How the Conquest of Indigenous Peoples Parallels the Conquest of Nature

By John Mohawk : John Mohawk is a Professor of American Studies at SUNY Buffalo. His books include: Exiled in the Land of the Free (written with Oren Lyons), A Basic Call to Consciousness, and The Red Buffalo
For some twenty years I’ve been doing a range of writing, including journalism, as a hobby. As a writer I have brought people a lot of bad news. Describing the fortunes of this hemisphere’s and to some degree other hemispheres’ indigenous peoples provides an endless sequence of bad news. At one time I was the editor of the largest American Indian publication in the Americas, Akwesasne Notes, which dealt with ideas that at the time were definitely not mainstream. I remember putting out issues in which we raised questions about the nature of the relationship of the human spirit to the natural world, and we broached the idea that human-created societies are inappropriately distanced from the physical realities of the world. We talked about areas of philosophical thought that have not been explored to their depths in the English language, although I imagine they’ve been explored at some depth in other languages.
Lately, though, my thinking has been shaped by my official career. I teach social history, a subject not usually associated with ecology, although I think it’s high time to make that connection. But first let me mention some of the issues I find myself grappling with in social history, which deals broadly with people’s everyday lived experiences in different cultural contexts and also with how people come to think and feel the way they do about what they encounter in the world.
I became interested in social history when I was in college, a small and conservative and Eurocentric college. In those days undergraduates were required to take a course in philosophy; in the course I signed up for I learned that there was really only one genre of philosophers, who occupied a narrow niche in the world of thought: they were all Western European, they were all male, they were all from what we would describe as the elite privileged classes, and as a whole they stayed within a set of boundaries they defined for themselves. They belonged to a club, as it were. Each one was required to know what was said by the preceding one, and each one was required to build on that. If a student asked the professor, for example, Were there any philosophers in China or Africa?, the more or less curt reply was, Not that I know of, and stick to the book.
Having been exposed since then to the ideas of people of many different cultures, I ask myself why these ideas are not part of the overall survey of philosophy even though the profession has loosened its collar a little bit in the thirty years since I was a student. After all, there certainly can’t have been only one stream of knowledge in all of history. I think we need to study Western civilization in order to understand when certain narrow and limited ways of thinking first appeared and where we went wrong. Therefore, I dutifully went back and started reading about the foundations of Western thought, trying to understand it in the light of other cultures.
As I studied Greek philosophy, I asked myself, Who were these Greeks, who gave us what we think of as the foundation of our thought, of our culture, and gave us our ideas about nature and society? I soon made a distinction between what the Greeks said and what they did. My philosophy professor had described a group of men sitting under a tree philosophizing; I saw them as an arrogant bunch who thought they had a new and better way to think about the world. But what were the Greeks actually doing? They were the creators of the most astonishing military organization in the world, building on centuries, even millennia, of military experience. Some clever people with good administrative and organizational skills put together armies that were able to march across the world and defeat everybody in their path relatively easily.
Classical Greece is taken as the starting point of European history, but actually Greece was old by the time of the classical Greeks. Over thousands of years the populations of the Mediterranean had been conquered numerous times before the formation of the Greek city-states we associate with classical Greek culture. By the time we get to the Romans, all of the peoples had been Hellenized. It is difficult to find anything resembling the remains of an indigenous Mediterranean culture.
This lack of indigenous culture leads me to William McNeill’s observations in The Rise of the West. He points out that the utopian religions which appeared in the two centuries before and after Christ arose out of rootless urban populations who had no consciousness of place. Successive waves of conquest destroyed any continuity of culture. This tied in with my reading of Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity, in which he points out that episodes of horrific human slaughter and devastation throughout history often are the product of utopian ideologies.
Utopian ideology in the context I’m using the term means that people have an idea, they have a plan, and according to their plan a utopian society is at the end of their path. All of humankind’s problems are going to be solved by reaching this goal. But usually while they’re pursuing their goal, they discover that there are other people who are standing in their way or at least occupying ground needed for them to carry it out. You can’t have a utopian society unless you’re willing to crack a few eggs, as it were, and it’s almost always necessary to crack other people’s eggs to get there.
