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Mr. Thompson goes to the A-1 Used Car Dealer. He is told that the vehicle he is interested in is in top shape, will pass inspection and is safe to drive. Based upon this assurance he buys the car and is driving home when the accelerator sticks. Despite his best efforts to slow down the car speeds up. When he tries to apply the brakes nothing happens. He tries to shift gears but the transmission does not work. He races into an intersection, swerves to avoid another car and crashes into a telephone pole, suffering many injuries.
The A-1 dealer is not only sued but indicted on a number of charges. He is held liable not because of what he said but his failure to tell Mr. Thompson about the car’s defects. In this case, silence had dire consequences.
So too, the deliberate exclusion of Native history from US and Canadian schools along with the outright fabrications, distortions and omissions which have formed the basis upon which both nations have built their respective laws, social policies and economies. There is no doubt that these actions have caused demonstrable, permanent and extensive harm to Native people.
The late Mohawk teacher Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens was among the first to challenge the lies the colonists used to demonize Natives and thereby justify the theft of a continent. His historic work with the Mohawks has been followed by writers and historians brave enough to strip these myths bare and reveal uncomfortable truths. Books have been written ( “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, “1491””A People’s History of the United States”, “Indian Giver”, “Lies Across America”, “American Indian Holocaust and Survival”, “The Forgotten History of America”) which tell a story quite different from the standard history texts used in high schools and colleges.
From these, and from Mr. Fadden, I have compiled a list of ten of the many great lies in North American history.
1. Natives came from Asia. This teaching is not only stupid but a denial of physical and biological fact. No group of humans would be so dumb as to cross thousands of kilometers of tundra then risk their lives across a massive bog before being confronted by massive glaciers 3 kilometers high and hundreds of kilometers long. That was the Bering Strait during the Ice Age 15,000 years ago. The “theory” of this crossing is contradicted by the latest DNA tests and omits one obvious fact: there is no physical evidence to support this myth yet it is cited today as a rationale to undermine indigenous ownership to our ancestral lands and is often used by our critics to label our people as immigrants just like the Europeans.
2. The continent of North America-Anonwarakowa was a howling wilderness, under populated by roaming bands of Stone Age nomads. Another stupid, nonsensical lie in the face of hard facts. There was no place in the Americas where Native people did not live and in the millions. As the anthropologist Henry Dobyns writes; “ ..the size of the aboriginal population of the Americas directly affects their interpretations of New World civilizations and cultures”. Believing in a nearly vacant land justifies not only its theft but also the murder of its inhabitants. Dobyns places the pre-contact population of the western hemisphere at 112,000,000 with an estimated 9,800,000 living north of Mexico. In what is now Mexico there were over 30,000,000 natives. By the year 1900 less than 400,000 indigenous people survived in North America, the remnants of hundreds of nations and societies systematically slaughtered, starved, hunted, confined and contaminated by the colonists.
3. Natives did not have science, were primitive and bound by superstitions. The first step towards subjugating a people is to de-humanize them. By denying Natives intellect, reason and capable of complex thought the Europeans rationalized their killing. In truth, Natives were master builders, agriculturalists, foresters, mathematicians, astronomers, urban planners, political theorists, biologists, artists and writers. They designed and built cities, conducted trade, entered into treaties and established societies in which humans were able to live without adversely affecting their environment. Native spirituality was based upon natural law which in turn required a formidable knowledge as to the world in which they lived. But one example from Ray Fadden: Native physicians had mastered the art of surgery hundreds of years before the Europeans and there is not one herbal plant in the Americas unknown to Native pharmacists.
