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Jack D. Forbes: Eurocentric Concepts Harm Native People and What Do We Mean By America and American

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Eurocentric Concepts Harm Native People


Some European writers have developed concepts which are used as intellectual weapons against American indigenous peoples. Among these are human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, patricide, matricide and primitivism. Human sacrifice has especially been applied to the cultures of many Meso-American and South American groups but it (along with cannibalism) has also been alleged for some North American nations. Let me use human sacrifice as an example of how concepts can be made to apply only to indigenous peoples and not to European groups doing essentially the same thing.

The word "sacrifice" is derived from Latin sacer (sacred, holy) and facere (to make, do), meaning "sacred-making" or "to make sacred." Even for Romans, however, the meaning became "the destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else" or the giving up of some interest for the interest of someone or something else. Modern examples might be: "The Iraqi civilians were sacrificed for the sake of Bush's Persian Gulf policy"; or "The lives of Native Americans in Guatemala have been sacrificed in order to prevent
agrarian reform."

What about human sacrifice as practiced today? In World War I and World War II virtually all sides sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and non-combatants for the sake of military goals. The Japanese frequently and wantonly killed civilians in their attacks upon China, the Germans executed millions of non-combatants, and the United States incinerated tens of thousands of civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, by way of examples.

The Japanese killed in the first A-bomb attacks were "sacrificed" for the sake of defeating Japan and saving the lives of U.S. military personnel; the Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Socialists and Communists executed by the Nazis were "sacrificed" to make room for German settlers and to eliminate allegedly dangerous subversive or non-German elements; and on it goes.

Are these "sacrifices" to be seen as a part of the concept known as "human sacrifice"? Why have many white North Americans (who probably cringe at the very mention of "bloodthirsty" Aztec "ceremonies") wholeheartedly supported with their dollars and votes the murder of tens of thousands of Indians and mestizos in Central America since about 1981 for the sake of "anti-communism"?

Most of the information on supposed human sacrifice in ancient Mexico and Central America is derived from Spanish sources which are highly questionable, such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo's history of the conquest of Mexico. Diaz' book is very suspect, both because it was written some fifty years after the events being described and because Diaz invented dialogue and scenes which he could not have witnessed. Yet this book is frequently cited by non-Native historians and is used in college classes.

From 1493 onward the Spaniards were guilty of the sacrifice (for their own Roman Catholic religion and for secular wealth and power) of the lives of many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Native Americans. And yet the historians and anthropologists speak only of Aztec and Maya human sacrifice, exempting the Spaniards because of their white race and Catholic religion, it would seem.

The failure to talk about human sacrifice today may be, in part, due to the fact that many of our modern practices of human sacrifice are "secular" rather than "religious." But much of modern sacrifice involves the use of elaborate patriotic rituals, lots of military ceremony, and an overriding ideology (such as anti-communism, extreme nationalism or ethnic racism). Very often also the sacrifice is proclaimed as part of a holy war or a sacred cause and various Christian, Jewish, Muslim and now Hindu religious functionaries bless the troops or the killers and ask the Supreme Being to smite the terrible enemy, even if they are women or children.

It is just plain European ethnocentrism to avoid applying the concept of human sacrifice to the Spaniards and to our modern world. The same thing is true of "cannibalism," used to undermine the credibility of Native cultures in the Caribbean, South America and in the Iroquois regions of Ontario and New York. Anthropologists have failed, for example, to see the consuming of the lives of slaves and exploited workers by Europeans as a form of "eating." In the case of infanticide, we have many examples of that today in the inner cities of the United States where poor babies are dying at Third World rates. Similarly, the killing of parents (matricide and patricide) is being practiced on a large scale in the U.S. through the denial of health care and adequate diets to old people. It is wrong to accuse Native people of the north of leaving old ones to die when neglect of elders is an intrinsic part of classic capitalism.

As regards being "primitives" or "primal" people, such concepts might apply to our human ancestors of 30,000, 300,000 or 3,000,000 years ago, but certainly it is pure denigration to call indigenous people of modern times by such insulting terms. Maybe the leaders of modern states, with their desire to kill people in "brutal" wars, are far more "primal" or "primitive" than are any indigenous people.


