Posts Tagged ‘American Indians’

What if North America was French?

August 3, 2020

If the outcome of certain European wars had been different, the dominant culture of North America would be French and not English.

After reading David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream, I think this would have been a good thing.

The settlers of New Spain enslaved Indians.  The settlers of New England drove them out.  But settlers of New France intermarried with the Indians and lives with them in peace.

This was the dream of a remarkable individual, Samuel de Champlain.  Between his first voyage to the New World in 1603 and his death in 1635, his example and his laws established a pattern for a multi-cultural society.

His career would make a good TV mini-series, because it consisted of a series of crises, which in dramatic terms would be cliff-rangers—everything seemingly lost, but with the slim possibility of one last effort putting everything right.

Champlain was a soldier, sailor, navigator, explorer, map-maker, writer, administrator and diplomat, who was able to negotiate successfully in the councils of Algonquin and Huron warriors and the court of King Louis XIII Cardinal Richelieu.

He made mistakes in judgment, like everyone else.  The worst one was underestimating the severity of the Canadian winter.  He sometimes lost his temper.

But Fischer was unable to find a single incident in which he knowingly told a lie or broke a promise.  His observations of the lands he explored and his accounts of his own actions were not only truthful, but accurate.

When other French commanders made contact with Indian nations, they usually began a show of force and a demonstration of their superior firepower.

Champlain would walk into Indian settlements unarmed, either alone or with a single companion.

No fool he, sometimes on making first contact Champlain would sometimes have troops with firearms hiding in the underbrush in case things went wrong.  But he went out of his way to appear un-threatening.

He won the trust of the Indians by spending a lot of time with them and taking the trouble to understand them.  He sincerely liked them.  He didn’t have to fake friendship.

Champlain’s humanistic Catholicism was appealing to the Indians—I think partly because the Christian idea of forgiveness freed them of the duty of carrying on blood feuds without end.

Many Indian nations welcomed European settlers because they saw them as possible allies in their wars with other Indians.  Champlain avoided that trap.  He positioned himself as mediator.

But he did help the Algonquins and Hurons in their wars with the aggressive Iroquois to the South.

Champlain and allies vs. Mohawks

Champlain led a mixed French and Indian invasion of Mohawk territory in 1609.  They fought a battle on the shore of Lake Champlain, which he named/

The Mohawks wore wooden armor and fought shoulder-to-shoulder, as in an ancient Greek phalanx.  They probably would have won except for the French use of firearms, called arquebuses.

He led another expedition, against the Onondaga, in 1615, and fought a battle near today’s Syracuse.  The Onondaga took refuge in a wooden fort, which Champlain attempted to overcome by building a European-style siege engine—a portable wooden structure taller than the walls of the fort.

I never thought Indians wore armor or built forts.  I suppose a lot of what I think of as Indian warfare is an adaptation to the superior firepower of the English, French and Spanish.

After that, Champlain and the Indian nations of New France were able to negotiate a temporary peace with the Iroquois.  Fischer noted that this was partly because the Iroquois were preoccupied with fighting the Susquehannocks to their south.


U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s disturbing An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is, in the author’s words, the investigation of a crime scene.

She told a story of a nation that broke treaty after treaty in order to engage in unprovoked military aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to gain living space.

Settler militias and government troops burned crops, demolished homes, and paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. The buffalo were deliberately destroyed to deny sustenance to the Plains Indians

British General Jeffrey Amherst practiced germ warfare against the Pontiacs in colonial times.  US army personnel skinned Indian victims to make bridles for their horses.  The buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to deny sustenance for the Plains Indians.

General William T. Sherman, who headed the War Department under the Grant administration, famously said that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

I see an obvious analogy.

What happened to the Indians was not happenstance, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  It was a result of both government policy and the core values not only of American culture, but of European civilization as a whole.

These policies and values shaped U.S. military tradition and its way of waging war today, she wrote.  U.S. troops still call occupied territories “indian county.”

I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way vaguely knew much of the contents of the book, but it never fully registered on me until I read it.  Having all these facts concentrated into one 236-page indictment has an impact I can’t forget.


