What's The Matter With Our Indians?
"Never criticize someone else unless you walk a mile in his moccasins."
- Lakota Sioux proverb
To begin, let's examine the title.
Five hundred years after Christopher Columbus (Christophe Colomb, an Italian cartographer of some considerable renown) defrauded his Spanish sponsors into believing that he had discovered India--naming the inhabitants he found "Indians"--many people still call the aboriginal peoples of North America Indians. By the way, Columbus didn't "discover" the Americas. Being a map maker, he had spoken on many occasions with Norse map makers who had been to North America many times with Norse fishermen who had been visiting the continent for hundreds of years. Thus began the great North American fraud, but more on that later.
The aboriginal people of North America sometimes call themselves Indians, but they aren't serious about it. African Americans sometimes call themselves "niggahs" too, but as a people they don't care for the moniker any more than the aboriginals like whites to call them Indians. "Indians" is a bad name given them by ignorant Europeans whose primary purpose in coming to North America was to steal and to conquer. They called it discovering, exploring, trading, but let's use plain language here. They planned to take as much as possible and give as little as they could get away with. It was the European way of the time.
"Our" is wrong as well. What are called Native Americans in the USA and First Nations in Canada were never conquered, never defeated as a people. Of the hundreds of distinct tribal groups--at least the ones that were not slaughtered to extinction (Beothuk, the original "redskins" that lived in Newfoundland) or decimated as they tried to defend themselves in "Indian wars"--none were truly defeated. They didn't have any concept of "owning" land, so they were prepared to share it with the newcomers. Since the newcomers themselves were not decimated by such delightful diseases as smallpox that the Europeans delivered, the white skins soon outnumbered the natives. As always, size (of population) matters.
So far as aboriginal peoples of North America are concerned, even today, they are Americans or Canadians only according to citizenship documents they may have needed for travel purposes. They consider themselves citizens of their own nations, as promised them in treaties written for them by English speaking lawyers, in English legalese, explained to them in simple but deceptive language they could understand. The English speakers had no leave to negotiate, so it was a "take it or leave it" situation. This matters because in most of these cultures no one forces another to say "No" to anything and it is considered very rude to be forced into saying "No" yourself by another person. The aboriginals agreed to treaties partly because their culture taught them to be agreeable, to not say "No" to someone who is offering something.
They were tricked into giving up "ownership" of their land (a concept they never had in their culture) by Europeans who promised them homes on land they would control ("reserved" land, thus called reserves or reservations) and rights to fishing and hunting on their traditions lands, free education and a stipend for each person from the Crown each year.
The aboriginals had no concept of "king." They knew of a Creator that was active in their lives but never seen, so they assumed that the unseen King would also look after them as the Creator did. And, of course, keep promises made in writing.
What were the living conditions? A little perspective is in order here. After the Second World War, representatives of the (white) government of South Africa came to Canada to see how the Canadian government dealt with its "Indian problem." Then they went home and, following the Canadian pattern, enacted Apartheid. Apartheid was banned in South African years ago when the black skinned people vastly outnumbered the white skins and the world turned against a prejudiced government in South Africa. However, in Canada, the Indian Act still exists, though the government has made promises for many years to remove it. The United Nations has condemned Canada publicly for its apartheid regulations, to no avail. Apartheid still exists, not in South Africa, but in Canada. On "the rez."
Are "Indians" forced to stay on reservations these days? No, in Canada about half live off their home reservations. But any government benefits come only to those who live on the reserves. If you live off the reserve, even briefly--especially if you are a woman--then move back to the reserve, good luck trying to get your rights to benefits back from the government.
Now about the "What's The Matter" part of the title. What's the matter is that North American aboriginal people did not die out, as expected, which is why they were given such a "sweet deal" in the apartheid style treaties. What's the matter is that the culture of the North American aboriginal people is very, very, very different from the culture that was brought to North America from Europe. If this article were expanded to book length, it would still not be long enough to explain the many differences between the cultures of the Europeans (now white North Americans) and the aboriginals.
What's the matter is that the white governments of North America never kept the promises they made to the aboriginal peoples in legally drafted and signed treaties they drew up themselves. No aboriginal group was ever offered the chance to draft a possible treaty because they were considered by the Europeans to be inferior people, not quite human in the European sense. Not only were the conditions of the treaties in the style now known as apartheid, the governments didn't even keep the few promises they made in those treaties. Promises they made up themselves.
We are used to politicians making promises before elections, then forgetting them once the elections are over. But if we have a legal agreement with the government, we expect the government to keep its end of the bargain. The government certainly expects us to keep our end, and is prepared to enforce it with imprisonment if we don't. The government of Canada has never kept its part of the treaties it agreed to with the aboriginal people it wanted to avoid going to war with. There were no Indian wars in Canada to speak of. The aboriginal peoples had no choice but to let the white skins take over their land, exploit it with farming, with mines, with oil wells, while receiving zero in return for their agreeing to "share" that same land. Their "reserved" land, by coincidence, rarely proved to have any real value, including for hunting the animals they traditionally hunted for food, temporary shelter and clothing.
The "problem" with "our Indians" is that the white people lied, cheated, duped their treaty partners, then refused to keep even the few concessions they made in the treaties they signed to keep the peace. And the white people can't understand why their "Indians" are upset. Wouldn't you be upset?
Not only do the aboriginals not have a concept of land ownership (no one would accept ownership of the air, so why should people want to own the land when we can all share?), they don't have a word for "religion". Aboriginal people don't have a problem with belief and faith, with wars and arguments between people who believe in the same God, as whites do. They never ask "Do you believe in God?" Every one I know and have read about believes in a Creator. That's not the God of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The Creator is a part of everything, to them. Including rocks, trees, grass, wheat, bears, snakes and people. In fact, the concept of Creator largely agrees with what physics has proven about atoms being components of everything, about energy and matter being different versions of the same thing, about everything of importance being accessible. Science doesn't agree with the concept of a supernatural, but the aboriginal people do not blame scientists for their shortsightedness. They accept what others think and choose to believe.
It's the rest of us non-natives who can't accept differences, who can't accept others who don't believe what we have been taught, who can't accept that aboriginal people believe what they can feel and experience while whites want to have mysteries based on "faith."
The problem is not with the people we white North Americans call Indians, but with us white North Americans not caring enough about others to learn about them, to see if what they believe, what they know, how they live, may be better than what we have been taught. We treasure our ignorance and want to preserve it for our children. Those who believe anything radically different from what we have been taught must surely be "inferior," so may safely be disregarded.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents, grandparents and teachers who want to grow children who do not treasure ignorance, but who embrace learning about all people so that world peace can become possible.
Learn more at http://billallin.com