The following is based on chapter four of James W. Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (2008). It uses his facts but it is not quite how he put it:
American high schools teach history to make you proud of America. They have to do this in the teeth of one of the greatest crimes of history: wiping out Native Americans and taking their land, more farmland than in all of China. To do this they lie about Native Americans.
- North America was mostly empty. Just a few tribes of hunter-gatherers here and there travelling through virgin wilderness.
- Natives were backward, too backward to farm the land, too backward to understand land as property.
- Natives were incapable of change, incapable of successfully living in civilized society.
- The tragedy that unfolded was unavoidable. There was no other reasonable outcome.
What we are supposed to conclude: It was unavoidable, no one is at fault. There was all this land just sitting there for the taking, land that natives were barely using. Since natives could not change or successfully live in civilized society there was little that could be done but push them aside into reservations. Or kill them if they put up a fight.
The truth (as best we know it so far):
- Far from being empty, North America had about 45 million people when Columbus arrived. About 20 million lived in what is now the U.S. Genocide and disease wiped out millions, but even in the early 1800s it was still so unempty that tribes had to be moved out of the way by the American government before whites could easily move in and take their land.
- Most natives were farmers when Columbus arrived. They even taught the Pilgrims how to farm. Some natives were hunter-gatherers, of course, but most were not till whites drove them off their land or made hunting for furs and slaves much more profitable than farming.
- Natives understood land as property. We know that because of the treaties where they ask for fishing rights and so on. The main difference was that they generally saw land as being held in common by the tribe as opposed to belonging to a single person.
- War, genocide and reservations were hardly the only possible course of action. We know that because other policies were proposed in Congress, like giving natives citizenship or their own state. We know that because in Canada and Mexico the French and Spanish mixed with the natives instead of wiping them out wholesale. We know that because there used to be places in America where whites, blacks and natives lived together as one. Multiracial society could and did work.
- White racism was the main reason natives were unsuccessful in “civilized” society. Most important was their lack of full rights as citizens. That made it easy for whites to screw them over in court, take their property and then call them shiftless. Or just kill them outright when it suited them.