This week, social media was a buzz with memes about Columbus day. I repeatedly saw memes about how the United States was built on genocide and how certain Native Americans were the original Founding Fathers. Both of these statements are absolutely unfounded and utterly false. It’s similar to the idea that the Founders were responsible for slavery; it’s just wrong. So I reluctantly provide the following for clarification because this topic needs a serious dose of truth.
It seems like every topic you can think of has a group of people behind it pushing some false narrative to further divide the people. Every year, it’s the same thing, and every year it gets just a little worse. Teachers, you need to do a better job. And while I do not anticipate that those who need to read this actually will, I figured that I would write a little bit for those who were curious while also providing me the opportunity to vent some truth.
I am going to talk about this in a few parts. First I will address Natives “being here first” and then I will address the “genocide” debate. It must be known that both of these positions are inaccurate to say the least. However, I should probably start with the idea of these folks being “a unified people”.
Before I do, let’s get an important term out of the way. “Native American” refers to a member of ANY of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. For clarity, the Americas encompass the totality of the continents of North America and South America. “Indigenous” means originating or occurring naturally in a particular place – which of course, no one truly holds that claim because everyone had to walk here. Regardless, the last term we need to cover is “Clovis”. The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Native American culture that first appears in the archaeological record of North America around 13,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. The culture is named for artifacts found near Clovis, New Mexico in 1932. These artifacts are the original reasoning for many to believe that the Native Clovis Americans were actually here first – somehow giving them claim to the land.
There is just one problem with all of that. Native Clovis were not the first ones here, so they are not really “native” after all. As I mentioned on a recent podcast, it really doesn’t take much of an effort to find that the Clovis were NOT in America first. There is overwhelming archeological, stratigraphic, DNA and radiocarbon evidence to conclusively show that humans – totally unrelated to the Clovis, were in North America over a millennium before the Clovis. This is pretty old news actually; even National Geographic has published similar stories covering it. So why does this myth continue? And if you really want to “classify” an origin of the people who were really here first, it should be known that they would look more like Europeans. Oddly enough, they were more than likely killed off by the Clovis when the Clovis eventually arrived on the scene. Define irony. Regardless, and for the sake of this article, I will continue to call them “Native”.
Let us continue with the idea that the Natives were some unified people occupying the landscape of the America’s. The truth is that in North America alone, there were hundreds (if not thousands) of different languages spoken by natives and there were hundreds of different tribes that waged brutal wars against one another. I heard it best said that “a Mohawk, a Sioux, an Apache, and a Chinook would have been as different from each other as an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and Dutchman, and with the same difficulties in communicating with each other.” These tribes not only spoke a different language, but they had different customs, different religious practices and different ways to go about living their daily lives; much like the nations that comprise Europe. So even the Natives of that time would not recognize one another as some “cohesive group”. The idea is actually quite asinine when you really think about it.
Furthermore, just like almost any society in human history, Native Americans as a whole were war-hawks. In fact, they were every bit as tough as any other warrior society the planet has ever seen. As Native-net.org states: “The art of war was a common part of life for ancient Native Americans.” As a general rule, their societies were tough, competitive, and violent – sometimes brutally so. From their coming of age rituals, to their subjugation of conquered tribes, Natives were not exactly some peace loving – one with the earth people that some would have you believe.
Yes, they lived off the land, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do any damage. In fact, they may have completely altered global climate. Consider this; a team of Stanford environmental scientists believe that Natives were responsible for the mini ice age that killed millions of Europeans. Natives were clearing trees at an amazing rate. They cleared so many that when the Natives that were clearing the trees died in the plague, so many trees grew back that it had a reverse global warming effect. This resulted in the mini-ice age.
This is usually where people start saying things like “see… the founders brought over diseases and killed the natives”, and this would be false as well. You see, as humans, we like to explore. We have been doing it for thousands of years. Natives did it too. In fact it might surprise you to know that Native Americans discovered Europe at about the same time that the Europeans discovered the new world. As mentioned before, exploration is how everyone got to the America’s in the first place. It’s in our nature. Timelines are important though.
Depending on how you would like to define this, we could say that the United States officially become a nation on July 4, 1776. Some would argue that it was the day before and some would even argue that it was September of 1787. If you really wanted to split hairs, you could even go far as to say it was June 21, 1788. The point is that over a hundred years BEFORE all that, the Pilgrims landed near the site of modern Provincetown in November of 1620, eventually moving to Plymouth. What I need you to understand is that the Spaniard, Christopher Columbus, came around over a hundred years before that, in 1492. Now consider that we have found Viking encampments in Newfoundland dating to the year 1000. Notice how Pilgrims, Columbus and the Vikings were (in some cases hundreds of) years before the American Founders were even born. So why are the Founders being blamed for anything?
