Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wide Open Spaces?

Keith's question (see the end of the previous posting) is worth considering: "is it imaginable that North America should have remained lightly populated by native Americans while much of the rest of the world was overwhelmed?" What about the wide open spaces of this country in 1500?

My friend and fellow church member Chris Thompson, an ardent advocate of Native American rights and founder of Project Warm Embrace, posted passionate comments in response to what I wrote and Keith's comments. He questioned the accuracy of "lightly populated." According to the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians, though, the population in 1500 of what became North America was under two million. Some think it was probably much larger; one Native American advocate estimates it around six million.

Even with the larger number, that was still a very small population for an area that now supports more than three hundred million people. But how many people could be supported if everyone still lived according to the lifestyle of the Native Americans? (I am indebted to Keith for causing me to think about this several years ago.)

Perhaps it was legitimate for Europeans to come to the wide open spaces of the New World. (Do some people have the "ownership" of land in perpetuity just because of where they were born?) Perhaps it was necessary for the survival of the human race (and I don't mean just Europeans) for new lands to be found and developed for swelling populations. (Most migrations, as well as perhaps most wars, have been due primarily to population pressures.)

So while I cannot completely censure the migration of Europeans to what became North America, I do deplore the villainous treatment of the native people here. The Europeans may have had the right to come and even to settle in these wide open spaces, but they did not have the right to steal the land from the people living on it. And certainly they did not have the right to kill at will the people who lived here.

There were some, thankfully, who did seek to deal fairly and kindly with the Native Americas. One such person is Roger Williams (1603-83), one of my heroes. Although a pastor, he was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, partly because of his insistence that the "Indians" should be compensated for their land. English colonization, Williams argued, was "a sin of unjust usurpation upon others' possessions." Christian kings somehow believed that they were invested with the right, by virtue of their Christianity, "to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men." Williams thought that was nonsense, absurdity! (See Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty [2001], p. 17.)

Treatment of the Native Americans in the manner of Roger Williams is the way things might have played out in a more nearly perfect world.


  1. Roger Williams certainly has an interesting history with his insistance on freedom of religion and other controversial views in his day. Coexistance between two groups that have such decidedly different views of life would have been nearly impossible, however. The primary reason is that the number one killer of Native Americans from the first contact with Europeans was disease in particular small pox. On the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific, they wintered in the Mandan villages which were reported to have about 1600 people at the time of their stay. When they returned less than two years later the population had plummeted to less than 200 without a single shot being fired. The Europeans had the nastier microbes on their side. I realize that there was a policy during the post civil war years to use infected blankets to devastate the remaining tribes into submission of the reservation policy that the government had a adopted (think biological warfare). Previously, though, germs had caused the greatest decimation by the unintended consequence of proximity of the two groups.

    The second reason that peaceful coexistence was utopian dream is that this represented a conflict between hunter/gatherer societies and agrarian societies. As an aside, I realize that the Native Americans farmed (corn and squash in particular); however it was not the primary source for food gathering (no large domesticated meat source). Whenever the models of the groups are so different, conflict erupts usually being arbitrated by the barrel of a gun or the point of a sword. The hunter/gatherer groups were migrant (think gypsies in Europe; in general they face great discrimination), so the concept of ownership of land or property was not needed and in fact a barrier to the lifestyle. For the agrarian Europeans property ownership was needed in order to guarantee the success of harvest. By the nature of both of these groups, the Native Americans would have to be lightly concentrated and the Europeans would tend toward denser concentrations. The fundamental view of land would have resulted in severe clashes. When technology changes the zeitgeist of the group, then conflict occurs usually in very violent ways (e.g American Civil War--agrarian South, emerging industrial North).

    The past with all its conflicts is history (open to multiples interpretations and rewrites). My interests are today and what we are doing today. The world in general has multiple models in play with hunter/gatherer groups in parts of Africa and South America, agrarian groups throughout the world, industrialization particularly in Asia, and post-industrialization (information?, etc.) in Europe, North America, and Japan. These vastly different lifestyles can be the potential for conflicts; however, my fervent hope is that we are able to interact without forcing others to be like us or us like them.

  2. DHJ, thanks for your informative comments.

    The disease factor was certainly a significant one, and no amount of good will by Roger Williams or anyone else could have solved that problem.

    From an article I founded on the Internet: "Smallpox reached what was to become the United States either from Canada or the West Indies. The first major outbreak of an infectious disease recorded on the northeastern Atlantic coast was 1616-19. The Massachusetts and other Algonquin tribes in the area were reduced from an estimated thirty thousand to three hundred. When the Pilgrims landed a year later in 1620, there was few Indians left to greet them. Many observers believe this infectious disease was smallpox."

