It is unlikely to have escaped notice that this book is being published to coincide with the Columbian Quincentennial—the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide that nearly expunged the Western Hemisphere of its people. It is, however, less probable that many readers will know that 1992 also is the 50th anniversary of the Nazis’ conversion of Auschwitz from a prisoner of war and concentration camp into a chamber of unspeakable horrors, designed to exterminate systematically as many as possible of Europe’s Jews, Gypsies, and other Nazi-characterized “useless lives.”
As we have seen, one of the preconditions for the Spanish and Anglo-American genocides against the native peoples of the Americas was a public definition of the natives as inherently and permanently—that is, as racially—inferior beings. To the conquering Spanish, the Indians more specifically were defined as natural slaves, as subhuman beasts of burden, because that fit the use to which the Spanish wished to put them, and because such a definition was explicable by appeal to ancient Christian and European truths—through Aquinas and on back to Aristotle. Since the colonizing British, and subsequently the Americans, had little use for Indian servitude, but only wanted Indian land, they appealed to other Christian and European sources of wisdom to justify their genocide: the Indians were Satan’s helpers, they were lascivious and murderous wild men of the forest, they were bears, they were wolves, they were vermin. Allegedly having shown themselves to be beyond conversion to Christian or to civil life—and with little British or American need for them as slaves—in this case, straightforward mass killing of the Indians was deemed the only thing to do.
Native peoples, however, are not alone as objects of Christianity’s disdain. During most of the past millennium of European history—since at least the first pogrom in Germany in the year 1096—Jews have lived in wary knowledge of their own precarious existence. Entire volumes exist that detail Christian Europe’s long-entrenched and pathological hatred of Jews and all things Jewish. There is neither room nor need to recount again that bitter history here. But one example will make a necessary point. In a lengthy tract of 1543 entitled On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther referred to Jews as “a plague, a pestilence,” as “venomous, bitter worms,” as “a desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, and devilish lot,” as “useless, evil, pernicious people,” as “tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil,” as a “brood of vipers,” and as “mad dogs.” With his characteristically crude eloquence Luther, of course, was only speaking the thoughts that countless Christian saints and saintly aspirants had held and expressed regarding Jews for centuries. So, too, was he representing the ideas of Christian masses when he offered his “sincere advice”:
to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.. . . I [also] advise that their houses be razed and destroyed. . . . I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. . . . that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. . . . that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. . . . that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.. . . I [also] recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow. . . . But if the authorities are reluctant to use force and restrain the Jews’ devilish wantonness, the latter should, as we said, be expelled from the country and be told to return to their land and their possessions in Jerusalem, where they may lie, curse, blaspheme, defame, murder, steal, rob, practice usury, mock, and indulge in all those infamous abominations which they practice among us, and leave us our government, our country, our life, and our property, much more leave our Lord the Messiah, our faith, and our church undefiled and uncontaminated with their devilish tyranny and malice.1
Even to someone possessed of Luther’s towering ferocity and hate, however, Jews in that time were not yet considered a separate category of being. Indeed, after almost 200 pages of vituperative screed such as that extracted out above, Luther closes his diatribe by saying: “May Christ, our dear Lord, convert them mercifully and preserve us steadfastly and immovably in the knowledge of him, which is eternal life. Amen.”2
In sum, for all their allegedly despicable traits, Jews still had souls, they still were human—and it still was possible that they might be saved. Time, of course, would change that perception, at least for some later Christians of Teutonic ancestry. It took a long while for this shift in perception to work toward its hideously logical conclusion—although in Spain, during the time that Luther was writing, the doctrine of limpieza de sangre was doing its part in laying the essential groundwork—but three centuries later an otherwise insignificant German writer and Jew-hater named Wilhelm Marr publicly proposed that Jews were a separate and degenerate and dangerously polluting race. The idea was picked up by others who churned out their own variations on the theme.3
“In these works the Jews are shown not simply as evil,” Norman Cohn has observed, “but as irremediably evil, the source of their depravity lies no longer simply in their religion but in their very blood.”4 Among those more influential than Marr who elaborated on his slander was a devout Christian of puritanically ascetic sexual pretension, an Englishman-turned-German named Houston Stewart Chamberlain. To Chamberlain a fight to the death—a holy war—between Jews and Aryans was inevitable, and once the Jewish “‘race’ was decisively defeated,” writes Cohn of Chamberlain’s grand design, “the Germanic ‘race’ would be free to realize its own divinely appointed destiny—which was to create a new, radiant world, transfused with a noble spirituality and mysteriously combining modern technology and science with the rural, hierarchical culture of earlier times.”5 If that is a dream of manifest destiny that sounds disturbingly familiar to students of early American history—with echoes in the writings of John Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, and others—Chamberlain once made an arresting historical connection of his own: upon meeting Hitler, he wrote, he thought of Martin Luther.6