Understanding the nature of utopian ideology helps us find answers to certain troubling historical questions. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners Daniel Goldhagen asks, How could average everyday ordinary churchgoing Germans, who we all know were fully acculturated twentieth-century Western civilization people, get up in the morning, walk outside, shoot women and children in cold blood, and then come back in the evening and have supper as though they were doing nothing more than making widgets? How could people act in such a cold-blooded manner? Well, all we have to do is follow the real story of Western civilization and we’ll see that there has been episode after episode after episode of people getting up in the morning, going out, and murdering people. I think it started in what we call the modern era at that moment when Western Europe exploded out of Europe and expanded all over the world, beginning in the 1450s when the level of intolerance in European societies rose enormously. Pogroms were started against the Jews, and then in 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain. What we have is a pattern of behavior of utterly unbelievable cruelty in a society that claims to be civilized.
Another example of the consequences of utopian ideology is the campaign against magic during the three hundred years starting around 1450. Individuals who had a spiritual relationship with plants or animals were considered to be practicing magic. In the 1600s it was believed that these people had renounced Christ and were in league with the devil, who promised them the powers of nature in return, and they then used these powers against their enemies. This same belief that people making use of the powers of nature must be getting their magic from the devil prevailed in New England: when John Mason or Cotton Mather railed against the practices of the Indians, they were really railing against nature as an evil power, an evil power that must be controlled, overcome, and stamped out.
Witches weren’t going to admit to using magic, so a certain amount of coercive force was required, and the Inquisition was invented in order to drag people into dungeons and twist their limbs until they confessed and even named their neighbors, who were then brought in and treated similarly. That was the beginning of the witchcraft trials—for the most part involving women, by the way. According to some accounts, millions of people over three centuries were accused, tortured, and burned at the stake. What were they guilty of? They were herbalists; they were herb doctors who believed that the powers of nature could heal the human body. This belief was a direct threat to the power of the Church, which proclaimed that when Christ ascended to heaven, God the Father and the Holy Spirit went with Christ. Until they returned to earth, the Church was the only possible intermediary between humans and supernatural powers. The success of herbalists in curing their patients contradicted this faith in the sole power of the Church.
The war on magic was a psychological war on nature. It wasn’t waged by individuals but by the major institutions in Western culture, by the Church and the state in collusion with each other. They were not only making war on nature, they were also cracking eggs along the way. People accused of being witches were frequently selected because they had property that was desired by the local authorities, so quite often doing away with a witch proved profitable for the coffers of both town and Church. They took the property, including the land. Multiplied by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people over centuries, the plunder must have amounted to a great deal. You might say that the witches provided the early capitalization for the formation of European nation states.
Classical Greek philosophy also rejected nature-based religion. Let’s turn to Socrates by way of example. What did Socrates say about the people who were in the temples interpreting dreams and making forecasts and telling fortunes? He said it was all nonsense that should be replaced by rational thought. Socrates argued that the world must be based on reason, not on dreams and myths and the like. As far as I am concerned, one of the great fountainheads of Western civilization’s understanding of the human spirit is actually the old Greek myths that Socrates disparaged. They are among the most interesting artistic forms ever produced by the West.
I gradually came to believe that it’s not enough to study the history of philosophy, because what the philosophers are saying is entirely different from what is happening. Socrates lived at a time when the major form of social organization could best be described as either military oligarchy or military dictatorship. That is what the Greek city states really were. As I kept delving deeper, I found that in the history of philosophy the part that deals clearly with what’s really going on is something we don’t ordinarily read in social history, and that is military history. Military historians don’t shrink back from talking about political agendas. A military historian comes right out and says, The agenda here was to plunder; the plan was to use so many cannons, so many of this and that. When military historians study human behavior, they come to the conclusion that the purpose of organized armed aggression is to plunder. Now, that’s something which should be inscribed on the library wall at Columbia: the purpose of organized armed aggression is plunder!