[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of
Columbus and Other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans and other
books.]

What Do We Mean By America and American

by Jack D. Forbes

 

Our hemisphere has for quite some time now been known as "America", being subdivided into North America, Central America, South America, etcetera. Indigenous peoples have a bit of a problem, however, in that: (1) the United States and its dominant European-origin citizens have attempted to pre-empt the terms America and American; and (2) there has been a strong tendency, especially since the 1780's, to deny to Indigenous Americans the right to use the name of their own land. As a matter of fact there is a strong tendency to also deny Native People the use of the name of any land within America, such as being Brazilian, Mexican, Canadian, and so on, unless the term "Indian" is also attached, as in "Brazilian Indian"(as "American Indian" is used instead of "American").

Some people believe that America as a name stems from the mountain range known as Amerique located in Nicaragua. Others believe that it stem from a word common to several American languages of the Caribbean and South America, namely Maraca (pronounced maracá, maráca, and maraca). This word, meaning rattle or gourd, is found as a place name in Venezuela (Maracapana, Maracay, Maracaibo), Trinidad (Maracas), Puerto Rico (Maracayu, etc.), Brazil (Maraca, Itamaraca) and elsewhere.

Many very early maps of the Caribbean region show an island located to the northwest of Venezuela (where Nicaragua is actually located) called "Tamaraque" which has been interpreted as T. amaraque standing for tierra or terra (land) of Amaraque. All of this is before America first appeared as a name on the mainland roughly in the area of Venezuela. Most of us have probably been taught that America as a name is derived from that of Amerigo Vespucci, a notorious liar and enslaver of Native people.

Strangely enough, Vespucci's first name is more often recorded as Albérico rather than Amerigo. It may well be that the name America is not derived from his name but we know for sure that it was first applied to South America or Central America and not to the area of the United States.

From the early 1500's until the mid-1700's the only people called Americans were First Nations People. Similarly the people called Mexicans, Canadians, Brazilians, Peruvians, etcetera, were all our own Native People.

In 1578, for example, George Best of Britain wrote about "those Americans and Indians" by which he referred to our Native American ancestors as Americans and the people off India and Indonesia as Indians. In 1650 a Dutch work referred to the Algonkians of the Manhattan area as "the Americans or Natives" In 1771 a Dutch dictionary noted that "the Americans are red in their skins" and so on. As late as 1845 another Dutch dictionary defined mestizos (metis) as being children of a "European" and an "American" parent.

English usage is very little different. John Wesley in 1747 referred to First Nations People of Georgia as "the Americans." The Quaker traveler William Bartram, after a lengthy tour among the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choitaws in the 1770's refers to them as the "the Americans." Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1827 edition) has:" American [from America]. An aboriginal native of America; an inhabitant of America." The dictionary then quotes Milton ("Such of late/Columbus found the American/so girt/with feather'd ....."), and Addison from the Spectator ("The Americans believe that all creatures have souls, not only men and women, but brutes, vegetables, ... stones").

In 1875 Charles Maclaren in a British encyclopedia wrote of "the American race", "the color of the Americans", "the American natives" and "the Americans" by which he meant "the Americans of indigenous races." More recently (1986), the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that "Scientists Find Evidence of Earliest Americans" in northeastern Brazil (32,000 years old). Clearly these "earliest Americans" were not United Statesians!

Nonetheless, beginning in the 1740's-1780's British newspapers also began to refer to their British subjects on the Atlantic seaboard as Americans in the sense of Britons living in America. After the United States became independent in the 1780's its new citizens began to refer to themselves as Americans, trying to identify with Tammany and the Native People.

It is simply nonsense to refer to the United States as America. It is "of America", and that's different. California was part of America before it became part of the United States, and everything from Canada to Chile is still American! First Nations Peoples clearly have prior claim on the name, whether they stem from Quebec or Mexico!

[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans and other books.]

 

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