Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chris, and thoughts on Native American history

I recently finished writing a fairly long travel essay (8000 words) about the Navajos of the southwestern United States. It is based mostly on my trips to their reservation (see map) while I was in Phoenix, Arizona. (The Navajo reservation is the largest reservation in the United States, about the size of West Virginia).

The extract below is from the second part of my essay, and describes my meeting and short conversation with a Navajo student, Chris, at Arizona State University. It also describes some of my thoughts on the broader topic of Native American history. If you happen to like what you read and wanted to have the full piece, please send me an email – my address is on this page.

In the spring of 2005, I attended a seminar by Lance Morgan, a member of the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska. Morgan had a Harvard law degree and was now an entrepreneur. His seminar was at Arizona State University and was on the topic of tribal trust land. More than fifty students attended the talk and nearly all of them were Native American. Many of them might have been Navajos as well given their high numbers (nearly a thousand) at the university.

It was at the talk that I saw Chris, a mechanical engineering student at the university. Chris was a Navajo and his home was close to the capital of the Navajo reservation, Window Rock. He was short, well built young man with a dark, lustrous face. From the questions he asked at the end of the seminar, it seemed he had an aggressive and forceful demeanor.

I ran into Chris again that evening at the student recreation field in the university. He was playing a keenly contested intramural softball game. Chris was the captain of his team, and I slowly recognized the other players of his team: they were faces I had seen in the audience during Morgan’s talk. All the players wore t-shirts that said “Go Fighting Whites”; each t-shirt also had a 1960s style picture of a smiling white man. There was clearly some political theme here but I wasn’t sure what it was. At the time, I thought it quite subversive since the message, in my imagination at least, seemed to be directed against the opposition team: a team of young, heavily cheered white college students. I later learned that the t-shirt was supposed to be a riposte to the stereotyping of Native Americans implicit in team names such as Washington Redskins.

Chris’ team lost the game. His team members were upset; their faces had a sort of suppressed anger and disappointment over their own performance. Chris called his teammates into a huddle in an attempt to rally them for the next game. “We fucking beat ourselves,” he said and pointed out they with effort could do much better in the next game.

I caught up with Chris a little later, and talked with him for a while as we walked away from the recreation field. I had meant to ask him about tribal trust land, but ended up talking very little about it. Instead, I found myself telling him of my visit to the Navajo reservation the summer before; it was then that I had first heard about Kit Carson, the American soldier who led the campaign against the Navajos in the 1860s that resulted in the brutal eviction commonly called Long Walk. Kit Carson had followed a scorched earth policy, which ensured that cornfields were rendered uncultivable, livestock killed and peach trees felled. Already starving because of Carson’s campaign and now deprived comprehensively of their means of sustenance, thousands of Navajos surrendered and were herded in the long march to Bosque Redondo. Navajos numbers dwindled to only a few thousand during this period. It was a precarious position to be in; as a community, the Navajos were a whisker away from being obliterated, like tribes in the other parts of the United States.

Chris felt deeply about what had happened at the time; he used the loaded word genocide to describe it. He also had thoughts on the calamities that the Native Americans in North America had faced. His view was that too many nations had manipulated the Native Americans. When he learned that I was from India, he said:

“India really had to deal with only one country – the British. We had to deal with many different European countries. The Spanish, the French, the British.”

I felt his assessment of India wasn’t entirely accurate: British colonization was really the last in a series that went well back in time; invaders had come from Afghanistan and Central Asia since the beginning of the millennium. And one could go even further back.

Chris also expressed surprise that India, with so many different cultures and languages, had been unified into a single country. The lack of unity among tribes was for him the principal reason why the Native Americans had been unable to combat European incursions.

We were walking all this time; I wanted to talk more with Chris but he was headed in a different direction. I did not see him again. My conversation with Chris had been brief, but I’ve always attached a lot of importance to it. For it was also around that time that I’d begun to form some of my own thoughts about Native American history, and I’d been wanting for a while to talk to someone about it.

There was truth to what Chris had said: the lack of unity amongst tribes was indeed one reason that had led to their subjugation. But clearly, there had been also other unalterable factors, geographical and environmental, that had worked against the Native Americans.

I had always been stymied by how European colonization efforts had gone so differently in the different continents. I was especially surprised by how sub-Saharan Africa, which like North America five hundred years ago, had consisted of chiefdoms, tribes and small kingdoms, today had more than 500 million people, while the Native Americans, despite an upward trend in the last century, were a mere 3 or 4 million in the United States population of 300 million (see Note 1). Somehow Africa’s terrain, its climate and diseases had thwarted permanent settlement of outsiders, allowing native populations – despite their own high mortality rate to the same diseases – to grow quickly in the last hundred years (see Note 2) . In a strange inversion of this, European diseases had decimated many Native American communities, and North America, not too dissimilar in places from Europe in climate, had turned out in the long run to be very favorable for settlement.

I began to wonder how things would have been had history gone differently, if the independent trajectory of Native American development had remained undisturbed. It was a probably a futile exercise but I was drawn to it. I imagined that intensive agriculture had somehow been adopted by most tribes, that their populations, unaffected by pandemics, had increased significantly; I imagined federations of tribes starting to coalesce into empires throughout the northern half of the continent; I imagined alliances and enmities, militaristic tribes and kingdoms forcing wars on their neighbors; I imagined social problems that have plagued civilizations in other parts of the world. But also I thought of unique cultural accomplishments, worldviews, of hundreds of different languages, customs and practices, not static or uninfluenced by other cultures, but continuously evolving yet retaining their distinctive character; I thought, in short, of what the world had missed.

Note 1: The population estimates of North America before the coming of the Europeans remains a topic of controversy; estimates vary significantly. Charles Mann, in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, has a good discussion on the topic (I've also posted about the book here). The upshot of his book that there were far more Native Americans that lived at time of Columbus’s arrival than is presumed.

Note 2: Perhaps it was also crucial that Africa had not been as isolated from Asia and Europe before the fifteenth century as the Americas had been: West and North Africa always had links with the middle east and Europe; and the eastern coasts of Africa had traded with Asia along the sea routes of the Indian ocean.

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