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Native American Oppression

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Published: Tue, 11 Apr 2017

“Whoever controls the past controls the future” (George Orwell). Freedom; just what is freedom? Many think of freedom as having a choice. It is what the United States is supposedly founded on. But is it really? How many people actually have the freedom to know the oppression not through the eyes of the conqueror, but the conquered? History is not meant to be repeated, for it teaches us how to prevent. So why is it that we do not learn? The history of the Native Americans has never been a pretty one.

Native Americans have suffered and have been oppressed like none other. What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. Settlers were seeking religious and political freedom; during their quest they set their eyes on the new world. What is the point of freedom if one must subjugate others for it?

The history of oppression, of the European invasion on the Indian settlements in the Americas begins five hundred years ago. That beginning is one of conquest, slavery, and death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure, one where there was no bloodshed, and Columbus Day is a celebration. Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else, but only a hint. Samuel Eliot Morison in his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” Samuel Eliot Morison did not lie about Christopher Columbus. But rather he mentioned the truth quickly and very subtly.

On October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean Sea. The first man to sight land was to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He got the reward. So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, and cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.

Arawak men and women full of wonder emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat, the likes of which they had never before seen. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log: They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

The gold ornaments would prove to have disastrous consequences as they would fuel the greed the Spanish had. Christopher Columbus ordered for some of them to be captured by force and sent on board the ships. The main goal behind this was information about the location of gold. On the way back the Native Americans died aboard the ship when the weather dropped.

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

His second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor. When there was a possibility of making a profit God had no room in Christopher Columbus’ mind.

Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the Indians on Haiti were dead. This was all in the name of the holy trinity, and ordered by Columbus. The Arawaks were not the only Indians to suffer at the hands of European forces.

The Aztec civilization of Mexico came out of the heritage of Mayan, Zapotec, and Toltec cultures. It built enormous constructions from stone tools and human labor, developed a writing system and a priesthood. It also engaged in the ritual killing of thousands of people as sacrifices to the gods. The cruelty of the Aztecs, however, did not erase a certain innocence, and when a Spanish armada appeared at Vera Cruz, and a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts, clad in iron, it was thought that he was the legendary Aztec man-god, and so they welcomed him, with magnanimous hospitality.

That was Hernando Cortes, sent from Spain, and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal: to find gold. “For God, for Glory, and Gold.” (Cortez) In the mind of Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, there must have been a certain doubt about whether Cortes was indeed Quetzalcoatl, because he sent a hundred runners to Cortes, bearing enormous treasures, gold and silver wrought into objects of fantastic beauty, but at the same time begging him to go back.

Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy-to paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed. And so, in Cholulu, he invited the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with thousands of unarmed retainers, Cortes’s small army of Spaniards, posted around the square with cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to the last man. Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder was over they were in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization, shattered, was in the hands of the Spaniards.

In Peru, the Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the same reasons- the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe: for gold, slaves, and products of the soil. To pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions: which in turn financed the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe. Also to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, and to participate in what Karl Marx would later call “the primitive accumulation of capital.” These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.

In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Columbus had set it in the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any permanent English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian village.

Jamestown itself was set up inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people’s land, but did not attack, maintaining a posture of coolness. When the English were going through their “starving time” in the winter of 1610, some of them ran off to join the Indians, where they would at least be fed. When the summer came, the governor of the colony sent a messenger to ask Powhatan to return the runaways, whereupon Powhatan, according to the English account, replied with “no other than proud and disdainful Answers.” Some soldiers were therefore sent out “to take Revenge.” They fell upon an Indian settlement, killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard “and shot out their Brains in the water.” The queen was later taken off and stabbed to death.

Twelve years later, the Indians, alarmed as the English settlements kept growing in numbers, apparently decided to try to wipe them out for good. They went on a rampage and massacred 347 men, women, and children. From then on it was total war.

Not able to enslave the Indians, and not able to live with them, the English decided to exterminate them. Edmund Morgan writes, in his history of early Virginia, American Slavery, American Freedom: “Since the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their corn wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn…” Within two or three years of the massacre the English had avenged the deaths of that day many times over.

The lies of American History are too many to tell. Christopher Columbus wasn’t a hero but a murderer, and the pilgrims didn’t have the fairy tale relation with the Indians.

When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a “vacuum.” The Indians, he said, had not “subdued” the land, and therefore had only a “natural” right to it, but not a “civil right.” A “natural right” did not have legal standing.

The Puritans also appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” And to justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they wanted their land. And they seemed to want also to establish their rule firmly over Connecticut settlers in that area. The murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnaper, and troublemaker became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.

So, the war with the Pequots began. Massacres took place on both sides. The English developed a tactic of warfare used earlier by Cortes and later, in the twentieth century, even more systematically: deliberate attacks on noncombatants for the purpose of terrorizing the enemy. This is ethno historian Francis Jennings’s interpretation of Captain John Mason’s attack on a Pequot village on the Mystic River near Long Island Sound: “Mason proposed to avoid attacking Pequot warriors, which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy’s will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective.” As Dr. Cotton Mather, Puritan theologian put it: “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”

The war continued. Indian tribes were used against one another, and never seemed able to join together in fighting the English. Jennings sums up: The terror was very real among the Indians, but in time they came to meditate upon its foundations. They drew three lessons from the Pequot War: First, that the Englishmen’s most solemn pledge would be broken whenever obligation conflicted with advantage; Second, that the English way of war had no limit of scruple or mercy; and third that weapons of Indian making were almost useless against weapons of European manufacture. These lessons the Indians took to heart.

Was all this bloodshed and deceit-from Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, and the Puritans-a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization? Was Morison right in burying the story of genocide inside a story of human progress? Perhaps a persuasive argument can be made-as it was made by Stalin when he killed peasants for industrial progress in the Soviet Union, as it was made by Churchill explaining the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, and Truman explaining Hiroshima. But how can the judgment be made if the benefits and losses cannot be balanced because the losses are either unmentioned or mentioned quickly?

To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It is certainly the choice which most make. The easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly. Not to mention more widespread.

The treatment of heroes and their victims, and the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress, is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as “the United States,” subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a “national interest” represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

There is no justification for oppression and genocide. There can be no mission directly from God which destroys an entire culture. No legal document or moral law will ever be enough to justify it. While the people may die the rancor left behind won’t perish. For it will be documented in history. The true history of the world is all of the peoples stories not just the conquerors. “Whoever controls the past controls the future” (George Orwell).

A hunch backed bison. Proud and majestic. Now bowing. Arched over him, United States of America hangs above. Flip, reflect. A profile. A man with pride, feathers in his hair. Branded. 1936. The word liberty hangs in front of him. Taunting. He does not see it. His eyes are downcast. To notice it would be shortsighted. For what do he and his descendants know of liberty? Their relation with it is maintained with reservations. Primitive concentration camps. Ironic. Little remains today of the bison and the Indian. Confined to obverse and reverse. Looking past each other in opposite directions. To the air, the empty air. Dreaming of days, long gone, many moons ago.

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