Chamberlain’s intuition wasn’t wrong. And therein, at first, appears to be a paradox. For we have suggested that Luther’s Judeophobia, hateful though it was, was separated from Judeocide—from the Holocaust—by the absence in Luther’s thought of a “racial” definition of the Jews, a definition that was essential to Hitlerian genocidal ideology. It is a distinction that should not be minimized. But neither should something else be forgotten: for all that Hitler held Christianity in low regard, central to his thinking, as well as to that of the Christian Fathers (and to Luther), was an intense concern with human depravity, with pollution, with defilement—and with cleansing, purity, and purgation—as well as an absolute and violent animosity for all who disagreed with him.7
It is, of course, only coincidental, but during the summer of 1924, while Hitler was imprisoned outside Munich and was dictating to Rudolf Hess the contents of Mein Kampf, the author Joseph Conrad died of a heart attack near Canterbury, England. On the surface, there was almost nothing that the two men had in common. Among his numerous crimes against humanity, for instance, Hitler was to become the architect of Operation Barbarossa, the furious invasion of the Soviet Union that killed more than three million Soviet troops during just the first three months of fighting, while Conrad had condemned all European imperialism, and especially the exploitation of Africa, as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.”8 But just as Hitler had nothing but scorn and hatred for altruistic behavior (brutality, he liked to say, was the sole basis for whatever advances humans had achieved), so Conrad was filled with a more genteel contempt for human promise. Thus, the day after reading a life of Saint Teresa, he wrote to his close friend Cunninghame Graham:
The mysteries of the universe made of drops of fire and clods of mud do not concern us in the least. The fate of humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.9
It would be of small consequence what Joseph Conrad thought about such matters if he were not generally considered, in Albert J. Guerard’s words, “the most philosophical and, as a psychologist, the most complex of English novelists,” and the author of two of “the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language.”10 One of those short novels, the one for which Conrad is most famous—and which “is today perhaps the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in English departments of American universities” as it is “read by practically every freshman as an introduction to great fiction”—is Heart of Darkness.11
There exist few, if any, superior fictional portrayals of the Christian West’s obsession with the immersion of the self in its own alleged vileness, or of Christian culture’s irresistible attraction to and simultaneous terror in the face of savagery and wilderness and wildness and the dark. As in the didactic stories of the early Christian hermits, who wandered in the barren desert and tormented themselves with everyday reminders of the disgusting filth that lurked within their bodies and their souls, Heart of Darkness is an exploration of the bleak and ghastly horror that much of Western thought has long believed resides in the core of every person as well as in the savage wilds beyond the far horizon. What has been remarked upon too little by Western readers of this work, however, is how infused it is with the malignancy of Conrad’s own racist vision. Indeed, it is telling that after what shortly will be a century of critical praise for Heart of Darkness, it took Chinua Achebe—a distinguished Nigerian novelist and man of letters—to demonstrate most clearly that while “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation [he] was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” And unaware because Conrad was himself “a thoroughgoing racist.”12
For Conrad, as for all those many millions who have read his work without revulsion, it is African humanity that intuitively serves to symbolize the worst—the most bestial and most ugly—of mankind’s inner essence. Conrad knew his Western readers would understand without instruction, and he was right. No argument is necessary, description is enough:
[S]uddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of the black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. . . . We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.13
“Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman”—for surely the purpose of this passage is to demonstrate as powerfully as possible just how absolutely inhuman the Africans truly seemed, and how close to the murky borderland of the animal world they really were; thus the impact of the European’s haunting sense “that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response” to—and a “remote kinship with”—such brutal, monstrous beings. As Achebe says in a different essay: “In confronting the black man, the white man has a simple choice: either to accept the black man’s humanity and the equality that flows from it, or to reject it and see him as a beast of burden. No middle course exists except as an intellectual quibble.”14 In fact, however, it is precisely that “intellectual quibble” that has poisoned Western thought, not only about Africans, but about all peoples of non-European ancestry, for centuries long past and likely for a good while yet to come. And therein lies the true heart of Western darkness. For the line that separates Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish fulminations from those of Adolf Hitler is a line of great importance, but it also is a line that is frighteningly thin. And once crossed, as it was not only in Germany in the early twentieth century, but in the Indies and the Americas four centuries before, genocide is but a step away.
