Conquest and Resistance in the Americas
The 10th Anniversary Edition
By Ronald Wright
How I loathe the term “Indian”…”Indian” is a term used to sell things—souvenirs, cigars, cigarettes, gasoline, cars…”Indian” is a figment of the white man’s imagination.
Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Ojibway, 1990
Written for the 500 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus
’ voyage, Ronald Wright’s Stolen Continents
sets out to present the story of the arrival and establishment of European power in the Americas from a new point of view…that of the indigenous Americans. Wright quotes from 500 years of writing and speeches from five American cultures – Aztec
. We are allowed a glimpse through their eyes of cities and empires long gone, and suffering and subjugation that is still all too present.
Wright says he was drawn to the study of pre-Columbian America because he learned nothing about it in school. The contemporary history of the Americas is more myth than fact; written by the victor and passed down over the centuries to become the official history of a new world. But voices from the other side can be found, despite the efforts of many to erase these cultures from history. Wright cites passages (and provides an extensive 55 pages of notes and bibliography) from these works while weaving a narrative that traces the lives of the Americans from arrival of Europeans in Mexico through to the Iroquois Oka crisis of 1990.
The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told.
Yellow Wolf, Nez Perce, c. 1877
The book is divided into three sections; Invasion, Resistance and Rebirth, with each section containing a chapter for each of the five cultures that Wright has chosen to study.
The Invasion section tells of the first meetings between American and European cultures, from the landing of Cortez in Mexico to Hernando de Soto’s expedition through Florida and the American South-East. In all of the cases presented by Wright, the American people welcomed the strange European guests into their homes, both sides displaying a sense of curiosity towards the alien cultures they saw before them. The Europeans were not long content to be merely guests, filled with a sense of religious and social superiority over their “savage” hosts. However, it was the third party at these meetings, the European diseases, that Wright sights as the source of the cataclysmic events that followed. Every American culture that came into contact with the Europeans was soon inflicted with smallpox and other diseases that decimated the populations. By the time Cortez and the Spanish returned to conquer Tenochtitlan, the population of the city had plummeted. Thousands were dead; thousands more were sick and dying. This scenario was played out throughout the different American cultures with similar results.
While the friendly greeting and hospitality during the first meeting was common throughout the different American cultures their methods of resistance, once they realized they were fighting for their lives, took many different approaches. The people of the Mayan Empire, spread throughout the rainforest of Central America, continued to practice their ancient traditions in secluded regions. Enraged at the discovery of such hidden sanctuaries, Friar Diego de Landa set out on a mission to eradicate the Mayan culture. He organized huge bonfires to burn their texts and religious symbols. The Aztec, stuck under the boot of Spanish colonial power, lived on in the offspring of the mixed relationships that became common in the new Spanish colony, until the two were inseparable and a new culture and people had risen. In the north, the Cherokee and Iroquois both rose up against the European powers that had been using them as pawns in their colonial wars.
The final section deals with the rebirth of the ancient cultures among their descendants, and the popular resistance movements that have grown in the past 150 years. All of the American cultures covered in this book continue to live on and all are struggling for their freedom or, at the very least, a place in the government that now rules their lands.
You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and “discover” England.
Dehatkadons, Iroquois, 1990
The quick summary that I have provided here does not do the book justice. It is a well organized review of the history we are never taught; a history that has been suppressed and mythologized in our textbooks. Each chapter is filled with passages from the people, European and American, who were there while the events were happening. Wright’s narrative combined with the passages of eyewitnesses creates a story so disturbing that it is tough going at times.
Not only does Wright attempt to set the historical record straight, but he raises ones awareness of the continuing struggle of the indigenous people of the Americas. More than just a history book, Stolen Continents raises questions about the respect and rights that have been withheld from the people who have always called this continent home.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in history or the indigenous American cultures.
The promise of the digital age?
A number of the works that survived from the generations that witnessed the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas can now be found on the internet. The texts that the Spanish and others were so eager to destroy are now available for all to see
The Spanish priests were very successful in their attempts to destroy the works of the Mayan people. Only four texts are known to have survived the fires...and you can now download PDF scans and reproductions of all four codices.
They are available from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies website: http://www.famsi.org/mayawriting/codices/
Also available online from the Royal Library of Denmark is Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's A New Chronicle. Guaman Poma wrote to King Philip III of Spain seeking reforms to the colonial Spanish government. The text is an amazing 1200 pages long, with 398 full page drawings, all of which have been digitally scanned and can be found at: http://www.kb.dk/elib/mss/poma/index.htm
While most of us will never be able to actually read the text in these works, it is amazing to see the skill and dedication that went in to creating such significant documents.