When Columbus sailed in 1492, there was a flourishing native American civilization.  Dunbar-Ortiz said it was wiped out not only by the unplanned spread of European diseases, but also as deliberate policy.  European and native American civilizations were incompatible.

Europeans believed in the “doctrine of discovery,” which is that Christians have the right to claim territory they discover for their own, regardless of the non-Christian inhabitants.  This is still part of U.S. law, she noted.

The Puritan settlers of New England were Calvinists, like the Boers in South Africa.  They believed that they, like the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, had made a covenant with God that entitled them to the land they settled and that the existing inhabitants were to be killed, subjugated or driven out, like the Canaanites.

In the South, the economy was based on plantation agriculture worked by forced labor, which poor whites couldn’t compete with.  They became frontiersmen instead.

The settlers’ goal was to own land individually, to exploit or sell as they saw fit.  The Indian nations could never accept this.   The varied Indian cultures all believed that land was a common inheritance that could not be alienated.


An interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published in 2014.  She gave an interview about the book to the Real News Network.

In the first part of the interview, she told of her childhood as a poor sharecropper’s daughter in Oklahoma and how she became a scholar and Indian rights’ activist.

In the second part, she talked about the colonial origins and foundational myths of the United States and Andrew Jackson, the great Indian fighter.

In the third part, she talked about how James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and other writers and statesmen created the ground for ethnic cleansing of the Indians.

Thanksgiving and the Pilgrim story

November 24, 2016

The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving feast is more complicated, less sweetly sentimental and much more interesting than many might think.


Native Intelligence: The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school | But that wasn’t enough to save them by Charles C. Mann for Smithsonian magazine.

Ditch the Lovefest and Learn the Real Story of the First Thanksgiving by Glenn Garvin for Reason.

The Silver Lining of Thanksgiving Past by Ian Welsh.

Immigration and the American Indians

August 26, 2015

immigrationcartoonA council of Native American leaders has offered partial amnesty to the estimated 220 million illegal white immigrants living in the United States.

At a meeting of the Native Peoples Council (NPC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico … , Native American leaders considered several proposals on the future of this continent’s large, unauthorized European population.  The elders ultimately decided to extend a pathway to citizenship for those without criminal backgrounds.

indianimmigration“We are prepared to offer White people the option of staying on this continent legally and applying for citizenship,” explains Chief Wamsutta of the Wampanoag nation. “In return, they must pay any outstanding taxes and give back the land stolen from our ancestors.

“Any white person with a criminal record, however, will be deported in the next 90 days back to their ancestral homeland.  Rush Limbaugh will be going to Germany.  Justin Bieber will depart for Canada.  And the entire cast of Jersey Shore will be returning to Italy.”  [snip] native groups welcomed the council’s decision today as a step forward toward normalizing relations with the White community.  However, many conservative Native Americans are upset about the plan, claiming that amnesty will only serve to reward lawbreakers.

“Why can’t we just deport all of the Whites back to Europe?” asks Ité Omáǧažu of the Lakota people.  “They’re just a drain on our economy anyway.  They came over here to steal our resources because they’re too lazy to develop their own back home.

“I can’t believe we’re just going to let them pay a fine.  They should get to the back of the line like everybody else — behind the Mexicans.”

via The Daily Currant.


Celebrate Bartolome de las Casas, not Columbus

October 13, 2014

The following is from The Oatmeal some years back.

anti columbus day 1

anti columbus day 2

anti columbus day 3

The rise and fall of the Comanche empire

August 4, 2014

I recently finished a remarkable book, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne, a Texas newspaperman.

He told a story that is compelling in itself, and raises important questions about how we think of the American past.

empire-of-the-summer-moon200The Comanche were some of the fiercest warriors who ever lived.  Numbering only 20,000 at their peak, they dominated the southern Great Plains for 150 years or more.  They terrorized other Indian tribes, including the Apache, and they repeatedly defeated the armies of Spain, Mexico, the Texas Republic and the United States.

