The White Way, The Native Way


Native Americans with Smallpox

Culture provides a background to the world in which we live. Our eyes are the eyes of the culture to which we were born and which has formed our group and individual identity, including our sense of place in the world. 

- John C. Mohawk, “Toward a Reverence for Nature,” unpublished paper

The invasion of the Americas by Europeans was a war in which steel, crossbow; mastiff attack dogs, swift horses, and cannons were pitted against native people with lances and arrow. Where weapons failed, an even deadlier contribution of the Europeans was the introduction of bubonic plague, malaria, yellow fever, and smallpox to cultures who had never known such virulent diseases. Another aspect of the invasion, less visible, less an assault on the body of a people than on the spirit, was the cultural war. This was waged against both the Indian and black visions of the world, visions radically dissimilar from the white way. In the process the red and black visions were discredited. The cultural war, however, remains a battle that has never ended.

Conquest seeks not only to subordinate an “inferior” culture but to crush native culture. European nations differed in the form and intensity of their conquests, but for Africans and Indians the results were the same: death and destruction. The cultural resistance of Africans, Indians, and the later evolving Latino peoples took dissimilar cultural forms. One experience was common, however—pain, and a singular unending refusal to be obliterated as peoples, as cultures.

Culture is the expression of people’s creativity—everything they make which is distinctively theirs: language, music, art, religion, healing, agriculture, cooking, style, customs, and institutions governing social life. To suppress culture is to aim a cannonball at the people’s heart and spirit. Such a conquest is more accomplished than a massacre. “We have seen that colonization materially kills the colonized. It must be added that it kills him spiritually. Colonization distorts relationship, destroys and petrified institutions, and corrupts...both colonizers and colonized” (Memi, 151)

The notion of civilization was sustained by a powerful myth. Christian Caucasians were holy, white, and civilized. Indians were idolatrous, dark and savage. The Greeks had invented the term barbarian to apply to outsiders. By the time it had been translated to apply to the New World, it also meant morally inferior. Thus, America was made to become a virgin wilderness, inhabited by barbaric non-people called savages.

- Ted Jojola, “American Indian Stereotypes,” View from the Shore, 26


European culture suppressed indigenous and slave culture, but it did not prevail. Where the memory of the ancestors is long and keen, the truth about “discoveries” contends with the official version of the dominators. The “song” of America, for instance, belongs to the vanquished. The blues and gospel of slaves, every boogie, jive, rock n’ rollin’, jazzy, reggae, mariachi, tango, rumba not the white world has sung or danced has been an imitation, if not a theft.

Cultural war is difficult to see. The militarily and economically powerful nation (the colonialist power) imposes its culture, while at the same time it takes on desired aspects of the culture of the natives. The erasure of the Indian contribution to North American culture has been so accomplished that many descendants of indigenous people never knew their ancestors’ contributions to the world. Generations after the conquest of the Americas, the descendants of the colonizers also don’t recognize the contributions of the victims. For instance, who “owns” rock n’ roll, jazz, salsa, the names of cities—Chicago, Sheboygan, Cheyenne, Minocqua? Where have textbooks revealed that Native Americans discovered the cure for malaria, amoebic dysentery, scurvy, tetanus/lockjaw; that Aztec doctors developed obsidian scalpels for brain surgery; that Mayan and Incan Indians revolutionized world agriculture; that the League of the Iroquois was the model of democracy which shaped the construction of the U.S. political system; that runaway African slaves—maroons—created in the uninhabitable swamps, jungles, and mountain-forests new cultures where ingenuity necessitated the invention of herbal and bark healing systems, agricultural patterns of intercropping, and a whole technology of defense and survival?

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