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Hello Columbus: America was no paradise in 1492.

Columbus's first voyage to the New World was arguably the single most important event in the emergence of our modern sense that we are all together living on one planet. Yet, as we mark its 500th anniversary, the traditional hero-worship of the Genoese explorer is gone. Most children can count on learning only two things about Columbus in school today: that he was not the first European to reach these shores; and that the history of slavery, oppression, and conquest that followed his explorations makes even his achievements nothing to celebrate.

In many ways, a more realistic appraisal of Columbus should be welcome, as historical truths should always be. Over the years, Columbus has been used as an idealized symbol for everything from the Reformation and the emergence of democratic Protestant America to a role model for Catholics and Italian immigrants. Some of these symbolic distortions had a core of truth to them; others were fabricated from whole cloth. Columbus was a brave and skillful navigator, a visionary explorer, and a devoutly religious man, but he should not be facilely linked with the occupations or preoccupations of subsequent ages.

Unfortunately, owing to ideological lenses, a more truthful historical picture of Columbus remains absent in many places. The same is true of the image of the indigenous peoples that he found on these shores. As a kind of compensation for centuries of uncritical hero-worship of Columbus, uncritical hero-worship of Amerindians has become a thriving industry as we approach the quincentenary. Where once the Indians played an incidental role in the story of the European colonization, they now generally occupy center stage, in both political and moral terms. It is an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to say that American Indians have become for many people the new heroes and models to be imitated as we contemplate 1492.

A Wondrous Mosaic of Peoples

Many of us retain an impression from grade school that in spite of the peoples already inhabiting these lands, the Americas basically were available for the daring explorer to take. This is a profound falsehood. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different indigenous groups lived here at the time of Columbus's arrival, and historians estimate the total population of the Americas at somewhere between 20 million and 100 million. Even the estimates of pre-Columbian population figures have become heavily politicized, however, with scholars who are particularly critical of Europe often favoring wildly higher figures. High starting points make Indian deaths by disease, warfare, and mistreatment all the greater. David Henige has dubbed this "Native American Historical Demography as Expiation." Yet despite their mistreatment by Europeans and devastation by European diseases (large numbers of Indians died as disease passed along trade routes, 80 percent without ever seeing a white man), some Indian groups are more populous today than in 1492. There now are 30 million Indians in Latin America alone, and several times more Iroquois in North America than at first contact.

Some Indians roamed in small hunting bands, while others had settled in immense urban complexes that rivaled major European cities both in size and splendor. The conquistador and, later, talented historian of the conquest of Mexico, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, writes of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan that the Spaniards almost literally could not believe their eyes when they "saw things unseen, nor ever dreamed":

We saw temples and oratories shaped like towers and

bastions, all shining white, a wonderful thing to behold. And we saw the terraced towers, and along the causeways other towers and chapels that looked like fortresses....We turned our eyes to the great marketplace and the host of people down there who were buying and selling....Among us were soldiers who had been in many parts of the world, at Constantinople, all over Italy, and at Rome; and they said they had never seen a market so well-ordered, so large, and so crowded with people.

Unexpectedly, on the high Central Mexican plateau, served by causeways in the middle of a lake, sat one of the most remarkable cities in the world. Anyone who thinks all native American societies were primitive and produced only primitive art should visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City.

Illinois's Great Pyramid

Nor were the ancient Mexicans alone among indigenous peoples in such achievements. Successive waves of high urban civilizations, including Olmec, Toltec, and Mayan, left remains of similar quality and scale, although by the arrival of Columbus these urban centers had long since dispersed or declined. Like other Indian communities, however, they had created vast agricultural networks, including irrigation systems, and had bred varieties of corn, beans, and squash. These Mesoamerican civilizations had also arrived at impressive intellectual achievements. Their calendars were more accurate than those used in Europe at the time, and their mathematicians had discovered the concept of zero and how to use it in computations. (Europe had borrowed this concept earlier from the Arabs.)

Further south, the Incas had created what was probably the largest empire on the face of the Earth in 1492, larger even than China's. The Incas also resolved the problems of governing over long distances broken up by mountains and valleys much as had the ancient Romans, by building a road system and a political, military, and civic complex that astonished Europeans for centuries after. The historian William Prescott could say of the Incan ruins as late as the 19th century:

The traveller still meets...with memorials of the past, remains of temples, palaces, fortresses, terraced mountains, great military roads, aqueducts, and other public works, which, whatever degree of science they may display in their execution, astonish him by their number, the massive character of the materials, and the grandeur of the design.