The Comanche were originally a obscure tribe of hunter-gatherers, pursuing the buffalo while afoot in what is now eastern Wyoming.  Their life was transformed by their encounter with wild Spanish mustangs.  Seemingly overnight, they became master horsemen.

The transformation is an example of the adaptability of human nature and a refutation of the recurring notion that the customs of different ethnic groups are genetically determined—unless you assume that the Comanche had a latent horsemanship gene all along.

A six-year-old Comanche could ride bareback.  A young warrior could slip off a galloping horse, handing on by a heel behind the horse’s body while shooting 20 arrows a minute at an enemy.  Comanche could ride hundreds of miles in a day.  No enemy, Indian or white, could match their range or, until the invention of the Colt revolver and Spencer and Sharp repeating rifle, their firepower.

The Comanches were anarchists—masters of the art of not being governed.  No Comanche ever took orders from a Comanche policeman, judge, priest or employer.   Comanche war chiefs were chosen by consensus and followed voluntarily.  No Comanche chief had the power to command another Comanche to obey.

They were savagely cruel.  They raped, tortured, mutilated and killed their enemies, both Indian and white.  While this was the practice of many North American tribes, it also was Comanche policy.  The Comanche realized that terrorism was a deterrent to the spread of white settlement.

The reason the Mexican government invited Anglo-American settlers into their territories was to serve as a buffer between the Comanches and Mexico proper.   These settlers became the Texans, who were the fiercest of the white settlers, as the Comanche were the fiercest of the Plains Indians.

The Texans also were brutal by today’s standards.  But then again, by their standards, people like me are weak and cowardly.  By the standards of today, both settlers and Indians possessed astonishing fortitude and courage.   I do not believe that I could stand up to hardship, pain and danger that they took for granted.

Humanitarianism was not a Comanche concept.  The only Spaniard who dealt successfully with them was Don Juan Bautista de Anza, governor of New Mexico, who in 1779 led an expedition into Comanche territory and wiped out a Comanche village—men, women and children—and then called a council of peace.

He offered to respect the Comanche right to their hunting grounds and to engage in trade, if they would refrain from raiding New Mexico.  This agreement was kept as long as the Comanche were a free people.  Under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. rule, New Mexico were safe from Comanche attack, and Spanish-speaking traders out of Santa Fe, known as Comancheros, were the only non-Comanche who could travel safely to Comanche lands.

It was impossible to defeat them until the invention of the Colt revolver and the Sharp and Spencer repeating rifle, which gave the Texas Rangers and the U.S. cavalry overwhelmingly superior firepower.  Even so, the Comanche held out for decades more.


The Pilgrim Thanksgiving story…with a twist

November 21, 2013


Click on Tom the Dancing Bug for more Ruben Bolling cartoons.

Hat tip to Bill Elwell.

Columbus and the birth of globalization

October 18, 2012

Charles C. Mann in his new book, 1493: UNCOVERING THE NEW WORLD COLUMBUS CREATED tells of how today’s unified, globalized world originated with the voyages of Christopher Columbus and how contact with the Americas changed Europe, Africa and Asia.  As in his earlier book, 1491, he made me see that the world’s history was different from what I thought it was.

In 1491, Europeans lived in Europe, Africans lived in Africa, Asian Indians lived in India and Chinese lived in China, and they had little contact with each other.  The exception was the civilization of Islam, located in the center of the Eastern Hemisphere, which traded with all the others.  The Spanish and Portuguese sent out explorers to find routes to India and China that bypassed the Muslims.

The Portuguese reached India by sailing East, but had little impact because in fact they had little of value to offer in trade.  The Spanish sought to reach the East by sailing West, and ultimately were successful, establishing settlements in the Philippines in the 1570s.   Unlike the Portuguese, they did have something the Chinese needed in exchange for their silk, porcelain and other manufactured products—the silver of the New World.

By 1650, according to Mann’s account, the center of the world economy was the city of Potosi in what is now Bolivia, at the foot of an extinct volcano where there was a mountain of nearly pure silver.  Mann wrote that it was bigger than London or Amsterdam, or any other city in the Western Hemisphere.