I believe that philosophy was used by Western civilization to obscure the act of plunder by cloaking it in fancier terms. Aristotle could have said, We’re evil exploiters, and we’re going to conquer these people; we have the arms to do it, and we’re going to do it without any bad conscience whatsoever because we have the power and we can get away with it.
He could have said that, but he didn’t. Instead, he developed a rationale for one culture ruling another. What he said was, We’re a community of very bright people, and we need someone to do all the drudgery. We’ll make these other folks do it because if they don’t, we real bright people won’t have any time to sit under a tree and think about how smart we are. We’d have to be hoeing the garden, washing the dishes, and all the rest. But we need time to think, and if we think long and hard enough, we’ll come up with all the answers. In fact, the future of the world lies in the governance of the intelligent people of the world, and the project we will set for ourselves is to define civilization. It’s a project of organized thought that will lead us to solve all of humankind’s problems in science, in engineering, in art, in every arena.
Columbus Day was observed recently. For me Columbus Day is a reminder of the Spaniards’ behavior in the Caribbean between 1492 and 1516. Apologists for the Spanish say the decline in the Indian population was not great because there weren’t that many Indians there. However many Indians there were, by 1516 they were almost all dead. Whether there were 800 thousand or 800 million, let’s not lose track of the point here: there was a catastrophic decline in the Indian population on the major islands the Spanish were occupying. Another point needs to be made: one of the books I read said that the Indians were killed off by diseases. No they weren’t. They were not killed off by diseases. The viral diseases the Spanish had that devastated Mexico didn’t reach the Caribbean islands until 1518 or 1519.
What happened during that generation-long occupation of Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico? In his book The Conquest of America, Stzvetan Todorov raises the question of how the Spanish could be so callously indifferent to the lives of the Indians on the Caribbean islands. The same question applies to the Spanish on the mainland of Central America and South America and to the English and then the Dutch in North America. How could they? How can there be greater indifference to human life than was exhibited in the African slave trade? Western civilization is filled with such episodes.
Let’s consider the Caribbean islands. What do the major works (excluding Kirk Sale’s book, The Conquest of Paradise) say about the Caribbean islands? Samuel Morison says in Admiral of the Ocean Sea that it was unfortunate the Indian population declined at that time; the Spanish didn’t want the Indians to disappear, it just happened. Or take Lewis Hanke’s book, Aristotle and the American Indians. Hanke reports the existence of torture factories on the Caribbean islands. The purpose of such cruelty was not merely to extract wealth, although wealth was certainly one of the prospects; it went way beyond that. There were torture manuals that recommended using green wood instead of dry wood to prolong the time it takes to burn somebody to death.
In the late sixteenth-century the Dutch artist Theodor De Bry did a series of illustrations based on the reports of Bartholomé de Las Casas, a priest who was offended by the torture. Las Casas wrote thirty pages describing what was happening on the islands. I have to tell you it’s gut-wrenching stuff. Read his descriptions; then read the chapters in Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and tell me there is a difference between the psychology of those Germans and those Spaniards. The same thing is going on, only the Spanish are a little more artistic. The Germans tended to torture people more at arm’s length, whereas the Spanish were up close and personal about it. And it went on and on for twenty-five years, but it’s essentially an unknown story. You won’t find it in any American history textbook.
The King of Spain was embarrassed by all the reports about the cruelty of the conquistadors. He wasn’t happy that they were getting out of hand and escaping the crown’s control over them, so in 1550 he called for a debate. Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas, two priests who were also lawyers, stepped forward to make the arguments. Sepulveda took the point of view of the conquerors. He’s called the father of modern racism because of that. He concocted every excuse he could think of to explain why it was all right for the Spanish to do what they were doing to the Indians, and of course he started off with what the Indians were not—they were not Christian and they were not civilized; therefore, the Spanish were justified in treating them as they did.
