Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lo, the Poor Indian! Notes on Amerindian Origins


Today our American Indian population of more than 2.5 million is in sharp contrast to the population in 1609, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name. The entire North American continent was then the exclusive domain of Indians. By the early 1700s, Indian tribes in the lower Hudson Valley had sold their highly desirable lands to Dutch or English colonists, usually for a song. The Delaware Indian tribes of the region--Mahicans and Munsees--then scattered to the four winds, leaving only names on the land and a few members in isolated remnant groups.

Some Hudson Valley tribes found their way to Massachusetts, others to upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. To find descendants of these tribes today, one would have to travel to Wisconsin or to Ontario in Canada, where small bands live on reservations. A similar extinction drama was played out in the Massachusetts Bay colony after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. Eventually, a whole section of American ethnography was pushed from their lands and settled on reservations in what were considered to be undesirable areas. In some cases, as in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), they were given lands that proved to be oil-bearing, making a few rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Indians owe their name to a monumental gaffe committed by Christopher Columbus five centuries ago. Thinking he had reached India, he called the people he encountered "los Indios." Eventually, it was recognized that not Asia but an unknown continent had been discovered. By then, the word "Indian" had entered the major languages of the world. To rectify Columbus's error and avoid the stereotypes that have sprung up, it is fashionable today to refer to Indians as "Native Americans." Although it may be politically incorrect to demur, the term Native American is as much a misnomer as was Indian. We are all descended from immigrants; Indians merely got here sooner than the rest of us.

The Land Bridge
Originating in Asia, ancestors of the so-called Native Americans are believed to have reached Alaska from Siberia by a land bridge exposed in shallow Bering Strait. Geologists refer to the area of far eastern Russia east of the Lena River and northwestern North America west of longitude 130 degrees as Beringia. A highly unlikely drop of only 120 feet in today's ocean level would create a land bridge again and reveal the link from one continent to another. The evidence seems clear they arrived in what is North America well before the last major glaciation and then made their way southwards, often hugging the shoreline along the still ice-covered part of the continent and depending on fish and shell fish for sustenance. Evidence of their passage along the ocean strand may exist under the Pacific. Titanic explorer Robert Ballard has indicated an interest in such a project.

Their migration was for the most basic of reasons: food. Once past the southern limit of glacial ice, these hunter-gatherers traveled inland in small bands, moving with the game that supplied them with meat and furs. Always seeking new regions where animals and plants were plentiful, they explored ever southward as the climate moderated. Taking whatever a bountiful nature offered, they made no effort to increase or propagate their food supply by domesticating animals or rising crops.

Eventually, wandering groups reached the southernmost tip of South America; recent excavations at the Monte Verde site in Chile have yielded radiocarbon dates of 12,500 years. This date is not universally accepted, however. Other sites in the Americas have been claimed to have earlier dates, and the jury is still out. Nevertheless, by traveling as little three miles a week, the distance between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego could have been covered in about 70 years. Along the way, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths as large as elephants, and other animals all fell victim to their primitive flint-tipped spears. Unlike later Indian hunters, who killed only as much as they needed for food, clothing and shelter, their Ice Age forbears killed wantonly. Ironically, by slaughtering their quarry in mass kills they hastened the extinction of the very animals upon which they depended.

Two such animals were the camel and the horse, once common on western plains. Soon after the end of the Ice Age and before their total extinction, these quadrupeds also used the Bering Strait land bridge for migration--but in the opposite direction. Spreading westward in Asia, the primitive wild horse of the steppes was domesticated. When Indians encountered mounted Spanish explorers in 1539, all memory of earlier horses had been lost, and they regarded the strange new animals with awe. Once introduced to the horse, however, the Plains Indians quickly adapted to an equine way of life.

Old vs. New Worlds
Rising sea levels cut of the Bering Strait land bridge and blocked the passage of Stone Age peoples sometime after 11,000 years ago That the Indians who occupied the New World were still living in the Stone Age when Columbus reached these shores has long interested scientists. What kept them from matching the growth of civilizations of the Old World? First and foremost, Indians remained nonliterate. Writing and reading, developed in the fertile Mesopotamian plain as an adjunct to trade and government, gave the Old World an initial leap forward. These skills led to logical thought, mathematics, science, medicine and invention. Useful arts followed: engineering, dam-building, irrigation, intensive agriculture, ceramics and metallurgy.

Reading and writing paralleled still another phenomenon--cities that sprang up abruptly in the Old World about six thousand years ago. Elaborate systems of piping and aqueducts supplied water and provided public baths and carried off wastes, accelerating the clustering of peoples. Agricultural cultures soon gave way to commercial and industrial civilizations. Cities became states and nations with stratified social and economic hierarchies. These record-keeping bureaucracies were regulated by a judiciary and a priesthood, and governed by a ruling minority.

In contrast, the Indian lifestyle of foraging, hunting, fishing and farming limited them to small groups of families and clans gathered in temporary camps and small villages. Their only political organizations were tribes and loose confederacies. Unlike the sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys and camels of the Old World, the animals available to the Indians--with the exception of the dog--did not lend themselves to domestication. In northern Europe, even reindeer and elk were tamed. Lacking domestic animals, Indians in the Western Hemisphere were largely doomed to continuing their nomadic lifestyle. Without draft animals and the plow, their attempts at raising crops were necessarily rudimentary. And without beasts of burden and wheels to provide transport, possessions other than the most portable tools and utensils quickly become impediments to wanderers.

