Indian Question

Indian Question


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Those that survived the ravages of disease, famine, warfare, and maltreatment found themselves

in a different world, one organized to meet the demands of their European overlords. A whole

array of institutions was introduced to enable the colonists and their sovereigns to control the

human and natural resources of the Americas. These differed from one region to another, according

to the traditions of the invading nations and the nature of the Indian societies they encountered. 



The Columbian Exchange  (2003) / Europe and the People without History (1982) / Aristotle and the American Indians (1959)

The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (1982)

The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1984)  /  Genesis (1985), Faces and Masks (1987), and Century of the Wind (1988)

The Vision of the Vanquished (1977)  /  Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (1984)

Huarochiri: An Andean Society under Inca and Spanish Rule (1984)  /

Resistance, Rebellion and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries (1987)

Riot, Rebellion and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico (1988)  / Indian & Jesuit A Seventh Century Encounter (1982)

Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis (1988)

The first social experiments in America: A study in the development of Spanish Indian policy in the sixteenth century. 1964

*   *   *   *   *

Latin America’s Indian Question

  By David Maybury-Lewis and Paul H.Gelles


Christopher Columbus’s famous confusion led the European invaders of the Americas to refer to the inhabitants of the New World indiscriminately as Indians. Similar uncertainty has bedeviled all discussions of the Indians ever since. We can only guess how many Indians there were in the Americas when the Europeans arrived–between 35 and 40 million is one reasonable estimate. Nor can we establish how many Indians there are living in the Americas today. This is largely because of the centuries’ old debate over how to define an Indian, and who does the defining.

In colonial times, relations with and policies concerning the Indians were important items on the agendas of the colonizing powers. In the 19th century, however, the Indians became either physically or socially marginal to the newly independent nations of the western hemisphere. Indians at the frontiers were considered savages to be exterminated or, at best, rounded up and confined in remote places, where they would not interfere with “progress.” 

Meanwhile, in Central America and the Andean countries, where the new republics depended on a large Indian labor force, systematic attempts were made to compel the Indians to give up their identity and become assimilated into the national mainstream. At various times and places, the very category of “Indian” was formally abolished. Even in the absence of such formal prohibitions, the matter of who should be considered Indian remains undecided in many countries. 

Over the years, Indians have been defined, variously, as people of a certain racial stock, as people who can speak only an Indian language, as people who live in Indian communities, as people who maintain Indian customs m mixed communities, or as people who combine a number of these characteristics and sometimes others as well. Since the criteria are applied differently in different places and even differently by different people writing about the same place, both the definition and total numbers of “Indians” in the Americas today are uncertain.

One thing is clear: The European invasion of the Americas was a demographic disaster for the Indians. They perished from warfare and harsh treatment but in much larger numbers from disease and famine. The biological, social, and cultural consequences of the European invasion are well described in Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange (Greenwood Press, 1972). He points out that the conquest proved a shock to Indian society ” . . . such as only H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds can suggest to us.” 

Crosby, who teaches American studies at the University of Texas, documents the tremendous biological and demographic transformations that took place when the two worlds met; he tells how the diseases of the Old World cut a swathe through the populations of the New, causing the Indians to experience a “spectacular period of mortality.”

Those that survived the ravages of disease, famine, warfare, and maltreatment found themselves in a different world, one organized to meet the demands of their European overlords. A whole array of institutions was introduced to enable the colonists and their sovereigns to control the human and natural resources of the Americas. These differed from one region to another, according to the traditions of the invading nations and the nature of the Indian societies they encountered. 

The latter varied from the large Aztec and Inca polities to unstratified societies that lived by hunting and gathering. Eric Wolf, professor of anthropology at Herbert Lehman College, presents a broad historical overview of the impact of colonialism on native peoples in Europe and the People without History (Univ. of Calif., 1982). His book gives an excellent account of the nature of pre-conquest societies in the Americas and of their transformation during colonial times.

Meanwhile, the encounter with the Indians forced Europeans to rethink their views of the world and its inhabitants. The famous debates between the Dominican Las Casas and 16th-century Spanish theologian Sepulveda are carefully analyzed in historian Lewis Hanke’s Aristotle and the American Indians (Inc. Univ., 1959). The rights of the Indians were at issue, and these depended partly on how Indians were defined. Were they human? If so, what kind of humans were they? Were they savages, cannibals, heretics, or in other ways beyond the pale? If not, what were they, and how should they be treated?

Much has been written about the impact of the Indians on European thought. Anthony Pagden, an English scholar, treats the subject at length in The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge Univ., 1982). In The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (English trans., Harper & Row, 1984), Tzvetan Todorov, a French literary theorist, offers a strongly philosophical reading of the change in Europeans’ views of themselves as a result of their encounter with the Indians. 

Todorov’s discussion of both Indian and European attitudes contrasts dramatically with that of Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer who set out to retell the history of the New World since the conquest in his epic trilogy, Memory of Fire. In  Genesis (1985), Faces and Masks (1987), and Century of the Wind (1988); all English trans., Pantheon), he constructs out of excerpts and vignettes a vivid collage that makes the reader feel the horror as well as the grandiose drama of the history of the Americas.

Horror is a recurrent theme in the Indians’ view of the conquest, and it is eloquently recorded in the Mayan chronicles of Chilam Balam, written soon after the Spaniards had seized control of Mexico. Nathan Wachtel caught this sense of shock and horror in his pioneering book, The Vision of the Vanquished (English trans., Barnes & Noble, 1977). 

