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In 1492 the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas welcomed Columbus and the Europeans who arrived on their shores seeking riches. The Indians took these white people to be their lost brothers and the meeting fulfilled ancient prophecies of the separation and eventual reuniting of the four peoples of the earth. They therefore accepted the Europeans with joy and generosity. Columbus, on the other hand saw his opportunity to enslave the Indians and acquire their wealth of gold and silver. Five hundred later, as we look back on this momentous meeting and the centuries that followed, we can see two very different perspectives. The Europeans gained much from the "discovery" of the New World and have good reason to celebrate its anniversary. The Indians, however, suffered much at the hands of the invaders and have nothing to celebrate, save perhaps the fact that some of us have survived to this day.
The European Perspective
Columbus was intrigued by the offerings of the New World which very soon contributed to the advancement of the Old World. Gold was the primary resource that Columbus desired to bring back to Spain and its discovery was a constant concern for him. Nevertheless, he managed to bring back many shiploads of silver which the Indians were forced to mine for him along with unsatisfactory amounts of gold. Three-fifths of the silver which was brought back to Spain was used to settle Spain's debts with other European countries. The spread of silver across Europe allowed a whole new class of people to profit from Columbus' "discovery", and changed the fortune of many countries. The abundance of silver allowed a world economy to develop involving Europe, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, India and South Asia, the South Pacific and the Americas. Finally, Europe could trade silver for the silks, teas, cotton, coffees, spices and other desired items from Asia because silver was all the Asians felt had any value, in contrast to what Europe alone had to offer (Weatherford 1988: 14-16).
The Indians of South America were very knowledgeable agriculturalists who had experimented with various types of hybrids to discover which types of corn, beans, and other crops could survive abundantly in any type of environment. To achieve this sophistication in agriculture would have required additional centuries of research by the Europeans. The foods that the Indians gave to the Europeans included the sunflower, peanuts, green, red, and chili peppers, corn, beans, tomatoes, cocoa beans to make chocolate, cassava, many varieties of sweet potatoes, peach palms, pineapples, squash, tapioca, vanilla, maple syrup, turkey, and the common table potato (Weatherford 1988: 106-115). The food each country adopted from the New World largely influenced the characteristic dishes we currently see in each country. Take, for example, Belgian chocolates, the Irish potato, and the hot spicy South Asian curries made with chilies. These new foods also contributed to a better diet in other parts of the world, resulting in healthier and stronger generations of people.
The potato eventually became a major food for Europeans. Indirectly, it was a major contributor to the industrialization of Europe. Europeans had previously relied solely on grains which they milled into flour for their subsistence. Once the potato became popular, many of the mills were abandoned. Later, the wooden waterwheel was invented to create energy in the mills where cloth, textiles, matches, electrical fuses, and felt could be produced. Since the New World also offered superior cotton, the new technology in the mills was used to spin cotton rather than to mill grains. Previously, the amount of wool produced depended upon the number of sheep available. But with this new technology, cotton could be created in abundance much more rapidly and efficiently. Consequently, the era of independent tradesmen and cottage industry was replaced by industrial plants. Once ginning, spinning, and weaving of cotton was mechanized, the industrial revolution began. The Indians had also developed a complex technology to produce high-quality, inexpensive dyes in 109 hues to accommodate the growing textile industry (Weatherford 1988: 41-45). The contribution of the Indians to the development of the industrial revolution was therefore considerable.
The political philosophy of the Indian nations in the Americas had a major impact on the political philosophers of Europe because they saw the Indian way as superior, and more egalitarian than the European system.
The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians' personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king (Weatherford 1988: 121-122).
A major impact on the United States of America was the political structure of the Iroquois League which was a basis for the fundamental principles of U.S. democracy in the 1700s. The Iroquois political structure can be seen in the federal system of the United States, although changes have taken place.
