One people

11th February 2005 at 00:00
John Kelleher explores how indigenous cultures are working together to build a better future, leaving behind histories riddled with violence and victimisation

Children who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s came of age on a diet of a mythical "Wild West", nurtured by endless television series, Hollywood films and adventure yarns. Our imaginations were crowded with ideas about American Indians and the names of such legendary chiefs as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Geronimo. The Wild West was not the first, nor the last, of the veils of myth through which Native American cultures have been viewed. In turn, they were thought to be virtually non-existent, primitives destined to extinction or requiring salvation, and as noble savages. More recently they have been seen as repositories of mystical wisdom and as the world's truest environmentalists. Now, at last, America's Indians are starting to present themselves to the world on their own terms, to stop being defined as victims and forge a new place in the modern world.

In autumn 2004, the long-awaited National Museum of the American Indian, conceived and curated by Indians, was opened with the biggest gathering of native Americans ever seen in Washington. The event united Indians from across the Americas - Inuit from the Arctic, Brazilian tribespeople, descendants of the Inca, Aztec and the Maya, and tribes from all corners America. It was a gathering of nations.

The museum's curator, W Richard West Jr, who is a former Washington attorney and a Cheyenne Indian, plays down the notion of it being a "National Museum". The title has to do with location and funding. Tribal reality transcends national boundaries. As 19th-century Nez Perce tribal leader Chief Joseph put it: "The Creative Power, when he made the Earth, made no marks, no lines of division or separation on it".

The continuing stories of the native Americans are complex and varied. Each tribe is unique, but all share areas of common experience, and they embody important lessons for the rest of the world, especially for other indigenous communities. The very name "Indian" is a misnomer gifted to the indigenous peoples of the Americas thanks to the cartographic confusions of Christopher Columbus in 1492, though some argue it may have derived from his description of the Arawak Indians on San Salvador as "a people in God ... Una Gente In Dios".

Back to the beginning

The cataclysm sparked by the arrival of Columbus is a familiar tale, but the story of the American Indian starts some 30,000 years before 1492. Most Indian creation myths locate their origins in the Americas, but modern science dictates that humans arrived from Asia across the Bering Straits 35 millennia ago, then gradually spread throughout the continents.

In some cases they were hunter-gatherers, but elsewhere gentler climates allowed complex cultures to flourish, including many agrarian societies and peoples who built cities, complex states and even empires.

As Europe went through the Dark Ages (5th to 10th century), cities had long since risen across the Americas. Those in Central and South America are the best known. By the year 1,000ad Teotihuacan, in Mexico, was one of the six largest cities in the world and home to some 10,000 people. By the time Cortez arrived in 1519 the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was larger than Paris, with 250,000 inhabitants. Further south, the Inca realm, overthrown by Francisco Pizarro's handful of adventurers in 1535, sprawled through the western seaboard of Latin America from Ecuador to Argentina and was the largest empire in the world.

These awesome places inspired fantasies of still greater fabled realms, such as Eldorado in Amazonia or Cibola in the heartland of America's Southwest. Neither existed, but across the landscape archaeologists continue to uncover evidence everywhere of different communities, including the Anasazi ruins in America's Southwest, mysterious monuments such as the Nazca Lines in Chile, complex ruins, including Cahokia in Illinois, and remnants of cities at the edges of the Amazon.

Invading nations

How many people lived in the Americas when Columbus landed? The question is controversial. For a long time a modest figure of around 1.5 million across both continents was generally accepted, supporting the belief that, until Columbus, the Americas had been a pristine land scarcely touched by humanity. As recently as 1987 one standard US school textbook, American History: A Survey, said the story of Europeans in North America was "the story of the creation of civilisation where none existed". It described early America as: "empty of mankind and its works". However, now the developing belief is that the Pre-Columbian Americas were at least as populous as Europe. Some scholars argue that there may have been as many as 112 million inhabitants.

