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Today the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 to replace the celebration of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Thus, Los Angeles joins a number of other progressive cities including Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz in kicking Christopher Columbus to the curb in favor of indigenous peoples. The Los Angeles effort was led by Councilman Mitch O’Farrell who is a proud member of the Wyandotte tribe.
I must admit I don’t fully understand the infantile fascination and celebration by progressives of societies and peoples described variously as Native American, Indigenous Peoples, Indians (politically incorrect) or Pre-Columbian Americans (PCA’s) as some sort of numinous people. Mr O’Farrell in making the case for this change stated the following;
“Christopher Columbus’ legacy of extreme violence, enslavement, and brutality is not in dispute. Nor is the suffering, destruction of cultures, and subjugation of Los Angeles’ original indigenous people, who were here thousands of years before anyone else”.
Well, ok then. Christopher Columbus did commit many brutal acts against native peoples in his explorations of the New World, as would many other Europeans in its exploration, settling, and conquering. That, though, is neither a new nor unique story, and it’s not the reason Columbus Day was originally celebrated. The permanent linking of the Old World and the New World is a major event in human history worthy of acknowledgement. A large portion of world history is no more than the story of one group conquering another group. In fact, most of the Europeans who would settle in the New World had ancestors who many centuries earlier had themselves been conquered (and eventually civilized) by a more modern and advanced civilization — the Romans. In any event, the native Americans didn’t need any lessons in extreme violence, enslavement or brutality from Europeans. They had been engaging in these behaviors long before their initial contact with Europeans.
The most highly developed of the pre-Columbian peoples were the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. These three civilizations had much in common; well developed and elaborate irrigation and agriculture with a wide variety of domesticated animals and plants, complex social and cultural organization, advanced and intricate calendar and astronomical knowledge, highly developed religions of the pagan variety, and fierce ideologies of conquest and imperial expansion.
Like the Old World, the Maya had a hierarchical society based on wealth, prestige, and family lineage, and slavery was an integral part of society. The Maya built great stone cities and pyramids with no beasts of burden and only stone tools. This was the case for the other two as well, as these societies along with every other people throughout the New World had little or no knowledge of metallurgy or metal-working and beasts of burden (horses, oxen, et al.) did not exist in the Americas. In addition, no people in the New World had any knowledge of the wheel. The building of these pyramids and other structures must have taken an awful toll on the people compelled into this work.
The Aztecs also engaged in slavery and had a religion which required them to continually offer fresh human blood to their war god, Huitzilopochtli. This involved regular and continuous human sacrifice with most of the victims obtained in their conquering of nearby peoples and a constantly expanding empire. It is estimated that in the dedication of their most impressive pyramid in Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs may have slaughtered as many as 20,000 people, according to historian Marshall C Eakin. It is true that the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes was able to eventually conquer the Aztecs in 1521, killing as many as 100,000 in the process, with a force of 1,000 Spaniards, 80 horses, and 16 artillery pieces. However, it is also true that Cortes would never have succeeded if not for the tens of thousands of native Indian allies who fought alongside him only because of the brutal treatment they had received at the hands of the Aztecs.
The Incas built the most extensive empire in the Pre-Columbian Americas, imposing their language and religion on those they conquered in a society in which all property was in the hands of the small band of Inca rulers and everyone else was essentially a slave.
So, I wonder if Mr O’Farrell wants to celebrate these peoples and civilizations. Maybe, he just wants to celebrate native peoples in North America, like the Iroquois. Many Native American activists contend that the Iroquois and their Confederacy inspired our founders in the creation of our republic (although this is doubtful since the Iroquois, like the Inca, had no written language). Then again, Mr O’Farrell may not wish to celebrate the Iroquois, who were a militant and aggressive group, constantly making war against others. This was usually done in pursuit of wealth, such as the Beaver Wars, in which, among other things, the Iroquois decimated the Huron (also known as the Wyandotte — Mr. O’Farrell’s tribe) all just to gain control of the fur market.
Hmmm … possibly Mr. O’Farrell wishes to celebrate those Pacific tribes along the west coast. After all, he does mention Los Angeles in the above quote. Maybe tribes such as the Twana of northern Washington state, the Yurok of coastal California, the Pawnee of Oregon, or the Klamath of Southern Oregon. Then again, maybe not. Each of these tribes engaged in slavery, according to Harvard Sociology Professor Orlando Patterson in his work Slavery and Social Death.
So, maybe O’Farrell meant the Indian tribes of the plains and the east. Then again, maybe not. After all, the Creek of Georgia, Comanche of central Texas, and the Cherokee, among others, engaged in slavery. It is true, as this article discusses, that the form of slavery among these Native Americans was different than the chattel slavery employed by the European colonists. But that is small comfort to those so enslaved.
Maybe, just maybe, Mr. O’Farrell wishes to celebrate the fact that Native Americans lived closer to and in harmony with the earth. Then again, maybe not. Many Native Americans, especially in Central and South America engaged in slash and burn agriculture — hardly the most environmentally friendly activity.
The purpose of this essay is not to denigrate Native American people. They were and are an honorable and decent people. But they are no more moral than or superior to any other people, just as they are not any less moral or inferior to any other people. Each and every one of the Native Americans who first came into contact with Europeans and who would fight a losing battle to preserve their way of life against modernity was part of a tribal society of one sort or another. By my lights, tribal society is one of the worst forms of social organization. In the tribe, the individual is everywhere and always subsumed to the wishes and needs of the tribe. This tends to lead to perpetual misery and poverty and minimal technological progress.
In the Americas, especially North America, modernity in the form of Western Civilization won the battle against tribal society, and I, for one, am glad. Western Civilization, with its moral basis of a Judeo-Christian ethic, in which every human life has value and each individual is imbued with free will, has done more for human happiness and progress than other culture in human history.Published in