The Indians introduced the Europeans to medicinal cures which saved many lives. Malaria was introduced to the New World after the arrival of Europeans but the Indians' knowledge of medicinal cures enabled them to survive the first attacks of this disease by using the Peruvian bark which produced quinine. Quinine was known to cure many ailments including cramps, shills, and heart-rhythm disorders. Sharing this knowledge with the Europeans saved the live of one out of five colonists as recorded by Governor Berkley of Virginia. The Quechua Indians received no recognition for the malaria cure, even though a Nobel Prize was given to a British physician for unravelling the etiology of the disease (Weatherford 1988: 177-178).
Another medical contribution was the cure for scurvy which saved Cartier's men in 1534 on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Of 110 men, only ten showed no sign of scurvy; Cartier allowed 25 of his men to die before asking the Indians for assistance.
Cartier dutifully recorded in his log that no amount of drugs from Europe or Africa could have done what the Huron drugs did in a week. In appreciation Cartier kidnapped the Indian chief Donnaconna and the other Indians in hopes that they could lead him to mountains of gold (Weatherford: 183).
The Indians' cure for scurvy was only noticed in 1795 by James Lind who was ultimately recorded as the discoverer of its cause and cure without any recognition given to the Indians.
Ipecac, discovered by the Amazon Indians, cures a lethal intestinal infection by causing the patient to vomit so as to expel unwanted to substances and purify the body. Today it is used in poison clinics around the world. A natural laxative is still manufactured from the Rhamnus purshiana shrub originally found by the northern Californian and Oregon Indians; scientists have not yet been able to synthesize its chemical makeup. Curare is another medicine found by the Indians. It was primarily used in warfare, but is now used in smaller doses as a muscle relaxant.
A simple medicine made from the bark of poplar or willow trees was often used to cure headaches and other minor pains. The makeup of this cure closely resembles the composition of the aspirin which was discovered only centuries later by Europeans. Many other medicines were used by the Indians of the Americas, as well as techniques for surgery. The Aztec surgeons also passed on the sharp obsidian scalpel. Next to the laser beam, obsidian cuts with the least bleeding and scarification.
The Quechua Indians gave the world coca which was used as a ritual cleanser to sooth the body and alleviate pain, hunger, thirst, itching, and fatigue. The Europeans extracted the active ingredient of the coca leaves to produce cocaine for anaesthesia during painful operations (Weatherford 1988: 184-190). In sum, the Indians contributed a great deal to the Europeans medicinal knowledge today. In his book, Indian Givers, Jack Weatherford states:
Somewhere in the tell-
The Indian Perspective
While the Indians of the Americas shared their way of life with the Europeans, they had no desire to disrupt their own way of life to go out and discover new lands. They had lived in harmony with their surroundings for millennia and felt no need to conquer or control other lands and peoples.
This philosophy is very unlike that of the Europeans who first encountered an estimated 60 to 120 million Indians, 15 million of which lived north of Mexico. By 1892, only 4.5 million Indians survived the genocide, 500,000 of which were north of Mexico (Manz 1992: 3). This drastic decline in population was either the result of disease, murder, or suicide. During the first two years of Columbus' arrival to Hispaniola, this island's population had decreased by half. Within the next forty years, the entire Taino Indian tribe, who first encountered Columbus on Hispaniola, had been wiped out (Bigelow 1991: 6-8). This was largely due to the fact that Columbus enslaved every Indian over the age of fourteen to supply him every three months with a gold quota of a hawk's bell (the size of a thimble) or twenty-five pounds of spun cotton in gold-deficient areas. As gold was difficult to find anywhere, the Indians were forced to pan for gold in the streams every day in order to meet the quota. Disobedience resulted in having their hands cut off and being left to bleed to death. Consequently, many Indians committed suicide to escape the cruelty of the Spaniards. After having extracted all the gold available, Indian slaves were used to mine silver at Cerro Rico, in 1545. "Indian miners say that they have extracted enough ore from this mountain to build a sterling-silver bridge fro Potosi to Madrid" (Weatherford: 5). During those times, the Indian slaves were forced to work under inhumane conditions in the mines until they fulfilled their silver quota. Presently, the Quechua Indians of the Bolivian Andes continue to mine the same, almost hollow, mountain seven days a week for one dollar a day. The Quechua never received any of the wealth the mountain created in Europe and they continue to be the poor victims of the capitalist world their labour helped to create.
