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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

After 1491, What do we do for American Indians?


So what can we do for American Indians? I often hear that question. Most recently, it came up during a book club consideration of Charles Mann’s 1491, which was published in 2005. Mann gave readers an eye-popping look at indigenous peoples in the Americas before the Europeans started streaming in. He reported on archaeological and historical records that portrayed a hemisphere teeming with people of diverse cultures. Some, like the Aztecs, were highly-structured societies, with classes, hierarchies and enormous wealth. Others, for instance in the New England area, were more “democratic,” with decision-making spread among all levels.

We could hardly describe these societies as backward or savage. In many ways, American Indians lived far better than most sixteenth-century Europeans who were undernourished, chronically ill and illiterate. Even where Natives lived in huts, European explorers like Verrazano described the people themselves as healthy, strong, and creative. Native societies had close family lives, and famine and disease were rare. Some of their technologies outclassed European forms. English colonists marveled at the output from Native gardens and well-managed forests. Bows and arrows in skilled Indian hands were more lethal than poorly built European pistols. In one encounter, Indians laughed heartily as their canoe outmaneuvered a clunky European dory.

All this changed when the Europeans arrived. The diseases that Europeans brought did more to destroy Native peoples and societies than wars. In less than a decade, for instance, disease killed more the 90 percent of coastal New England. As we contemplate these numbers, think of a similar catastrophe today, in our own cities and towns. One of our club members asked us to think of the population of San Francisco reduced in a few days or weeks or even months from 800,000 to 40,000. How many of the remnants would survive?

Injustices followed diseases. Whites stole Native lands, resources, and even children. In some places, they carried out deliberate policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing. One of our members denied responsibility, because he wasn’t around when all this happened. He is partially right. He is not guilty, any more than young Germans are guilty for the Holocaust.

But we do have a responsibility. We must educate ourselves not only about the past but also the present. I told our book club members that some policies that hurt American Indians happened in their lifetimes. The Termination and Relocation Act passed Congress in the 1950s. Its ostensible purpose was to end terrible conditions on the reservations by abolishing them and assimilating Indians into mainstream American. But as we look at the policy more closely, we see another purpose: to grab timber, oil, gas and other natural resources on Indian lands.

Tribes fought the legislation in the courts. But its implementation destroyed some Indian communities. Until the federal government realized that Termination and Relocation was a catastrophic policy, an entire generation nearly disappeared, as languages, cultures, families fragmented. Some of the damage has been undone, but especially in California, Indian communities still struggle to regain their footing.

So what do we do with American Indians? Clearly, we descendants of the first Europeans cannot reverse history by just leaving the hemisphere. As I have seen, American Indians can take care of themselves, as long as we do not allow the past get in their way. But we must learn about the past and how we can confront its consequences. For one thing, be sure that we honor treaty obligations. Getting rid of Indian names for sports teams and mascots would help too. These are little things. But after 1491, we can’t just throw up our hands.
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