From time to time during the past half-century Americans have edged across that line, if only temporarily, under conditions of foreign war. Thus, as John W. Dower has demonstrated, the eruption of war in the Pacific in the 1940s caused a crucial shift in American perceptions of the Japanese from a prewar attitude of racial disdain and dismissiveness (the curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Anthropology had advised the President that the Japanese skull was “some 2,000 years less developed than ours,” while it was widely believed by Western military experts that the Japanese were incompetent pilots who “could not shoot straight because their eyes were slanted”) to a wartime view of them as super-competent warriors, but morally subhuman beasts. This transformation became a license for American military men to torture and mutilate Japanese troops with impunity—just as the Japanese did to Americans, but in their own ways, following the cultural reshaping of their own racial images of Americans. As one American war correspondent in the Pacific recalled in an Atlantic Monthly article:
We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.15
Dower provides other examples of what he calls the “fetish” of “collecting grisly battlefield trophies from the Japanese dead or near dead, in the form of gold teeth, ears, bones, scalps, and skulls”—practices receiving sufficient approval on the home front that in 1944 Life magazine published a “human interest” story along with “a full-page photograph of an attractive blonde posing with a Japanese skull she had been sent by her fiancé in the Pacific.”16 (Following the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend in 1814, Andrew Jackson oversaw not only the stripping away of dead Indians’ flesh for manufacture into bridle reins, but he saw to it that souvenirs from the corpses were distributed “to the ladies of Tennessee.”)17
A little more than two decades after that Life photograph and article appeared, General William C. Westmoreland was describing the people of Vietnam as “termites,” as he explained the need to limit the number of American troops in that country:
If you crowd in too many termite killers, each using a screwdriver to kill the termites, you risk collapsing the floors or the foundation. In this war we’re using screwdrivers to kill termites because it’s a guerrilla war and we cannot use bigger weapons. We have to get the right balance of termite killers to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.18
Taking their cue from the general’s dehumanization of the Southeast Asian “gooks” and “slopes” and “dinks,” in a war that reduced the human dead on the enemy side to “body counts,” American troops in Vietnam removed and saved Vietnamese body parts as keepsakes of their tours of duty, just as their fathers had done in World War Two. Vietnam, the soldiers said, was “Indian Country” (General Maxwell Taylor himself referred to the Vietnamese opposition as “Indians” in his Congressional testimony on the war), and the people who lived in Indian country “infested” it, according to official government language. The Vietnamese may have been human, but as the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer, John Mecklin, put it, their minds were the equivalent of “the shriveled leg of a polio victim,” their “power of reason . . . only slightly beyond the level of an American six-year old.”19 Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdes could not have said it better.