Alexander von Humboldt, the natural scientist and explorer, stated: "The roads of the Incas were among the most useful and stupendous works ever instituted by man." The Incas also developed over 3,000 kinds of potatoes to meet nutritional needs; most of those species are unknown to the rest of the world even today. The rulers of the empire were so stupendously wealthy that they were able to fill an entire room with gold as a ransom when Francisco Pizarro demanded it; Pizarro executed the captive emperor anyway.

Nor were such advanced achievements limited to what is now Latin America. Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, a metropolitan center built by the Cahokians arose that produced high, pyramid-like mounds different from the kinds of temples found south of the Rio Grande. The Cahokian culture existed until just about the time of Columbus. For some reason, this advanced urban civilization dispersed itself before it had had any contact with Europeans. Its way of life, therefore, can only be extrapolated from surviving physical evidence and knowledge of kindred tribes. The magnitude of its sheer physical achievements, however, is indisputable: on the banks of the Mississippi, 30,000 people lived and raised a pyramid that occupied more land than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Rich Lore But No Written History

We do not usually think of advanced urban centers when we think of Native American culture. But within what is now the United States alone, there had been various other mound builders, along with over 300 other Indian tribes, speaking languages as diverse from one another as are German and Chinese. Even using the word "tribes" to describe these diverse groups cannot convey the range of peoples and social forms between North America's two coasts.

Contemporaneous with the Cahokian mound builders in 1492, whaling peoples on the Northwest coast, nomadic tribes in the interior, cliff dwellers in the Southwest, and numerous other nations dwelled in these lands. Each of these groups showed an ingenious ability to adapt to local environmental conditions and extract the necessities for life from the available flora and fauna. They also gave rise to a rich body of religious, mythological, and practical lore that retains considerable human interest.

The lack of written native languages has blocked a full understanding of this country's Native American history. Because the Mayan glyphs were the only true writing system in pre-Columbian America, we must rely almost entirely on oral traditions and archeological evidence, where available, to reconstruct Native American history. Often, these two sources do not confirm one another. Later accretions to oral histories and gaps in the physical evidence introduce uncertainties everywhere. The written testimony of European settlers helps, but inevitably contains inaccuracies and misunderstandings. Given the economic, political, and military interaction of native peoples, all these instruments, even combined, leave much uncertainty. It is as if we had to reconstruct several centuries of Italian Renaissance history, not from the documents of the warring city-states, but from the anecdotal accounts of Arab traders who had contacts with Genoa, Venice, Florence, or Naples.

Many interested parties have rushed to try to fill in the picture. Historians have a fairly good idea of the basic day-to-day material life of the Eastern Woodland tribes that the Europeans first encountered, or of the Plains Indians hunting buffalo before the Europeans brought back the horse to North America. (The horse was native to America, but was wiped out during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.) In fact, many of us feel nostalgia for the life close to nature that these peoples led, even if they lacked some of the advantages of their more urbanized neighbors. What is not as clear to us, however, is the human relationship these neolithic societies bear to each other and to us.

What's in a Name?

Just one example of the difficulties we encounter here: What should the various peoples in the New World prior to Columbus be called? Many Indian groups today reject the name Indian, because they regard it as a Eurocentric imposition, and a mistaken imposition at that, since Columbus thought he was in the Indies. "Native American" has become a more politically correct term, but has its own problems for several reasons. First, it invites confusion with all the rest of us who are native-born Americans. But more significantly from the indigenous point of view, it does not escape European categories. "America" was a name formed in the wake of another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. It is difficult to see how being named after an Italian is less Eurocentric than being named after an East Indian.

This difficulty in finding a name for all the peoples of the New World reflects an inescapable truth unwelcome in some quarters. Some of the parties involved in the quincentenary have tried to deny that Columbus "discovered" anybody. The natives already knew who and where they were, and did not need to be "discovered" in this view. But this line of argument has taken a valid concern and pushed it beyond its proper legitimacy. In point of fact, the native peoples of these continents did not know where they were, nor even that they inhabited a globe. Nor did they know one another very much, hence their lack of a name for themselves as one group.

That consciousness only emerged much later, when some native groups formed a kind of pan-Indian agenda to protect themselves against whites. Pan-Indianism, almost a mystical concept for some modern activists, certainly did not exist and could not have existed prior to Columbus's discovery. Pre-contact native peoples differed from and fought with one another too much for any such solidarity to emerge over a very wide area. Recent scholarship has refuted the myth that Columbus proved the world was round to Europeans. Educated Europeans in his day already knew that. But he did prove it to Indians, who suddenly found themselves, for good and evil, an integral part of one worldwide human race.

