We have just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Along with the general attitude of gratitude suggested by the holiday is a the history of least a single point-in-time harmony of Europeans and Native Americans. The image of the two groups in fellowship, enjoying a share meal is seared into the minds of young American children from early age. And it’s not that inaccurate:
But it’s also not complete as a story. Because the whole story mostly features the two group not getting along well at all.
Native Americans were misnamed “Indians” by the wave of southern European explorers who found themselves landing in the shores of the Americas. “America “ itself was a name bestowed upon the new world, after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
By most DNA and historical analysis, the tribal groups inhabiting the Americas at the time of the “discovery” by Europeans had migrated from eastern Asia thousands of years earlier. Their distinction as the earliest inhabitants establishes a context for what would follow, but their real origin makes the moniker “Native American” a bit less sticky.
Whoever or whatever existed in the American continents prior to their arrival would be more “native” than they. This does nothing to soften the horrible tale of brutality later practiced against them. I mention their origin only to note that their discovery and settlement of the same land traveling from the east had at least the same aspect of people movement as that of the discovery and settlement from the west by Europeans. And we’ll never know what else it had in common.
I have thought and hard about how the ensuing conflict between the two cultures could have been avoided or lessened. Aside from the Europeans sailing back and leaving the Americas and their residents alone – maybe establishing trade partnerships, say – there was going to be conflict. Consider:
- The Europeans who came to the New World were discoverers and settlers. Negatively they could be called conquerors, though the European version of conqueror was quite different than these settlers. They were not diplomats or people sensitive to other cultures. There were traders for sure, and perhaps these were the most likely strike a harmonious balance with the indigenous people.
- Cultures were going to clash. There were many difference, but the principle one causing conflict concerned land. Owning and permanently settling on land was a foreign concept to Native Americans. And restrictions of where could live, hunt, fish and farm were also foreign.
- There was a profound technological advantage. There has been much said and written about the forgotten (or repressed) advances of the Native American people. In spite of this, the Europeans held a 800-1500 year advantage in development upon their arrival. I do not say that to say that made them better as a people group, though that’s exactly what they concluded. The racist attitudes created an atmosphere that squelched any move for reconciliation.
Now, Native Americans were not the only people treated poorly by the westward moving whites. Mexicans, Asians and Africans also received prejudice and brutal abuse.
So, beginning with King Phillip’s War, there would be conflicts between the peoples. The Europeans prevailed, supplanting their culture over the land. It is in the wake of that prevalence after conflict that we live today. It can also be said that the conflict is not over – there have been skirmishes that persist even today.
Native American population is thought to have decreased from 12 million to about 250 thousand by the end of the 19th century. Most of the decrease is attributed to disease, but loss of life due to conflict and relocation was awful.
Saying that conflict was inevitable is not to say that cruelty or maltreatment was. The war had atrocities like many others, and after a point, neither side cared much about the culture or even survival of the other.
There have long been voices calling for restitution and restoration but I would hold that neither can occur without allowing Native American culture to dominate, at least provincially. And yes, that means the war for cultural dominance is still with us.
I will assign value to advancement in technology for the benefit of people without it, divorced from its often-linked cultural domination. Some might call this culturally insensitive; I really just want the best for all people. I believe that the advancement of the human race through innovation and invention is a blessing for all humankind. And yes, not all technology is good or used well, of course. Like all people who are exposed to new things, we do well to be suspicious of the motives and practices of those introducing us to new things.
So how can Culture A be brought up to speed with the blessings of Culture B? And how can the differing elements of culture be reconciled?
I thought about this and one story came to mind.
It was Bruchko – the story of Bruce Olson who sought out a reclusive tribe of Native South Americans in Venezuela – the Motilones – and not only brought them into the 20th century, but made them a political force to be reckoned with in the nations of Venezuela and Colombia. They kept their land and evolved their way of live mostly peaceably.
And please, if you assign him a stereotyped role as “missionary” you will miss a very important story of compassion and cultural sensitivity.
How can this story help us today with Native Americans in the US? I don’t know, but I want to believe it can be done. Because it has been done.