North America before contact with Europe
Indian settlements have a tradition reaching back 12,000 years with systematic land cultivation beginning around 3,500 years ago. Towards the end of the 15th Century more than 600 different peoples could be counted across North America and what is now Canada communicating in more than 12 different languages. Their lifestyle was characterised by a respect for and dependency upon nature and they strove to find a balance between sowing and reaping. Columbus spoke of their kindness, their good behaviour and the fact that they loved their neighbour as themselves. Their culture was based upon agriculture, hunting and fishing accompanied by rituals and rules according to the seasons. Conflicts, even warring conflicts always aimed to achieve an understanding. The injured side explained the cause of injury and the reason for their actions, and those families or groups subject to their actions were given the opportunity to make an appropriate compensation in order to end the conflict peacefully.
Contact and settlement from Europe
The first European activities were centred around finding and exploiting treasures, both human (slaves) and material (gold etc.) as well as natural (trade with skins and furs). To turn the peoples of America to slavery proved however difficult as brutality, coupled with the arrival of new illnesses caused them to die out. As a result, much as already had happened in the Canary Islands and Caribbean Islands, the entire East coast was cleared of its original inhabitants within 200 years.
The European discovery, settlement and cultivation of North America led to an ever greater one-sided predomination of Europe and its culture, a culture based upon exploitation. At the same time it offered a vent for social tension back in Europe. For example, England’s population doubled between 1550 and 1650.
Where the West coast was dominated and exploited principally by the Spaniards coming in from Mexico, it was settlers from England but also from France who most influenced the lives of the indigenous Indian peoples on the East coast. The Indians could hope to achieve a degree of influence and position in the power struggle between Spain, France and England, however the time came where allegiance became necessary, and this in the times of warring conflicts weakened their position.
As foreign settlement increased, the power of the Indian tribes waned and they were forced to give up their land, weakening their position still further, a situation which was exacerbated by the waves of epidemics that broke out repeatedly. Over 100 epidemics came from Europe to North America between 1520 and 1900, approximately one every 4¼ years. Some Indian groups lost more than 75% of their population within a period of weeks. Besides the drastic effects of these, it also endangered the food basis, dependent as it was upon a strict adherence to seasonal rules and cultivation patterns.
Life and land
Although the first settlers were interested in a peaceful coexistence with the indigenous peoples, this changed as settlement rapidly increased, a process characterised by land ownership and exploitation. This was exactly the opposite of the Indian way of living that saw an intact nature as the fundamental basis from which to benefit as well as enrich as the seasons and the experience of tradition determined. The principal force behind the European settlers was the belief in the superiority of their own values and therefore that they were bringing happiness and improvement to an impoverished North America.
During the first decades of European and Indian cultural coexistence the belief arose among the Europeans, probably as a way of self-justification when faced with the visible success and benefits of the Indian way of living, that the Indian culture was created by the devil or indeed even represented him. As the Indians began to defend themselves in reaction to increasing repression, this was seen as conclusive evidence and taken as an opportunity to attack them in turn and annex their property.
The military superiority of weapons and training, the notion of domination and subjugation through force over an extended period as well as the central belief that a person can be superior due to sex, race or colour were instrumental in the European repression of the Indian peoples. Resistance was met with unforgettable and uncompromising action. The first major massacre took place in December 1598 on the West coast. The killing of 13 Spaniards by the Acomas, in reaction to Spanish demands for food, water and wood, exacerbated by instances of theft and sexual harassment, saw retribution by the Spanish conquerors in the killing 800 Indian men, women and children and the taking of a further 600 prisoners, of which all those over 12 years old where forced to slavery (men over 25 years had a foot amputated) and the children were sent to monasteries as servants. Shortly afterwards a further 1000 people were killed and 400 prisoners taken when they resisted handing over food and clothing.
The first massacres on the East coast occurred in 1636 after the violent death of two settlers and was authorised by the church. Men, women, children and old men alike were shot, beaten and burnt, the result of a campaign extending over several weeks, with the result that the remaining Indian tribes submitted much more readily. 1644 saw the widespread introduction of Christianity and a belief and world view system that the tribes had to adhere to. A second large massacre of 20000 Narranganset, mostly through burning followed in 1671 under the responsibility of the governor of New York and carried out by puritans from Massachusetts and Connecticut. The final victory was brought about by the governor of New York and the survivors sold to slavery in the Bahamas despite the fact that they had been promised protection if they surrendered. The head of the conquered chief Matacom was hung over the entrance of the town of Plymouth, a practice already known from the English conquering of Ireland. This signalled the end of Indian resistance in New England.
The end of the civil war, in which the majority of Indian tribes sided with England, only worsened the position of the Indians, also for those who fought on the side of the Americans. The American states had less authority over its people, and in the years that followed the settlement movement to the West increased dramatically and unrestricted.
The 19th Century saw the introduction of official occupation and expropriation of Indian land and the resettlement of the Indian peoples. The state and federal institutions backed up by the military oversaw the process. A typical method was to systematically divide up the land into lots and to offer these for sale, often but not always to its original owners, an ownership concept the Indians had never had in their native culture. In addition the state or federal states foresaw the evacuation and resettlement of Indian groups often, as they saw it, for the Indians own protection who after living in too close proximity to European settlers had fallen foul of illnesses and alcohol. In Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama the Indian land was systematically expropriated and the Indians evacuated under the backing of President Andrew Jackson. Many lost their lives in the resettlement process, almost 50% through the creeks.
The worst fate was suffered by the Indians on the West coast, who were subject to systematic and arbitrary murder at the hands of bands of private or semi-officially organised bands of settlers who had streamed in from the East in search of land and gold. Their numbers already shrunk from 700,000 to 200,000 people at the hands of the Spanish colonial settlers and poorly organised, the remaining Indians were unable to defend themselves. Racism and sheer contempt accompanied the settlers’ ideological search for free land (as they saw it) and material riches. In 1900 the surviving Indians numbered only 15,000 on the West coast.
90 years after the founding of the United States, from the 370 contracts drawn up with Indian tribes not a single one has been adhered to as the state was not prepared to force its own people to abide by them. In 1871 the congress decided not to agree any further contracts with native Indians as they were unequal and therefore not a subject of law.
Four centuries have seen the original population of North America dwindle from 7-10 million people to only 250,000 people. In 1895 the herds of bison were reduced to only 1000.
Source: Wilson, James, The Earth Shall Weep, A History of Native America, New York 1999
Excerpt: Marion Schneider