The silver was transported up the west coast of South America to Panama and Mexico.  Some of it was shipped to China, which at that time was the largest, richest and most advanced country in the world, according to Mann.  The Chinese did not go on voyages of discovery, but they engaged in world trade because the rest of the world came to them. But China was poor in precious metals, and an earlier experiment with paper money led to a ruinous inflation.  So the Spanish were able to obtain their manufactured products at a bargain rate.

Routes of the Spanish galleon trade to Asia

Most of the silver went to Spain itself, which at that time was the dominant power in Europe, thanks to its New World riches and the valor of its troops.  In the 17th century, the Spanish peso was the world’s preferred currency, much like the  U.S. dollar in the 20th century.   In the long run, because the Spanish did not invest in productive enterprises, their silver flowed to bankers and manufacturers in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries.

Potosi is now a ghost town, an example of what Mann called the “extractive state,” whose rulers—often absentee—sought only to extract what they could of value from the land, regardless of consequences.

The bulk of Mann’s book tells what happened next, as food crops, diseases and people moved to and from the New World.  American food crops changed the world.  Imagine Italian cooking without tomato sauce, or Thai cooking without chili pepper!  The American sweet potato saved China from famine and the white potato saved northern Europe, Mann wrote, but at the cost of creating an agricultural monoculture—crops that were genetically the same—that left the crops vulnerable to disease and pests.

Click to enlarge.

One chapter tells the story of tobacco, the cash crop that attracted English settlers to the New World.  In a remarkably short time, nicotine addiction spread all over the world, to Japan, China and India as well as Europe.  Another tells the story of rubber, a product as vital to the industrial world as steel or fossil fuels.  Deforestation and leaf blight virtually destroyed the rubber trees of Brazil, but the rubber industry meanwhile was reestablished in Southeast Asia.  Brazil is known for coffee, which originated in Ethiopia.

Mann said globalization fostered “extractive states”—societies controlled by people who lived elsewhere, and who were only concerned with what they could profitably extract in the short run.   different from, say, England under William the Conqueror, who lived among the people they ruled and expected their descendants to be able to do the same.

In 1491, Mann told how European diseases wiped out a large percentage of the American Indian population.  In 1493, he told how the New World was influenced by malaria and yellow fever.  The peoples of west and central Africa have immunities to these diseases that Europeans and American Indians lack, so over time African slaves replaced European indentured servants and American slaves as plantation labor.   At the same time, the United States and then Haiti were helped in their struggles for independence by the effects of malaria and yellow fever on the invading British and French armies.

A final section tells of the relations of Africa and the Americas.  According to Mann, the number of Africans who crossed the Atlantic in the 16th and 17th centuries in slave ships was greater than the number of Europeans who immigrated.  Many Africans fled slavery and took refuge with American Indians, where they formed numerous independent “maroon” communities beyond the reach of the governments of their areas.  The Seminoles of Florida, who gave refuge to American slaves, are a small example, but there were huge maroon communities all through the American tropics.  Mann told how, in the present era, the “maroons” of Brazil are fighting to keep their lands from being expropriated by ranchers and developers.

Click to enlarge.

The photo above shows the property of Maria do Rosario Costa Cabral, whose family of maroons have lived for generations along the tributaries of the Amazon River.  Their history has been to settle on abandoned land, bring it back into production and then be pushed out because they have no legal title.  She told Charles Mann she acquired her current property cheap because the land had been ravaged by the 1980s fad among fashionable Americans and Europeans for heart-of-palm salad.  Whole trees were chopped down to get the edible tips.  This time she acquired legal title, paid the back taxes and, at the time of writing, succeeded in fending off ranchers who tried to expropriate her.

Her current management of her property resembles the practices of American Indians described by Mann in 1491.  She is neither an environmentalist, who leaves the land untouched, nor an exploiter, who extracts whatever is of immediate value and moves on.  Instead she manages her environment so that it can sustain her and her family over the long term.  To the untrained eye, as the photo shows, it looks like undeveloped wilderness.