And then, another two decades later still, in another part of the world, as American tanks by the hundreds rolled over and buried alive any humans that were in their path, the approved term for dead Iraqi women and children became “collateral damage.” Even well before the war with Iraq broke out, the U.S. Air Force’s 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron produced and distributed a songbook describing what they planned to do on their inevitable Middle East assignments. Here is the only sample that is publishable:
Phantom flyers in the sky,
Persian-pukes prepare to die,
Rolling in with snake and nape,
Allah creates but we cremate.20
The rest of the book’s verses are a melange of sadism and obscenity, most of them employing personifications of entire Arabic and Islamic peoples as racially inferior, maggot-infested women whose mass destruction by the Americans is equated with brutal, violent sex. During the brief duration of the war itself, American pilots referred to the killing of unarmed, retreating enemy soldiers as a “turkey shoot,” and compared the Iraqi people—otherwise known as “ragheads”—to “cockroaches” running for cover when allied planes appeared overhead. Graffiti on bombs slung under the wings of American aircraft labeled them as “Mrs. Saddam’s sex toy” and “a suppository for Saddam,” while the American field commander subsequently admitted in a television interview that he wished he had been able to complete his job: “We could have completely closed the door and made it a battle of annihilation,” he said; it was “literally about to become the battle of Cannae, a battle of annihilation” before—to his disappointment—the general was called off.21
It should be noted that the third century B.C. battle of Cannae, during which Carthaginian troops under the command of Hannibal almost completely exterminated a group of 80,000 to 90,000 Romans, is still regarded as an exemplar of total destructiveness to military historians. Even today, Italians living in the region where the attack took place refer to the site of the massacre as Campo di Sangue, or “Field of Blood.” In his own words, this is what General Norman Schwarzkopf had hoped to create in Iraq. And when confronted by the press with evidence that appeared to demonstrate the American government’s lack of concern for innocent civilians (including as many as 55,000 children) who died as a direct consequence of the war—and with a United States medical team’s estimate that hundreds of thousands more Iraqi children were likely to die of disease and starvation caused by the bombing of civilian facilities—the Pentagon’s response either was silence, evasion, or a curt “war is hell.”22
Indeed it is. The purpose of this brief tour across several recent battlegrounds is not simply to condemn what is so easily condemnable, however, but rather to illustrate how close to the surface of everyday life is the capacity for racist dehumanization and consequently massive devastation. For among the many things that warfare does is temporarily define the entire enemy population as superfluous, as expendable—a redefinition that must take place before most non-psychopaths can massacre innocent people and remain shielded from self-condemnation. And nothing is more helpful to that political and psychological transformation than the availability of a deep well of national and cultural consciousness that consigns whole categories of people to the distant outback of humanity.
But even the worst wars end. Military defeat leads to political surrender, for it is politics that most wars are about. Genocide is different. The purpose of genocide is to do away with an entire people, or to indiscriminately consume them, either by outright mass murder or by creating conditions that lead to their oblivion. Thus, the slave labor projects that worked people to death in the synthetic rubber factory at Auschwitz, or in the nearby coal mines, were no less genocidal than the gas chambers there and in other camps. Moreover, although Arno J. Mayer may well be correct in contending that “from 1942 to 1945, certainly at Auschwitz, but probably overall, more Jews [in the camps] were killed by so-called “natural” causes than by “unnatural” ones—“natural” causes being “sickness, disease, undernourishment, [and] hyperexploitation,” as opposed to “unnatural” causes such as “shooting, hanging, phenol injection, or gassing”—there can be no denying, as Mayer himself insists, that those who died “naturally” were no less victims of genocide than others who were murdered outright.23 Indeed, it is insufficient to stop even here. For as Michael R. Marrus rightly states:
It is clearly wrong to separate from the essence of the Holocaust those Jews who never survived long enough to reach the camps, or who were shot down by the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, or who starved in the ghettos of eastern Europe, or who were wasted by disease because of malnutrition and neglect, or who were killed in reprisal in the west, or who died in any of the countless other, terrible ways—no less a part of the Holocaust because their final agonies do not meet some artificial standard of uniqueness.24
The same is true of the anti-Indian genocide in the Americas. Just as those Jews and others who died of exploitation and disease and malnutrition and neglect and in “countless other, terrible ways”—other, that is, than straightforward cold-blooded butchery—would not have died when and where they did, but for the genocide campaign that was swirling furiously all about them, so too in the Indies and the Americas: the natives of Hispaniola and Mexico and Peru and Florida and Virginia and Massachusetts and Georgia and Colorado and California and elsewhere who died from forced labor, from introduced disease, from malnutrition, from death marches, from exposure, and from despair were as much victims of the Euro-American genocidal race war as were those burned or stabbed or hacked or shot to death, or devoured by hungry dogs.
