To the uninitiated reader, my travels can seem a little puzzling. Why Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia? A friend recently said I was traveling to places with “rich histories but screwed up economies”. He asked whether there was a “mission”. There is indeed one and I shall try to explain it here.
I came to the United States a decade ago, in August 2000, to start graduate school in engineering. I was fresh out of college and had no idea of the history of any place, including India. I did not for example know that Judaism was the religion of the Jews, even that it referred to a religion. Most students get radicalized, develop a political and historical consciousness during college. But the place I attended in south India failed as much in this regard as it failed to give me a half-decent technical education.
The milieu in the United States, in Phoenix Arizona, was a curious one. On the one hand, graduate school was full of highly motivated students from all parts of Asia. On the other, the neighborhood I lived consisted almost entirely of immigrants from Mexico’s poorer parts, who did odd jobs, legally and illegally, for a living.
This change in the frame of reference as confusing as it was invigorating. It was a first glimpse of how complex the world was. History, which I had long ignored and thought boring, suddenly became indispensable. I was stunned to learn that Muslims had been dominant in Asia, Europe and North Africa before the Renaissance; that a tribal like Genghis Khan had, through a combination of shrewdness and military strategy, built an unimaginably vast empire. I was equally stunned that India too once had a great past, a claim that had earlier, living with Indian realities, sounded hollow.
Without realizing it, I had, like millions of people the world over, internalized the idea of Western superiority. The notion that non-Western people could be dominant was liberating.
But there was one group of people I knew nothing about. They had walked the very land I had now come to; they were even called what I was called -- Indians. From my days in school, I carried the most basic stereotype: horse-mounted, tall and splendidly feathered men. Otherwise I drew a blank. Who were these Indians, why did one hear so little of them and why weren’t there many among us?
The demographic decline of American Indians has been such that it is easy to believe there were very few when the Europeans arrived. There is a certain inevitability about it: technologically superior people come to pristine wilderness that is mostly empty. A few hostile tribes put up a valiant fight, but they stood no chance in the long run. To me, as to many other Asians, the Americas were a place where Europeans had come as a busload of tourists might come to an exotic setting. They liked the place and happened to stay.
It is true that North American Indians did not have large continent spanning empires as in Europe or Asia. But the idea that the land was sparsely populated is a myth. North America had an immense diversity of groups, from the basic hunter-gatherer tribes to those practicing a mix of hunting and agriculture; from the Plains tribes to the coastal cultures; there were dozens or languages and subcultures; and many groups – the Iroquois for example – had coalesced into confederacies (take a look at this map; click to zoom in on the specific names in different regions). European ships that sailed along the east coast in the 1600s could not strike deep roots along the coast because it was thickly populated.
Why then are there only 3-4 million people of American Indian descent today in the US population of 300 million? Massachusetts, Connecticut, Chattanooga, Potomac, Dakota, Kansas, and scores more such names in every state, every region: today etymology provides the only evidence of American Indian presence. The people who left these names have either disappeared altogether or have been marginalized. Phoenix, the sprawling Arizonan city I lived in, was itself a tribute to the Indians, but few are aware of it. White settlers in the late nineteenth century named it so because they anticipated a modern city to rise out of the ashes of the Hohokam, an agricultural people who had marked the desert valley with their well engineered irrigation canals in the centuries before Columbus.
Something profoundly tragic had happened here. In the heat of America’s meteoric rise over the last century, that something has been forgotten and left at the margins of history. Its scale tends to get underestimated, because the evidence is silent and not obvious. An entire continent lost its voice and, most importantly, its people. Today, we have worldviews – African, Chinese, Indian, Western – that are deeply rooted in their histories, even if the externals are predominantly Western. But to find an Indian perspective in North America one has to travel to little known but still culturally vibrant reservations.
It was this history that I began to explore while living in Arizona. I visited archaeological sites in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, from the large and architecturally sophisticated – the much ignored and remote Chaco Canyon in New Mexico – to small but equally instructive ruins around Phoenix and northern Arizona. I went to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Apache and Tohono Odham reservations, to see how modern day American Indians had fashioned some measure of cultural continuity in impoverished settings. When I moved to Minnesota, I visited the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where the same history of dispossession and ethnic cleansing had culminated in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Because of its geographic isolation, the Americas (along with Australia) faced the worst consequences of European colonialism. Diseases, to which American Indians had no immunity, wiped out entire societies.
If the North Americans had faced such devastation, then how had the rest of the Americas, similarly isolated, fared? While the predominantly tribal societies of North America had been conquered by European Protestants, the massive empires of the Central and South had been downed by a band of daring conquistadors from Catholic Spain. The Caribbean natives faded in the decades after Columbus’ arrival; Argentina’s natives were exterminated in the eighteenth century. But in Mexico and the Andean nations (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia) the descendants of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas (and many other indigenous groups) are still there. The conquests were no less devastating, but a forcibly imposed Catholicism had brought Indians into its fold, even as it erased earlier beliefs.
The new culture also allowed for racial mixing between Native Americans and Europeans (giving rise to the Mestizo) – and blacks too. The poor southern Mexican immigrants in my neighborhood in Phoenix Arizona, brown skinned like me and noticeably short, were of that stock. In fact, Hispanics, who are partly American Indian, are achieving demographic parity with the whites in southwestern America. In a different way, they are reversing what whites once did when they conquered these lands.
My curiosity about indigenous Latin America spurred visits to Mexico City (formerly the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan), Chiapas (in Mexico’s Mayan south), the Andean parts of Peru and Bolivia. These places are the polar opposites of the United States since Indians are the majority. But Spanish colonialism has marked them badly and left them poor. That is why the places have strong socialist movements: the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Evo Morales in Bolivia.
The small discoveries that I make during my visits are the reason why I travel; that is why I have been writing about my visits to Indian reservations in the United States, and more recently about Mexico, Peru and Bolivia. Of course, I know only a fraction of the story. In Latin America, my progress has been hindered because I do not know Spanish. I don’t have any overarching theories, but I always find it instructive to understand the specifics of each place, yet be aware of the broader contrasts.
The arrival of the Europeans to America was a Black Swan – an unprecedented event that had a massive impact. No one could have predicted the consequences. Millions of American Indians died, either due to disease or conquest, and the Americas (especially North America) lost their voice and culture. Europe and Asia benefited immensely from the crops and foods domesticated in the Americas (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies to name a few). Europeans found a new place to emigrate to – for them it was a positive Black Swan that unleashed new energies.
History works in quirky ways and its logic remains only partly visible to us – and that too only after the fact.