Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Americas Before the Europeans Came

Parts of the Americas were a more advanced civilization than Europe!
by Charlie Leck

I read an interesting piece in the local newspaper on Saturday about the manner in which Independence Day is celebrated on the White Earth reservation here in Minnesota. In the Native American grave yard up there, flag poles are stationed by many of the grave sites. On patriotic holidays, like the 4th of July, the stars and stripes are flown from them by family members, loved ones and friends of the former, late members of the military. An intense pride in military service exists among the Native Americans.

“The White Earth Band of the Ojibwe play veterans’ songs, talk about their families’ military service and fly their veterans’ flags. All veterans are invited to dance in the grand entry, whether or not they are Native American. So too the other bands in the Bemidji area, Leech Lake and Red Earth, play veterans’ songs and fly veterans’ flags during their powwows.”

[Wally Hilke, President of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union]

One cannot read any serious history of the United States – or of the Americas – without feeling some sense of shame about the way the original natives of this land were treated after the white man arrived here from Europe and for 500 years following. It is astonishing, in the light of those histories, to think that such loyalty and patriotism is still existent among those Native Americans.

Before Columbus arrived here there were nearly 75 million natives roaming North and South America. When Columbus went ashore in Hispaniola in 1492 there were approximately 250,000 “Indians” living there. The following are words from the very logbook of Christopher Columbus.

“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…”

“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some
of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts…”

“Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures are both fertile and beautiful… the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold… There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals… [of course this claim about gold and metals was completely false]…

[the natives] “are so naïve and so free with their possession that no one who has
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…”

In response to the reports that Columbus gave the Spanish royalty, for his second voyage back to America he was given seventeen ships and more than 12,000 men. The goal was to bring back gold and slaves.

By the year 1515, there were only about 50,000 natives left on Hispaniola and only 500 by 1550. It appears none of the original Arawaks were left by the year 1650.

The primary source for this information came from a young priest and historian, Bartolomé de las Casas, brought to the Americas by Columbus himself. Las Casas wrote an incredibly complete History of the Indies. In the second volume of that History, the author describes the treatment of the natives by the Spaniards.

“Endless testimonies prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives… but our work was to exasperate, rave, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.”

For months and months the natives were used as slaves in their own land to mine for gold. They were forced to dig, to split rocks, to carry stones and dirt on their backs down to the river for washing. The labor broke many of the poor natives and their beautiful land was stripped. Families were torn apart and the mortality rate at birth plummeted because mothers were overworked and unable to give nourishment to their babies. Las Casas writes that he himself saw 7,000 children die in three months time. And husbands died in the mines, women from overwork and children from lack of nourishment.

“My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write…”

This is not the history I was taught in my little public school in rural New Jersey – nor later in high school and not in college or graduate school either.

Indeed, this is awful history to read, but one must remember that other European explorers of historic fame followed Columbus. The Aztecs of Mexico were treated by Cortés as poorly as Columbus treated the Arawacks. And Pizarro treated the Incas as badly and the English settlers of both Virginia and Massachusetts were just as brutal to both the Powhatans and the Pequots.

So, I began by saying that approximately 75 million natives wandered the lands of North and South America at the time Columbus came. And, most were enormously civilized. They had nearly perfected the art of agriculture. The maize they grew does not just appear wildly. It must be planted and cultivated and fertilized – then harvested and husked. They also produced other products from the land – tobacco, rubber, peanuts and chocolate. Many of those natives lived in settled communities that were highly organized and developed divisions of labor. And, they were extremely artistic.

Leagues of tribes had also been organized and representatives would come together to share their secrets of agriculture, building and art. They would seek peace constantly and peaceful manners of living and sharing. The following were reported by historians to be the words of the legendary Mohawk chief, Hiawatha:

“We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other’s hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and happiness.”

The next time you think of the beginning of American History, think of these facts. Compare in your mind the lives and achievements and actions of the Native American to those of the white men who came to these shores and settled these lands.

Then think in wonder at the patriotic feelings the Native Americans of our own state feel toward this nation.

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