“Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Chief Seattle, 1854
As a boy of eight or nine years old,
I played Cowboys and Injuns in my back garden.
The bottom third of the garden was covered with bushes and shrubs,
So it was easy to forget I was in the middle of Warwick.
Sometimes, I played with friends, but usually alone.
My friends always wanted to be Cowboys;
I preferred being an Injun.
Injuns were brave, other-worldly, raw;
Half-naked, paint-daubed and honest.
Honest Injuns –
With their feathered head-dresses and peace-pipes;
With their bows and arrows,
Their tomahawks and knives, and spears for hunting.
That was me, with my bow of Birch,
And knotted household string stretched tight from end to end;
With arrows of garden cane,
And a rubber-bladed Bowie knife tucked in my belt.
I prowled the back garden, foraging for food,
Keeping a watchful eye on the horizon,
Always on the lookout for the white man –
With his guns, and his religion, his drink and his trinkets.
They – the Cowboys – were bad men:
Outlaws, rustlers, soldiers, drunks.
Even the occasional whiter-than-white Sheriff was susceptible to bribery,
Or to the considerable charms of white women.
I knew all of this via the films I watched
On our black and white television.
Whenever there was big trouble,
I wanted the Injuns to triumph,
Which – given the nature of Hollywood –
Was always a wasted dream.
Hollywood had a lot to answer for,
With its mythic portrayal of the noble settler:
Clean-shaven, square-jawed, blue-eyed, always heroic;
The upright Cavalry officer: stubble-chinned,
Sweat-stained arm-pits and chest, grimly determined;
The clown alcoholic: drooling, half-asleep, but with a heart of gold;
And the poor, defenceless, damsel in distress:
Impractically glamorous, impossibly small-waisted,
Prissy to the core, and forever in danger from the savage redskin –
Who was a whooping, snarling animal, a beast on heat,
A monstrous devil.
That was the word usually employed to describe the Injun.
“He’s plain uncivilized, see, don’t know his right from his wrong.
No teachin’ nor nothin’ will change him, all he gets is the gun.”
And so on.
All drivel, of course, but trotted out time and time again.
And the Injun certainly ‘got’ the gun – repeatedly.
And when he wasn’t being shot at, he was betrayed and humiliated.
The Injun deserved it, after all, since he was clearly stupid,
As well as uncivilized –
A killing combination.
In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure
Why I identified with the native inhabitants.
Instinctively, I just knew they were the good guys.
They’d lived on the land for thousands of years,
Having originally travelled from north-eastern Asia,
Across the Bering land bridge,
And down through what is now Alaska.
As time passed, the aboriginals – a Great Commonwealth –
Comprising hundreds of different tribes and sub-tribes,
Spread throughout the continent; north, south, east, west.
Custodians of the land, not owners.
Had Eden truly existed, then perhaps this was it.
Not that I knew any of this when I was a boy,
Playing in my back garden.
Neither did I know the Injuns didn’t just live in wigwams –
The white-man’s generic term for tent or house –
But a variety of dwellings, dependent on the environment,
And the raw building materials available.
Snow-houses, pueblos, teepees, chickees;
Earthlodges, longhouses, barabaras, quigley holes;
Grass houses, wetu, cliff settlements, sod houses…
Each one inextricably part of the local milieu.
Unsurprisingly, tribal customs varied from one group to another,
And social, political and religious mores
Had as much to do with the geography and the local climate,
As they had with the dictates of a ruling elite.
If there was a signal idea that unified the different tribes,
Then it was organic kinship –
A concrete form of inter-connectedness between all clan members.
And this signal idea, this guiding notion, was reinforced
By the use and preservation of the orenda, the wakd, the mahopa,
The manitowi, the pokunt…
Different terms, employed by different tribes,
But all of them referring to a spiritual energy,
Present in all things – from a powerful shaman
To a seemingly inconsequential insect.
Supernatural, yet internal, it represented the life-force,
That both preceded and demonstrated accomplishment.
