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Stolen Continents: The New World Through Indian Eyes Paperback – February 8, 1993
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From Publishers Weekly
Wright ( Time Among the Maya ) here presents a "New World" history, told from the perceived perspective of natives and lambasting the conquering whites, going back to Columbus: Cortes, de Soto, Pizarro, for example, are seen as crass, cruel, greedy invaders. To illustrate what he views as an epic wrong, the author probes five tragic encounters--with Aztec, Maya, Inca, Cherokee and Iroquois cultures. Using materials recorded as contemporaneously as possible, from the Incas to Cherokee principal chief Wilma Mankiller, the book follows a trail of treachery, blood and futility. Had the white race's diseases not wreaked havoc on the natives, writes the author, the "conquest" may have ended differently. While his scholarship proves marvelous, Wright's disjointed account is not likely to hold the reader's attention.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
Clear and concise history detailing the experiences of Native Americans on both continents from 1492 to 1990, from travel-writer and Mayan specialist Wright (Time Among The Maya, 1989; On Fiji Islands, 1986, etc.). Rather than attempt a comprehensive rendering of the centuries of genocide practiced by those who came in the wake of Columbus, Wright sensibly opts to present a few of the ``highlights.'' The savagery practiced against five major cultures--the Maya, Inca, Aztec, Cherokee, and Iroquois--and their responses appear in three stages, encompassing five hundred years: the initial periods of contact in each case; the hard and bloody struggles of these peoples once the battle was joined; and the modern phase, in which resistance continues along with the resolve to endure. Using contemporary native accounts wherever possible, in the belief that the white version has been heard often enough, Wright recounts Montezuma's failed strategy to welcome Corts as an equal, which led to his palace becoming his prison; the Cherokee Nation's willingness two centuries later to emulate Western civilization, which only brought forced removal to Oklahoma and death along the Trail of Tears; and other base betrayals. Even with their societies largely destroyed, however, retention of an indigenous identity for the Incan descendants in Peru and their Mayan counterparts in Guatemala, and events such as last year's tense standoff between defiant Iroquois and thousands of Canadian troops can be seen, Wright says, as evidence that a determined native resistance continues. Familiar facts but a distinctive viewpoint: an intensely partisan chronicle of centuries of dishonor, written in a fluid, vivid style. (Sixteen-page b&w photo insert--not seen.) -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The format is interesting. Five groups are covered: Aztec, Maya, Inca, Cherokee and Iroquois. There are chapters on each, in that order, and in three separate sections, named: Invasion, Resistance and Rebirth.
This is a survey book, but it has details that will add historical knowledge, I would think, for any reader. The bias is clearly on the side of the indigenous people. At the same time, the point made repeatedly is that much of what happened would seem to be inevitable. The Europeans were what they were. And, if Columbus had not made it to America in 1492, someone else would soon have. But it is what the Europeans do to the indigenous people and their land once they arrive that is also the point. It sets a tone of ruthlessness and exploitation that we are still trying to put in balance and perspective. That, it would seem, is the thesis of the book.
Clearly, the Spanish did not come for cultural studies. The Caribbean Indians, for example, says the author, "were so thoroughly exterminated that they left not a single account (of who they were)." And the numbers of natives who die as the result of the "invasions" is mindboggling.
Disease, of course, is the culprit for most deaths. And most of the populations die before, not after or as a result, of the conquests. In return, Europe receives syphilis. But in as many as ten waves of disease in the New World, the native population is literally decimated. Less than a tenth of the original populations from Mexico south survives by the year 1600.
The Spanish came primarily for the riches of gold and/or silver or whatever the New World had to offer. They were relatively straightforward about their goals. Repeatedly, in their initial encounters with native people, they would read, in Spanish, what was called "The Requirement." It said that God created the earth and its people and that the Pope was in charge of all people. So, if they would be so kind as to agree to become Catholics and to be obedient to Spain, they would be just fine. But if they objected, they would be ruthlessly conquered and enslaved, and it would be their fault. How simple is that!
With this formality completed, the Spanish could be ruthless beyond belief, totally ignoring the commandment of "Thou Shall Not Kill." Per the author, Cortez' lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, was "a pathological killer." Sure, the Aztecs were capable of horrendous actions, as well, but burning live people to death in public was not one of them. The Spanish did this and more, repeatedly. At an Easter festival, for example, dancers who performed at the celebration were massacred, on orders from Alvarado, following their performance for, seemingly, no good reason. A large number of Indian nobles were also killed.
Moving south, the Mayan civilization had collapsed well before the Spanish arrived. Tikal, in Guatemala, for example, had been abandoned for 600 years. What remained were pockets of relatively small Mayan states. These groups could have united and recovered to their former heights, over time, had the Spanish not arrived. But Pedro de Alvarado would not allow that to be the case. He would become the ruthless conqueror of Guatemala and Central America.
The Inca empire, in contrast, was only about 100 years old when the Spanish arrived. The diseases introduced by Europeans set in place deterioration, so that when Francisco Pizarro arrives with 200 men and 70 horses, he was able to conquer the Inca people, despite their overwhelming numbers.
(Of note here is that while the Aztecs, initially, viewed Cortez and his men as gods, the Mayans and Incas did not. Also, more blending of the people occurs in Mexico than in other areas, the apparent reason being that the capital of Mexico remained the same, "forcing the two societies into close contract at the center." Also of note is that the Aztec capital held 250,000 people when Cortez arrived, four times the number living in London at the time.)