Sepulveda would have used pretty much the same language and the same reasoning to explain why the Spanish were justified in doing what they did to the parrots, to the trees, to the fish, to every living organism on those islands: they were all biologically inferior beings lacking the consciousness and culture of Spaniards. They didn’t have any rights and therefore could be enslaved and subjected to whatever the Spanish felt like subjecting them to—and the Spanish didn’t need to have a bad conscience.
I think we look at this kind of racism from the wrong perspective in our culture. The real issue here is not Spanish racism toward the Indians. It’s the Spanish claim to superiority over every group, whether human or nonhuman.Once you believe that one group is better than all the rest, murder is justified, genocide is justified; in fact, any act against nature is justified. The only thing that matters is the aggrandizement of Spanish culture.
In all of the literature about what’s happening to indigenous peoples Victims of Progress, John Bodley’s book on the conquest of indigenous peoples in South America today, seems to spend the most amount of time looking at how people rationalize to themselves their right to seize land, to move other people out of the way, to move plants and animals out of the way—all in order to meet the development needs of modern industrial society. They can do this because of their belief system that says what they are doing is not only not wrong, it has to be done in order to create a world which will be able to solve all of humankind’s problems in the future.
What will the payoff be? One view is that through science we will someday conquer the major diseases of the world, and we’ll be able to live forever. How you get from that idea, by the way, to the idea that it’s all right to bulldoze huge areas in the name of curing cancer is a tremendous leap. Curing cancer has nothing to do with plundering. There’s not a single thing in the way of plundering the earth or destroying peoples that is necessary in order for scientists to be doing research on cancer. The two aren’t connected at all, although when you talk to people, right away they say, Well, we have to do this because we have to cure cancer. What? You have to be two hundred miles from the nearest road killing trees in order to cure cancer?
Think about the Germans in World War Two and the fact that not only were they willing to kill people but they were completely without conscience about it. Most of us look back at that period with horror and ask, How could they have done that? And we say, Well, they were just a little clique of criminals at the top of an aberrant order who had this crazy idea for a while. I encourage people who believe this to read Goldhagen’s book, which claims they weren’t a little clique of criminals at all. According to him, the whole of German society was in on it because they had so valued themselves and so devalued everyone else, not just the Jews. Given that pervasive mentality long enough, most of us would be affected by it too.
The core of Hitler’s message was that Germans as the privileged few deserved to have the fruits of the earth. All the others were in the way, taking up space and resources that should be Germany’s rightful inheritance. So this was not only about race; it was one of the largest projects of armed plundering in world history. But people can’t get up in the morning and say, Oh, we’re pirates and thieves and murderers, and we’re out to plunder. You can’t say that, and the Germans couldn’t either. The Germans said, We’re the master race, we’re the perfect example of humanity, and we’re going to solve all the world’s problems. The same thing the Spanish said.
Those Germans never stopped to reflect about what they were doing, never asked themselves if what they were doing might be wrong. Those Spaniards never stopped to reflect, either. All through history, groups who plundered—like the American miners in California and the American military in the northern Great Plains—never reflected. They built up utopian ideologies that protected them from their conscience. This raises the question in my mind, What about us? Are we like that? Are we blind? Do we have no conscience? Are we so sure we’re on the right path, the right and necessary path, that we have no choice but to follow it and sometimes crack a few eggs? Do we share that attitude?
Every day about forty thousand children die worldwide from preventable causes. You have to look hard to find the literature about it, but there are publications like the United Nations report The Fate of the Earth’s Children and Frances Moore Lappé’s Hunger: Twelve Myths. Some of these children die from diarrhea, which can be caused by bad water, but usually it’s assumed that the major cause is the lack of enough food in the world to sustain the poorest people. Lappé says that’s not true. There is enough food, but poor people don’t have the money to buy it. It’s a question of distribution.
What should we do? We should find a way to get food to poor people, shouldn’t we? But that’s not happening. What is in fact happening is that the major financial institutions in the world are imposing something called Structural Adjustment Programs on governments in poor countries. These programs are designed to create hunger. They specifically forbid countries that have a lot of poor people from subsidizing food, and they demand that measures be taken to drive down wages in those countries. The point is to make the poorest people in the world subsidize the richest people in the world by keeping labor at the lowest possible cost. We know that for every percentage point of deprivation they suffer, a number of people will die.