To the white man, it simply meant ‘magic’ –
A typically ignorant misunderstanding of something all-encompassing
Not that everything was sweetness and light across the vast territories.
Inter-tribal conflict occurred, over the course of several millenia,
For all sorts of reasons:
The pursuit of fertile lands,
As a form of revenge for slights inflicted (actual or perceived),
In the name of honour,
At the behest of a powerful shaman…
And because boys will be boys.
Eden was no Paradise when war took hold.
Even so, the indigenous peoples survived and flourished.
Thousands of years without polluting their habitat,
Without destroying one another,
Without the culling to extinction of other animals,
Without falling victim to plague or epidemic…
Until the arrival of the white man.
The first European to properly set foot
On the unknown continent, was an Icelander,
By the name of Leifur Eiriksson.
Son of Erik the Red, one-time Viking and Christian convert,
His ship was blown off-course, en route to Greenland,
Eventually making landfall in what is now Newfoundland.
Leifur was surprised to discover self-sown wheatfields and grapevines,
And, as a result, he named the land Vinland.
That was in the year ten hundred, or thereabouts –
Almost five hundred years before the arrival
Of an Italian colonizer called Cristiforo Colombo.
It’s not known for certain if Eiriksson encountered native inhabitants,
But it’s a sorry fact that Colombo did.
An unappealing, ambitious man,
Cristoforo was convinced he could reach the East Indies
By sailing westwards,
Thereby establishing a lucrative trade route
On behalf of the Spanish kingdoms.
He failed to anticipate the giant land-mass
Between the Canary Islands and Japan,
And, instead, found himself on the island of Guanahani,
As the native inhabitants called it,
Which he renamed San Salvador.
Even though the indigenous Arawaks were hospitable,
Cristoforo seized several of them,
Until they showed him the source of their gold.
Deciding they’d make good servants and slaves,
He also determined to convert them to Christianity.
Of course, as a good Christian himself,
He was responsible for instigating the Atlantic slave trade,
As well the casual butchering of the natives.
And along with their deliberate slaughter,
The indigenous peoples were decimated
By the arrival and spread of European diseases.
The white man had arrived…
Initially convinced he’d landed in Asia,
And despite all evidence to the contrary,
Colombo called the natives Indians –
And the name stuck.
He was also happy to claim the title, ‘discoverer’,
Even though that was palpably untrue.
One of the earliest examples of ‘fake news’, perhaps.
Thus, the foundation of the new continent
Was built on a bare-faced lie.
Next, enter Amerigo Vespucci –
Explorer, financier and fabricator
On a par with Cristofero.
A fellow Italian, he claimed to have first visited
The new world in fourteen ninety-seven,
Just five years after Colombo first landed at Guanahani.
In fact, the only certain voyage undertaken by Vespucci
Was in fifteen hundred and one,
Under the command of Goncalo Coelho.
Out of four claimed voyages,
Only one bears full scrutiny,
Although nothing is certain.
What is certain, or so it seems,
Is that the German cartographer, Martin Waldseemuller,
Named the re-discovered continent
America, in honour of Vespucci.
However, it’s worth mentioning a third Italian,
The Genoese navigator, Giovanni Caboto –
Or John Cabot, as he came to be known in England.
Like Eiriksson before him,
Cabot probably gained land
At what is now Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland,
In fourteen ninety-seven.
He’d set sail from Bristol,
Where his paymaster was one Richard Amerike –
A derivation of the surname, Merrick,
And curiously similar to America…
Coincidence or otherwise,
The continent of America, north and south,
Originally discovered by the indigenous peoples,
Rediscovered by the Europeans several thousand years later,
Was set for a torrid time.
In the Biblical myth of Exodus,
The Hebrew slaves flee Egypt,
The land of their oppressors,
And, after much aimless wandering in the desert,
Come to the land of Canaan,
As promised to them by the Lord, their God,
Where, under direct instruction,
They slaughter all of the inhabitants –
“But you shall devote to them complete destruction,
The Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites,
The Hivitites and the Jebusites.”
