21 July 2011

David Maybury-Lewis: Notes on the Abolition of the Indigenous

The following paragraphs come from the late David Maybury-Lewis, Harvard anthropologist, co-founder and director of Cultural Survival [(1993) A New World Dilemma: The Indian Question in the Americas. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 46(7), pp. 44-59].

Regarding the vision of Latin American liberals:
"The liberals demanded freedom for all, including the Indians, but what they meant by this for the Indians was the freedom to cease being Indian altogether. They considered Indio a derogatory word and Indianness a stigma--a kind of royalist, conservative, ecclesiastical device for maintaining indigenous peoples in a state of savagery. In the liberal vision of the future there would be no more Indians; the very word would be prohibited. The new constitutions therefore promised freedom and equality for all, with no mention of the Indians and no special provisions for them. It was assumed that they would disappear into the mainstream" (p. 48).

The Americas as a vast laboratory for the eradication of the indigenous:
"...the Americas since the conquest have been a vast laboratory for the eradication of indigenous cultures. As one studies the record, one cannot help being struck by the effort and ingenuity devoted by the conquerors to this task. They attacked indigenous religions. They imposed forced labor of various kinds. They invented a whole series of ways to lure or trick those not already forced to work into peonage through debt (the debt could only be worked off-and only with difficulty). Here and there they simply abolished Indians by a stroke of the pen and followed that up by trying to break up indigenous communities. They took Indian children away from their parents, sometimes by force, to be educated in alien schools that taught them to despise the ways of their peoples and discouraged them from speaking their own languages. The assault on indigenous landholding makes for the most remarkable reading of all: it is clear that the invaders not only coveted and seized Indian lands whenever they could; they were also affronted by those peoples and communities that held their lands in common. The Europeans considered that concept the very essence of savagery, for it departed from the ideas of private property and individual title to land that were considered central to Western civilization. It was thus with a convenient conviction of moral superiority that the invaders constantly tried to break up the communal landholdings of the Indians" (pp. 50-51).

"Emancipated Indians" in Brazil:
"until recently the Brazilian government had an official policy of 'emancipating' the Indians. They were not held in servitude but were considered wards of the state. The only way the Indians could be emancipated, therefore, was if they legally gave up being considered Indian and were thus deprived of their indigenous identity" (p. 55).

Abolishing Indians, Since 1492:
"It is one of the many ironies of the American experience that the invaders created the category of Indians, imposed it on the inhabitants of the New World, and have been trying to abolish it ever since" (p. 55).

From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, decrees of abolition, plans of eradication:
"In many countries it was decreed that Indians would no longer be referred to as Indios but would instead be called campesinos (peasants); Indianness was thus abolished by a stroke of the pen. In Chile, General Pinochet's government tried to destroy the identity of the large Mapuche (Araucanian) minority by forcing them to divide their lands into privately owned lots. Even the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which is widely thought to be one of the more generous settlements made with indigenous peoples, was drafted to turn Indian communities into corporations and their members into stockholders. Future members of the community will not acquire stocks unless stocks are bequeathed to them by those who originally received them. Meanwhile, stocks can soon be given, willed, or sold to people who are not members of the communities. The effect of the act, if not its intention, is to provide a mechanism for phasing out the native communities altogether" (pp. 55-56).

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