One of the main causes of death of the American Indians was the diseases they contracted from the Europeans because they had no immunity towards them. Even though the Quechua Indians had provided the cure for malaria, the Europeans soon monopolized its use and consequently left the Indians to die. Smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, yellow fever, influenza, and other Old World killers were other diseases brought over by the Europeans to decimate the Indian populations of the Americas (Weatherford: 195). The decimation of the Indian people also contributed to the death of languages, cultures, myths, legends, and so on, which can never be recovered. In other words, cultural genocide was what took place, particularly when the Europeans began to force the Indians to go to school as a way of civilizing the "savages." The main purpose of this schooling was to Christianize the Indian children and force them to speak a new language and accept new ideologies. In North America, residential schools were used as a tool to assimilate the Indian children by taking them away from their families and cultures for ten months out of the year. In these schools, the children were punished for speaking their own languages and were often made to feel inferior. This assisted in the cultural and identity loss in many cases.
Crime, poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse are just a few of the diseases which have been passed down from previous generations. These diseases are ultimately the results of cultural genocide. Only through spiritual healing will these problems be reconciled. The peoples who contributed immensely to European civilization, but who were never recognized for their contributions, are now referred to as the Fourth World. The negative effects on these people from Columbus' contact continues to jeopardize the traditional indigenous way of life. This can be evidenced through the destruction of the environment in the name of progress. The survival of the earth is the life force of the Indian people and of all people, yet the U. S. government continues to use Navajo Indian reservations as nuclear testing grounds. The Amazonian Indians are protesting the logging and gold mining companies who are destroying the rain forest. The Cree and Inuit of Canada are objecting to the James Bay Project in Quebec which is the single largest hydroelectric dam project in North America. The Gwichin people in the Yukon are trying to stop oil development on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for this is home to the caribou herd on which the Gwichin rely.
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The American Indians have no cause to celebrate the raping of their land and resources because their livelihood was stripped when the land was taken away. The buffalo decreased in numbers when the Europeans arrived on the Plains due to mass slaughtering for the hides. This forced the Indians to enter into treaties with the settlers' governments because they could no longer subsist on the buffalo. Treaties offered future opportunities for the Indians but also contributed to the lack of livelihood for many. In contrast, South American Indians received practically nothing. They continue to live in a state of injustice and poverty, whereas we seem to be one hundred years more advanced in our struggle for justice. Nevertheless, the Indians continue to fight for their rights to education, medical aid and other promises made by the governments who entered into treaties with the Indians. Many of the lands promised in the treaties have still to be given to the Indians and the delay in honouring the treaties has caused a lack of economic bases. Without an economic base, the Indian nations cannot rise above the poverty level in the capitalist society.
The Indians gave the Europeans many causes to celebrate the quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus. The Old World was drastically changed with the many medicines, foods, resources, and knowledge of the Indians. However, their arrival greatly disrupted the lives of the Indians who are still struggling to survive as a People.
The elders once told me that the Indian people were spared so that we can be the driving force to save Mother Earth. The ashes of our ancestors have been intermingled with the earth on this continent for millennia. In this 500th anniversary of the coming together with Europeans, it is a good time to remember this (Chief Taya 1991: 58).
Bigelow, Bill. 1991 "Discovering Columbus: Rereading the Past." Rethinking Columbus. Portland, Or., pp. 6-8.
Chief Tayac Interview. 1991 "Struggles Unite Native Peoples." Rethinking Columbus. Portland, 0., pp. 56-58.
Weatherford, Jack. 1988 Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Ballantine Books.