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The Americas That Might Have Been
Native American Social Systems Through Time
By Julian Granberry
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Men Out of Asia
Europeans and Early Americans
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Euro-Americans and their European confrères were preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyages to the New World, a visitor from another world would be led to assume, on the basis of that jubilation and the interminable, often unresolvable, scholarly arguments, that these "Americas," wherever they may have been, were new to the eyes of man 500 years ago, a virgin land open to the happy settler.
Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth. The Americas already had a population in the many millions when Columbus set foot on Guanahaní, the island he renamed San Salvador, on October 12, 1492. The Southern Hemisphere's largest civilized nation in territorial extent, the Inca Empire of Tawantinsuyu, was located in the Americas. The larger urban centers were ten times the size and population of the largest European cities: The metropolitan heartland of the Aztec Empire had in excess of 11 million souls, and the Inca Empire had a population of at least 12 million.
Native American scholars and scientists were investigating and debating topics as abstract and complex as any ever discussed in European universities of the age (León-Portilla 1979). The New World was hardly a land of vacant fields and forests populated by a few ignorant savages eagerly awaiting the largesse of Christian Europe.
The point is, of course, that while we must not give short shrift to the momentous occasion of October 12, 1492, which did indeed alter world history, it should be remembered that the Americas were not discovered in 1492. Discovery and settlement had come at least 12,000 and possibly as many as 20,000 years earlier, and, for better or worse, credit goes not to Europeans or Africans but, rather, to Asians (Billard 1993). The year 1492 marks only an accidental European finding of the New World—a very late one, and the second or perhaps third such European finding at that.
Why then the inordinate amount of attention to Mr. Columbus and his venture? Because, whether one views 1492 as an event to celebrate or an event to be despaired of, its impact was destined to be far more devastating than anything that had happened to the New World before or that has happened to it since. There is much still to unravel in the events of that fateful year and what came after.
Our calendar, however, has no Discovery Day in the broader sense, only a Columbus Day—as though the Men Out of Asia had never arrived, had never created their own lifestyles viable enough to last some 120 centuries and more. The common Euro-American view inculcated in us all from childhood ignores the fact of Asian discovery. These men and women have been viewed in our particular mythology of history as at best the Noble Savage, with emphasis on the latter word. Little, if anything, is seen as lost in their physical and cultural demise. It's as if the past really began just yesterday and began, at that, from a clean slate.
To continue this gloomy mood a moment longer, it should be well noted and remembered in this context that New Explorers, anywhere and at any time, tend to frown on what they consider the "inferior" and "alien" lifestyles of the "natives" they encounter. History makes it clear that such colonialist adventurers always attempt to re-create in some detail their own home turf, no matter how bizarre or unsuitable to the new cultural and physical locale. The charming gabled Dutch buildings of Jakarta and Surabaya, lolling in Indonesia's humid clime, attractive leaded windows carefully sealing the interiors from the frigid winters of Holland which never arrive, provide one incredible example. The northeastern pillbox homes of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, marching row after narrow row, climatized with artificial frozen air and set amidst uniformly manicured lawns planted with midwestern grasses, offer another.
These are just the benign examples. The more insidious, directly life-threatening ones—the Roman conquest, the Crusades, the Mongol Invasion, the Nazi Holocausts (the never-referred-to Gypsies as well as Europe's Jewish peoples), Palestine, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Angola, Central America, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Wounded Knee—these genocidal bloodbaths need not even be invoked. One could, of course, go on forever, offending every settler in all the earth's "new" lands, past and present, bloody or benign. But this is not the point.
The point is that the newcomer tends to feel that his "new world" did not exist, or at least not properly so, until his own momentous arrival. In the Americas this meant the unconscious, or at times conscious, obliteration of all that came before. Just as natives of the Southwestern and Southeastern United States "Sunbelts" have seen their centuries-long lifestyles largely vanish, along with the landscape, in less than 50 years of "invasion" from the American Northeast and Midwest, so the Europeans of 1492 devoured the Welcome Wagon that met them. Less than 50 years later the Juggernaut had completed its rounds in the Caribbean Basin, and after another two centuries, little remained anywhere even to remind the Europeans that the Americas had not always been theirs.