Despoilers of the Earth

Being part of that race has consequences. These diverse peoples should have been respected for their own cultures and peacefully brought into interaction with the Europeans. Such peaceful cultural mixing has rarely occurred in history, and certainly did not occur very often in the Americas. But being part of one human race also means being open to comparison with other cultural practices and norms, and when we turn to that aspect of our encounter with native peoples, the discussion rapidly heats up.

For example, Indians are often recommended to the industrialized modern world as model ecologists. These recommendations are based on the assumption that Indians lived close to nature and followed a natural sense of balance in their hunting, agriculture, and manufacturing. We have already seen how diverse a group of people we are referring to when we say Native American, and it will come as no surprise to realize that there is no one "Native American" practice or doctrine that can be universally invoked as a counterweight to modern Western views on the environment or any other subject. To be faithful to the Native American cultures, we can only proceed by examining the beliefs and practices of specific groups.

The Eastern Woodland tribes, for instance, had a certain fear and reverence for the spirits of the woods that controlled the animals and plants; hence, their reluctance to offend by taking for their own use beings that belonged to the spirits. But this is far from modern concepts of ecology. Indians in fact overhunted deer and beaver even before the arrival of the white man, and did not seriously try to preserve the resources in the vicinity of their villages. As a result, the typical woodland village, having exhausted local soil and game, had to move on average every eight to 10 years. Their numbers were small enough, and land plentiful enough, that this caused no extensive permanent damage, but neither is it much of a precedent for modern worries about nature.

The higher urban cultures often were not nearly so benign. Archaeologists are uncertain why, for example, the high Mayan culture reverted to a simpler form over 500 years before Columbus. But to judge from the evidence of the ruins in most cities, epidemics, warfare, political turmoil, deforestation, and other environmental factors appear to have played a prominent role. Wilcomb Washburn, the former director of the Office of American Studies and a long-time Smithsonian scholar of Indian life, has justly observed of indigenous Americans, "They were not ecologists in the sense of 20th-century interest groups....[E]ven in the earlier, `unspoiled' phase of native existence on the continent, there is evidence, such as the bison herds driven off cliffs, to indicate that Indians were not the careful stewards of Mother Earth they are sometimes thought to be."

Regeneration Through Blood

Modern ecologists invoke a harmony with nature that they believe they find in Indian spirituality as opposed to the "Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the Earth" philosophy that they often see as the biblical basis for Western ecocide. Yet no certain evidence of that harmony in its modern sense is to be found among native cultures. In fact, some quite different concepts of harmony are far clearer and far less happy than we might think. Among the Aztecs, Maya, Incas, and even some North American tribes, a cosmology common to many primitive peoples emerged. In that cosmology, everything in nature is cyclical, even the creation and destruction of the world. Religious rites were performed to keep the universe and the social order from getting out of kilter. The Nobel-prize-winning poet Octavio Paz explains:

The religious foundation common to all the Mesoamerican peoples is a basic

myth: the gods sacrificed themselves to create the world; the mission of the human being is to preserve the universal life, including his own, feeding the gods with the divine substance: blood. Thus, war is not only a political and economic dimension of the city-state but a religious dimension.

It was this system of beliefs that lay behind the human sacrifices among the Aztecs and Incas that so horrified the Spaniards who first encountered them. In fact, the Spaniards were able to win over tribes subjected to the Aztec empire in part by their promises that young men would no longer be sent as tribute to the capital for human sacrifice.

Occasionally a kind of anthropological racism is used to distance these Latin American practices from those of North American Indian cultures. If we discover that, for example, the Pawnee used to sacrifice a maiden annually, some historians will see in this Mexican influence, even though no evidence for this "contamination" exists. Similarly, the mound-building cultures of the U.S. Southeast, like the Muskogean, appear to have had a kind of ritual suttee and other human sacrifices at the funerals of members of the upper classes. Some of these societies were rigidly hierarchical slave societies that subordinated women, and they too are often said to show Mexican influence. Yet according to Phillip Kopper, a writer for the Smithsonian Institution, "No prehistoric site in the Southeast has yielded a single Mexican relic."