Additionally, the entire planet was having a bit of a ‘bug problem” for hundreds of years – not just in North America. Consider this; the world experienced the Black Death from 1347 – 1351, the Great Plague of London from 1665 – 1666, the Great Plague of Milan from 1629–1631, the Moscow Plague in 1771 and the Great Plague of Marseille from 1720 – 1722. And guess what? Lots and lots of people died. From the Black Death alone, the total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75 million people. It wasn’t intentional; it was just something that happened due to ignorance. The question that you need to ask yourself is “what are the chances that some of these sick people accidentally came into contact with others?” The answer is simply “probable” considering that you cannot spread disease without such interactions. To suggest that the spreading of these diseases was intentional is naive to say the least.
Regardless, what we now know is that somewhere between 1500 and 1600, a devastating plague also raced across the East Coast of America. Of course, it wasn’t just in North America. Smallpox and other diseases invaded and crippled the Aztec and Inca civilizations in Central and South America in the 16th century as well. Looking back at the timeline, this could potentially be blamed on the Spaniards if you were going to blame anyone. However, you could potentially blame the Natives that discovered Europe as well if you were being objective. Regardless, this was all well over a hundred years before the United States was even a thought in anyone’s mind.
Still, we need to address the “genocide” part of the debate because it is known that between 75 to 90 percent of all Indians died during this time. Temper this with the idea that we covered earlier in that this die-off more than likely caused the mini-ice age which killed millions of Europeans right along with them. Unfortunately, many today would have you believe that the death of the Natives were at the hands of some white guy trying to steal land. The TRUTH is that these deaths resulted from disease – not murder. AND, these deaths occurred long before the Founders tried their little experiment. To be clear, these diseases included smallpox, measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, scarlet fever and syphilis. And again, these diseases began showing up around 1520. See what I mean? The Founders had nothing to do with it. Let’s get some definitions out of the way.
Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. Clearly this definition does not match the popular narrative because most Europeans didn’t realize they even had such diseases. On the other hand, an epidemic is a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time. Furthering that idea, a pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that has spread through human populations across a large region; for instance, multiple continents, or even worldwide. The point is that what the Native Americans were experiencing (along with the rest of the world) was either an epidemic or a pandemic; not genocide – and yes, that distinction is very necessary because the deaths were not deliberate and people didn’t understand how to stop the spread of disease like they do today. Even then, you might notice that disease still spreads and kills to this very day. Again, and at least as far as our Founding Fathers were concerned, NATIVE AMERICAN’S WERE NOT VICTIMS OF GENOCIDE! If you are interested, you might research something called the “Colombian Exchange“.
This is usually when someone says something about whites conquering the land and killing Natives. Sure, it happened. The Spaniards did it to Natives, the whites did it to Natives, the Natives did it to Natives. Oh, you didn’t know? It was actually common among Natives that the stronger of two tribes or people (nations) to have the right to conquer and subdue the weaker; it was Native law. This happened a lot; especially with powerful tribes like the Sioux. I could probably talk about this one for hours, but the point is that this has been common place throughout human history and NO ONE is immune. A history book will point out lots of conquered people and nations throughout the world.
This is usually where people concede but suggest that whites killed more Natives than Natives killed Natives (like that would make it better). I would probably disagree with this too, especially considering how long Natives occupied the land before “whites” arrived. In fact, I would argue that Native Americans were vastly more brutal to Natives than whites ever were. Just for example, human sacrifice was performed by many South American cultures at that time, including the Mayans. Come to think of it, the Aztecs are particularly famous for the large number of victims that were subjected to horrible deaths. They would actually go out of their way to NOT kill warriors on the battlefield (of which they fought a lot – which demonstrates their war appeal), because they wanted to take prisoners that would be sacrificed as payment to Gods like Huehueteotl.
This is actually a great story. Huehueteotl was their fire god. So when they would make sacrifices to him, they would set their victims on fire; burning them alive. But in a twist, they would remove their burnt bodies from the fire before they died… only to rip their still-beating hearts from their chests to throw back in the fire. But yeah, I’m sure the “white’s” were really mean. Think about this; the practice was so brutal that neighboring tribes felt it necessary to form alliances with the Spaniards when they arrived. So clearly the Aztecs were worse than the “evil” Spaniards because these tribes figured out that teaming up with them was the only way to defeat the Aztecs who were murdering all of their people. Sadly, this is just one example of many. Brutality was not just a South American practice. Let me provide an example from the North just for the sake of argument. Let’s talk about scalping – the tearing apart of the human scalp, with the hair still attached, from the head of a live enemy, as a trophy. To put this into context, for the American military, war trophies are illegal because it can lead to barbarism (extreme cruelty or brutality).