A few feeble attempts were made, in retrospect, to halt such genocidal excesses—the Laws of Burgos of 1512, the New Laws of the Indies of 1542, or the meetings of the Spanish monarch with his advisors in Valladolid in 1550, for example—and the Spanish monarchs frequently requested that laws requiring humane behavior toward the Indians be enforced. But all of this came too late. Systems of de facto slavery, though given euphemistic de jure labels, were in place at least as early as 1501 (Gibson 1988:96–98). The damage had long been done and institutionalized as the encomienda and later repartimiento in Spanish lands, dividing up the population like so many cattle with forced allegiance to a European master, or as the native reserve in English lands, insulating the European from Indian contact and containing the Indian within restrictive, arbitrary boundaries. A few pockets here and there were inadvertently left, increasingly to become curious time-warped enclaves of the noble past. In later days these have been "protected" by the well-meaning but insipid and ineffectual assistance of those whom the Pueblo peoples refer to with disdain as The Yearners, those governmental and private groups and individuals who create in their own mind's eye an Indian past and personality that never existed and project it onto their charges. This peculiar brand of neocolonialism is still as much in vogue in Washington, Ottawa, Brasilia, Lima, or Guayaquil as it was in the first Spanish settlements on Hispaniola in the years just after 1492. The world's worst and surely most obscene example is what is happening today in Amazonia. With rare exceptions these relict societies had already been culturally and physically traumatized beyond recovery in an America no longer American.
Though it may sound so, none of this is said to dwell inordinately on the evils of Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, Danish, Swedish, Russian, or Euro- and Afro-American settlement. The attempt is not to raise the banner of militant Pan-Indianism, though there is much to justify its raising. The point is made to clarify the fact that permanent cultural contact is rarely "good" from anyone's point of view and always destructive. By its very nature it puts in gear the mechanisms of change, and the old rarely survives in the face of the new.
Judgmental concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, while easy to invoke, have no honest place in viewing the panorama of human history and social differences. While we may quake and be appalled at human nature, we can only note patterns, and the most salient of these for New World history since 1492 has been the sometimes accidental but more often purposeful wholesale destruction of native America, reaching the end of its rampant and inexorable path just today. No other continent except Australia has seen the total destruction of almost all its native lifeways and peoples at any other time in known human history. The Europeanization of the Americas stands as a unique and astounding fact of human action.
None of this is said in neglect of the decimation of native American populations and the physical breakup of social entities caused by the inadvertent introduction of Old World diseases. These diseases have been shown to have been a powerful and major factor in the social disruption and loss of life throughout the native Americas in the decades and centuries immediately after 1492 (Dobyns 1983, Ramenofsky 1987, Smith 1987, Thornton 1987, Verano and Ubelaker 1992). In some cases the societies that Europeans saw had already been struck by European diseases which long preceded their initial New World carriers, so that our first views of many native societies are of cultures already in trauma. Thus there is evidence from the Southeastern United States and in the Inca Empire that disease-related population decline preceded an actual European presence (Dobyns 1983, Smith 1987:58–60). In Peru, for example, a measles epidemic that seems to have begun in or before 1500 caused massive loss of life 27 years before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish forces (Dobyns 1983). In other instances the new diseases came with their bearers, and decimation came only in the decades after conquest. So in the Valley of Mexico alone the estimated 1519 population of 11 million was reduced to 325,000 by 1579 at least in part as the result of smallpox and other introduced diseases (Ramenofsky 1987). Political and other cultural factors can, inadvertently or consciously, stem the spread of disease, and some diseases are endemic to specific societies, but bacteria and viruses know no national or cultural boundaries. In the New World they spread far more rapidly than the Europeans who carried them.
Nonetheless, epidemic-related population reduction, while it disrupts and destroys, and while it may in cases be culturally controlled, does not in itself disabuse one of an individual's innermost beliefs and behavior. Population reduction certainly does contribute to the disruption and alteration of social units, sometimes drastically so. If community elders die, some traditions and knowledge, some perhaps critical to overall cultural maintenance, may indeed be lost, but there has been no instance documented by archaeological or other data, anywhere on earth, in which such a reduction in and of itself caused the total breakdown of an underlying sociocultural philosophy (see Smith 1987 for a particularly fine discussion of this point). The onset of a state of cultural normlessness, anomie, demands an overt human agent and conscious effort. So, for example, the last surviving Yahi Indian of California, Ishi, befriended by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in the early 1900s, was still a Yahi in language, culture, and behavior in spite of the fact that there were no other members of his society with whom to interact. It takes more than disease to disabuse one of the soul.
