In this election year, African Americans and Latinos are getting a lot of attention. Immigrants too. We are a “nation of them.” Oops—Indians were here when the first European immigrants arrived, and are still. (But their voting numbers are small, and they are spread out over 500 reservations and scores of cities across the country.)
Indians don’t even speak the same language—or didn’t. Most of them speak English now, except for French speaking Metis who are mostly in Canada, and Spanish speaking Indians across South and Central America and Mexico. And the Mayan language speakers and others which are still strong enough to hold their own with Spanish and Portuguese south of our border. Linguists say there were some 2500 mutually unintelligible languages when the first Europeans arrived.
Or, you might want to count the Norse in Newfoundland as first new arrivals, or maybe some stray kon tiki boat from the Pacific that brought Islanders or Africans to the New World. But that is all pretty much academic in seeing what actually happened to the New World when the Old World got here. It was Columbus who started the rush from Spain—and Portugal and England, who misnamed the inhabitants “Indians,” shipped them back to Europe as slaves, worked them to death in gold mines on Hispanola as part of grants of land and labor known as encomiendas, and killed them off with diseases. Columbus brought horses and pigs and cows too, and sent back more than gold. Now you can study the “Columbian Exchange” to follow all that followed his New World adventure.
Eventually, Africans were brought to the Caribbean to work sugar cane and other crops, and as the English started settling further north, African slavery proper began. But what Columbus started with Indians had a good 100-year run before African American Slavery began its 250-year run up to the Civil War.
Indians—indigenous people—were here everywhere when Spanish and Portuguese, English and Dutch, indentured servants from everywhere and African slaves put in to American ports. There were—or had been—large concentrations of them, cities in fact, in Mexico and Peru, Central America and the Mississippi Valley, but there were also hundreds, no thousands of small groups spread from the tip of South America to the Arctic. Their 1492 numbers were reduced drastically and rapidly by overworking, disease, and murder, but they have survived, and it has been years of exploration, colonization, wars, treaties, settlements, missionizing, boarding school education, and who knows what else to bring us to the present as re Indians.
Indians are complicated! First, they were, as one historian said, “here to meet the boats.” This—the Americas, all of it—was their land! Secondly, they were and probably still are as diverse in backgrounds, languages, and cultures as Europe or Asia or Africa was in 1492. Third, their subjugation to European culture, laws, and people, has been conducted in so many ways: the aforementioned diseases, wars, work, treaties, laws, etc. And finally, they are still spread out across the entire region just as they were when first found. There were no slave markets like Richmond or New Orleans, and the country was never divided north-south by their presence as it was to and through the Civil War into Civil Rights.
Alvin Josephy once said that white liberals who had fought for black Civil Rights in the ‘60s thought they had done that job and would move on to the Indians; the Indians told them they didn’t want Civil Rights, but their Treaty Rights!
See how complicated Indians are. Which might be the reason that our Presidential candidates are not courting the Indian Vote.
And here we have to leave the colonial and mestizo cultures south of the US border; and acknowledge that the people called Latinos on both sides of the border have their own complications, but they share language, and for most political purposes we Norte Americanos can thus lump them all together! The Latino vote. “Illegals.” “Immigrants” (well, maybe not “New Mexicans” or old California families, or….).
Good news: According to a recent piece in the New York Times re American Indians, “President Obama campaigned hard in 2008 for the votes of American Indians. He vowed that his administration would pay special attention to their grievances about federal mismanagement and the government’s recurring neglect of treaty obligations. ‘Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans — the first Americans,’” Obama said.
“Mr. Obama was given credit by tribal leaders for creating a White House council to maintain lines of communication with them; establishing a buyback program to help tribes regain scattered lands; expanding the jurisdiction of tribal courts; and including tribal women under the protection of the Violence Against Women law in 2013. Reaching out to Indian nations has been ‘one of the hallmarks of this administration,’” according to Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation.
By all accounts, Obama has been the best President for Indians since Richard M. Nixon. Talk about complicated!