The American Indians were defeated because their time was spent arguing amongst themselves instead of uniting to overcome the Europeans.The Europeans came on a mission. The American Indians never quite understood “United we stand, divided we fall.”
The conquering of the American Hemisphere and Indian Country is a topic that has come up often in personal discussions, particularly around this time of year. The comments above are representative of what I commonly hear from non-NdN folk when discussing Thanksgiving Day, Columbus Day, Independence Day or even the “special” status afforded natives when it comes to casinos, taxes and what have you. It never ceases to amaze me how limited in scope the information is that supports these “enlightened” opinions, and how little people seek to educate themselves beyond that which they have been spoon fed as truth. But it breaks my heart when the above mentioned opinion is shared by a person claiming native or indigenous identity. The reason for this is that the above quoted comments are nothing but the parroting of Euro-centric propaganda that has been circulating for centuries. Misinformation propagated to support manifest destiny, a modern rerun of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and right-by-might, rehashed. It also justifies how and why natives deserve their lot, then and now, by “proving” the inferiority in native thought and action (or lack thereof). The fact is that there were many elements involved in the conquest of our people, our relations and our lands. Maybe this opinion, shared above, is not expressed to foster these anti-indigenous thoughts, in NdN or non-NdN, but it is nonetheless the idea conveyed by both the words and the attitudes behind them.
Consider, that at the time of their arrival, the Europeans had superior firepower and were devious in their dealings with “enemies”, both in peace and in war. Their skill in these aspects cannot be over looked. The Spanish, particularly, were very well trained in these matters as well as those of coercion and torture, and they had reason to be. During the Reconquista, the approximately 800 year war reconquering the peninsula under catholic rule, they offered Jews and Moors the option of converting to christianity. They then changed their mind and forced them to leave with only those things they could carry instead. Of course, many were murdered before they had the opportunity to get out of Spain. Once out of the way, their lands then reverted to the crown and their property was open to pillaging as payment to the soldiers. The Crusades and the Inquisition were both born from the Reconquista and we all know those stories. The Spanish arrived to the Americas in the same year La Reconquista ended. This is not stated to vilify Spain, but to clarify the culture from which the first Europeans where coming from.
Those of us who know of someone in the military are acutely aware that modern warfare is devastating, however removed from the carnage we are by technology. I have had personal experience with 4 people who are ex-military, all whom have had difficulty reintegrating into society due to violence, two who committed suicide in a violent manner. These are not good statistics. The difference between them and the first Europeans arriving in the Americas is that the ancient ones were born and raised in a culture of conquest, where fighting was mostly done hand to hand, blood and gore in your face. Our modernity is not an improvement on the situation. The Europeans who arrived to our shores were not the benevolent missionaries, curious scientists and adventurous spirits the history books portray. They were human beings. People with spirits damaged by constant war, with human conditions, reactions, desires and ambitions and they brought with them their culture of violence upon arrival.
Another detail often offered as proof of inequality and thus, validating -no, requiring- both conquest and annihilation, is the fact that our people were still neolithic. Because of this the indigenous people were “primitive” and “uncivilized”, “less than” and needed to be whitewashed with European religion and lifestyle. Regardless of the value judgement, this thought is not considered when discussing the logistics of rebellion. What good do stone makanas, bows and arrows and wooden spears do against swords, lances and steel armor on an experienced, horse-mounted, mercenary in a protracted fight?
I would like to offer a couple of additional “truths” to consider:
Upon arriving to these lands the Europeans launched an unintended biological attack upon the population. Their germs spread diseases for which our people had no defenses: measles, mumps, smallpox and influenza among them. Needless to say, it is hard to wage war while sick, let alone when dead. These diseases were not the controlled outbreaks we see today, they ravaged whole villages to the point where many historians believe that over 80% of the native population of the Americas were destroyed by it. The percentage varies depending on who you read, but the number is high nonetheless.
Removing disease as a factor, as well as the fact that our ancestors couldn’t possibly have guessed the intentions of the conquerors so as to stop them at the door, so to speak, let’s consider the logistics of setting up a campaign.