4. Christopher Columbus, Italian, was a brave sea captain who used the pawned jewels of Spanish Queen Isabella to discover America. All lies: there was no Italy at the time of the explorer’s birth. A man named Cristolo Columbo was born in the latter part of the 15th century in the city state of Genoa but this was not the explorer. He was, according to self-identification from Barcelona in Catalonia, now part of Spain. His name was Cristobal Colon. He spoke, thought and wrote in Catalonian, a distinct language. He never spoke in the Genovese dialect of Italian. He came from an upper class family and had red hair, a distinctive characteristic of the Catalonians. He paid for his 1492 voyage with funds stolen by Isabella from the Jews she expelled from Spain. His ships were all named after prostitutes and he was never lost since he possessed sea charts which clearly showed a land mass at a specific distance west of the Azores. He was an incapable governor who brought slavery to the Caribbean and engaged in the selling of children for sexual exploitation. Not until long after his death was the name “Columbus” made popular. He discovered nothing.
5. The pilgrims came to American to find religious freedom. This lie has become a cornerstone of American history and is often cited by self-serving politicians. The pilgrims arrived in 1620 in a region where, a year before, tens of thousands of Natives lived. The Europeans had been trying for a century to colonize the eastern coast of North America only to be turned back by the hundreds of thousands of Natives who would not permit this. The Pilgrims were highly intolerant of other spiritual traditions and ventured to this continent so they could continue their repressive, highly orthodox ways. A few months before they landed at Cape Code an epidemic swept through the region killing most of the inhabitants. Only then were they able to land and then endure by stealing Native food. Only when friendly aboriginals taught them Native plating techniques were they able to survive. A generation later these same Pilgrims would launch a series of military attacks on their former hosts in which tens of thousands of Native men, women and children were exterminated.
6. Democracy came from the Greeks. No society is democratic when any of its members lives in a condition of servitude. The Greeks held much of their population in slavery and denied equal rights to women. This means that whatever popular form of government developed by the Greeks, and then the Romans, was highly conditional and restricted to a small class of social and economic elites. Not until the latter part of the 19th century was slavery prohibited in the European nations and not until the 1970’s were all women given the right to vote. Contrast this with the Iroquois Confederacy, where true democracy was invented, codified and practiced. Its citizens had specific human rights, and women held great social, political and economic powers unequaled in any other human society. Even children were accorded legal and political standing under the protection of a set of customs and laws. The freedom of Native people and our the manner in which we governed our affairs were envied, then copied in part, by the colonists since Europe had nothing to offer but class divisions, religious persecution and eternal national wars.
7. The founders of the American nation were freedom loving, God fearing patriots who rebelled because of the oppressive rule and taxes imposed upon them by the English Parliament. We know this lie all too well. The rebels enjoyed a higher degree of liberty than any other place in the British Empire. They were taxed at a far lower rate then their English-Scottish-Welsh cousins. We know that Parliament wanted the colonies to pay their fair share for the recently concluded Seven Years War and to abide by the 1763 Royal Proclamation which prohibited their intrusions and theft of Native lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. We know that John Hancock was one of the biggest smugglers in colonial America, a criminal who organized and financed the Boston Tea Party because the British and removed taxes on that beverage which almost destroyed his business. We know that the true cause of the Revolution was to protect the wealth of the colonial elite which was based upon lands stolen from Natives: Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams-all speculated in Native lands and feared their wealth would diminish if westward expansion ended. None of those individuals adhered to any specific Christian church since they saw the effects of religious wars and deliberately excluded organized religion from the Constitution.
8. Europeans, and Americans, used their superior military weaponry and tactics to defeat Native nations. This is often cited by the apologists for the theft of the continent. Some will concede that diseases such as smallpox and typhoid may have been a factor in driving Natives from the land but it was, they argue, the military strength of the colonies that won the day. To unravel this lie take three examples. On July 3,1778 a force of 460 Iroquois and 110 British rangers were engaged in a fight with 360 US militia at Wyoming near Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. Using superior field tactics under the leadership of Cornplanter the Iroquois fired one volley at the Americans before charging them and engaging in deadly hand-to-hand combat. No match for the Iroquois the US fled the field of battle after suffering over 300 casualties to the loss of a single Iroquois fighter. Instead of referring to this as an Iroquois victory it is called a “massacre’ although no non-combatants were harmed.
