

As Josephy Jr. said,

“It has long been clear to many persons that the whites’ false and stereotypical thinking has done great harm, not only to the Indians, but also to those who  conquered and dispossessed them. From the Indians’ point of view, the harm lies, not only in the irretrievable loss of so many of their people, but also in the continued ignorance and misunderstanding of non-Indian Americans that too often deny Indians support in opposing injustice and achieving their rightful place in American society. The whites, meanwhile, by denying the value of Indian histories and cultures, have turned their backs on thousands of years of Indian learning , and experience with American land., and on the enormous richness and diversity of Indian spiritual and creative life.

From the vast lore of Indian mythology and story that inspires present-day Indian painters, authors, musicians, poets, dramatists, dancers, jewelers, film-makers, sculptors and other creative artists, to the practicality of centuries-old Indian knowledge in managing fisheries, and forests and even deserts, the Indian world is full of lessons for the modern-day world. Not to recognize this enormous resource is both foolish and terribly wasteful. Indeed, not to understand the reality of Indian history is not to understand ourselves as Americans. Nor can anyone claim to know American history without a full and undistorted appreciation of Indian history.”

And as I have said over and over again, this is of course equally applicable to Canada and its indigenous people. It is difficult now to imagine how much better our countries would be, had the relationships between Europeans and indigenous people been based on respect, rather than false superiority.

Conquistadors

 

The meeting of European invaders and the Indigenous people of the western hemisphere was one of the most profound events in the history of human society on our planet. Historian Jay Miller described the effect of that contact on the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere this way:

“The arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought to the native peoples change of a kind that went far beyond their capacity to understand, or even imagine–unprecedented change, terrible change, havoc and death.  South of the lands later to be known as the United States, powerful empires fell. And millions died from the scourge of epidemic diseases unleashed however unintentionally, by the first conquerors, the Spaniards.’

The Spanish were incredibly successful in plundering Mexico and Peru. Eventually these Spaniards had only one goal–riches. Harvesting souls came later. Bringing civilization came even later and then mainly as an excuse for plunder–a whitewash.

As Jay Miller said,

“For, at least initially, extracting wealth–easy wealth–was their prime aim in the new lands they had encountered. Anything of value they laid their eyes on, they snatched, looted, and pillaged.”

When the European invaders and their deadly diseases laid low huge swaths through the native populations it had an overwhelming effect on the natives. It was absolutely devastating and the few survivors left to deal with the Europeans had to do so without their leaders, most of whom had died.

Miller described the effect this way:

“The old order could not cope with the onslaught. Finding themselves largely leaderless, and therefore severed from their most powerful access to the gods, at a loss to account for the thousands of friends and families dead from strange and disfiguring diseases, the survivors suffered a profound crisis, both of shock from immediate, multiple loss, and of faith.  Their world destroyed, they would need time and radical change before some semblance or their traditional community life could be rebuilt.”

Have any other people suffered such absolute devastation? It is not surprising that the effect has cascaded through the generations ever since.

Genocide of Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere by European Powers

 

The European countries and later the United States were guilty of enormous sins when they waged wars on indigenous peoples around the world. Will they ever be brought to justice for those crimes?  It is highly unlikely. At least so long as they continue to be powerful. Nothing cleanses sins more effectively than power. The genocide against indigenous peoples has been the largest and most profound in the history of the world. Yet it is rarely acknowledged as genocide. It is unlikely to be acknowledged as such so long as those countries and their successors wield power.

Western powers like Britain, France, Holland, Spain, and the United States don’t want their abysmal records of the mistreatment of indigenous peoples around the world to come back to haunt them.

Andrew Woolford, an acknowledged expert on genocide, and the author of Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America makes a powerful argument that the treatment of indigenous peoples in North America by European invaders was genocide.  Adam Muller makes the same assertion in his  book on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Really it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.

If I am right that this was genocide, what is the significance of that? What is the significance of it going unacknowledged by the successors to the perpetration of the genocide? What kind of a civilization can be built on such a foundation? I think these are interesting questions.

Brutes

 

The Spaniards who came to the New World to bring salvation and extract gold were not Sunday School Teachers. Historian Alvin M. Josephy Jr. painted a clear picture of these “missionaries”:

“As the pre-Columbian world disappeared, the fires of Eurocentrism burned on, now attempting to erase the history, cultures, and achievements of that world from memory. In the Yucatán, the Spaniards burned or destroyed almost every Mayan book in their efforts to convert those Indians to Christianity. In the flames, posterity lost, until recently, the ability to read Maya’s radiant pre-Columbian civilization.

In New England, after the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had come to view the powerful Pequot Indians as “children of Satan,” they tried with fire and sword to blot out every sign that these Indians ever existed. Making holy war on them in 1637, they massacred Pequots by the hundreds parceling out the relatively few survivors among other tribes with the vain hope that even the name Pequot would vanish. Across both continents, only a small number Europeans thought it worthwhile to pass on to future generations records of the “curious” societies they were destroying.”

Of course these attitudes were passed on to their successors the European settlers, such as Canadians and Americans.  As a consequence these attitudes formed the basis–the fundamental basis–of Canada and the United States. Not a great foundation for noble societies.