Tied to this is the controversial issue of what happened to this vast continent full of humanity. Put simply, contact with Europe killed most of them. The Europeans arrived with a multitude of motives - gold, glory and the gospel, then to trade and to colonise. While some values were resisted, other things could not be fought off. Disease arrived with the earliest visitors - a lethal forerunner to settlement. It is estimated that in the first 130 years of contact, 95 per cent of American Indians died from illnesses to which they had no resistance. Waves of diseases, such as diphtheria, smallpox, typhus and measles scythed through the indigenous populace. Some came from humans, others from their domesticated animals.

Even as it became clear that the land was far from uninhabited, the notion of the Americas as a "promised land" grew.

The first Governor of Massachusetts William Bradford wrote: "The good hand of God favoured our beginnings by sweeping away great multitudes of the natives that they might make room for us".

And in 1760 the pamphleteer Daniel Denton wrote: "It hath been generally observed, that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them; by removing or cutting off the Indians, either by wars one with the other, or by some raging mortal disease".

By the 19th century North American Indians were seen as a major barrier to American lebensraum, the growing idea that it was America's "manifest destiny", in the words of journalist John L O'Sullivan, to "overspread the continent allotted by providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions".

Meanwhile, their portrayal as savages without civilisation had become ingrained. In no less a document than the Declaration of Independence one of the complaints laid against the British monarch was that: "He has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants on our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions". And when an early Spanish viceroy in Peru saw the Inca buildings in Cuzco he said: "Surely this must be the work of the devil. It is not possible that the strength and skill of men could have made it."

The views were in ironic contrast to Europeans' first perceptions. In a letter to the king and queen of Spain, Columbus said of the Arawaks: "So tractable, so peaceable, are these people that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation."

A people in danger

By the 17th century a new notion of the Indian as a noble savage was taking shape. Some enlightened thinkers saw them as embodying values lost by European civilisation. Philosophers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Michel de Montaigne claimed that civilisation had much to learn from the naked and untutored natural man encountered in the Americas.

Despite this, back in the Americas, the business of destruction continued unabated and was given renewed legitimacy by another intellectual wave in Europe taking shape in the 19th century. Charles Darwin was an early witness to genocide as government policy when, in 1832, he saw the early stages of the 40-year campaign waged by the Argentine government to eradicate the Indians of the Pampas. It helped inform his own developing ideas about natural selection. In 1871, in The Descent of Man, he wrote:

"At some future period, not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races".

While it is tempting to see these as, in some way pre-figuring such future horrors as the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur, such ideas were already defining dealings with the indigenous peoples in most colonial regions of the world. Broader Britain - Photographic Views of the New World - a popular book about the British Empire published in 1896 - declared: "All that the most philanthropic can hope for the native races of America is their gentle diminution, followed by their peaceful extinction".

And so the saga of how the west was won, and lost, unfolded. The greater firepower and organisation of the white man eventually overwhelmed all resistance. Among those who fought longest and hardest were the Plains Indians (which included tribes such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfeet, Comanche, Pawnee, and many more) who had mastered horses and guns, the Seminole in Florida, who engaged in jungle guerrilla war, and Chile's Aruacanian people.

By the end of overt hostilities only about 250,000 North American Indians remained alive. Coercive treaties forced them on to reservations with few civil or political rights and with legal bars on practicising their culture or religion. Their destiny seemed to be of gradual decline or assimilation.

However, Indian tenacity and a gradual shift in wider attitudes has seen them regain ground, winning civil rights and equality in American society.

So who are they today?

A fashionable culture

Two contrasting events symbolise their fuller entry into American life. In 2002, Astronaut John Herrington, a Chickasaw, became the first Indian in space. Last year a Hopi, Lori Ann Piestewa had a grimmer distinction when she was killed in Iraq - the first Native American woman to die in combat for America. However, myths are still pervasive.

In recent times there has been an upsurge in interest in Indian culture and a growing belief that they have access to truths missing from western culture. Today Indian science, religion and medicine are embraced as alternatives to dominant practices, reflected by the success of such books as Carlos Castaneda's series about the Mexican Indian shaman Don Juan Matus and The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, with its pseudo-mystical insights derived from Inca wisdom.