To some, the question now is: Can it happen again? To others, as we said in this book’s opening pages, the question is, now as always: Can it be stopped? For in the time it has taken to read these pages, throughout Central and South America Indian men and women and children have been murdered by agents of the government that controls them, simply because they were Indians; native girls and boys have been sold on open slave markets; whole families have died in forced labor, while others have starved to death in concentration camps.25 More will be enslaved and more will die in the same brutal ways that their ancestors did, tomorrow, and every day for the foreseeable future. The killers, meanwhile, will continue to receive aid and comfort and support from the United States government, the same government that oversees and encourages the ongoing dissolution of Native American families within its own political purview—itself a violation of the U.N. Genocide Convention—through its willful refusal to deal adequately with the life-destroying poverty, ill health, malnutrition, inadequate housing, and despair that is imposed upon most American Indians who survive today.26
That is why, when the press reported in 1988 that the United States Senate finally had ratified the United Nations Genocide Convention—after forty years of inaction, while more than a hundred other nations had long since agreed to its terms—Leo Kuper, one of the world’s foremost experts on genocide wondered in print whether “the long delay, and the obvious reluctance of the United States to ratify the Genocide Convention” derived from “fear that it might be held responsible, retrospectively, for the annihilation of Indians in the United States, or its role in the slave trade, or its contemporary support for tyrannical governments engaging in mass murder.” Still, Kuper said he was delighted that at last the Americans had agreed to the terms of the Convention.27
Others were less pleased—including the governments of Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, who filed formal objections with the United Nations regarding the U.S. action. For what the United States had done, unlike the other nations of the world, was approve and file with the U.N. a self-servingly conditional instrument of ratification. Whatever the objections of the rest of the world’s nations, however, it now seems clear that the United States is unlikely ever to do what those other countries have done—ratify unconditionally the Genocide Convention.28
For more than forty years another nation with a shameful past, Poland, refused to acknowledge officially what had transpired in the death camps—including Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka—that had been located on Polish soil. But in the spring of 1991 Poland’s President, Lech Walesa, traveled to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Parliament, saying in part: “Here in Israel, the land of your culture and revival, I ask for your forgiveness.”29 At almost precisely that same moment, in Washington, angry members of the U.S. Senate were threatening to cut off or drastically reduce financial support for the Smithsonian Institution because a film project with which it was marginally involved had dared use the word “genocide” to describe the destruction of America’s native peoples. In that instant contrast of ethical principles, in the chasm of moral difference that separated the Polish President and the American Senators, the seamy underside of America’s entire history was briefly but brightly illuminated.
Illuminated as well at that moment was the persistence in American thinking of what has been termed the syndrome—the racist syndrome—of “worthy and unworthy victims.”30 For at the same time that almost all Americans would properly applaud President Walesa’s long-overdue acknowledgment of and apology for the horrors that were perpetrated against Jewish and other European “worthy” victims in Poland’s Nazi extermination centers during forty ghastly months in the 1940s, they by and large continue to turn their backs on the even more massive genocide that for four grisly centuries was perpetrated against what their apathy implicitly defines as the “unworthy” natives of the Americas.