Second, the defeat of the US army in Indiana in the fall of 1790. President George Washington ordered the army to invade Shawnee-Miami territory to take their lands by force. The Native alliance (the Iroquois called Mingos were present) led by Blue Jacket and Little Turtle drove back the Americans in a series of battles during which the Natives used complex field tactics and superior marksmanship. Over 220 of the 540 US soldiers were lost at the final clash before the Americans left the area.
Third, the Battle of the Wabash in present day Ohio. A 1,000 strong American army which included almost all of the senior commanders was struck at dawn by the same Native alliance as had defeated Harmar the year before. Once again using the element of surprise Blue Jacket and Little Turtle drove back the Americans until the fight became a rout. Of the 1000 US soldiers only 33 escaped unharmed with 632 killed. Virtually all of the officers died. It was, by far, proportionally the worse defeat suffered by the US Army in any battle at any time in its history yet it is not even cited during the military history course at West Point.
What the three examples prove, and there are many others, is that when adequately equipped Native military forces defeated the colonials in almost every pitched battle yet other than Little Big Horn no standard history texts cite this fact.
9. Natives were on the margins of history and gave the world little more than canoes, corn and tobacco. Another lie of epic proportions. It may be said that the single most profound event in human history took place on October 12, 1492 not because of the bad navigation of Colon but that it meant the collision of two human realities as different from each other as was possible. But in that clash came inevitable exchanges which would forever change world history. This is best explained in the book “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492” by Alfred Crosby and in Jack Weatherford’s “Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World” and in Kay Porterfield’s “Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World”. These books, and others like them, destroy forever the myth that Natives were wisps of smoke. Our innovations, our inventions, our technologies, ideas and art, our politics and our music have been felt by every human being on this planet. The authors cite basic things such as the gift of corn, the most important plant in human history, and go on from there to list thousands of instances of what our ancestors gave to humanity; chocolate, rubber, oil, syringes, basketball, hammocks, hockey, dream therapy, popcorn, snowshoes, cotton, women’s rights, ecology, tomatoes, peppers, pineapples and on and on.
Without Native products life as we know it would not be possible yet we continue to be denigrated, ignored, obscured and held to ridicule in the form of mascots and other instances of idiocy.
10. Freedom. The Europeans knew nothing of true freedom when they came to Anonwarakowa. They were class bound, restricted by gender, consumed by material wealth, sickly in body and spirit and ignorant of the world about them. They were the product of generations of religious prosecution and immersed in violence. They were unclean, more intoxicated than not, smallish in stature and plagued by diseases from which they barely survived as a people. They feared their Creator and were taught the earth was their dominion. They whipped their children and discarded their elderly. When they met Natives for the first time they were intimidated by their physical beauty, their size and their health. The colonists were patriarchal and were amazed by the seeming lack of singular authority in Native society. They envied the absolute freedom enjoyed by the Natives to go as they pleased and whenever it suited them.
They thought their lack of material possessions was primitive only to be told that in a land of great bounty where all the resources are held in common there is no need for physical wealth, no need to create artificial class distinctions. Whenever given an opportunity to live like Indians individual colonists would often do so and, after living as Indians, they refused to return to the confines of the colonies. This was particularly true for the children and women. We taught the Americans what it could mean to be free and they in turn elected to destroy us since we represented the great temptation.
So it stands, our collective history, for good and ill. We have overcome great odds from a century ago and now number in the millions although nowhere near what we once were. Our presence reminds Canada and the US of their duplicity, their institutionalized lies. It is our duty to set them straight and it is working in part. As we move into the harvest time we can point to one shared ritual which is not a lie: thanksgiving. Although much of what has been written about the first Pilgrim ritual of this kind (and most of that is a lie) the actual gathering of the people to express familial and communal gratitude for the blessings of the past year is one of our great gifts to the world.
And that is an absolute truth.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes. A former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian he is the author of “Iroquois on Fire” among other books. He may be reached via e-mail:Kanentiio@aol.com.