“The Indians,” he wrote, “seem to have been struck numb, unable to make sense of events, as if their mental universe had been suddenly shattered.” Wachtel does not stop there, however, but takes his story up to the present in order to show how the Indians, particularly those in the Andes, succeeded in defending and perpetuating their own values in. the face of powerful and determined efforts to eradicate them.

This remarkable tenacity, after the initial shock and through the continuing horror, is the subject of other recent studies, including Nancy Farriss’s Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (Princeton Univ., 1984) and Karen Spalding’s Huarochiri: An Andean Society under Inca and Spanish Rule (Stanford Univ., 1984). 

Nor was Indian resistance merely ideological. During the three centuries of colonial rule, periodic rebellions broke out, and in some parts of the Americas the Indians were never conquered. The rebellions often achieved temporary or local success, but precisely because they were local or at most regional affairs, they were always suppressed as soon as the power of the state could be concentrated and brought to bear against them. 

Two excellent studies of such rebellions, in the Andes and Central America, respectively, have recently appeared: Resistance, Rebellion and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, edited by historian Steve Stern (Univ. of Wisc., 1987) and Riot, Rebellion and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico, edited by historian Friedrich Katz (Princeton Univ., 1988). 

These volumes are unusual because they deal with the 19th and 20th centuries, and with the Indian-peasant continuum. They emphasize, as Stern puts it, that an “ethnic component is built into the oppressions, patterns of adaptation and resistance, sense of grievance, and aspirations that will loom large in the explanation and analysis of revolt.”

There is a striking contrast between the wealth of materials referring to Indians in colonial times and the dearth of similar treatments for the 19th century. As the newly independent countries of Latin America turned their attention to modernization and nation-building, they saw no place for Indians in either agenda. The Indian question thus came to be seen as an anachronism, and it was assumed that the Indians of the past would soon become the campesinos of the future.

In the 20th century, scholars tended to deal with national questions (which did not include the Indians) or to publish studies of Indian peoples or communities (in which the subjects were only tenuously related to national affairs). The most important exceptions came from Peru and Mexico, where traditions of indigenismo, or concern for the nations’ Indian heritage, became part of the national discourse. 

Peruvian writers such as Jose Carlos Mariategui, Haya de la Torre, and Hildebrando Castro Pozo incorporated a somewhat romantic view of the Indian into their political analyses, while in Mexico Manuel Gamio, Moises Saenz, and others dealt with the Indian question from a Mexican perspective. It was in Mexico, after the revolution of 1910-20, that the most serious attempt was made to put indigenismo into practice. But the traditional theses of Mexican indigenismo, namely that anthropology in the service of the revolutionary state should assist Indians to blend into the national melting pot, are now much criticized.

As the 20th century draws to a close, first-rate books dealing with the Indians’ place in their own countries are relatively rare. Even the problems of Peru, rent as it is with violent conflicts, are regularly written with only passing mention of the peculiar circumstances of its large Indian population. The same could be said of most of the countries of the Americas, with the exception of Guatemala and Brazil.

The slaughter of Indians by the Guatemalan authorities in recent years has been described and analyzed in Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis, edited by Robert Carmack (Univ. of Okla., 1988). The contributors to this volume show that the problems of Guatemala, often represented to North Americans as resulting from the conflict between communism and capitalism, are in fact rooted in the relations between Indians and the non-Indian elites.

Meanwhile the mistreatment of Indians in the Amazonian regions of Brazil, carried out in the name of development, is getting some attention in the world press. Yet international concern seems to focus more on the destruction of the rain forest than on the rights of the Indians, and there is no good general study showing why the Indian question has become such a sensitive political issue.

Until recently the Indians of Central and South America were treated as if they were invisible, except by specialists whose works were regarded as having little national significance. That is changing now that the Indians themselves are asserting their right to maintain their own cultures. However, the Indian demand for cultural pluralism is rarely taken seriously. 

Throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples continue to be caught in the crossfires of national politics. This has led to a growing realization among scholars that the situation of the Indians cannot be studied except in relation to each nation’s larger political agenda. At the same time, it is also becoming clear that the nations of the Americas cannot be fully understood without taking their treatment of the Indians into account. 

Fresh studies informed by these ideas are now in progress. They give us hope that the quincentennial of Columbus’s first landfall in the New World may be celebrated by the emergence of a more balanced vision of the shaping of the Americas.

Source: Wilson Quarterly, 03633276, Summer 90, Vol. 14, Issue 3

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”

*   *   *   *   *

Civilization: The West and the Rest

By Niall Ferguson

The rise to global predominance of Western civilization is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five hundred years. All over the world, an astonishing proportion of people now work for Western-style companies, study at Western-style universities, vote for Western-style governments, take Western medicines, wear Western clothes, and even work Western hours. Yet six hundred years ago the petty kingdoms of Western Europe seemed unlikely to achieve much more than perpetual internecine warfare. It was Ming China or Ottoman Turkey that had the look of world civilizations. How did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed? In Civilization: The West and the Rest, bestselling author Niall Ferguson argues that, beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts that the Rest lacked: competition, science, the rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic. These were the “killer applications” that allowed the West to leap ahead of the Rest, opening global trade routes, exploiting newly discovered scientific laws, evolving a system of representative government, more than doubling life expectancy, unleashing the Industrial Revolution, and embracing a dynamic work ethic. Civilization shows just how fewer than a dozen Western empires came to control more than half of humanity and four fifths of the world economy.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *





update 15 December 2011




Home  Cow Tom  Inside the Caribbean

Related files: Aristotle and America    Pre-Reformation Religious Ideas  Indian Question

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.