    Smallpox killed a lot of Europeans also. From what I read there was a major smallpox epidemic in New England from 1628 to 1631 and also in England in 1633-34 and again in 1638.

  3. Leroy,

    More recent approximations of populations are well in excess of the numbers you give. Again, I'd suggest a reading of the book "1491." The book references recent studies that have indicated that there were 25.2 million living on the central Mexican plateau alone. In fact, some studies have concluded that there were between 90-112 million people in the Western Hemisphere when Columbus sailed (Pg. 94). Others who have studied the conquest of the Americas have placed the number at 80 million or so. These numbers would suggest (as the book "1491" indicates) that there were actually more people in the Americas than in Europe at the time Columbus sailed.

    Moreover, many early European invaders reported very large numbers of people in the Americas, with at least one describing what he encountered as a "beehive of people" (Las Casas in 1542). According to Las Casas, the Americas were so thick with people "that it look[s] as if God has placed all of or the greater part of the entire human race in these countries." The 18th Century Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero asserted that the pre-Columbian population of Mexico alone was 30 million (consistent with the research noted above). DeSoto and his companions were amazed by the number of towns that could be spotted as far as the eye could see in what is now the SE United States.

    Even if we assume the existence of "wide open spaces" (which is disputed among scholars), as far as having any "right to settle in these wide open spaces," you conclude that there may have been such a right, but you provide no support for such claim. On what basis would any people group have a "right" to settle in areas without the consent of the indigenous population of that region? With a respect to the right of populations based on where they were born, concerning individual rights, our own legal system recognizes first-in-time and other concepts of possession as sufficient for ownership even without any showing of generational occupancy. Title vests in the prior possessor to the detriment of later occupiers. Also, you seem to confuse individual rights of possession with the rights of a sovereign and, by doing so, suggest that a sovereign nation does not somehow have rights based on generations of occupation. It is, in fact, these generations of occupation that have supported claims of sovereignty as recognized by the international community.

  4. Also, even with the disputed existence of wide open spaces as you call them, there is no recognized legal right to invade a sovereign nation due to that sovereignty's availability of open spaces (i.e., there is no "wide open space" defense to trespass or invasion). It is the sovereign (in a political sense) and/or the predecessor occuupant or owner (in an individual sense)who has the authority to determine settlement. Moreover, arguments based on sparse population contradict early history in New England and elsewhere in which tensions existed almost immediately between European settlements and indigenous populations given their proximity to one another (i.e. the encroachment by European invaders on Indian communities/lands). In other words, the European invaders were settling in the best areas for settlement as evidenced by the existence of the indigenous populations who already occupied the area, not in wide open, sparsely populated areas.

    As for your reference to the need to expand due to swells of population (as you refer to the rest of the world being "overwhelmed"), etc., there is no generally recognized record of any necessity of migration to the Western Hemisphere to ease population burdens in Europe, so making such a statement is simply, again, a justification/rationalization of invasion unsupported by the record of history. What we do know is that the Western Hemisphere was invaded and plundered because of greed and arrogance. We do know that such greed and arrogance, justified by claims of theological, racial, and social superiority, resulted in genocide and resulted in current Indian policies that allow for the continuance of brutal, unjust treatment of indigenous populations. Do you suggest that invasion of any land by foreign peoples is justifiable, as you suggest regarding the unsupported assertion that invasion of the Western Hemisphere due to population pressures would, if true, justify the settlement (rather invasion) you reference?

    You point to Roger Williams as an example of a Christian who supported Indian rights. What is most unfortunate is that the list of major Christian historical figures who advocated on behalf of American Indian people (and not on behalf of their own beliefs/views regarding the proper "civilizing" of American Indians)is fairly limited, almost to the example you give.

    To better understand the historical, socio-political, and theological implications of European invasion, one should explore the works of a variety of indigenous and other authors who have examined them --- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown); any of the works of Vine Deloria, Jr.; the works of George Tinker (who has written extensively on the issue of missionary conquest), the book "1491" by Charles C. Mann, American Indain Sovereignty and The U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice, by David Wilkins (also, see Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations by the same author); How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, by Stuart Banner; Indian Country, by Peter Matthiessen (also, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen); Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming by Winona LaDuke; How It Is: The Native American Philosophy of V.F. Cordova; Columbus and other Cannibals, by Jack D. Forbes; Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, by Linda Tuhiwai Smith; Lies My Teach Told Me, by James W. Loewen; Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law, by David Wilkiins and K. Tsianina Lomawaima; and A Century of Dishonor, by Helen Jackson, to name a few.

