History 17A – United States History (Spring 2007)
[Students and professors, please read.]
Chapter One and Two
2. How would you characterize Indigenous society? How did they live?
Despite previous biased reports of a scanty pre-Columbus population, the Americas before Columbus were highly populated by indigenous peoples. One specialist in the field estimates around 145 million for both North and South America, with about 18 million in North America.
The indigenous peoples of the Americas by the time of Columbus’ arrival already had a long history and settled and/or seasonally migrated in a variety of climates and geographical locations, and were steeped in culture. After 2000 B.C. is when civilizations began to grow in North and South America. For example, the Koyukon people still live in the Arctic and Subarctic areas considered as wilderness by outsiders, “wilderness” thoroughly known to the Koyukon and imbued with meaning. The text also speaks of other cultures within the Americas, of the greater authority given to women in some tribes, of the admiration the Spanish had for the way the Aztecs raised their children, of their beautiful floating gardens and the aviaries in the capital city Tenochtitlan, of its arboretums and artwork, of the canal systems and aqueducts and gutters, of how the Mayan city planning and architecture was aligned astronomically (they were also the first to use the number ‘zero’), of how they maintained their streets, of their unsuspecting generosity and hospitality to strangers (at least until they learned, unfortunately, otherwise), of their ingenuity in taming suckerfish so that they could catch turtles with them, of the suspension bridges, of the glorious Inca roadways, of the pyramids and other monuments that were constructed, and much more.
Most of the people who lived in the western plains of North America were successful hunters and farmers, well established in communities settled around the rivers and adjoining fertile valleys of the Great Plains. Others did migrate seasonally, taking apart and reassembling their tipis. However, none of them had horses until the Spanish invaded the area.
A personal note: American Holocaust was written in 1992, and I graduated high school in 1995. Perhaps by that time the history texts were reflecting a more accurate view of the way history really went, because I was taught about native American culture and the many tragedies like the Trail of Tears, and it should also be noted that much of what I have been reading in later chapters is atrocious and obviously not suitable for children. However, I grew up on movies and shows that showed the earliest Americans as the humans they were, with strong family and tribal ties and much culture. I grew up in schools which revered their spiritual ceremonies, methods of food and home preparation and environmental conservation. My grandpa used to brag/lie that he had native American blood in him, and would perform mock rain dances for us grandkids. In sixth grade camp I had the chance to visit a site where native Americans used to live, and it captured my imagination – grinding food in the rock, camping out seven days a week, neat moccasins and hair. A semi-local place called Lover’s Leap told of their to-the-death romantic bonds and made them relatable.
4. How do we still misrepresent Indigenous societies?
The population numbers are misrepresented as being lower than they actually were. This is due to both possible ignorance, and a more probable attempt to prevent a potentially guilty social conscience – potentially guilty due to the sheer magnitude of death implied by the difference between pre-conquest and post-conquest population numbers. When we puzzle over why people who lived in a town with a NAZI concentration camp just looked the other way and pretended they didn’t know, while others worked in the camps and helped gather the Jews and exterminate them, we should remind ourselves that the native Americans were nearly wiped out in the same fashion.
North, South and Central America, apart from the Aztecs and Incas, are misrepresented as barbarians and savages without culture or history, living in a wasteland. This is also due to stubborn ignorance and an attempt to explain near extinction as justified extermination. Instead of feeling shame for their actions, they deceived themselves into feeling pride for ridding the world of predatorial foes. They made themselves out to be victims fighting for their own freedom, rather than invading oppressors guilty of murder, theft, rape, kidnapping, and other crimes. They also use the image of the savage to justify enslavement, as if the native Americans could not have fed themselves if Europeans hadn’t come along and enslaved them.
The native Americans were also misrepresented as having no claim on their homeland. They were misrepresented as unsettled and roaming, as not objecting to the invaders claims of possession over the “newly discovered” land. The argument was that even if they weren’t savages who deserved to lose everything they had, they claimed ownership of nothing. This was an ignorant observation verging on an outright lie which served to relieve the moral scruples of those who merely heard of conflict with native Americans. Those who actually interacted with the native Americans knew by experience that they were indeed a settled people and considered the Americas their home – by experience, they razed many Indigenous communities to the ground.
The native Americans were also over-generalized as alcoholics, human-sacrificing pagans with a short life-expectancy, resisting civilization and conversion to Christianity. On the one hand they were criticized for having no identity, and on the other hand were criticized for defending identity where a sense of identity was not warranted. It is not difficult to imagine why they would resist conversion, given the examples of a Christian with which they were presented.