The arrival of Europeans in the New World inevitably resulted in a clash of cultures. Columbus's first contacts were with the gentle and innocent Taino Indians on the island of San Salvador. "They should make good and intelligent servants," was his initial impression, conveyed in letters to his royal patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella. Although Columbus maintained he had seen "no better people" in the world, his admiration did not deter him from chaining and shipping hundreds of Taino men and women back to Spain. Rapacious Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English slavers who came later piously justified their actions on the grounds that Indians were "idolaters" and "heathens."

Grossly Underestimated
Estimates as recently as fifty years ago of the size of the Indian population north of the Rio Grande at the time of Columbus's first landfall placed it at between one million and a million and a half. Demographers now recognize these figures were grossly in error. The indigenous population at the end of the fifteenth century is believed to have been between twelve and fifteen million. In the three Americas, North, Central and South, the total Indian population is believed to have been an astonishing one hundred million.

Columbus brought alcohol, not uncommon baggage for conquerors. According to Herodotus, the ancient Greeks always introduced drink to the lands to they colonized. But Columbus also carried a more sinister cargo: a pandemic of the contagious diseases of the Old World. Lacking previous exposure, within a few generations the Indian population of the Americas was decimated. Epidemics of smallpox, measles, cholera, typhoid, and dysentery swept through whole tribes like wildfire on the prairie. By the time of the 1910 Census, only a scant 210,000 Indians could be found and counted in the United States.

There is small comfort in the knowledge that American Indians now number more than 2.5 million. What Scottish poet Robert Burns called "man's inhumanity to man" still "makes countless thousands mourn." The relentless genocide of North American Indians is now being repeated in the Brazilian rain forest. And for the same reasons: lust for gold and for land.

Despite their lack of civilization, the Indians' gentle use of the world around them was remarkably sophisticated and forward-looking. Land was an abstract commodity--much like air or fire or water--something there to be freely used by the group. Not understanding the concept of "title" or ownership of land by individuals, they were at a disadvantage in making treaties. Anyway, under pressure of immigration and westward expansion, whites abrogated such treaties almost as fast as they were made. Possessions and authority among Indians often passed through a female line of descent. In contrast to the Old World practice of hereditary rule, leadership of clans and tribes was based on ability or proficiency. Decisions bearing on tribal policy were reached by unanimous consent--not mere majority agreement--at public meetings attended both by men and women.

Some four hundred identifiable tribal cultures flourished north of the Rio Grande in the fifteenth century. We shall probably never know the number of different languages spoken in the Americas, most of them now lost. Scholars estimate these at around 2,200, many with regional variations. Language distribution gives clues to early migrations. For example, the tribes in the lower Hudson Valley all spoke an Algonquian language--but an Algonquian tongue was spoken as far west as Montana by the Blackfoot and by the Cree in subarctic Canada. Sioux was spoken in the Great Plains by the proud tribe of that name, but it was also the language in what is now Virginia and the Carolinas.

Indian Contributions
Indians made important contributions to the world's food supply: corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts, squash, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, avocados, and dozens of other vegetables. Indian societies were well acquainted with plant medicines. Before 1492, 40 percent of the modern world's medicinal drugs were being used in America to treat illnesses. Among these remedies were coca (cocaine), curare (muscle relaxant), cinchona bark (quinine), cascara sagrada (laxative), datura (pain-reliever), and ephedra (relief from allergies and asthma).

Indians ritually identified themselves with the animals they hunted. Common to Indian life was shamanism, an animalistic religion of Asiatic origin in which mediation between the visible and the spirit world is made by shamans. Shamanist practices have been documented in cultures as diverse as Iron Age Ireland, pagan Scandinavia, classical Greece, and ice-bound Siberia. Sometimes described as "medicine men," the shamans' powers went beyond treating the sick. In the Americas, they ranged from soothsayers, magicians and hypnotists to trained priests who presided over formal rituals and entire cults. Interestingly, the growth of consciousness-raising New Age movements in the 1980s fostered new interest in shamanism.

Like the philosophers Montaigne and Rousseau, it is easy to sentimentalize Indians as "noble savages." Far from being idyllic, their existence was harsh. The average life span barely exceeded 35 years; infant mortality was high. Evidence from graves reveals that diseases like arthritis and tuberculosis were common, and tooth decay was a problem. Our modern world owes much to Indians, far beyond the woodcraft skills taught in summer camps and the foolish names applied to baseball and football teams. We are learning truths they knew instinctively in their reverence for nature: that the land and its resources are not only for our use but must be preserved for generations to come. In addition to the communality of land and possessions, belief in the freedom and dignity of the individual was common to many Indian societies. With diligence and a measure of good luck, we may yet learn the secret of the Indians' relationship with nature, and their basic sense of equality and respect for human rights.

Post scriptum. The title of this essay is taken from Alexander Pope's poetic
Essay on Man:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heav'n.

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