Monday, February 06, 2012

The First Americans, 2: An Inevitable Clash of Cultures


The arrival of Europeans in the New World resulted in almost immediate exploitation of native Americans.
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 Spanish 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 "idolators" and "heathens."

Grossly Undercounted
As recently as sixty years ago estimates 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 that these figures were grossly in error.
The indigenous population of America and Canada at the end of the fifteenth century is now believed to have numbered between twelve and fifteen million. In the three contiguous continents, North, Central and South America, 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 they colonized.
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. Ironically, recent studies have confirmed that the crewmen on Columbus’s ships returned to Europe with a disease, syphilis, acquired in the New World, which spread with equal rapidity. Some observers consider the exchange an inadvertent but exquisite form of payback.
By the time of the 1910 federal 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 2.8 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: A desperate 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 European concept of "title" or ownership of land by individuals, they were at a disadvantage in making treaties. Under pressure of immigration and westward expansion, whites abrogated such treaties almost as soon 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.

Native Languages
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 or in the process of disappearing as older native speakers die,. Scholars estimate these to have numbered around 2,200, many with local or regional variations.
Native American languages have a practical side. During World War II Marine Corps
Navajo language talkers confounded Japanese code breakers in the Pacific. Similarly, U.S. Army Cherokee speakers confused the Germans opposing the landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Every native language that disappears takes with it clues to philosophies, histories and irreplaceable environmental wisdom accumulated over many millennia. More than half of the remaining 140 native languages may fall silent unless organized action is taken to teach them. In the U.S., nine centers now offer immersion language courses to young tribal members.
Native language distribution gives tantalizing 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 are now Virginia and the Carolinas.

Indian Contributions
Indians made important contributions to the world's food supply, including corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts, squash, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, avocados, and dozens of other vegetables and herbs. 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, as a pain-killer), curare (a muscle relaxant), cinchona bark (quinine, for treating malaria), cascara sagrada (a laxative), datura (a 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 performed 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 professional baseball and football teams. We are still in the process of 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 patient research 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.

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