We know this, but we’re willing to live with it. We’re willing to be consciously ignorant. Beyond the fact of hunger is the fact that the engine driving it is the same engine—the same thinking, the same structured institutions—that is driving the destruction of forests and the extinction of animal species, that is at this very moment driving the extinction of the great fishes of the sea, of whole species of plants and animals in many parts of the world. But this is happening far from our vision. Here in New England reforestation is actually taking place. We’re not cutting our trees because we’re cutting somebody else’s. We don’t notice that our newspapers still come from trees, because they don’t come from trees here. For a long time I believed the problem was that people don’t have enough of a connection with nature, and that’s why they’re able to do the things that they do. I don’t believe that anymore.
I publish Daybreak, a magazine in which you’ll find stories about indigenous people trying to think through the issues of free trade and globalization, trying to figure out where they stand, what action they should be taking. Essentially, the purpose of the politics of the intellectual movement of the American Indians in the hemisphere as a whole and certainly in the southern hemisphere is to encourage biological diversity and encourage local food production for local consumption—the kinds of things Schumacher talked about.
Indians understand that self-sufficiency is the antithesis of the global economy. And I think we need to understand that the global economy is playing a major role in the destruction of our natural resources and of species and is rationalizing that destruction in terms of John Locke’s definition of what is rational. According to John Locke, rational thought leads you to do that which produces the maximum amount of money for you. This means even down to the last tree, down to the last fish. As a result of rational thought you try to transform nature into money. Locke argues that it’s a wonderful thing to have money because it transforms our wealth derived from nature into something solid and concrete. Of course, money is not solid and concrete anymore; it’s not even plastic anymore. It’s electronic money we’re dealing with now.
I propose to you that we live in an age of utopian excess that is driving us away from doing what would be sustainable and survivable and is diverting us into participating, in ways we’re not even conscious of, in activities that are destructive in the long term. A good example of this is the electronic information revolution. This revolution will sweep most of us along, whether we want to go or not—in the same way that my ancestors were dragged kicking and screaming into the print revolution. We’ll have to join it because it’s a way of communicating. Some people think the electronic information revolution is going to solve all our problems—the same kind of utopian stuff I’ve been talking about.
Read Wired magazine. It reads as though people have lost their minds. It asks questions like, Is the world growing a brain? No! But our brains are going dead! People who think in the wired mode see a marvelous world of opportunity, without asking themselves, opportunity for whom and opportunity to do what? The information age is concentrating wealth in the hands of the few who have access to and control of resources. The American middle class is being dismantled and it’s even cooperating; it’s going quietly to its death!
The plan is to make everyone part of a worldwide web, a worldwide marketplace. Internet users have the same capability to communicate with people in another part of the world as with people right in their home town. This means, for example, that you’re not going to need accountants from North America anymore. You can buy accountants for six dollars a day in Calcutta. You’re not going to need engineers from North America any more because you’ll be able to get all the engineering skills you need on the other side of the world. The idea is to have fewer people doing more things more cheaply, and the cheapest labor of all is on the other side of the world from us. That’s the long-term prospect. But in fact cheap labor does not solve our problems. The things that really matter in human society are not in computers, and they’re not in any utopian vision about solving all the world’s problems.
We are not going to make it to that place called Utopia, folks. It’s not going to happen. The reality is that for all of our ego, which seems to me colossally large, our life span and the space we occupy are incredibly small, and the distance between here and Utopia is insurmountable.