One of the most widely learned mischaracterizations of native Americans, made famous by the old cowboy-and-Indian westerns, is that they mainly got around on horses and didn’t really settle in one spot very long. Truth be told, they did not acquire horses until the Spanish shipped them over from Spain, and they were not forced into a nomadic lifestyle until the Americas were overrun by European settlers.
1. Was Columbus responsible for genocide in the Americas? Should we blame him or European culture? How did the Spanish justify their actions in the Caribbean? Are these justifications still used to rationalize terrible behavior today?
Many are to blame for genocide in the Americas. Columbus was the first to carry the tyrannical torch of European culture from Europe to the Americas, but many besides him carried that torch further and kept it burning. Stannard seems to equate that torch with the torch of Christianity, but if the Europeans had truly sought biblical, divine guidance from Christ, there would have been no torch.
Many savage face-to-face cruelties, enslavement on the Spaniard’s plantations and in their silver mines, and the introduced diseases and starvation killed the most native Americans directly. Genocide as a goal would have been counterproductive to maintaining the labor force needed for coca production, silver mining, and the rest of the slave trade. But the alternative to intentional genocide – what happened in reality – was so hellish as to make death preferable to life for some Indigenous people who took their own lives or the lives of their own children, often refusing to conceive children in the first place – this also contributing to the near extinction of the Indigenous peoples. All-out genocide was not an actual goal until the British came on the scene, it seems.
In Virginia, the solution to the conflict between slavery and genocide was to enslave the women and children, and kill the men. In California, where the native Americans had resorted to poaching white-owned livestock to feed themselves after being driven into the mountains, the governor urged a continued war of eradication and extermination. After the incident known as the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, a committee assembled to confront Colonel Chivington on the matter, in answer to a question of civilizing versus exterminating, shouted “EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!”
The rationale the Spanish used to justify their actions in the Caribbean include “the image of the savage”, the belief that it was their right, falsely claimed biblical guidance, the goal of civilizing and “converting” the ‘savage’ native Americans, the fact that the native Americans did not object to Columbus’ taking possession of land, making the men behave (in the presence of kidnapped women and children), and (not so much a reason as a compulsion) – greed for power and wealth (gold and silver) which tainted all their other endeavors and reasoning.
Are these justifications and compulsions still in effect today? It reminds me of Islamist extremist terrorism. It reminds me of a war over oil in Iraq begun under what may have been false pretenses, although no doubt Hussein needed to be removed from power and Iraq liberated. It reminds me of how there can exist people so wealthy and people so poor on the same earth.
2. How would you characterize European society? How did they live? What were their values and beliefs? Was the European behavior in the Americas an extension of their behavior in Europe or did it reflect a new way of treating people? Why do you think the history of Europeans has been inaccurately portrayed in US history books? What is the result of this false representation? Who benefits from these distortions?
European society was plagued with epidemics and famine which routinely (when the rich conveniently vacated the cities) killed large portions of the population. The rich ate well while the poor starved, leading to conflicts like the Peasant’s War in 1524, killing 100,000. The epidemics were in large part due to their unsanitary public health hazards, including roadside ditches filled with stagnant water which served as public latrines, butchered animal carcasses left in the streets, open “poor holes” filled with dead poor people, and the fact that most of them never bathed.
The rich hungered after gold and hired torch-bearing body guards to protect them, as the streets were filled with crime which was met with harsh and unreliable law enforcement, contributing further to an overall spirit of uncertainty – their one unifying bond being fanatical witch persecution and execution. Eruptions of bizarre torture, murder and routine cannibalism were not uncommon, accusations of which often led to a witch hunt. Jews and the un-Christian were persecuted, deported, their valuables confiscated and tossed out to sea, they were tortured and killed in many gruesome ways. About half the children died before the age of 10, many due to abandonment by parents too poor to support them. Many sold themselves and their children into slavery to survive. There was a sex slave trade that included young girls. This is the unchristian torch Columbus and others carried to the Americas in the name of Christianity.
As a result of understandable shame and embarrassment, or outright denial of reality, the facts have been distorted or completely left out to protect the honor of our founding fathers, of our beginnings. Such things still happen at the family level in the form of family secrets that often times go completely unacknowledged and denied. People would rather see themselves, and the groups with which they identify, in a favorable light, often with the result that they deliberately overlook the ugly aspects, if they can get away with it. The consequence is that the ugly aspects are not dealt with, and, like cancer, can cause worse problems down the road, problems which outweigh the benefits of looking back on our history with pride rather than shame.
