What indigenous place names tell us by Alfred de Zayas, UHCHR retired

25 March 2010

Alabama, Alaska, Algonquin, Allegheny, Apache, Apalachee, Appalachian, Appomattox, Arizona, Arkansas, Biloxi, Calumet, Calusa, Canada, Caribou, Cayuga, Chatanooga, Chautauqua, Chepanoc, Cherokee, Chesapeake, Cheyenne, Chicago, Chickasaw, Clatsop, Colusa, Comanche, Connecticut, Cree, Dakota, Delaware, Detroit, Erie, Hialeah, Hiawatha, Hopi, Huron, Idaho, Illinois, Inyo, Iowa, Iroquois, Kansas, Kenosha, Kentucky, Klondike, Lillooet, Malibu, Maliseet, Manhattan, Manitoba, Massachusetts, Merrimac, Metoac, Miami, Miccosukee, Michigan, Micmac, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Modoc, Mohawk, Mohegan, Mohican, Monache, Montauk, Muscogee, Nakota, Nanaimo, Nantucket, Napa, Narragansett, Naugatuck, Navajo, Nebraska, Niagara, Norwalk, Ohio, Okanagan, Okeechobee, Oklahoma, Omaha, Omak, Oneida, Ontario, Oregon, Orono, Ottawa, Palouse, Pataha, Pawnee, Pennacook, Pennamaquan, Pensacola, Penticton, Peoga, Peoria, Peotone, Pequot, Poconos, Pontiac, Potomac, Poughkeepsie, Quebec, Roanoke, Sarasota, Saratoga, Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Savannah, Sawhatchee, Scituate, Seattle, Sebago, Sequoia, Seminole, Sewanee, Shannock, Shawnee, Shenandoah, Shetucket, Shoshone, Sioux, Sonoma, Spokane, Squamish, Sunapee, Susquehanna, Tacoma, Taconic, Tahoe, Tallahassee, Tampa, Tecumseh, Tennessee, Texas, Ticonderoga, Topeka, Toronto, Tucson, Tuscaloosa, Tuscarora, Tuskegee, Utah, Wabash, Waco, Walla Walla, Wallowa, Wanakit, Wasco, Waupaca, Wenatchee, Wichita, Winnebago, Winnimac, Winnipeg, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Yosemite, Yukon, Yuma – what language do these sonorous names speak? What message do they convey to us?

Indigenous names, vestiges of the First Nations who lived and prospered in the rich lands of the Americas, descendants of the early Asians who migrated ten thousand years ago to the continent over the frozen Bering Sea and Alaska, gradually making their way down to what later became Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central and South America. Serious anthropological research estimates that some ten million human beings resided in North America (in the territories North of the Rio Grande) when their lands were “discovered” and claimed by the Europeans. The vast and beautiful continent was theirs, from the Shenandoah Valley to Yosemite. The land was prosperous, full of villages, wigwams, laughter and life. Where are the indigenous of North America now? Where have they all gone? Decimated by European diseases, shot down and massacred at Bear River (1863), Sand Creek (1864), Wounded Knee (1890) and at so many other unknown places of horror. Gone and forgotten, blown with the wind and the clouds. The broken remnants of the Seminole, Dakota, Cree and Pueblo people eke out an existence in their “reservations.” Some do rain dances for the tourists.

What do the names Chapultepec, Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, Teotihuacan, Iximche, Tikal and Machu Picchu tell us? That south of the Rio Grande the continent was also inhabited by millions of human beings, perhaps as many as 60 million. Their land was not terra nullius. We can still recognize the Aztec, the Maya, the Inca, the Quechua in the populations of Central and South America. From the writings of the Dominican friars Bartolom? de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos we have learned that the Arawacs, the Siboneyes and Tainos were massacred and enslaved. From the reports of the conquistadores Cort?s and Pizarro we know how they dealt with the “Indios”. How many indigenous lives were deliberately extinguished by the European colonizers (migrants with the sword)? How many died of disease and deprivation? Ten million? Twenty million? We even took away their historical identity, since to this day we call the descendants of the survivors “Indian” as if they had anything to do with the Indian Sub-continent in Asia.

Historiography has failed to take into account the many uncomfortable facts that do not harmonize with our positive evaluation of the European conquest of the New World. Indeed, many people still believe that the “clash of civilizations” in the New World was ultimately good for humanity, that Providence ordained it, that the Europeans did a great service to mankind by settling and developing the new American continent, which allegedly was only sparsely populated by backward and uncivilized peoples.

