A couple of years ago, when I visited the Casa Grande Ruins, the ancient home of the O’odham Nation, nearby where we are living in Arizona, I remember hearing a local person say how mean and nasty Apaches were. That is a typical opinion of whites in North America. They were considered ‘treacherous savages” as were many other indigenous peoples. Often that opinion was based on prejudice or misunderstanding.
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. gives an interesting example of this in the book Native Americans: An Illustrated History. It happened in 1849 on the California Trail that was used to transport what he called “hordes of fortune hunters” rushing from Eastern North America to California in search of gold. The vast desert of what is now Nevada was considered the most dangerous stretch of that trail. The travellers, who had not been invited by the local indigenous people we must always remember, believed those local inhabitants were treacherous savages. What would we think if Canada or the United States was filled with uninvited hordes from Russia, or Iran, or Mexico? The answer is obvious. We would not be gracious. Likely the invaders would consider us savages for resisting the invasion.
Many of the travelers relied on published journals of earlier European migrants who had described the local indigenous people as “wretched, degraded, and despicable.” They went on to call them “the meanest Indians in existence.” The travelers noticed that these “Indians” hid from sight during the day and came sneaking out at night into their camps to steal food and livestock. How nasty can you get?
The weary travelling whites had to post guards all night long keeping a careful eye and ear out for suspicious sights and sounds. Alvin M. Josephy described what resulted as follows:
“When they heard a suspicious noise, they shot in the direction of the source, and at dawn they often found a dead Indian lying nearby. Sometimes it was the body of a young child or woman, or a gnarled elder, and the traveler’s stories circulated the information as proof that all “Diggers” (as they called the local Indigenous people) were skulking thieves, no matter their age or sex.
The Indians side of what was going on was quite different. It never got into the history books…What the whites had believed were “skulking” thieves and murderers in the darkness were in fact hungry and terrified Indian families trying to get safely across a road that white men had unwittingly cut directly through territory where for centuries the Indians had lived, gathered food, and held their ceremonies. The bisecting road had crippled the Indian’s freedom of movement across their lands, for they lived in mortal dread of the stream trigger-happy white travelers who shot at them as if they were rabbits.”
Indians, as the Americans call them, often desperate for food on the verge of starvation had to take risks to get food for their families. So they hid with their families during the day until darkness gave them cover to try to get some food. Often they would tell their young to scamper across the trail until they managed to join them. The Indians of course tended to blame the whites for over-running and destroying their food gathering grounds, polluting their water wells, and things like that. So they thought it was only fair to steal some of the whites livestock or food. Wouldn’t you?
As Alvin M. Josephy said, “These, in short were what the travelers cursed as “the meanest Indians in existence”–men, women and children trying to survive, but whom the whites occasionally heard in the night and killed.”
Josephy came to the following conclusion about these misunderstandings:
“In the history of Native American nations, the California Trail story is not unique. Ever since Europeans first arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492 their relations with Indians have been marked –even until today–by the stain of countless similar episodes in which groundless fears, prejudices, and misunderstandings have led to tragedy.
These misunderstandings date back to 1492 when Columbus thought he had reached India. He thought, as did the Europeans that followed him, that they had “discovered” a New World that was “a barbaric, virgin wilderness.” They did not realize that there was nothing new about it at all. As Josephy said, “To the Indians, of course, this ‘New World’ was a very ancient one of many millions of persons and a myriad sophisticated and thriving cultures and civilizations.”
It is unfortunate that the relationship between these worlds was based on such fundamental misunderstandings. That has colored everything that followed. And that is a real pity. It could have been so much better.