In 2010, George Monbiot partook in a risque comparison between newly released blockbuster ‘Avatar’, and a period of history of which I had no prior comprehensive knowledge of: the 17th Century European-orchestrated genocide of Native Americans (ooh, that’s a bit wordy and forbidding) also known as the ‘Civilisation of the Western Hemisphere’ (much better). Between 2010 and present day, I had worked for a company owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, who reacquired land and assets from the US Federal Government between 1940 – 2000, after the introduction of the ‘Indian Claims Commission’ – an enormous compensation package set up as a cause of restitution for over half a millennia’s worth of maltreatment.
Monbiot’s article had been stashed in a draw for 6 years until a recent reviewing of Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’, which culminates with a Conquistador ship breaching the horizon of Guatemala (much to the bemusement of the indigenous Mayas). It reminded me to revisit the topic, Monbiot’s article and US scholar David Stannard’s core text: ‘American Holocaust’.
“I am the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria…”
There is an argument which serves to suggest that there is little point in criticising rationale for an event which a) happened centuries ago, and b) has no direct connection outside ones influence. However, to be aware of these happenings surely serves to help understand the tensions between cultures and how certain animosities between peoples are formed over substantial periods of time. What has spurred me to place a marker is the sheer ignorance we have displayed towards these events, events which – by Stannard’s reckoning – led to the extermination of 100,000,000 natives by the end of the 19th Century (displayed in numerical form to lay bare the atrocity in its fullest form).
Regardless of timescale, how can it be that such a wholesale slaughter of almost an entire race be brushed aside like a historical irrelevancy? Furthermore, how can the standard-bearers of this genocide be revered in such a fashion? One suggestion is that when you destroy 95% of a population and become the official mouthpiece of its outcome, it is relatively easy to tell the story you want to tell, especially when you have the backing of the state, the Church and countless other benefactors.
The majority of accounts detailing the events come directly from the Europeans. The most puzzling of all is the degree of admiration shown towards the natives before the skirmishes, like a hunter appreciating the beauty of a lion before the kill. One of Stanndard’s extracts recalls the account of an English settler Edmund S. Morgan, who recounts:
Wingina [the local chief] welcomed the visitors, and the Indians gave freely of their supplies to the English. By the time the colonists were settled, it was too late to plant corn, and they seemed to be helpless when it came to living off the land.
The natives were praised for their advanced farming methods, efficiency and consideration for the Earth’s resources, and welcoming disposition towards ‘visitors’. It was this latter naivety – coupled with a natural inertness towards conflict – which ultimately led to their near-extermination.
The Indians could have done the English in simply by deserting them. They did not desert them, however, and in that act they sealed their fate.
In many cases, everything from smallpox, typhoid and yellow fever preceded Columbus, Cortez and Cartier, destroying a population who had not previously been exposed to such plague. Through the eyes of the Conquistadors and colonialists who brought the diseases, this was God’s ruling, making them impervious to the same bacterial infections that ravaged the indigenous.
There are particular reasons why American Holocaust grabbed me in the way it did. Firstly, for what seems to be such an integral moment in the human chronicle, it receives less attention on the UK educational syllabus than the Normans, and the majority of Americans would rather celebrate Columbus Day, albeit certain states choose the counter-celebration Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
There is a new trend which attributes historical acknowledgement to ‘white guilt’, with political writer Shelby Steele relating it to Black Power:
Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed by it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty and so on.
I am more inclined to say that my source of outspokenness has derived from a lack of information around such events, and if everyone had grown up with better understanding of our origins, our past discrimination and piousness, perhaps we would have evolved to become a more tolerant society.
My generation may end up being defined by the Brexit vote, by Donald Trump, Theresa May and Assad, but it will come with a dose of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, democratic revolution across the Middle East, the lowering of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina, ‘Fearless Girl’ and Gay Marriage equality in Ireland to name a few. In these instances, people have overcome oppression and prejudice in the face of adversity – in whatever form it may take – but there are those who still believe that they are more entitled, more inherently deserving of special treatment than others, simply because of their birthright.