Native American roots are our lifeblood
Life at ND
"The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is but a strand in it; whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." —Chief Seattle (a.k.a. Chief Seal'th), —American Trees, Native Roots.
Consciousness can be a long time coming, even when the ironies of life sit but a breath apart.
Childhood friends and I would argue about who was to be cowboys. No one wanted to be Indians. They were the "bad guys," the ones to be chased and killed ... just like on TV. Later, after we'd had our fill of shooting and scalping, we'd happily switch gears to spend the rest of the day pricking fingers, pressing them to the neighbors' and producing "blood brothers."
Juxtaposing such dual, inconsistent realities (i.e. stereotype vs. heritage) is common in America. The "Black mammy", considered vulgar, filthy and more ape than human by some white folk often reared more of "massa's kids" than did mommy. Try to attribute her caring ways to massa's training or instinct, and you'd miss the influence of African values passed down from her mother's ancestors. In classic Gemini double-speak, we Americans freely perpetuate the insulting, stereotypical views about some so-called "savage," yet so value the heritage of that so-called "savage" that we usher it into our home and claim it as our own.
Clearly, we treat our native peoples in this fashion. We regard them as walking museum stock, as embers of yesterday's bonfire. To them, we give nothing. Yet, separate "Native" from "America" and WE have nothing. With no "Native" in "America," we perish on the South Dakota trails with Lewis and Clark. With no "Native" in "America," we stand in a sea of maize dying of thirst; seething and salty, while turkeys fly South overhead in Thanksgiving of a harsh New England winter. Take Native from America, and what Columbus discovers is the long, lost path of anonymity.
Just as we'd rarely guess the greatness of Africa's ancient civilizations by her colonial-shocked inhabitants of today, at first glance, we might assume that our founding fathers built American society solely on the rugged backs and ingenuity of its European settlers. Jack Weatherford, in "How The Indians Enriched America," opens our consciousness to a different reality.
Chop down any Redwood or Sequoia to a stump, and its roots would still reach into prehistoric America. Having absorbed one or two thousand years of information, imagine the stories those old roots could tell, if only we knew to ask! Perhaps they'd be stories of majestic, ancestral glory or of pestilence and fires survived. Certainly, they could verify Weatherford's point that the heritages of America's indigenous peoples by FAR preceded Columbus.
Perhaps 20 to 30 million lived here before the arrival of Columbus (and European diseases, which — introduced maliciously, at times — consumed nearly 90 percent of the native population). Massacres spurred by so-called "Manifest Destiny" killed many others. Despite this slaughter, the roots of native heritage still flow freely to all that is American. For confirmation, we need not the silent voices of Redwoods — just open our budding eyes to the evidence embedded in American landmarks, names and customs.
Like Egypt in Africa, the great Aztec, Incan, Mayan and Cahokian civilizations — predecessors of the Cherokee, Navajo, Potowatomi and other modern-era tribes — were enormously successful. A thousand years before Columbus, their trade routes ran from Quebec through St. Louis and the Mississippi Valley to California and even Central America. Techniques to build pyramids, irrigate crops, perform surgery, administer antiseptics, control forest fires and peacefully govern all existed. Ironically, Weatherford notes, excavating below any major American city would unearth remnants of an indigenous society; they knew where best to build, thus European settlers often just grafted themselves onto the trunks of these prior civilizations.
What George W. Carver did for the peanut, native inhabitants long ago did with corn (maize), tobacco, cotton, squash and beans, plus numerous other plants and medicinal herbs. In fact, says Weatherford, Native Americans not only taught colonists how to survive using indigenous crops, they also taught those city-boys how to grow their own EUROPEAN ones! Ironically, when later mass-produced, using stolen Native American land and African slave labor, the native crops were what fueled America's economic prosperity and global dominance.
Explorers, says Weatherford, inclined to name surroundings for themselves, loved ones or monarch sponsors, quickly found that "America already had its own names" — many for things never encountered by Europeans. The farther inland they traveled, the more they adopted names offered by Native American guides: buffalo, squirrel and coyote; canoe, pumpkin and moccasin; Ohio, Illinois and Chicago (i.e. place of smelly weeds or onions.)
Indeed, the Fightin' Irish have battled "Indian" teams all season: Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee are ALL names of Native American origin.
Far most of America, our names lack memory, meaning ... roots! Is ignorance the path to truth or just situational sanity? Maybe we should ask Columbus.
We wake slowly to the world around us. Like infants learning depth perception, we reach out at things only to find that they aren't what we thought. Cowboy and Indian movies; the Lone Ranger's Tonto; Underdog's buck-toothed, gibberish-speaking "Go-Go Gopher Indians" ("Whoopie doopie! You am GENIUS!!"): are these our Mississippi pyramid builders? The Washington Redskins; Chief Wahoo, mascot of the Cleveland Indians; Atlanta Brave fans doing the tomahawk chop this is the heritage we "give" of our Thanksgiving brethren? How ironic the name, then, "Indian giver."
My junior year at Notre Dame, I had a buddy: Virgil Hill. We often ate dinner together, shot hoops or hung out. I knew Virge was Native American, but left it at that. Then one day, I asked him about life on a reservation. Now, my mother had often said: "We (blacks) have it bad, but the Indians have it worse." As Virgil spoke about rampant alcoholism and suicide, pathetic drop-out rates, poor roads and buildings, her statement came to mind. On his reservation, just getting INTO college was success. I wondered, how had I not known such things? Then I realized: who had I ever asked? ... who had I ever known TO ask!
Ahhh, what we could learn if only we asked, eh? Last week, the University celebrated Native American Week. Nationwide, November is Native American Month. Yet, most of us haven't a clue about either. The real irony, of course, is that we ought to celebrate our Native American roots every day! Don't we realize, they are our LIFEBLOOD! Their blood flows through our veins. We are, indeed, blood relatives, connected as one. We cut them off at our own risk.
Perhaps the greatest irony lies with the Iroquois Nation. Initially six bitter rivals, they found more value in forming a united league of nations. It wasn't easy — they still had quarrels, but they learned how to survive differences and prosper. In fact, according to Reader's Digests' "Through Indian Eyes," they were "a fine working example of representative democracy, with an unwritten constitution that spelled out checks and balances, rules of procedure, limits of power, and a stress on individual liberty." For a national emblem, the Iroquois chose a Tree of Peace, guarded by the fierce Eagle of native lore. In its talons: six arrows, representing its six nations.
Sound familiar? It should. If anyone doubts that our nation is indebted to the wisdom of its native peoples, consider that the above served as the very inspiration for Ben Franklin's "Albany Plan," the model from which arose the Constitution for a United States of America — whose own national emblem, ironically, is a bald eagle, clutching within its talons 13 arrows: one for each of its original 13 colonies. Once again, we find the heritage of the so-called "savage" ushered into our home; claimed as if our own ... but, what place for our Native Americans?
Consciousness can be a long time coming, indeed.
Perhaps now, I can play the "Indian." Let the Puritan cowboy travel the path to anonymity! I instead, in a spirit of thanksgiving, will take my children to Pow Wows, to reservations and to the library ... to learn. I will support a national holiday for Native Americans. Yes, I — the former "cowboy" — may even revisit the Cherokee heritage of my own great-grandparents.
Meanwhile, America, knowing that truth is clean and clear, please ... take one, deep breath.
Mel Tardy is an assistant professional specialist at the First Year of Studies
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, December 1, 1999