I’ve always subscribed to what has been called the Whig theory of history, which basically says the historical process that has led to me having a good life must have been good.  Mann’s 1491 and 1493 make me doubt that assumption.  The Columbian age of globalization has brought many benefits to humanity, but often at great eventual cost in social and environmental disruption.  I’m unable to say whether the benefits or costs were greater.  The story isn’t over yet.

Click on The Dawn of the Homogenocene to read the opening section of Mann’s 1493.

Amazing unknown America before Columbus

October 17, 2012

Every now and then I read a book that shows me that the world is vastly different from what I thought it was.  Such a book is 1491: NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS by Charles C. Mann.

Mann described new research that shows American Indians is wrong existed in much greater numbers than previously believed, they created much more sophisticated and dynamic societies than previously believed, and they modified their natural environment to a much greater degree than previously understood.

Almost everything I learned in school about American Indians was wrong.  I had thought of North and South America, except for Mexico and Peru, as thinly-populated wilderness.  Now scholars understand that the American Indians, through mastery of plant breeding, horticulture and landscape architecture far beyond contemporary European practice, had turned much of the Western Hemisphere into the equivalent of a garden and managed game preserve.

All this has come to light in the past couple of decades through new archeological discoveries and a reexamination of the historical record, and through use of new scientific methods such as aerial photography, DNA and blood group testing and linguistic analysis.

The reason we knew so little about the American Indians until now is that most of them were wiped out as a result of epidemic disease caused by contact with Europeans.  The Indians lacked the immunities that Europeans had built up through contact with Old World diseases, and they also were more vulnerable because of less genetic diversity.  They also lacked experience of how to prevent infectious disease from spreading.  Mann showed how disease enabled small numbers of Spaniards to conquer the mighty Aztec and Inca empires, and the English to establish a foothold on the Atlantic seaboard of North America.

The American Indians were not only more numerous, but culturally and technically more sophisticated than I was taught they were.  While civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere originated in fertile river valleys, the Andean Indians established a civilization on the slopes of some of the world’s highest mountains.  Their basic technology was not metallurgy, but weaving; they had effective armor made of tightly woven cloth, and strong bridges across deep chasms made of rope.  They kept records in the form of knotted strings, and some researchers now think these may have been the equivalent of a written language.  If so there may be a record of a rich culture that we can’t read.

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and clean streets, both unknown in Europe at the time, and a larger population than any European city.  The Mayas independently discovered the zero.  The Mound Builders of the Mississippi valley created enormous structures, and invented a technology that prevented their elaborate clay sculptures from absorbing excessive moisture and losing their shapes.

But the greatest achievements of the American Indian civilizations were in plant breeding, horticulture and environmental management, Mann wrote.  For example, no known wild form of maize (Indian corn) is edible, yet the Indians were somehow able to transform maize into a stable food crop.

Double click to enlarge.

Archeologists in the uplands of the Amazon River watershed have found miles of raised fields, canal-like settlement mounds, circular pools, canal-like water channels, zigzig fish weirs, mile-long raised causeways and hundreds of earthworks.  The uplands were planted with peach palms and other useful plants.

North American Indians habitually burned off the underbrush and forest in order to create habitat for buffalo and other large game animals.  Some of the forest that came back consisted of trees planted by Indians rather than wild growth.

The American Indians were not at the mercy of their physical environment.  They managed their environment.  Mann thinks the Indians showed the way we today should think—neither in terms of the conquest of nature nor the preservation of wilderness, but working with and managing nature to achieve human ends.

Artists’ conception of Mound Builder city near site of St. Louis, Missouri.

The last section of the book is about the Great Law of Peace, the successful, democratic form of government established by Deganawidah, the lawgiver and prophet of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  The Haudenosaunee were noted for their love of personal freedom and disrespect for authority, and Mann thinks their example might have influenced the egalitarian, individualistic strain of the United States national character.

I have mentioned only a part of what is in the book, which itself is only a part of the new discoveries being made about Western Hemisphere history.  Certainly there is much more to learn, and Mann’s book, first published in 2005 and updated in 2011, will not be the last word.

Click on Charles C. Mann – 1491 – The Atlantic for an article by Mann about the findings in his book.

Click on Cahokia Mounds for more about the Mound Builders and the source of the picture above.