The history of America’s First Nations has been through multiple colonizations. The first colonized version was that there was no real history because there was no civilization or large populations of humans with their own societies, cultures, languages, arts, sciences, political and economic systems, and bodies of advanced knowledge. Of course, there was all that. Estimates of the population numbers range from 75 million to 145 million people prior to the European invasions.1 In his book about the European invasions, American Holocaust, historian David Stannard wrote:
For 40,000 years, hundreds of millions of the Americas’ native peoples have built their homes and their societies.…Consistent with the great diversity of their natural environments, some of these original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere lived in relatively small communities that touched only lightly on the land, while others resided in cities that were among the largest and most sophisticated to found anywhere in the world. So numerous, varied, ancient, and far-flung were these peoples that at one time they spoke as many as two thousand distinct and mutually unintelligible languages.2
By the time the European invasions and colonizations were completed, approximately 95% of the original people living in the Americas had been exterminated. It’s a mind-boggling concept, but the Americas were densely populated with tens of millions of people who didn’t mysteriously cease to exist when the Europeans arrived. The harsh and sickening reality is that, as Stannard explained, “for every twenty natives alive at the moment of European contact…only one stood in their place when the bloodbath was over.”3
Colonization involves so much more than theft of lands and slaughter of the lands’ occupants. Colonizers occupy and multiply, and so they need to justify the rightness of their actions for themselves and for their descendants. The colonizers demonize and subhumanize the vanquished so they can claim they were defeated because god, destiny and history mandate that “inferior” races always die out.
Before the decision was made to conquer, occupy and exterminate, the initial reports of the Europeans were filled with praise and even awe over these extraordinary civilizations and people they were encountering on the new continent. Stannard quotes various Europeans (including Father Joseph François Lafitau, Diego Pérez de Luxán, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Pierre de Charlevoix, José de Acosta, and others) who marveled at the Native Americans’ “fairness,” “prudence and moderation,” “singular gentleness,” the “noble and magnificent” generosity, the “order and reason” of their systems of governance, their equal treatment of others, and their “extraordinary capacity for hospitality.”4,5,6,7,8
There were also reports by the first conquistadors, priests and others of the magnificent cities and cultures they encountered. For example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who traveled with Hernando Cortés, wrote about the cities with buildings that were “wonderful to behold” with “spacious and well built” homes of “beautiful stone work and cedar wood.”9
The Great Market of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which accommodated “more than sixty thousand people” a day, according to Cortés, was beyond anything the Europeans had ever seen.10 Díaz wrote that “we were astounded at the number of people and the quantity of merchandise that it contained, and at the good order and control that it contained, for we had never seen such a thing before.”11 The sheer quantity of merchandise, the numbers of people, and the cleanliness of the urban markets overwhelmed them. “Some of the soldiers among us,” Díaz wrote, “who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, and all over Italy, and in Rome, said that so large a marketplace and so full of people, and so well regulated and arranged, they had never beheld before.”12
A common theme among many of the Europeans was how astonished they were at the huge numbers of people all across the Americas, especially in the west and south. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo reported on the “densely populated” coastal “pueblos” up and down California;13 Miguel de Estete wrote that the population of the Andes city of Jauja “was so great that…a hundred thousand people collected in the main square every day”;14 and throughout Colorado and New Mexico are the remains of thousand-year-old urban centers with buildings that contained as many as 800 rooms.15
The art and culture of the American civilizations weren’t just admired; the Europeans were astonished at the beauty and craftship. When the German artist Albrecht Dürer saw the art brought back by Cortés, his reaction to the “amazing artistic objects” was that he’d “never seen in all my days what so rejoiced my heart.”16 The conquistadors, explorers and chroniclers wrote almost incessantly about the magnificent jewelry made of gold and precious stones, the finely woven cloths, the beautiful gardens and aviaries, the sophisticated architecture and infrastructures, and the “grand and beautiful highways.”17,18,19
Then came the decision to expropriate the lands and the resources of the New World, to exterminate the majority of the inhabitants, and enslave any of the survivors. Then the terminology and the characterization of these civilizations changed dramatically and suddenly these civilized people became “barbaric savages” who lived in a “trackless wilderness” and had “no towns or villages.”20 Stannard lists a range of epithets used by the Europeans once they decided to commit genocide: “redskins,” “savage foes,” “treacherous,” “belligerent,” “predators,” and “lurking beasts.”21
And suddenly, the new continent was no longer thickly populated, Stannard pointed out, but instead was characterized as being sparsely populated by “‘handfuls of indigenous people’ who were ‘scattered’ across a ‘virgin land,’ ‘a vast emptiness,’ or even a ‘void.’”22 The densely populated continent became available for plunder since it was now, as Stannard described, nothing but “‘empty space,’ ‘wilderness,’ ‘vast chaos,” ‘unopened lands,’ and the ubiquitous ‘virgin land’ that blissfully was awaiting European ‘exploitation.’”23
These quotes may seem ludicrous to many of us today, but these were the myths manufactured by the colonizer, dehumanizing myths that formed the basis of how the U.S. evolved as a nation, politically, morally and racially. And these racist myths persist in the attitudes and assumptions of today’s culture, as well as in the legacy of racist education and mainstream academic scholarship.
Stannard pointed out that among the Euro-American scholars writing about the First Nations even into the 1980s was the respected historian Samuel Eliot Morison who wrote in his 1974 book, The European Discovery of America, that Native Americans were “Stone Age savages”24 and “pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of hope for any future.”a, 25
Colonization continued after the initial holocaust, in part through “re-education” of successive generations, as First Nation languages, histories, and cultures were banned and children were forcibly removed from their families and communities to be sent to “Indian” boarding schools.b, 26
The cultural colonization still persists in the popular iconic image of the Native American who is still always male, as the Euro colonizer’s erasure of females from the public discourse continues unabated. The “savage primitive” has now become the “nobility of a simple people” in tune with the land and unfettered by the complications of modern life. The “heathen customs” and “barbaric war dances” are now exotic displays of “authentic ancient customs” co-opted like orphaned kittens by Euro artists and New Agers.
Decolonizing this historic lie means recognizing that in North America alone, there are still some 800 separate First Nations that the U.S. government formally recognizes.27 It means understanding that “Americanization” for the majority of First Nations people means separate and unequal schools, hospitals, housing, jobs, and civil rights on reservations kept impoverished and colonized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. It means confronting and interrupting the reality of racism, subhumanization, dismissal, and the ongoing corporate takeovers of tribal lands for environmental plunder and devastation.
Native Americans are not “lost people” from a long-dead culture: They are very much alive, very much reclaiming their languages, cultures and histories, and very much in the forefront of the fight to stop the Euro colonizers from destroying our planet.
The Notes to First Nations:
a: Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976) was an eminent biographer and historian who taught at UC Berkeley, Oxford University and Harvard University until 1955. He authored dozens of books and won numerous awards and prizes, including the 1963 international Balzan Award for excellence in history. His books included the Oxford History of the American People (1965) and the 1942 biography of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.26
b: Banning indigenous languages and forcibly sending children to re-education institutions was a common practice throughout the history of European colonization. It was a major factor in disrupting indigenous communities and cultures in the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and elsewhere.