The Clash of Two Cultures: Native Americans and White People

The sacred and the technology

  The Battle of Little Bighorn
Their legends say they were created from earth, water and stars. DNA says they came in what is now Alaska, Canada, US coming from Siberia through a land bridge called Behringia. Older western movies depicted them as wild and cruel. But in fact they were victims of the entrance in their territory of the greediest predator they ever faced: the White Man.

The Indian man was hunter and warrior, while women took care of the children, cultivated and harvested crops, and grounded grains for making flour, maintained the tents. In bison hunting tribes, women helped cutting the animals, and bringing the meat into the camp, then its processing for being consumed later. In Apaches tribes, even if men helped in agriculture, women knew best how to do it, with all the required works, prays and flooding technology. Women also mounted and dismounted the tents, which were usually used for two years; the Indian woman was respected and had many rights; even today in some tribes like Hopi the woman is the owner of all material goods.

At the beginning, American Natives collaborated in the northwestern US with the first European colonists. Jamestown, Virginia, the first British settlement in America was built with the help of the Powhatan Indians. Without their help, the first English people in the New World would have not resisted to the tough winter of 1607-1608. The pilgrim colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, was established with the help of the Wampanoag Indians. The Indians showed to the immigrants how to cultivate the land.

But the massive immigration from Europe and European methods of land cultivating generated soon tensions with the Indians. The Indians hunted deer, wild turkey, water birds, fished, and gathered sea food. The colonists started to mow the grass, for feeding cattle and horses, while pigs destroyed clam reserves. The white people changed the environment, in a way unsuitable for the Indian way of life.

Only the horse affected significantly the Indian way of life, from the animals introduced by Europeans. During the 17th century Spaniards introduced horses, which escaped, in the now southwestern US. The Amerindians turned into skilled no-saddle horsemen. These way they could hunt easier bisons and nomad tribes could attack easier neighboring settled tribes, pillaging them for women and slaves.

In the 17th century about 30,000 Narragansett lived in Massachusetts. Their chief, Miantonomo, sniffed the danger and in 1642 proposed to the Mohawk Indians the formation of an Amerindian resistance alliance. He failed to do this, and next year, during a war, Mohawk captured and killed him. Europeans also took advantage of the conflict between the tribes. During the French-English wars in North America, various tribes were involved, but no matter who lost, all the involved tribes paid the price of the loser.

Iroquois tribes (like Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) fought in the British side during the American Independence War. All they received were insults and abandon at the end of the war, while US got their territory. Even those who fought on the side of the Americans lost: the negotiations took place under the gun point, even if they had not been conquered in that war, and their territories in New York and Pennsylvania was reduced to a small reserve in the New York state.

Bribery, menaces, alcohol and manipulations were the weapons through which the Ohio's Delaware, Wyandot, Ottawa. Chippewa, Ojibwa and Shawnee tribes lost their lands.

The Indians did not realize the superiority attitude of the Europeans, looking at them as primitive and rude. The Native Americans did not understand this; they looked at the White people just as being different, having different values. Land selling was not understandable for the Natives: how to sell air, wind or water? They lived in harmony with the nature, without disturbing the natural balance.

Violence gave rise to violence and atrocities occurred in both sides. Indians were feared because of the reputation of taking the scalp. Some think the habit had been triggered by the Europeans giving them gifts for the scalps.

But Indians fought in an already lost battle; their enemy overwhelmed them in number and weaponry. But the greatest enemy of the Indians were not the riffles but the epidemics brought by Europeans. Europeans got resistance to smallpox, TBC, chicken pox, flue, measles, malaria, yellow fever and typhus in centuries. In Indian villages, mortality rates reached 80-90 %. A smallpox epidemic turned a Mandan Indian village from 1,600 in 1834 to 130 in 1837. And the smallpox had extended to Hidatsa, Assiniboin, Arikara, Sioux and Blackfoot.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), soldiers retreated from the territories of the Navajo indians. The Navajo took advantage and attacked Mexican and American settlements on the Rio Grande valley. Colonel Kit Carson was sent to solve the issue. To put out the Navajo out of the Arizona's Chelly Canyon, he tried to induce hunger on them, burning their crops. 8,000 Indians were forced to make the "Long Way", 500 km (300 mi) to the detention camp Bosque Redondo in Fort Sumner (New Mexico). The cold killed many of the undernourished and poorly dressed Indians, and for shelter inside the reserve, the Navajo had to dig holes in the ground. In 1868, the government gave them 3.5 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico.

Between 1820 and 1845 tens of thousands of Choctaw, Cherokee, Chicksaw, Creek and Seminole were chased away from their lands in the southeastern US and forced to walk to the west, beyond Mississippi, to the lands that now make Oklahoma, located at hundreds of kilometers from their homes. Many died because of the tough winter. This march was recalled as the Path of the Tears.

In 1876, lieutenant Custer "Long Hair" thought he could defeat without problems in Montana near the river Little Bighorn the about 1,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors with his 650 soldiers. But he made a big counting error, as he faced in fact the largest group of Amerindians which had ever united forces: 3,000. Custer split his cavalry regiment into three and without waiting help from the other two groups he attacked with his 225 soldier the Indians led by Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse. The Indians killed Custer, into a shirt victory for the Indians, and a bitter defeat for the American Army. Later, Sitting Bull surrendered for receiving forgiveness.

Instead, he was imprisoned for a time at the Fort Randall, in Dakota. Later, he appeared in the show "Buffalo Bill's Wild West", a shadow of the past. In 1890, he was shot by a Sioux police patrol sent to arrest him.

Also, in 1890, the last Indian resistance was defeated at the massacre of Wounded Knee in the Great Plains, seen as a revenge for Little Bighorn. About 320 fugitive Sioux men, women and children were killed by the federal troops armed with Hotchkiss guns with rapid shot.

Today, Indians experience acculturation and assimilation. Most languages are already extinct or disappearing. Boarding schools contributed to this, as speaking Native languages was forbidden till a few decades ago there. Only 10 persons still speak Karok language of California. In January 1996, Red Thunder Cloud (Carlos Westez), the last speaker of Catawba died at the age of 76, while he could not speak the language with anybody for years.

Today, in US there are 29 colleges for Amerindians, with 16,000 students. At the University "Sinte Gliska", Lakota language is an obligatory matter.

50-85 % of the Native Americans are unemployed, and they have the lowest life hope compared with other ethnic groups in US; they also have the highest rates of diabetes, TBC and alcoholism, connected to cirrhosis, deadly accidents, suicide and crime.


By    27 Nov 2007, 23:18 GMT