Human cultures have an enormous capacity to reframe things. Part of our problem in Western culture has to do with how we reframed nature. Cultures that are nature based have reframed nature in ways that have given it life and color and energy and excitement. I went to visit a particular group of Indians living on what you might call a gravel pit. No trees, no grass. Why don’t they plant some grass? The place is a desert as far as the eye can see. You’d look at that landscape and think to yourself, My God, this is one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been; it never rains, it’s always so dry. Then you talk with the Indians, and they bring that place to life for you. The place is full of things you can’t see. Live with the Hopis for a little while; their world is full of spirits that come in from the sky, from the ground. Almost every few days the Hopis perform a ritual of one kind or another to acknowledge the spirits of their place. And what a wonderful world they have.
Once I visited a tribe on the northern Great Plains. I was just sitting there with members of the tribe. I looked around and thought, No trees. But they have something else: a culture, built by the creative internal aspects of human society, that establishes a beneficial relationship between the society and nature. Not between the individual and nature. An individual can’t practice Lakota culture or Hopi culture. You need a whole group of people for that. When that culture exists, it has a sort of magic. You can find people who are part of it and who don’t have very much money, but they are living more happily than the people living in California’s affluent Marin County. Of course, the people in Marin County are trying to find that happiness; they’re trying to find that connectedness, that essence which makes your lived human experience truly lived and human. It exists among Buddhist communities throughout the world, it exists among the Australian aborigines, it exists among Indians in the deep rainforest. These are happy, adjusted people who are not destroying their environment, who are in fact celebrating their environment because they aren’t engaged in utopian thinking. They’re reliving a cycle instead.
To have a utopian vision you must believe that time is linear, that someday life will be better than it is here and now, and you have to sacrifice others in order to make it happen. I think this has been, if I may say so, the history of the West, a series of competing ideas about how we are going to get there. When we get there, we’ll all be happy. And where is there? It may be heaven, for example, or it may be a machine paradise.
The actual trend over the centuries has been toward a politics of conquest and plundering. And we have rationalized our behavior in the context of that conquest and plunder. Most of us don’t ask ourselves, when we make choices about what we’re going to buy, How does this purchase implicate me in the plunder? Most of us don’t talk to people who are from Indonesia before we go and buy our Reeboks. Instead, we listen to Michael Jordan saying, I wear these shoes, and he’s a great basketball player, so they must be good. Most of us don’t ask ourselves, What’s behind my purchase? Could there be military dictatorship behind it, exploitation of people, destruction of towns and villages, pollution?
In choice after choice that people make, they tend to buy things that come from places which create social orders they’d prefer not to support, but in fact they do choose those products because they can claim innocence of the underlying conditions. So people commonly will buy things in the grocery store that were grown 3000 or 4000 miles away. Most people I know can’t tell me where the clothes they wear were manufactured, who manufactured them, or what the conditions were under which they were manufactured. We’re all like the television star Kathie Lee Gifford, who started her own line of clothing, which is produced in the Third World; we don’t know anything about it.
I think this kind of information is part of social history. Social history has to do with where the things in your life come from and what the conditions are that produced them and how the conditions that produced them contribute to the life you’re living. It also has to do with what expectations you have concerning the kind of life you might live, with what options you have for choosing the quality of life you want. This kind of information is not offered to people in college. Where do you find courses on values? Show me a course about choosing your options. You can say, Well, of course, it’s not there because if the college offered a course like that, its funding would be jeopardized.
I began by saying I wanted to emphasize the connection between ecology and social history. Once we recognize this connection, we are led to obvious choices. I don’t believe it’s necessary to cut down the rain forests to satisfy consumer demand for cheap lumber. I don’t believe it’s necessary to create conditions that kill 40,000 children every day in order to maintain the world market economy, which in my opinion shouldn’t be retained in its current form. If you believe that’s necessary, then you can support the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But I personally don’t believe we have to take steps to starve people in the Third World in order to drive down the price of labor. I don’t believe it was necessary to murder all those Indians in the Caribbean. We should step back and ask ourselves some serious questions: Just how much of that world market economy do we really need? What costs are we paying for what we get?
Thank you for your kind attention.

John Mohawk is a Professor of American Studies at SUNY Buffalo. His books include: Exiled in the Land of the Free (written with Oren Lyons), A Basic Call to Consciousness, and The Red Buffalo

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