The emergent Idle No More movement in Canada has brought new attention to an old problem. But understanding the demands of Canada’s indigenous people requires understanding the history of colonialism in the Americas. What the Canadian subset of the indigenous is holding protests and hunger strikes for now—fundamentally, the right to self-determination—the rest of the Americas’ natives also feel, and acutely.
In many parts of the world, Africa in particular, European colonization aimed at extracting labor and resources from the colonized region, rather than expansion and settlement. Relatively few Europeans relocated to these areas, and even fewer remained behind post-independence to test their fortunes in new, native-majority states. Even if there was a plan to claim these places for Europeans and remove the indigenous peoples, those plans did not materialize. The small numbers of these invaders did little to mitigate the harm to the local cultures and institutions of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, even without taking into account European efforts to “turn bushboys into civilized men,” but these regions are still primarily the homes of their indigenous. A few colonial efforts, however, led to the systematic (if sometimes incomplete) extermination of all the ethnicities native to the colony and their replacement as the local majority by their invaders: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.
And the Americas.
The two American continents and the thousands of islands surrounding them were likely home to more indigenous people than Europe was home to Europeans at the time of first contact. These native peoples belonged to thousands of tribes and bands comprising hundreds of ethnic groups. While the current popular imagination of these peoples makes fairly little distinction between them, some linguists posit that at least three separate, unrelated migrations from prehistoric Asia took place (spawning the Inuit, the Na-Dené, and the rest of the natives), plus potential sea visits, leading to a truly impressive multiplicity of native cultures. Much as the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa had no concept of themselves as distinct, unified cultural groups until recently, the people of the Americas were a squabbling mosaic, making their lumping into the common name of “Indians” particularly inopportune.
The peoples of the New World had been isolated from those of the Old for thousands of years when the Norse tried and failed to establish a long-term foothold in Newfoundland, and it would be hundreds of years more before the two continental bodies would again rub shoulders. By then, the native peoples had lost any immunity or resistance they might previously have had to many Old World diseases. When the Spanish began the exploration of the new continents in earnest, they brought those diseases with them, in particular smallpox and typhus. (They also brought New World diseases, including a particularly virulent strain of syphilis, back to Europe.) Between 1520 and 1620, an estimated 90% to 95% of the population of North and South America succumbed to these diseases, in many cases long before Europeans arrived in their specific region.
When Europeans did arrive in many parts of the Americas, they met the continents’ great nations—the Aztec, the Inca, the Iroquois, the Kwakwaka’wakw—in the midst of civil wars and societal collapses induced by the massive depopulation. Other empires had collapsed in the centuries before contact, such as the Maya and the Mississipians, and had their recovery possibilities utterly demolished by the diseases and the Europeans themselves. The ruins of these empires show societies whose architectural and scientific skill rivaled and sometimes exceeded Europe’s, and whose major failings were an inability to maintain access to sufficient water and not having been on any major trade routes to Europe when firearms were invented. These empires maintained trade with distant American peoples and nations for centuries before the Europeans dismissed them as particularly comely savages.
When the Europeans came upon these peoples, they did not see a continent laid low much as their own had been in the years following the fall of the Roman Empire and the Black Death. They saw a land whose population was grossly mismatched to its size, whose resources were too enticing to leave to that population, and which would not resist their intrusion. The Americas, North America in particular, became a “blank canvas” on which different groups of Europeans attempted to act out their own utopian nation-building aspirations, regarding the remaining natives as an inconvenience. It is ironic that the Iroquois Confederacy, by some accounts, provided vital inspiration for the Thirteen American Colonies to unite into a single federated country, rather than split into many as the Spanish colonies eventually did. It is even more ironic that, in the early days of British colonization in particular, that the colonial management was so irresponsible that defection into these highly damaged indigenous societies was a problem that required solving.
By the early 19th century, European hegemony over the Americas was virtually complete. The entire expanse had been partitioned between European powers, though large swaths remained effectively native-controlled. Natives in areas under direct European control faced similar pressures regardless of the European power in question, but the specifics varied extensively.
In some places, enslavement of the indigenous was the norm for many years, until the combination of religious and legal reforms and reduced native populations made this unviable. The natives of the Caribbean islands suffered this fate, and responded by destroying themselves, committing mass suicide by manioc poison rather than submit to Spanish rule. The few remnants of the island natives persist in Puerto Rico and as the Garifunas of Central America. Enslavement was also the norm in Latin America for many years, where the massive encomienda farming system relied on a continuous supply of native slave labor.
Perhaps more important to the Latin American native experience was mestizaje. After deposing the great empires of Central and South America, the Spanish and Portuguese intermarried extensively with the native populations. Intermingling with the old Aztec and Inca noble castes in particular enabled the Spanish to easily assume their dominant role over the empires’ remains and claim the empire’s allies as their own. In this way, vast swaths of the native populations were assimilated into the Iberian-based culture even as they, and the African slaves that followed them, contributed their own legacies to the emerging mestizo ethnicity. A new system of institutional racism emerged, privileging people based on how pure their Spanish or Portuguese extraction was. In most cases, the native group that contributed to a given region’s expression of the mestizo concept was lost, and eventually subsumed into specifically Latin American nationalism.