The fact that this version of events is far from accurate,
And downright erroneous on several levels,
Makes no difference.
The crucial point is the political-religious significance
Of the quest for, and ownership of, the Promised Land.
In reality, it was a Deuteronomistic history,
Cobbled together by the priests who served YHWH,
During the seventh century BCE, when Josiah ruled Judah:
Part actual, part wishful thinking, part pure invention,
And a means of unifying the northern and southern kingdoms.
The new narrative was hammered home as de facto truth:
The Hebrews were God’s chosen people,
And the land of Israel was theirs, in perpetuity, come what may.
A convenient confluence of religious conformity
And nationalist propaganda.
Colombo was much taken with the idea
That the continent to the west
Was the Promised Land,
An “Earthly Paradise”, located “at the end of the Orient”…
And thus, a template was set,
For subsequent European settlers to follow.
The new land was their land, because it was,
Because… because it just was.
With due Christian zeal, the new continent of America
Was systematically colonized by European migrants.
And they crossed the ocean from all quarters
Of the old continent:
Spain, England, Courland, Denmark;
Holland, France, Malta, Norway;
Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Sweden.
Roman Catholics were the first religious group to migrate,
Followed by Anglicans, Calvinists, Puritans, Presbyterians;
Huguenots, Lutherans, Baptists, Anababtists, Quakers;
Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and Jews.
In some sense, all were seeking a form of redemption,
Via a brave new world,
But they were also seeking riches and land –
And since the Lord helped those who helped themselves,
That’s precisely what they did.
The fact that the indigenous peoples,
Howsoever hospitable they initially were,
Stood in their way, on what was regarded
As sacred territory,
Made no difference.
In the space of a few hundred years,
Two holocausts took place –
both at the expense of the native tribes –
And both caused by the colonizers.
The first holocaust was inadvertent, in that European settlers
Didn’t knowingly bring their pathogens with them.
However, given the lack of immunity from
Smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid,
Typhus, influenza, pertussis, tuberculosis,
Cholera, diphtheria, chicken-pox, the common cold,
Assorted sexually transmitted diseases,
Bubonic plague, mumps, pleurisy and yellow fever,
The indigenous population was decimated.
From the sixteenth century
Through to the twentieth century,
No fewer than ninety-three confirmed
Epidemics and pandemics
Were caused directly by contact with the Europeans.
It’s impossible to estimate the actual number of victims –
Tens of millions, certainly –
But it’s a fair assumption that up to eighty percent
Of the aboriginal peoples were wiped out.
And this had a knock-on effect,
In terms of tribal lands,
Since without native warriors to protect them,
The new settlers were less constrained
In their push across the continent.
And push they did,
In search of profitable territory and merchandise.
The colonizers had two objectives in mind:
To seize as much land as possible – placing it
Under the rule of their law –
And to spread Christianity far and wide.
Given the alien nature of both the imposed law,
And a religion which lacked respect for the earth,
It was inevitable that violent conflict would ensue.
Thus, the second holocaust began –
Brutal, systematic and without precedent.
In the course of nearly three hundred years,
Eliminationist warfare was conducted against the tribes.
British colonists, in particular, and then
The United States itself,
Did everything possible to gain
Every inch of land they could.
According to the United Nations convention,
Any one of five acts is considered genocide,
If committed with the intent to destroy,
In whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group –
a) killing members of the group;
b) causing serious physical or mental harm to members of the group;
c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Given the terror, torture and sexual abuse,
The massacres and military occupations,
Removals of indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories,
Forced removal of aboriginal children to military-like boarding schools,
Allotment, and a deliberate policy of termination,
The colonists – and British colonists in particular –
And the United States Government.
Were, and remain, guilty of genocide.
As a young boy, the details of the atrocities
Committed against the tribal nations
Were unknown to me.
Neither did I know the specifics of the original
Migrational pattern of the First Nations,
Several thousands of years before the new wave
Of European colonists took place.
I did know, however, that Columbus did not discover America,
Even though my school teacher insisted he did.
