Another Columbus Day has recently come and gone, which means more right-wingers trying to defend the indefensible, namely the enslavement and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. Meanwhile, North Dakota recently celebrated Columbus Day by trying to disenfranchise Native American voters. This year, PragerU featured a video by Steven Crowder in which he makes relatively little attempt to defend Columbus’s record of enslaving native peoples but utilizes a series of bad arguments and misleading statements to defend the overall record of conquest against Native Americans. I would like to examine and debunk one of the most popular arguments in defense of Columbus and conquest more generally. This argument is that Native American tribes were violent and oppressed/displaced each other and that this justifies or seriously mitigates the oppression and displacement of Native American tribes by white people.
Most leftists today do not attempt to claim that Native Americans lived in some sort of utopian society before Europeans arrived. This is a straw-man that is not taught in most educational institutions and which I hear primarily from conservatives complaining about leftists supposedly believing it. It is also deeply flawed as an argument. Firstly, using it as a justification for steamrolling over Native Americans establishes a principle that most conservatives would balk at if applied consistently. Imagine that tomorrow, aliens with highly advanced technology arrived on Earth, conquered the planet, and enslaved and slaughtered hundreds of millions of people. Alien propagandists and future historians would probably justify this by bringing up the longstanding violence and cruelty in countless human societies, and they would have plenty of factual examples to bring up in their own PragerU-style videos.
Secondly, it ignores the level of wanton violence and oppression in primarily white societies during the era of both colonization and the later Indian Wars. The wanton violence of the Spanish settlers is well-documented, but it was rampant in Spain also. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish rulers who authorized Columbus’s voyage, the Spanish Inquisition was carried out. The civilized, enlightened, Christian whites inflicted such punishments on religious dissidents as having arms and legs dislocated, being strangled to death, and being burnt alive. Families came to watch and cheer as brutal punishments were inflicted. If you’re looking for a more recent example, consider the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. U.S. military forces led by Colonel John Chivington attacked a Native American settlement in Colorado whose chief, Black Kettle, displayed a flag to show that he desired peace with the United States. I want to warn everyone that what I am about to describe is extremely graphic and disturbing so that anyone uncomfortable with reading this has a chance not to. John S. Smith, an interpreter for the tribe, later testified to Congress that, “I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces … With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors … By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops .” Another witness recalled, “I saw one squaw lying on the bank, whose leg had been broken. A soldier came up to her with a drawn sabre. She raised her arm to protect herself; he struck, breaking her arm. She rolled over, and raised her other arm; he struck, breaking that, and then left her with out killing her. I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn child lying by her side.” Captain Silas Soule, who refused to take part, recalled, “I refused to fire, and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. … I saw two Indians hold one of another’s hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together. They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped. … Squaw’s snatches [vaginas] were cut out for trophies. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there.” While Chivington’s actions were condemned by higher-ups, he was never criminally convicted or even charged. At the same time, men could be executed for desertion.
Thirdly, it ignores ways in which European and white American societies were in fact crueler than many native societies. For example, at the same time that Europeans were colonizing the Americas, both the African Slave Trade and slavery itself were flourishing in their colonies. Early on, Native Americans were enslaved, though this was eventually deemed impractical, and black slaves became preferred. In Slavery and Social Death, Dr. Orlando Patterson made it clear that chattel slavery was far from limited to white societies. Nevertheless, he also wrote that among North American tribes, widespread hereditary slavery was rare in most areas outside of the Northwest coast. This does not mean that forced labor was not common among native tribes, but hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery was far less the norm than in many white societies. As Dr. Jeffrey M. Schulze explains, while sexism was hardly foreign to tribal cultures, native women tended to have much more autonomy and power than contemporary European women. Similarly, gay and gender-nonconforming people were, if not necessarily granted full equality, treated with far more tolerance in most tribes than they were among white people at the time. A passage from the Independent‘s review of Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States is worth quoting at length:
“The limited-but-sturdy evidence provided by historians that Bronski draws on suggests homosexuality was treated matter-of-factly among most Native American tribes. In the records of the Lewis and Clark expeditions, Nicholas Biddle observes: “Among the Mamitarees, if a boy shows any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he is put among the girls, dressed in their way, brought up with them, and sometimes married to men.”
Among the Crow tribe, a horrified white observer wrote, “men who dressed as women and specialised in women’s work were accepted and sometimes honoured; a woman who led men in battle and had four wives was a respected chief”. This shouldn’t be entirely romanticised. One tribe “accepted” homosexuality by raising young men to be “passives”, available as “sexual resources” to the tribe, which sounds uncomfortably close to rape. But in most places, different sexualities were granted room for expression, much of it consensual.”
As the review states, these conditions were far from utopian. But it must be noted that gay people were treated far more brutally by many white authorities at the time. In 1976, when homosexuality was still illegal in many states, Dr. Louis Crompton wrote, “Indeed, it appears that in 1776 male homosexuals in the original 13 colonies were universally subject to the death penalty, and that in earlier times, for a brief period in one colony, lesbians had been liable to the same punishment for relations with other women.” England continued executing people for homosexuality until the 1830s.
Similarly, many native tribes treated children with far less brutality than many white families did. In many tribes, parents generally eschewed corporal punishment as a method of discipline. England, by contrast, continued to allow school officials to beat schoolchildren with canes well into the 20th century, and some school districts in Southern states allow corporal punishment in schools today.
Another key problem is that this argument overlooks the massive differences between the various tribes. Crowder himself is forced to admit that the Arawaks who were enslaved by Columbus were generally a peaceful tribe. In fact, the Arawaks were quite long-suffering and only turned violent toward Spanish colonists when pushed to the breaking point. The Lenape, also known as the Delaware, were also a generally peaceful tribe who attempted to trade with white colonists. Similarly, the Pueblo Indians were considered to be peaceful by even nineteenth-century observers writing just after the Plains Wars.
As for arguments about tribes displacing one another, it is certainly true that this often took place. But there are several problems with using it to mitigate or excuse the plundering of Native American land by whites. Firstly, the inconvenient fact remains that most Native American tribes occupied the continent going back millennia. Thus, if we assess land claims based on how long someone’s ancestors have been here, Native Americans have the far stronger claim than white people, cruel intertribal displacement notwithstanding. In effect, while tribes driven off land by other tribes before white colonization certainly have a legitimate grievance based on this history, it only means that they were wronged doubly; it does not mean that white people who came to the land much later than any tribes had carte blanche to steal everything in sight. If we take the position that tribes displacing one another justified white people doing the same to all the tribes, this would mean that a foreign nation has every right to conquer the United States and drive white people from their homes. Secondly, while brutal intertribal warfare tribes long predated colonization, a strong case can be made that it was exacerbated in some ways by whites taking more and more land, which arguably increased the competition over the remaining land. This is especially true in light of whites often supplying their preferred tribes with guns to give an advantage against rival tribes.
Every nation and culture attempts to make excuses for its various cruelties. The U.S. is quite good at doing this, but we have at least gotten more honest in the past fifty years or so. Still, you can count on large swathes of the Right to keep trying to whitewash these atrocities. Here, they are tacitly making the argument that any people from a non-utopian society deserve to be conquered, dispossessed of their land, killed, or enslaved. It is an argument they may live to regret.