Economic and political disruption and forcible Christianization were the tools of European expansion in the New World as they were in other regions to which Western Europe turned—a heritage at least partially of the Crusades. Lest one think this an overly harsh assessment, be reminded that, for example, Spanish clerics of the 1500s routinely read what were called requerimientos to their new charges—always in Spanish, a language the Indians did not understand, and usually read to them at an inaudible distance (Gibson 1988:97). These "requirements" uniformly stated that the Pope had given the Indian lands to the Spanish monarchs and went on to say that they, the friars, demanded (not requested or hoped) that the Indians accept Christianity and acknowledge the sovereignty of the King and Queen of Spain (Hanke 1938). Some of the more explicit requerimientos continued by adding that if the Indians did not do this the Spanish would take their lands by force and subject the people to the yoke of the Church and Their Highnesses, that they would make them, their wives and children, slaves, seizing their property and doing "all the harm and evil we can" (Hanke 1938). Should the Indians refuse conversion to Christianity, the requerimientos stated that the Spanish would wage "justifiable" war against them, and the resultant damages would be "your fault and not ours" (Gibson 1988:97, Hanke 1938). The modus operandi, in other words, was clear, brutal, and direct. That method of handling other peoples was certainly rooted in the fifteenth-century Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, which led to the expulsion of the Jews and Moriscos or Christianized Moors from the Iberian peninsula in the years immediately following 1491. Promulgated largely through the Inquisition, the intent was openly to enforce a single faith for the nation as well. It was these concepts and methods that went with the Spanish to the New World and formed the basis for interaction with its native populations (Ewen 2001).
While the English and other colonizing countries did not verbalize their intentions quite as bluntly as the Spanish, the philosophy was the same. This was hardly benign conquest, and it was the grist of the mill that eventually destroyed much of native America. The phenomenon was not just an example of medieval European mentality in action but an essentially timeless expression of the Pogo philosophy "And, by God, if they don't want to be free, we'll force them to be free." This was reflected clearly as late as the so-called Indian wars of 1800–1891 in the American West and Florida and the brutal, literal "ethnic cleansing" of California natives well into the last quarter of the nineteenth century (Castillo 1978:107–115, Mahon 1988:144–162, Utley 1988: 163–184). The same philosophy, buried deep beneath the labels of anthropological and linguistic "research" organizations, characterizes present-day missionization programs and governmental "economic aid" programs throughout Indian America, North and South. The rapid demise since the 1960s of the native peoples of Brazil's vast Amazon Valley as a result of the economic, political, religious, and cultural conversion programs spawned by government agencies in Brazilia and missionary organizations from the United States, is a major case in point. European colonialism in the Americas is far from dead, and the tactics of implementation used in the 1500s have only been muted, slightly.
Let us be fair, however, for the phenomenon I have just described is not the sole property of the European world. It can be seen in just as virulent a strain in the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet in the 1950s and the subsequent violently enforced economic, political, and religious conversion of the Tibetan people, or in the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor in the 1970s, or the Khmer Rouge genocidal bloodbath in Cambodia during the same decade. Europeans do not hold a limited license on forced cultural conversion. It is an unfortunate by-product of that human foible called ethnocentrism, the firm belief that one's own culture and society are moral and good and that all other societies and cultures are somehow inferior and in need of indoctrination toward a right way of life. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and the joint U.S.–British invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sub- sequent "democratization" policies of the U.S. and British administrations in those occupied lands provide up-to-date examples.
The First 12,000 Years or So
The Asian discovery of the Americas, it must be said, was no more a premeditated "Eureka" kind of event than the European rediscovery some 120 centuries later. It was an accident, as are so many great events. The Asian presence in the Americas was the result of the gradual migration of small groups of people, moving on to greener pastures, little aware that a new world almost the size of the old lay ahead of them. The migration began from Siberia, sometime in the dim and uncertain period between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago, and was complete by the early centuries before and immediately after the birth of Christ. During this long period American societies developed alone, uniquely Asian-American, and a bewildering number of native societies came into being. They showed greater language and cultural variation than existed then or now in all of Europe, Africa, and Asia combined. The monolithic concept of The Indian, a single entity all the same from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, is as bizarre a caricature as the concept of the Inscrutable Oriental. It was a simplistic figment of the European and later Euro-American imagination. It has never been so.
Excerpted from The Americas That Might Have Been by Julian Granberry Copyright © 2005 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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