It is not as though only Mexican or other highly developed indigenous civilizations possessed social practices we now deplore. Almost every Indian tribe in existence in 1492 would provoke violent reactions for some of its practices if faithfully reconstructed today. The Sanpoils, who lived in the Northwest on the Columbia River, practiced absolute equality and pacifism. They alone, perhaps, would escape contemporary criticism. But pacifism was a rarity among indigenous peoples. Most Indian groups were warrior societies. The Sanpoils were highly unusual and fortunate in that they were able to preserve their equality and pacifism between two very different types of societies: those on the Northwest Coast with rigid social structures and slavery, and those on the Great Plains marked by bellicosity.

Democratic Torturers

Sometimes contradictory traits show up within the same indigenous group. The Iroquois were probably the most highly developed Native American political association in North America, and much has been written of their indisputable achievements. DeWitt Clinton called them the "Romans of the West" because of their "martial spirit and rage for conquest." The so-called Iroquois confederation--the nascent civic structure of the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Cayuga--arrived at peaceful and relatively democratic relations among the five nations. In 1987, the U.S. Congress formally proclaimed that the Iroquois played an important role in the creation of American democracy. As a result, American schoolchildren are taught today that the Iroquois confederation was a model for the American Founders when they began to consider how to organize the 13 newly-independent former colonies.

While the confederation is a clear sign of Native American diplomatic skills, controversy is widespread among historians over whether it exerted much influence on the Founders. A few passages show that the Founders were, of course, aware of the confederation. Ben Franklin probably captured the spirit of how most of the Founders felt about the question in his remarks on the need for a union:

[I]t would be a very strange Thing, if...ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen Colonies.

Franklin's combination of disparagement ("ignorant Savages") and admiration (suggesting "a like Union") reflects the vague interest typical of his times. Not until the 1840s did anyone investigate the actual structure of the confederation. Consequently, its role in shaping the Constitution is doubtful to say the least.

In any case, outside the constituent Iroquoian groups, the confederation practiced what can only be called an imperial policy toward other peoples. Francis Jennings, an appreciative student of Indian cultures, has written that the Iroquois, because of their political structure, considered themselves the wisest of Indians and "this rationalized their role of hegemony over other tribes. It was for the latter's own good--not an unfamiliar argument among imperialists." The British, seeing heavily fortified Iroquois villages, called them castles--a further indication of the kinds of relations that existed among tribes long before the white man added his evils.

We can also get some idea of the way that the Iroquois treated prisoners of war from the experience of the French Jesuits in Canada. Paul le Jeune, one of the earliest missionaries, remarked in 1632 on the "shocking cruelty to captives" among the warring tribes. Seventeenth-century France, like the rest of Europe at the time, was not exactly unfamiliar with torture and executions, but the French found native treatment of prisoners excessive even by those standards.

To get a concrete sense of the world in which the Jesuits operated and the practices they sought to change, it is instructive to recall what happened to Jean de Brebeuf. Brebeuf was a talented linguist who learned several Indian languages. Like many of the Jesuits, he was constantly having to defend himself from Indian charges of witchcraft. (Even writing and reading were so alien to native ways of thought that they evoked fear.) Many Indians believed that sorcery was the cause of the epidemics brought by the Europeans. Brebeuf was working among the Hurons, tending the sick and trying to teach Christianity, when he was captured along with his colleague, Gabriel Lalemant, by the Iroquois. They tortured him to death, in steps: boiling water was poured over his head three times in imitation of baptism; hatchets were heated in a fire, strung together, and then placed around his neck; a belt of resin and burning pitch was attached around his waist; his lips and tongue were cut off; pieces of his own flesh were cut off, roasted, and eaten in front of him; and finally, his heart was dug out and eaten, and his blood was drunk.

Taking Indians Seriously

To recall some of the negative dimensions of native cultures does not exonerate Europe for its own failures and atrocities. Europeans committed acts just as bad and their culpability is worse: by their own principles they should have known better. But a better knowledge of the shortcomings, as well as the achievements, of native culture is essential, not least because it makes Indians real people for us again.

For a long time, Indians were portrayed as poor savages, too primitive to be taken seriously as worthy members of the human race. Lately, the opposite distortion has occurred, but with much the same effect. The contemporary Indian has become a kind of "red angel," living in harmony with God, nature, and his fellow man, and not a living creature of flesh and blood like the rest of us. Both attitudes are ultimately imperialistic, because they impose on the Indian images of one stripe or another that the mainstream culture feels it needs at a given time. Instead of paying Native American cultures unwarranted compliments, it would be far more respectful of the various indigenous peoples in these lands to learn about their real histories and to appreciate them for what they were and are--human beings with all the glory and horror the human condition entails.
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Title Annotation:reexamining the history of American Indians
Author:Royal, Robert
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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