How about some more context on that? Historian Mark van de Logt wrote that “Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of ‘total war‘ for conflicts between modern industrial nations, the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. Indeed, the taking of a scalp of a woman or child was considered honorable because it signified that the scalp taker had dared to enter the very heart of the enemy’s territory.” I want to emphasize the fact that Natives were waging total war on each other and killing women and children – something most “white” cultures frown upon. I would also like to point out massacres carried out by Natives on other Natives. The book “A Population History of North America” by Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel makes it clear that many tribes of Native Americans practiced scalping and that (for example) of the roughly 500 bodies found at the Crow Creek massacre site, 90 percent of the skulls show evidence of scalping. And just so you know, that event took place around 1325 – over a hundred years before Columbus ever showed up.
Now if one were to start reaching for straws at this point, the argument usually turns to Andrew Jackson and the trail of tears. Yeah, it was a bad deal but it was a legal deal all the same and a deal that the Cherokee leaders willfully engaged in for the sake of money. They turned their back on their own people. Let this be yet another reason (in a very long list) to never make a deal with a Democrat. Now, I concede to the idea that roughly 840 Cherokee died on the Trail of Tears and that was a horrible and unnecessary loss. But I try to temper this sadness with the idea that 20 years later, some Cherokee owned over 4600 slaves and fought for the Confederacy. It doesn’t make them bad, it’s just something that happened; kind of like white slavery. Understand that context is important.
As for the “original Founding Fathers” statement, I provide the following. “Founding” by definition is to establish or originate (an institution or organization) or to construct or base (a principle or other abstract thing) according to a particular principle or grounds. What “Founding Fathers” represents are those who Founded the United States based on the Constitution (the idea). It is not referring to those who “found” North America. And even if it did, the idea that Natives found it (as shown herein) would still be inaccurate. If the argument was “who owned it longer“, then sure, Natives win that, hands down. The thing we have to remember is that the first English colony was founded in 1607. By the time the “Founding Fathers” would start thinking about a “New Nation” in 1763 (over a hundred and fifty years later), lots of people in America were getting tired of English tyranny, including some Natives. In fact, while some Natives sided with the English, some sided with Colonists during the Revolution.
It’s a sad truth but nations are conquered all the time. If anyone knows this, it’s the Native Americans, as their people were doing it to each other for thousands of years. In fact, some Natives (like Powhattan) used Europeans to gain even more power. Yes, bad things eventually happened between the Europeans and the Natives (from BOTH sides), but some good happened as well and it is a shame that it has all seemingly been forgotten. For example and as addressed before, some fought during the Revolution. What many do not realize is that Natives have served in the United States armed services in greater numbers per-capita than any other ethnic group and in every major conflict since the Revolution. If you think about it, almost everything iconic about the Native Americans in the United States today, came about because of the Europeans. These include things like horses, beads, rifles, and so on. Just a couple of examples of how we are all intertwined.
Understand that ultimately, we have all had horrible things happen to our peoples in the past. Slavery, murder, war, disease, and so on. Welcome to life, people. Life is hard and bad things happen, but our ancestors were strong; that’s why we are here. Do you think our ancestors would approve of all this crying?
So now we have calls for “Indigenous People Day” instead of Columbus Day. You know what? I’m all for it actually. I don’t particularly understand why we celebrate a Spaniard who had nothing to do with the Founding of the United States – especially considering that if we are going to celebrate pale skinned people discovering the Americas, we should probably be celebrating the Vikings or the Celts instead. Ironically enough, I’m not aware of a holiday about Natives discovering Europe. Regardless, “Indigenous People Day” sounds awesome – especially if we set the record straight on the history first. Natives deserve their own day. They deserve the awareness and inclusion. They had a big part in the creation of the United States and they are every bit a part of this country as you or I; they should be addressed as such. They are a beautiful people and I am honored to have lived my life so close to so many of them.
For those of you who have not had too many interactions or perhaps have a hard time with what I just said, then think about why the U.S. military has named at least 20 aircraft, helicopters and missiles after Native American tribes or weapons. It’s because of the influence the Natives had on both military culture and tactics throughout our history. Let that one sink in for a moment. The truth is that we all have a long, rich and entangled history together in this nation. We need to start acting like it. Speaking of entanglements, let me throw another interesting idea at you. If you decide to research anything I’ve provided you here today, be sure to look up tribes like the Tallegwi and the Skidi Pawnee. These were said to be Indian tribes with Celtic blood. Algonquin was said to have contained Celtic or Gaelic words and several tribes dating back to the 1100’s are said to have been found with some who had reddish hair and light skin. Just something to think about.
And while we are talking about American unity… are you aware that there are still massive land-grabs going on or that Natives are currently protesting a pipeline? Maybe the media just forgot to mention it or maybe this is more evidence that we are too wrapped up in things we shouldn’t be. Look, we need to stop arguing and separating ourselves about things that happened hundreds of years ago and start coming together and trying to stop horrible things from happening today. I have said it before and I will say it again, whether you are red, white, black, brown or yellow, we all seem to have a common foe. Can you imagine our strength if we could just figure it out and come together?
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