A different historical paradigm deserves testing: Were our ancestors more like "migrants" to new frontiers? Throughout history, migration has been a natural behaviour of the human species, hardly "deviant conduct". Yet, one of the many differences between 21st century migrants and 16th-20th century migrants is that 21st century migrants do not come to destroy our crops, slaughter our buffalo or wipe us out. Basically, all that modern migrants (we often call them "illegal aliens") want is a better chance for themselves and their families. Anything wrong with that?
How did our ancestors in Europe live during the "age of discovery"? From every reliable historical source we know that Europe was poor, cities were squalid, overcrowded, hunger, unemployment and disease were rampant. Many of the 16th, 17th, 18th. 19th century migrants — the Spanish, the Portuguese, the British, the French. the Germans, the Irish and other "colonizers" — were adventurers, mavericks bent on getting rich fast; others were simple folk hoping for a new start. The historical fact is that what we know today as North America was a rich land, ecologically-balanced, populated by millions of human beings, minding their own business and posing no threat to Europeans, when in 1492 the Genovese Christopher Columbus made his first appearance, thinking he had found a western route to India.

Whereas the Spanish colonization was bent on exploitation of the natural resources (and labour) of the Americas, the Anglo-Saxon colonizers basically just wanted free land – without the native population. They saw themselves as a “chosen people” who had a God-given right to their “promised land”. They were not keen on enslaving the Iroquois or the Pequots — -nor in Christianizing them. There was little use for the “Indians”, who were perceived as "devils" and "wolves". The Massachusetts Puritans, who also burned witches, killed the very natives who taught them how to survive, while the Reverend John Cotton of the first Church of Boston, and the Reverend Cotton Mather of the Second Church of Boston held their xenophobic, rabble-rousing sermons. In the course of three centuries 98% of the native North American population was not only displaced pursuant to the official policy of "manifest destiny" — it was deliberately exterminated. The founding fathers of the land of the free and the home of the brave, Benjamin Franklin ("the design of Providence to extirpate these savages"), George Washington ("beasts of prey"), John Adams ("blood hounds"), Thomas Jefferson ("merciless Indian savages"), James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson ("the wolf be struck in his den") — all called for the extinction of the American "Indian". All these dreadful historical facts lie sleeping in the archives, if anyone cares to consult them. But History only wants to remember "Thanksgiving Day" and the story of Pocahontas.

What we know as Meso-and South America, was also a rich land, densely populated with some 60 million human beings, with magnificent cities like Tenochtitl?n (today Mexico City), capital of the Aztec kingdom, with towns, villages, impressive architecture, aqueducts, sports facilities, science, astronomy, art, and vast agricultural lands producing such wonderful foods as avocado, beans, cacao, cassava, cayenne pepper, jalape?os, maize (mahiz in Arawak language, commonly known as corn), passion fruit, peanuts, pineapple, sweet pimentos, potatoes (papa or patata in Inca language), pumpkin, squash, tapioca, tomatoes (tomatl in Nahuatl language), topinambour (also known as Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus, named after a Brazilian tribe) etc., not to mention tobacco (from the Arawakan or Taino word referred to by Las Casas), hitherto unknown in Europe (until introduced in Spain in 1558 by Francisco Fernandez).
As we can read in the writings of the Dominican friar (later Bishop) Bartolom? de las Casas, the Spanish conquistadores brutally aggressed the indigenous population, murdered and enslaved millions of the men, raped their women, and eventually mixed with the survivors to create the "mestizo" society we know in Latin America today. If you travel to Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia — you will see the descendants of the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas. Presidents Hugo Ch?vez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and former President Alejandro Toledo of Peru, have Spanish surnames, but they certainly also have as many indigenous forefathers (a mucha honra!). So much for the "discovery" of the Americas and for the legal fiction of "terra nullius".
It is worth remembering that, far from being xenophobic, the first nations of the Americas received Cristobal Colon with remarkable hospitality. The European newcomers, however, were migrants with the sword. Perhaps the only good thing that can be said for Spanish colonization is that the human rights activities of Friar Antonio de Montesinos ("are these not also men"?) and Bartolom? de las Casas before the Spanish king Fernando de Arag?n, and later before Emperor Charles V led to the adoption of the “Laws of Burgos” and of the "New Laws" of 1540 which recognized the human nature of the indigenous population and forbade their ill-treatment and enslavement. The great disputations of Valladolid and Salamanca have gone down in history as a milestone in the development of the concept of human dignity—and human rights. Admittedly, Fernando’s and Charles’ laws were violated systematically – and with impunity, but this only illustrates the truism that norms and their enforcement are not identical. Yet, if we had no norms, we would be totally subject to the barbarism of the jungle, otherwise known as "might is right".
I think that it can be safely stated that the “Christianization" of Latin America and the Anglo-Saxon policy of “manifest destiny” constituted perhaps the greatest demographic catastrophe in the long history of mankind. One cannot help wondering how our world would look like if instead of the Europeans "discovering" America, the Iroquois, the Cree, the Dakotas, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Arawacs had crossed the Ocean to "discover" Europe. Would they have slaughtered the Europeans, as our ancestors slaughtered them? Just a little food for thought.

See: Bartolom? de las Casas, Brief History of the Devastation of the Indies, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; David Stannard, American Holocaust, Oxford University Press, 1992; Richard Drinnon, Facing West, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997; Frederick Hoxie (ed.) Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, in particular the entry "Population: Precontact to Present", pp. 500-502 by Russell Thornton, UCLA.