Moreover, the suffering has far from stopped. The poverty rate on American Indian reservations in the United States, for example, is almost four times the national average, and on some reservations, such as Pine Ridge in South Dakota and Tohono O’Odham in Arizona (where more than 60 percent of homes are without adequate plumbing, compared with barely 2 percent for the rest of the country) the poverty rate is nearly five times greater than for the nation at large. The destitution and ill health and general squalor that are the norm on many reservations today are no different from conditions that prevail throughout much of the indigent Third World. Indeed, so desperate and demoralizing are life conditions on most reservations that the suicide rate for young Indian males and females aged 15 to 24 years is around 200 percent above the overall national rate for the same age group, while the rate for alcohol-caused mortality—itself a form of suicide—is more than 900 percent higher than the national figure among 15 to 24 year-old Indian males and nearly 1300 percent higher than the comparable national figure among 15 to 24 year-old Indian females.31
Meanwhile, the reservations themselves—the last chance for the survival of ancient and cherished cultural traditions and lifeways, however viciously deprived of resources they are by the overseeing state and federal governments—remain under relentless assault, at the same time that the United States with much fanfare about human rights is encouraging ethnic and national sovereignty movements in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Today, American Indian tribal lands total in size less than half of what they were in 1890, following the massacre at Wounded Knee and the supposed end of the euphemistically-named Indian wars.32 And much of the tribal land that still exists, constituting a little more than 2 percent of what commonly is the most inhospitable acreage in the United States, is in perpetual jeopardy of political disentitlement. Most of the Western Shoshoni people’s land, for example, was long ago confiscated for underground nuclear testing, while individual states routinely drive Indians off their land by denying tribes access to traditional water supplies and other necessary resources. The states are free to carry out such policies of confiscation because the federal government, in the disingenuous guise of granting Indians “self-determination,” steadfastly continues to abdicate its legal responsibility for defending tribes against state encroachment. Thus, the Indians’ ongoing struggle for a modicum of independence and cultural freedom is turned against them in a classic governmental maneuver of blaming the victim, while the campaign to terminate tribal sovereignty once and for all continues.
Greatly varied though the specific details of individual cases may be, throughout the Americas today indigenous peoples continue to be faced with one form or another of a five-centuries-old dilemma. At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and priests presented the Indians they encountered with a choice: either give up your religion and culture and land and independence, swearing allegiance “as vassals” to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown, or suffer “all the mischief and damage” that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you. It was called the requerimiento. The deadly predicament that now confronts native peoples is simply a modern requerimiento: surrender all hope of continued cultural integrity and effectively cease to exist as autonomous peoples, or endure as independent peoples the torment and deprivation we select as your fate.
In Guatemala, where Indians constitute about 60 percent of the population—as elsewhere in Central and South America—the modern requerimiento calls upon native peoples either to accept governmental expropriation of their lands and the consignment of their families to forced labor under criollo and ladino overlords, or be subjected to the violence of military death squads.33 In South Dakota, where Indians constitute about 6 percent of the population—as elsewhere in North America—the effort to destroy what remains of indigenous cultural life involves a greater degree of what Alexis de Tocqueville described as America’s “chaste affection for legal formalities.” Here, the modern requerimiento pressures Indians either to leave the reservation and enter an American society where they will be bereft and cultureless people in a land where poor people of color suffer systematic oppression and an ever-worsening condition of merciless inequality, or remain on the reservation and attempt to preserve their culture amidst the wreckage of governmentally imposed poverty, hunger, ill health, despondency, and the endless attempts of the federal and state governments at land and resource usurpation.34
The Columbian Quincentennial celebrations have encouraged scholars worldwide to pore over the Admiral’s life and work, to investigate every rumor about his ancestry and to analyze every jotting in the margins of his books. Perhaps the most revealing insight into the man, as into the enduring Western civilization that he represented, however, is a bland and simple sentence that rarely is noticed in his letter to the Spanish sovereigns, written on the way home from his initial voyage to the Indies. After searching the coasts of all the islands he had encountered for signs of wealth and princes and great cities, Columbus says he decided to send “two men up-country” to see what they could see. “They traveled for three days,” he wrote, “and found an infinite number of small villages and people without number, but nothing of importance.”35
People without number—but nothing of importance. It would become a motto for the ages.