Extermination and assimilation

Excerpt from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Photo by Saksham Gangwar on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Throughout the history of Indian-White relations in North America, there have always been two impulses afoot. Extermination and assimilation. Extermination of Native peoples, especially in the early years, was not considered “genocide”—a term coined in 1944 by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin—so much as it was deemed a by-product of “manifest destiny”— term struck in the 1840 when U.S. Democrats used it to justify the war with Mexico. Extermination was also seen as an expression of “natural law,” a concept conceived by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. and used by the Spanish humanist Juan de Sepulveda in the sixteenth as a legal justification for the enslavement of Native people in the Caribbean and Mexico.

The means of extermination didn’t much matter. Bullets were okay. Disease was fine. Starvation was acceptable. In the minds of many, these were not so much cruelties as they were variations on the principles underlying the concept “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that Herbert Spencer had fashioned in 1864 and that would become synonymous the Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

The second impulse, assimilation, argued for salvation and improvement. One of the questions that the Spanish worried over was whether or not Indians were human beings. This was the subject of the great debate organized by the Vatican in Valladolid, Spain, in 1550 and 1551 where the cleric Bartolome de las Casas maintained that Indians had souls and should be treated as other free men, while the aforementioned Juan de Sepulveda made the case on behalf of land owners, arguing that Indians did not have souls and were therefore natural slaves. De las Casas’s position carried the day, but the “Indians have souls” argument provided no more than a philosophical victory and had no effect on the day-to-day actions of Spanish colonists in the New World, who continued to use Indians as slaves to run their plantations.

Neither the English nor the French spent any time with this question. For these two groups, Indians were simply humans at an early point in the evolution o the species. They were savages with no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language, and lacking civilized manners. Barbarians certainly, and quite possibly minions of the devil. But human beings, nonetheless. Ans as such, many colonists believed that Native people could be civilized and educated, believed that there was, within the Indian, the possibility for enlightenment.

Extermination dominated the early contact period assimilation the latter, until finally, in the nineteenth century, they came together in an amalgam of militarism and social theory that allowed North America to mount a series of benevolent assaults on Native people, assaults facilitated by force of arms, deception and coercion, assaults that sought to dismantle Native culture with missionary zeal and humanitarian paternalism, and to replace it with something that Whites could recognize.

These assaults came singly, in partnerships and from various angles. In general, settlers and missionaries of one flavour or another led the way, taking turns leapfrogging each other into the “wilderness.” In Canada, it was the French and the Jesuits, followed by the English and Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. In the American northeast and along the Atlantic coast, it was the English and the Puritans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, with a smattering of fQuakers and other non-conformists working out of Rhode Island. In the southeast, it was the Spanish and the Jesuits and the Franciscans. In the far west, along the Pacific coast, it was the Spanish and the Franciscans, while, much later and farther north in California and up the Pacific coast, it was the Russians and the Orthodox Church.

Francis Jennings, in his book The Invasion of America, called Christianity a “conquest religion.” I suspect this description is true of most religions. I can’t think of one that could be termed a “seduction religion,” where converts are lured in by the beauty of the doctrine and the generosity of the practice.

Maybe Buddhism. Certainly not Christianity.

Missionary work in the New World was war. Christianity, in all its varieties, has always been a stakeholder in the business of assimilation, and, in the sixteenth century, it was the initial wound in the side of Native culture. Or, if you want the positive but somewhat callous view, you might wish to describe Christianity as the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Inconvenient Indian – Summary

Here is the book summary:

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope—a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas King.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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