In French-dominated areas, more-or-less peaceable trading for furs and fishing for cod characterized this meeting of cultures for many years. Intermarriage between primarily French fur traders and indigenous people created a Métis ethnic group in Canada analogous to the Spanish mestizos. Métis are now one of the three categories of indigenous people recognized by the Canadian government, alongside First Nations and Inuit.
The British colonies in North America increasingly regarded the indigenous as both a nuisance to remove and a resource to exploit. As more and more Europeans moved to North America and pressed further westward, they displaced natives with violence, occasional assimilation, and treaties that banked on the natives’ different concept of private property, which the incipient Canadians and Americans broke with impunity. The frequent displacements forced indigenous tribes into unfamiliar terrain or enemy territory, leading to further population decline. These displacements also caused many tribes to fuse into larger units, a precursor to the common indigenous identities in evidence today. The natives became embroiled in conflicts between European factions, in particular the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in the US), the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, as well as numerous “Indian wars.” In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the difficult peace the British had established with the indigenous by not settling past the Proclamation of 1763 line was broken. The British ceded their claim to land between the proclamation line and the Spanish colonial border, and the Americans claimed this region as the territory of a conquered people, which, in some way, it was.
When war between the United States and Britain broke out again in 1812, the native leader Tecumseh formed Tecumseh’s Confederacy. This group of native tribes hoped to use an alliance with Britain to carve out a native state near the Great Lakes. British sponsorship would have protected them, to some extent, from both British and American expansionism. While the War of 1812 was fought over enough factors that British, Canadians, and Americans all claim victory, the unquestioned losers were the indigenous. Despite Tecumseh’s army being instrumental in keeping what would become Canada out of American hands, the British abandoned Tecumseh’s forces in the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed. Tecumseh’s Confederacy collapsed at the close of the war with the loss of British sponsorship and Tecumseh’s death, and Tecumseh’s dream of an indigenous North American country never materialized. While Canadians (indigenous and otherwise) laud Tecumseh as a national hero, the contributions of American-allied indigenous people in the War of 1812 are largely ignored in the United States.
Following the War of 1812, European expansion in North America proceeded much as it had before, with only the eventual creation of native reservations to add an additional wrinkle. The notion of manifest destiny took hold on the American imagination, setting the new country against both the slowly emerging Canada and the remaining natives. Dozens more Indian Wars dot American history, and while the indigenous bands did not always lose a particular Indian War, these tended to end with the defeated natives accepting a blatantly one-sided treaty and forced relocation in exchange for the acceptance of their surrender. Repeated forced relocations peaked with the Trail of Tears of the 1830s, wherein thousands of natives died in forced marches from the southeastern US to modern Oklahoma and in battles between Florida’s Seminoles and the American government. Interactions between the indigenous and the settlers in Canada were significantly less violent, but no less bloody, with most native casualties attributed either to Indian Wars in the maritime provinces or to mass starvation caused by the depletion of American bison.
“Indian Wars” in Latin America had another facet as well, which is the role of indigenous peoples in the various revolutions that followed Latin American independence. Indigenous people were, for example, instrumental in the Mexican Revolution that removed the colonial-era government structure and, eventually, led to Mexico’s long years under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Unfortunately, these revolutions, while based on grievances that affected the natives particularly strongly and predicated on ideals of equal participation and democracy, usually ended in military dictatorships that took an even harder line against indigenous cultures. Natives were also often suspected of supporting the various Communist insurgencies that beset Peru, Colombia, and other former Spanish colonies.
Aside from direct, bloody aggression, the governments of North and South America, before and after their various independences, also pursued an aggressive program of cultural assimilation for indigenous people. These started as early as the days of George Washington, when revolution-era governments sent “agents” into native territory to show the superiority of the European way of life. The idea of bringing the indigenous into the cultural mainstream of their invaders was implemented much more seriously with the emergence of what would be known as “residential schools” in Canada, “Indian boarding schools” in the United States, and “mission schools” in Latin America. These institutions, typically run by churches and endorsed or even explicitly supported by the governments, had as their stated goal the elimination of the indigenous as such. Their task was to prevent the indigenous people from effectively passing on their languages, traditions, and entire culture to the new generation, and to convert the new generation to some version of Christianity, typically Catholicism. Attendance was usually compulsory and often continuous, preventing the children from having much, if any, contact with their families. Indigenous children were beaten for showing any sign of their cultures, including speaking their languages, and were often given new names. Combined with intentionally incompetent record-keeping, this prevented the children from locating their families or even knowing to what tribe they belonged when they left the system. The aftermath of the boarding schools throughout the Americas was a “Lost Generation” of indigenous people who had little concept of themselves either as members of an indigenous group or as citizens of the country that had so tormented them, and who had often suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as well. In the US and Canada, many children in these systems were sterilized with x-rays or subjected to medical experiments, much as the US had also done with African-Americans.