- Local tribes would need to be informed. Travel was on canoe and on foot. Today we drive everywhere, and we use our gps system to guide us, so we’ve actually forgotten how long it can take to get somewhere when walking. But, just for fun, pick a place that you don’t consider too far when driving and try walking there one day. You’d be surprised.
- So let’s say they walked there, they did have runners at the time… Not all areas spoke the same language nor had the same cultural values, so communicating the need to band together for war as well as possible strategic information would have been time-consuming and limited. With time at a premium, these would be no leisurely discussions for the purposes of trade- lives were at stake.
- Let’s say they do understand each other and agree to band together… Such vast amounts of people would need to be housed, dressed and fed. Was the land able to handle the consumption of resources? Today, we know it cannot, we see it all around us. Our ancestors wouldn’t disrespect the land that way, even to wage war. War was not a priority.
- But let’s say they did go to war anyway… With each tribe being autonomous, who was to lead this grand war council? Confederations are nothing new in indigenous politics, but then, as today, no one person speaks for all tribes. And in the various tribes, no one individual speaks for all members of that tribe.
- Considering the whole of the American Hemisphere and knowing that Europeans could have (and did) land anywhere on the east coast, how were they to know exactly where they should post guards? Today we buy an alarm service to protect our little 2-3 bedroom homes (those who can afford it, anyway). The alarm service of that time was a real live human being. How long were they to assume they would need sentinels for?
- The Europeans were not going to stop coming here, and they didn’t, but our ancestors didn’t know that. How where these folks supposed to organize and re-organize, over and over again, especially not knowing from where the “enemy” was to invade?
Beyond this talk of war I like to remember the cultural values of unity, fellowship and brotherhood; the spirit of Guaitiao that was the basis of our ancestral worldview. Although we natives are not homogenous, this idea of “all being related” was, and still is, central to indigenous society and culture worldwide. “United we stand” was a native lifestyle, not just a euphemism. Living in peace and tolerating differences was a highly regarded value in our ancestral societies. Life was valued, people were worth something. They weren’t disregarded because of differences of opinion as we find among natives today. These cultural values were considered strengths by our people, and weakness and ignorance by the conquerors, as reflected by the quoted comment above.
These are just a few factors that influenced the course of history in the favor of the conquerors, factors that are rarely considered when giving such a limited view of the defeat of our ancestors. It’s a real put-down.
What is heart breaking about hearing this opinion from the mouth of a native is that it undermines the actions of those indigenous leaders of the past who against all odds, did exactly what ignorance claims they didn’t do: they brought together people from different tribes and organized uprisings and rebellions against the encroaching Europeans. The ignorance of these facts insults the memory of these warriors, as if the lives they gave up were worth nothing: Agueybana, Enriquillo, Hatuey, Tecumseh, Geronimo, Osceola, Emiliano Zapata, and many, many more who died unknown, unnamed and buried in common graves. Some fought in formal confederacies, some were temporary allies from local tribes and others were people who just threw in the occasional wrench in the conquerors plans, but in the end, all of them were willing to die fighting for us -their future generations.
Comments like this coming from indigenous mouths undermines the sacrifices of the indigenous leaders of today: Comandante Ramona, Subcomandante Marcos, Rigoberta Menchu, Evo Morales, Luis Yanza, Emergildo Criollo, Mariana Jimenez, Humberto Piaguaje, Alberto Pizango, Wilma Mankiller, John Trudell, Angel Santos, Hope Cristobal, the Trask sisters and the many, many others who still carry on the fight against colonialist assimilation that some of our people have already succumbed to.
The hindsight we enjoy today gives us a lofty position of expertise; we can afford to have all the answers, we are not in the place of our ancestors nor do we have to make their choices. We pay taxes, we surf the net, we have central ac and indoor plumbing. We are so far removed from our history that we speak of the “American Indians”, our very ancestors, as a “them”…
Not only have we been colonized, but expressions like these show we’ve been assimilated as well.
Just something to think about.
(c) A. Nanu Pagan, September 2010