Native Americans are especially seen as proto environmentalists - the tribal forerunners to such currently fashionable ideas as the Gaia principle.

In 1963, Kennedy's interiors secretary Stewart Lee Udall wrote: "During the long Indian tenure, the land remained undefiled save for scars no deeper than the scratches of cornfield clearings or the farming canals of the Hohokam (Indians) in the Arizona Desert."

However, the cultural matrix from which Indian ideas about reality sprang remains largely eclipsed by the domination in the discourse of western intellectual structures of thought.

While the Indians of North America have become a far more respected community, the wider picture is more complex. The National Museum of The American Indian offers snapshots of many communities told in their own way.

These include peoples, such as the Kalinago - once known as the Carib and long described as extinct, but actually surviving on the island of Dominica - and the Iguglingmiut people on Baffin Island, who are also working to preserve their Inuit culture. In their schools they teach Quautimajatuqangit, tribal knowledge, and the Inuktit language alongside the Canadian national curriculum.

The struggle continues

Darker narratives continue, however. For instance, in Guatemala, as recently as the 1980s, some 200,000 Mayans were massacred and 800 villages destroyed at the behest of the dictator General Rios Montt. They were, he said, agents of the devil.

Christian preachers still invade Native American communities in America in search of converts, and in Peru a fight is under way to protect tribes not yet contacted. Ten years ago scores of Nahua people in the Camisea region of Peru died after coming into contact with outsiders for the first time.

Disease swept through, just as it had centuries before in Northern America.

British and US anthropologists are working with the surviving Nahua to prevent disease ravaging other uncontacted tribes as AmericanArgentinean companies renew oil exploration.

In 2004, the 2.5 million Indians of America are still the nation's poorest community, despite the pockets of prosperity brought by the opening of casinos on some reservations. Even among the largest and richest tribe, the 180,000 Navajo, whose reservation, the size of France, sprawls across Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, more than half the population still live below the poverty line. It is forcing them to make tough choices. Some drift from the community and assimilate, but to remain true to their cultures most Indians must remain on the reservations where there is little work and much poverty. However, change is in the air.

Into the future

Until recently, Native Americans still defined themselves by tribal identity, but many now see the value of working together as Indians. This has been strengthened by working with other non-Indian indigenous peoples in America, Polynesian people in Hawaii and Inuit of Alaska.

Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii is one of the prime movers in creating a new narrative for Indians in America. A few years ago he made a pledge to see the first Indian museum, now open, the first Indian national bank, which started trading a couple of years ago, and the first Indian university, which has yet to be established..

Now he says that before he retires he wants to see the road to ending poverty on the reservations firmly put in place - and that too is beginning. One of the key figures helping get this under way, Washington attorney Dan Press, is involved in complex negotiations to get US Department of Defence contracts assigned to Indians on reservations - the developing nation within America - rather than out-sourcing the work to cheap labour in other parts of the world. Other such contracts are in the pipeline and are designed to bring work to the most economically depressed community in America.

The story of the American Indian is far from over and it also has sharp resonances internationally for other tribal and indigenous groups in an increasingly globalised world, but one full of fault lines bequeathed by the aftermath of empire or the resurgence of nationalism.

These groups are as diverse as the Kurds, the Hmong of Laos, the Chechens, Palestinians and Bedouin, tribal groups across Africa and the astonishing patchwork of ethnicities subsumed by the Han-dominated state of modern China. They have lessons to learn from the ongoing experience of the first peoples of the Americas in confronting their own difficulties.




Hopi myths speak of travellers going east to Asia and European legends speak of Greek, Irish and Welsh seafarers visiting America. However, the first verifiable contact came in about 1000ad when Vikings met either Inuit or the now extinct Beothuk of Newfoundland. Norse chronicles called them Scraelings.

There is evidence Chinese seafarers may also have visited South America.

However, Europe then "discovered" this parallel universe across the ocean and the greatest cultural extinction in history began. Peoples, languages and a wholly different concept of time, nature and history came close to vanishing.

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