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Eurocentrism and History Of Amerindians

Eurocentrism and the History of Amerindians

When Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and reached the Americas, he was convinced that he actually reached India. Because of his conviction, Columbus dubbed the peoples of the Americas "Indians." It was the beginning of European and later Euro-American myth-making in describing Native Amerindians and the shared histories of peoples who have lived in the American continent for the last five hundred centuries. Columbus was not the first person to come up with myths about Native Americans, but he led an expedition which paved the way for the conquest and exploitation of the Americas (its people and the land). Since Europeans and Euro-Americans who conquered the New World unjustly murdered and enslaved the indigenous Americans and pillaged their land, historians for the last several centuries, strongly influenced by the values of the society that nurtured them, grappled with the problem of justifying the conquest, enslavement, exploitation, and genocide. In their attempts to do that, Euro-American historians have produced grandiloquent apologia, justifying European conquest of the indigenous peoples in the name of progress and the advancement of civilization over savagery and barbarism.

Francis Jennings (1975) was one of the pioneers in debunking the racist myth-making in writing the history of Amerindians. "The basic conquest myth postulates that America was virgin land, or wilderness, inhabited by nonpeople called savages," Jennings wrote in his book The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Can't of Conquest. Amerindians were equated with "demons" and "beasts," and "that their mode of existence and cast of mind were such as to make them incapable of civilization and therefore of full humanity; that civilization was required by divine sanction or the imperative of progress to conquer the wilderness and make it a garden . . . ." Euro-American historians have described them as "savage creatures of the wilderness, being unable to adapt to any environment other than the wild, stubbornly and viciously resisted God or fate, and thereby incurred their suicidal extermination; that civilization and its bearers were refined and ennobled in their contest with the dark powers of the wilderness; and that it all was inevitable" (15). Jennings here summarizes the essence of myth-making in writing the history of Amerindians in the last several centuries.

The process of writing the history of Amerindians began with the conquest itself. Many Europeans who came to the New World initially as conquerors and later as settlers chronicled the interaction between Euro-Americans and the indigenous peoples. From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, historians largely justified the conquest in the name of Christianity, describing the peoples of the Americas as heathen. Jennings calls the dualistic vision of early modern Europeans the "Crusader Ideology." "Their enemies were also the enemies of the Crusader's god and therefore outside the protection of the moral law applicable to that god's devotees," Jennings writes. "No slaughter was impermissible, no lie dishonorable, no breach of trust shameful, if it advantaged the champions of true religion" (6). Because of the influence of this ideology, European historians did not consider the importance of writing about the horrors and brutalities of the conquest. The documentation of European mistreatment of Amerindians has always been available, but few were interested in emphasizing its importance in writing history.

Later, beginning with the nineteenth century, secular ideas began to supplant religious doctrines. "In the gradual transition from religious conceptions to racial conceptions," as Jennings writes, "the gulf between persons calling themselves Christian and the other persons, whom they called heathen, translated smoothly into a chasm between whites and coloreds" (6). Although Europeans and Euro-Americans have changed their views and attitudes vis-a-vis Amerindians, the chasm has survived, in one form or another. With the advent of secularism and modern humanism, Euro-Americans could no longer celebrate and glorify the conquest of "heathens" by using the religious apologia of late medieval and early modern Crusaders. New conceptions and new forms of justification of the conquest of the New World therefore appeared. Beginning with the nineteenth-century, in Jennings words, Euro-Americans began to use another "great and powerful system of myth" in their attitudes toward indigenous peoples: "In it the Christian Caucasians of Europe are not only holy and white but also civilized, while the pigmented heathens of distant lands are not only idolatrous and dark but savage" (6, italics original).

Through historical transitions, attitudes have changed, but the sense of moral superiority justifying conquest and colonialism remained in the minds of Europeans and Euro-Americans. The sense of moral superiority Euro-Americans felt in their attitudes toward native peoples became so strong that even those who expressed sympathy for the Amerindians in the nineteenth-century could not escape from the chasm of Euro-centric racism. Among these writers was Lewis Henry Morgan, regarded by many as the founder of anthropology in the United States. "It must be regarded as a marvelous fact that a portion of mankind five thousand years ago, less or more, attained to civilization," Morgan wrote (as cited by Jennings). "In strictness but two families, the Semitic and the Aryan, accomplished the work through unassisted self-development. The Aryan family represents the central stream of human progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming the control of the earth" (9). In conceptualizing this ethnic pride, Euro-Americans could not leave much space to emphasizing the importance of indigenous peoples and their contributions to human civilization.

The twentieth-century historians, Jennings writes, did not treat Amerindians much better, although some historians who came out of the Civil Rights era began to challenge the myths perpetuated by earlier historians. Many twentieth-century historians picked up Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, which divided the world into a civilization-vs.-savagery dichotomy. Ray Allen Billington, Turner's disciple, tried to justify Turner's thesis by using all new facts and disclosures in new research works, namely in his Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (New York, 1960), which he wrote in collaboration with James Blaine Hedges. Douglas Edward Leach and Alden T. Vaughan recounted the early history of New England by translating "Puritan self-conceptions into terms acceptable today"; Leach equating "civilization vs. savagery with white man vs. red, while Vaughan preferred to type it as Christianity vs. heathenism, both authors taking pains to justify the Puritan conquests" (11). Such writings were not confined to Americans or "to narrow specialists," as noted English historian Hugh Travor-Roper wondered about the usefulness of studying "the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped" (cited by Jennings 12).

Because of little importance Euro-American historians placed upon the lives and contributions of native Amerindians, these historians have systematically distorted what has befallen on the natives through conquest and colonization. Historians have underestimated the pre-Columbian population of Amerindians, dismissed their ability to cultivate the land as primitive, and denigrated their cultures, arts, and architecture, while coining a whole set of terminologies which perpetuated the civilization-vs.-savagery dichotomy. As Jennings argues, historians' "words evolved from centuries of conquest have been created for the purposes of conquest rather than the purposes of knowledge." "To understand the processes called the history of America," therefore, "it is necessary to employ semantic instruments designed for measurement rather than attack" (12). By deconstructing the terminology of Euro-Americans, it is possible to reconstruct a non-Eurocentric history of Amerindians. For example, as Jennings suggests, the European use of the word "settlement" to describe their voyage and eventual permanent residence in the New World obscures "the Europeans' intentions, for their common purpose was to exploit rather than to settle" (32). When the terminology Euro-Americans have used in their descriptions of native Amerindians is scrutinized in this manner, it becomes apparent how Eurocentric history has served five-century long conquest and colonization.

European history of the conquest of the New World has not always been glowing, as Howard Zinn (1998) recounts the early history of Columbus' voyage to America. A Spanish priest in the name of Bartolome de las Casas condemned the European behavior in the Americas and published a multi-volume book, describing European cruelty towards Amerindians. But the stories told by las Casas and his supporters have been marginalized, and by the twentieth-century the history of conquest has become the history of human progress. "When we read the history books given to children in the United States," Zinn writes, "it all starts with heroic adventure -- there is no bloodshed -- and Columbus Day is a celebration" (7). Zinn argues that the situation is slightly different in colleges and universities. For instance, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, mentioned the "cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors" which led to "complete genocide." But the tragic outcome of Columbus' voyage did not prevent Morison from coming to a lustrous conclusion of Columbus' legacy.…[continue]

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