1. What religious and cultural precepts justified the killing of Native Americans and the destruction of their cultures?
The English were conditioned into the mindset they brought to the Americas, in that they were familiar with and referred to the way the Spanish dealt with unruly natives. Their experience with the Irish also conditioned their expectations for their experience with the native Americans.
The English did not fight fair, as the native Americans learned too late. They broke their promises when it was to their advantage, and their warring was unscrupulous and merciless. They would make sure their actions were legally sanctioned, not so much out of respect for the heart of the law, but out of the belief that if their actions were legally justifiable, they were morally justifiable – letting the weight of moral considerations rest on the law, rather than on their own consciences. One such case is the treaty preceding the Trail of Tears.
Like the Spanish, the English thought it was their right to destroy their foes and enjoy the spoils of war. It was just part of the mindset of the time and of the times which preceded it.
Like the Spanish, the English thought of the natives as savages, and thought it their duty to civilize them. George Washington and Andrew Jackson referred to the native Americans as wolves, as beasts of prey needing extermination. The reality of conflict with the native Americans, due to their being forced to poach on white-owned livestock because they were forced out of their homes by slave-catchers, justified extermination to some whites.
Like the Spanish, the English thought they had God’s blessing whenever they would have success in battle, or whenever a large number of native Americans would die due to illness brought from Europe. This reminds me of the mindset of Islamic terrorists.
See also my answer to “How did the Spanish justify their actions in the Caribbean?” in chapter three.
4. To what extent was the social and economic life of colonialists dependent upon the exploitation of slave labor?
The most striking thing I noticed while reading chapter four is that the only options of how to handle the native American “problem” were genocide and enslavement. One other time the option of civilization is presented, met with the horrific response of “EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!” To me this is very telling of the general mindset of the times, and reminds me of the illegal immigration “problem” of today and the civilians who line up at the borders to enforce immigration laws. I think it strange when I hear that the strongest argument against a stronger border is that these illegal immigrants do the dirty work we Americans won’t do, for a price we wouldn’t accept (forget the fact that they are fleeing terrible living conditions). To me, that sounds like the “enslavement” option, as opposed to mass deportation or citizenship or (ironically, on a different level) granting immunity (perhaps back then the solution would have been genocide). I do not recall reading a lot about the extent to which the colonialists depended upon slave labor in chapter four, however I noted the mention of slave labor in California, and how quickly it decreased the native American population is telling of how dependent the west was on slave labor.
I live on Fort Hunter-Liggett, and it is quite depressing to learn that Junipero Serra was so frightening. I have visited Mission San Antonio numerous times and never knew the dark ugliness of its history until reading “American Holocaust”. The El Camino Real, highway 101, lined with those bells, was blazed by Junipero Serra, and I used to think that driving on “The King’s Highway” was so cool because of its history – until I read chapter four. Did Junipero Serra do nothing positive for the native Americans? Wouldn’t more native Americans have died if they were not given food and shelter (in return for their labor) on the missions? Were they truly forced to be there? How sad. I discussed a little bit of this with my mother, a third grade teacher who takes her students to a mission every year. She confirmed that the native Americans were worked like slaves, and mentioned to me that a lot of native Americans died of disease, and that the people who ran the missions lived on almost nothing as well.
Native American parents were killed so that their children could be enslaved under false pretenses that they were orphans. In including the quote Stannard provides, he seems to put a slant on it that the law sanctioned this murder and kidnapping, but the law clearly forbade it. His point, however was that the law was easily worked around, and the ones implementing the law (the justices of the peace) either knew it and looked the other way, or were easily fooled.
Stannard said the reason for this law was to address the issue of the shortage of native American labor, not for the protection of the native Americans, protection needed as a result of this shortage. I’m not sure either way, but the title of the act was “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” To me this suggests that the more civilized (those who, at worst, used native Americans for forced labor) in our government were at odds with the least civilized (those who went beyond forced labor and severely mistreated the native Americans).
Ten thousand native Americans were enslaved in California as a result of those laws – more were enslaved illegally. The extermination policy mentioned at the end of the answer to question 1 above did major damage to an economy so dependent on forced labor that was more valuable from the native Americans, apparently, than from other forced laborers. Much of the value came from the gold and silver mined and shipped to Spain.