My dad had already told me about the Norseman, Leif Erikson,
And how he landed in Newfoundland,
Long before the Italian made landfall in the Bahamas.
More than that, my dad said America didn’t belong to either of them,
Because the Red Indians were there already.
Despite his rather dated terms of reference –
Since the natives were neither red nor Indians –
Dad was precisely accurate in his assessment.
From unintended biological warfare,
To deliberately infecting blankets with smallpox –
As happened at Fort Pitt, in seventeen sixty-three –
In an attempt to “extirpate this execrable race”;
From skirmish after skirmish, and mass poisonings,
To the dismembering, beheading and raping
Of three thousand people in one day –
As happened in front of Father Bartolome de La Casas,
In Cuba, during the early sixteenth century;
From the murder of natives for their scalps –
As a way of generating income –
To the Wounded Knee Massacre of eighteen ninety,
Where between one hundred and fifty, and three hundred
Natives were murdered by soldiers –
With twenty of the soldiers awarded
The Medal of Honour by the United States Army;
From the Trail of Tears, in eighteen thirty-eight –
When the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek,
Seminole and Cherokee were forced from their traditional lands
In the southeastern United States, and relocated further west –
To the Long Walk of the Navajo – from Arizona to New Mexico –
In eighteen sixty-four;
From Native American Boarding Schools –
Where the pupils were forced to speak English, attend church,
And leave their native traditions and culture behind –
To the removal of native children from their families,
And placed in the care of white American foster homes –
As demonstrated in South Dakota, in two thousand and eleven,
And common practice for over one hundred years;
From a promise to provide free health care on reservations,
Made in seventeen eighty-seven –
A promise that’s never been kept –
To disproportionately high death rates from
Unintentional injuries and suicides,
And a high prevalence of risk factors for obesity,
Substance abuse, sudden infant death syndrome,
Teenage pregnancy, liver disease, hepatitis and
Mental health issues.
Like all genocides, the one directed against the First Nations
Was the inevitable result of regarding aboriginals
As sub-human, as devil worshippers, as beyond redemption.
Hand in hand with European corporations and banks,
Backed by government armies, and reinforced
By the crusading diligence of Christian fundamentalists,
There was a belief which emphasized the special virtues
Of the American people and their institutions,
The mission of the United States to redeem and remake
The Nation, and a determination to accomplish
What was regarded as Manifest Destiny.
In other words, the New World was the Promised Land,
And it belonged to the chosen people.
Disposing of the native inhabitants was as vital
To the United States, as the slaughtering
Of the Canaanites was to the Hebrews…
When my dad fought across Europe,
Between nineteen forty-four and nineteen forty-five,
He encountered American soldiers on a fairly regular basis.
He was always appalled at the way the white GI’s
Treated their black and native colleagues.
The white soldiers, according to dad,
Swaggered around the place,
With an air of assumed exceptionalism.
Manifest Destiny in action…
It’s been over fifty years since I pretended to be
An ‘Injun’, eyes peeled, keeping low between
The gooseberry bushes and the box trees.
I blush, now, at the term I once employed,
And I’ve since learnt to measure my words with care.
No longer an Injun, but a native warrior –
Brave and true, defender of my peoples,
Scourge of the powerful.
I still keep a lookout, of necessity, since the orange-tinted
White man is up to his old tricks,
Ready to break his treaties, abuse the sacred land,
To unleash his armed troops and police,
And finish the job he started all those years ago.
Recently, it’s become almost fashionable,
Via on-line social platforms in particular,
To stand in solidarity with the First Nations,
As if, by doing so, their problems will be eradicated,
As if, by the signing of petition after petition,
All will be mended, and the tribes will move back
To the territories they were once custodians of.
It’s a splendid thing that’s happening,
And I applaud it –
But for me, it is what it’s always been:
After all, from the age of eight or nine years old,
I was a First Nations man,
A tribal man,
Dafydd ap Pedr
“Blood Spangled Banner” and “Natives and Immigrants” montages: Claire Palmer