  5. We have been bombarded with images and words of the savage nature of indigenous civilizations, so we should constantly and consistently remind ourselves of our own Western brutality:

    1. I referred to Colonel (and Methodist minister) John Chivington, in a prior response, who led an early morning raid against the Cheyenne people in 1864, killing hundreds of women, men and children, the scene of which was described by one of Chivington's subordinates as follows: "In going over the battle ground the next day I did not see a body of a man, woman or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner -- men, women and children's privates cut out, etc... I heard of one instance of a child of a few months old being thrown in the feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish..." I have left out the more detailed and graphic descriptions of the mutilation of bodies at the hands of cavalry soldiers.

    2. General Sheridan once said, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

    3. General Francis Walker, then U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs (in 1872) said, "There is no question of national dignity, be it remembered, involved in the treatment of savages by civilized powers."

    4. In 1763, General Jeffrey Amherst of the British army, wrote to a fellow officer, "Could it be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians?" The other office responded that he would try to start an epidemic and mentioned a wish to hunt "the vermin" with dogs. Amherst replied, "You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets [in which smallpox patients had slept], as well as by every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race. I should be very glad if your scheme of hunting them down by dogs could take effect."

    5. Historian Hubert Hoew Bancroft wrote of California Indians defending their families and communities during the gold rush period, "hence, when now and then one of them plucked up the courage to defend his wife and little ones, or to retaliate on one of the many outrages that were constantly being perpetrated upon them by white persons, sufficient excuse was offered for the miners and settlers to band and shoot down any Indians they met, old or young, innocent or guilty, friendly or hostile, until their appetites for blood was appeased."

    One could argue that the acts referenced were criminal acts but for the legal justification/license given for these acts and others like them historically.

    In commenting on the devastation caused by Western advances, Claude Levi-Strauss once noted, "Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at a cost of corresponding ills...the first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind" (quoted in Columbus and Other Cannibals, as were the previous enumerated quotes and references).

    In our legal system, if we accept that which has been stolen knowing full well that it has been stolen, and do not return it, we are also guilty and blameworthy. No matter the conviction of our justification, or the extent to which we attempt to discount the nature, degree or scope of the crime, we are trespassers living on stolen land.

    Please forgive my grammatical and typographical mistakes as I write this at a fairly late hour.

  6. Chris, I appreciate your information and passion about these subjects. I have several questions and a few comments for further clarification.

    I realize your expertise in the US legal system. When the European invaders began the conquest of the Americas, the United States did not exist and would not for nearly 300 years. As a result, the laws and the precendents of the time governing the Europeans would have been the laws of English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portugese. I confess my ignorance of these laws and precedents; however, I suspect that they were quite different than our current laws. Were the invaders acting outside of the accepted jurisprudence of that day? In addition, were the various groupings of indigenous people recognized as nations?

    I am fascinated by the population numbers. I am aware of sizeable cities in the Aztec area of Mexico. It is particularly interesting that several thousand conquistadors could conquer millions of people. Does the 80 to 120 million estimate include the entire Americas or the northern hemisphere only? The current population of the Americas is 10 times that number with many open spaces which I see daily.

    There were at least three waves of groups populating the Americas originating from Asia. Every wave tended to displace and conquer proceeding waves. It was also during these migratory (not invaders?) waves that the greatest loss of large mammals occured in the Americas.

    Man is generally inhumane and only in rare instances not entirely egotistical. I am trying to understand the successive waves of conquest with the realization of man as a fallen creature.

  7. Chris is right that the past was awful. (I would suggest that it was pretty awful for most people in most places by our current standards). My question is what does that past awfulness mean for us now. We can dwell on the horrible situation to the point that we suffer upset and pain. But I think the same facts can be viewed as a basis for hope that we humans have made progress over time, so we may be able to make more progress in the future. We can’t change the past, but we can work towards a more just, respectful and loving future.

  8. I will contend that progress is limited and spotty at best coming in fits and starts but often regressing like the waves in the oceans. The 20th century by any definition was one of the most violent and horrid of any despite mankind becoming more "enlightened". The scale of the mass killing around the globe was unprecedented (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, the Serbs, Tutsis to name a few). I have little confidence that this will change in the 21st century except for the names and places. The western world has become fatigued by genocides but somewhere, someone will seek power and control in the name of race, religion, creed, etc. often rationalized by a slight or other offense. If only revenge was an eye for an eye and not an eye for a salted village, then the level violence would surely be lessened. The hearts of men are generally inhumane.