The incentive to give up on their culture and simply accept that of their invaders also permeates reservation structures in the US and Canada. Convoluted rules (sometimes local, sometimes government) about who can maintain “native status” and access to reservation lands force many natives to choose between having gainful employment in nearby urban centers and sending money home or maintaining access to their families and culture. Reservations often force nomadic peoples with wide territories to concentrate themselves in a single area, which may not have ever pertained to them or their lifestyle, leading to cultural decay. Even for groups receiving government funds to ostensibly help them develop their societies, the funds are mismanaged to the point of absurdity, to the point that the native recipients hardly see any of it. Worse, while reservations in the US have their own police forces, these police usually have no authority outside of the reservation’s borders, preventing the easy pursuit of justice against visitors who commit crimes. The handfuls that have managed to take advantage of their peculiar legal status to open casinos are the lucky ones.
The built-in, institutional racism of all of these policies, whether they continue into the modern day or not, has resulted in the indigenous people of the Americas being reduced to minority status in all but two of the region’s 50 states and territories even as these new countries opened their doors to new, immigrant minorities. It has made the native peoples of the bi-continent more likely to suffer crushing poverty than their fellows. It has made them more likely to be incarcerated than their fellows. It has made them more likely to be raped and killed than their fellows, in particular by police officers. It has made them more likely to develop crippling drug addictions than their fellows. It has made them less likely (in Latin America) than their fellows to know the dominant language of the country that claims sovereignty over their lands and makes vital decisions on their behalf.
But no factor in the indigenous experience is more insidious than the way that these various governments have handled indigenous land and resource claims.
That is, ignored them.
In virtually every region in the Americas that still has indigenous people, the governments that have grown up around them have assumed direct ownership over all lands claimed by the indigenous. This is perhaps the most explicit legacy of the colonial treatment of the indigenous as a people to conquer, rather than as nations unto themselves. Post-colonial governments consistently refuse to regard native land claims with the same zeal with which they defend their own borders, or even with the perfunctory legality of ordinary property law. They have claimed the land, and given the people in it the right to vote (usually), and that’s that. It has been, and continues to be, absolutely routine for governments in the Americas to grant oil-drilling, mining, logging, and other concessions in native territory without so much as consulting the people living in or near that land or dependent on the areas that the new resource-extraction operations would damage and pollute. Even if the locals do get to register an objection, it is rarely heeded, and it is not unheard of for governments (especially in the United States) to use the power of eminent domain to shepherd a commercial enterprise into a place that doesn’t want it. In Brazil, developers instead just keep some guys with assault weapons on retainer.
That is the new and fundamental tragedy of the indigenous experience in the Americas. The indigenous people who remain in North and South America are, almost without exception, sitting on monumental quantities of natural wealth, in the form of forestry, farmland, pollinator refugia, minerals, metals, fossil fuels, new medicines, new crops, biodiversity hotspots, and, in Canada, water. If the native people had control over the wealth within their territories and the opportunity to develop those resources for their own benefit, they could call in expertise and capital from elsewhere to begin investment and have the power to declare independence within one or two generations, let alone pull themselves out of the poverty and depression imposed upon them by European racism.
Instead, all the benefit from these resources goes to Brasilia and Caracas and Managua and Paramaribo and Cayenne and Havana and Mexico City and Washington, DC. And Ottawa. And to the corporations extracting the resources, who pay taxes in any of those cities, or in provincial/territorial/state capitals, or in the Cayman Islands.
Only in Bolivia and Peru, where ~50% or more of the population is indigenous and Quechua and Aymara are official languages alongside Spanish, is this situation remotely better. (Greenland is getting there.) But they have their own problems, among which are occasional Communist agitations and the post-colonial curse of borders that don’t reflect on-the-ground reality.
That’s where Idle No More comes in.
In a story that could fit anywhere in the Americas, laws are being (or have already been) pushed through Canadian Parliament to gut Canada’s otherwise impressive system of environmental protections, opening up vast new areas for oil exploration in particular. They are proposing new laws that would allow foreign governments to sue Canada if Canada puts laws in place that hurt foreign business interests. These laws have also significantly damaged the already pathetic process by which indigenous people are consulted about outside businesses starting operations on their land.
The native peoples of the Americas effectively subsidize the rest of us with their resources, without their consent, and receive systemic inequality and abuse in return.
Idle No More represents the native peoples of Canada demanding that this abuse end, and the establishment of an even-handed and honest relationship between the indigenous of Canada and the European-based society that has sprung up around them. It is the indigenous people demanding stewardship of the resources the government of Canada takes from them and hands where it pleases. It is the indigenous people of Canada reminding us that yes, they are still here, despite Canada’s efforts. It remains to be seen whether they’ll get the justice for which they clamor.
If they do, they’ll soon face the choice that Quebec faced in 1995. The indigenous peoples of Canada will have to decide whether they have any reason to remain part of the country that spent 500 years stealing from them and destroying their cultures while putting pictures of inukshuks and Tlingit formline art on things, or to add independent Nunavummiut, Cree, and other nations to North American maps.
Now that would be an interesting world.