In North American, of course, it is more the English and French that arrive to settle and seek permanence, in this case at the expense of the native Indians. But there is a similar pattern: The number of natives greatly outnumbered the invaders, but disease decimates the people and their leadership. By hook or by crook, the invaders pull off the initial thrust and establish a foothold, if not a dominance. This is followed by waves and waves of more Europeans. And, with their increasing numbers, they ask for and/or demand more land and control.
As for the numbers, per the author, in 1600 there are but a "handful" of whites in Eastern North America, about 250,000 by 1700 and as many as five million by 1800. Also per the author, in New Spain, alone, there may have been as many as 20 million native people at the time of the arrival of Columbus. By the mid-1800's, that number would be less than three million.
But it was the clash of cultures that is also in play. Says the author, in talking about the Cherokee, "The problems were those which arise wherever a stable, collective system and one based on expansion and individual profit collide....To obtain respect in the native world, people had to redistribute wealth; for esteem in the white world, they had to hoard it. To a Cherokee, sufficient was enough; to a white, more was everything....By 1808, the United States began to push hard for removal of the entire Cherokee nation." Reportedly said by future president Andrew Jackson to Georgia congressmen: "Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they'll move."
It is good to point out that what adds to the book being a winner, in addition to its format and flow, is the occasional literary offering. Here is an example on the subject of the decimation of the people: "The plague that killed the kings of Mexico, Guatemala and Peru, and half their subjects...had struck equally hard in the unknown kingdoms of the North....(these became but) remnants of once-powerful states....America seemed a virgin land waiting for civilization. But Europe had made the wilderness it found; America was not a virgin, she was a widow."
The second section of the book, entitled, "Resistance," chronicles the period following the occupation or at least the permanence of settlement. Because the initial thrusts of Europeans has limited numbers, the period of conquest is to be followed by resistance, which is successful many times. What the book calls "without question the most successful Indian revolt in New World history" was the Great Caste War begun in 1874. This was a revolt by Mayans in the Yucatan. Whites were killed and land was retaken. Mayans retained control of the area for decades before being overrun by Mexican armies.
But, overall, the coming together of the cultures continued during this period of resistance. The word "syncretism" is used by the author. And in the generations that are to come, mixing of the blood is creating a mestizo people and a mixed culture. Many native people are adopting to European ways. Not all, for sure, but many. And, overall, there is no turning back, totally, to what it was before.
Says the author, "When the occupation is as long and irreversible as it had been in the Americas, resistance passes through many phases before it is either crushed conclusively or manages to achieve a partial solution to the dilemma of conquest and survival."
In North America, what happens to the Cherokee before and after the Civil War in the United States is as bad as it gets. "In the summer of 1838, the United States army rounded up all 16,000 Cherokees and confined them for months in disease-infested camps. " What followed was a forced trek west, called "The Trail of Tears." "By the time it was over, 4,000 Cherokee had died enroute to land in what would become the state of Oklahoma.
For those remaining behind, living on "Indian land," some of the Cherokee had slaves and plantations and were doing relatively well. More and more, they were adapting to European ways. But they chose to fight with The South in the war. And when the war was over, agreements and treaties meant little to the whites, who, in increasing numbers wanted to move west and to acquire land. And out west, land occupied by Indians would be divided and offered in 160 acre plots to all, reducing the total land initially granted to the Indians. Then, the railroad was built, running through their land, bringing more immigrants. And later, oil would be discovered in the area. Attempts by Indians to have a state of Indians, named "Sequoyah," within the United States, would be denied.
In what is perhaps a good summary of the position of the Indians of North America, an Iroquois leader says, "You now have become a great people, and we have scarcely a place to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but are not satisfied. You want to force your religion on us....You say there is one way to worship the great Spirit....(But) If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?"
The third section of the book is entitled, "Rebirth." It talks about the various modern movements to recapture and retain native culture. In Latin America, of course, Spanish political control is gone by 1820, leaving behind the Spanish language and Catholic religion. In Guatemala, a "Ladino" class emerges to dominate. The successful introduction of coffee creates wealth for some, removal from native lands for others. In the Yucatan, Mayans number more than one million, about half the population of the peninsula. There, the Mayan language is spoken by many, and there are groups that continue dedicated to a separation from Mexico. In Peru, the small white majority have retained power over a people who have become 50 percent mestizo. One-third of the country lives in the city of Lima.
In North America, the Cherokee, despite all they have been through, number more than 100,000 in Oklahoma, with many speaking their native language. This Cherokee nation has its own government, with the mission to ensure that the nation continues to exit. Also surviving is a Navajo nation, with dreams of becoming the first native Indian state. But it can be a hustle. Says the author, "In 1982, the Reagan administration cut funding for reservations and encouraged Indians to milk the taxpayer through bingo halls instead."
Perhaps the thesis of the book comes near the end in the following statements, "The past cannot be changed, but what we make of it certainly can....They could start teaching the other side of history - the dark side - in their schools....(and) the intruders and their offspring can at least make room for the American peoples and their offspring who remain....They can offer true equality....The invaders can stop `conquering and discovering'.... (and) to begin to treat America as a home in which we live, not one to ransack...."
Said another way, "The Spanish soldier of fortune wanted gold and serfs, so he could live the idle, dominating life. The English peasant wanted land, and to get it he did again what his forefathers had done to the forebears of the Welsh. That history happened, it cannot be redone."
And from an earlier part of the book, "Euro-Americans do not like to be reminded that their presence in America was essentially parasitic until they grew strong enough to do without the host."
In conclusion, the format of the book is a good one. Historical details are there, and most of them come from the perspective of the native people. That in itself gives value to the book, which I highly recommend.