Zinn on First Americans

bkszinn2003

A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES:  
1492-Present
by Howard Zinn
Published 1980; fifth printing, 2003

Introduction:  One of the best American history books I have read, this stellar work upsets any romantic notions one might have about our nation’s beginnings.  I read the book seven years ago, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.

Friday, March 12, 2010—I sprang for A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, who just died a couple of weeks ago.  I have read 40 pages of this 690 page book and find it most inspiring, surprisingly enough.  It begins with an account of Columbus’ brutality in slaughtering the Arawak Indians in the Bahamas (which Zinn never calls the “West Indies”) and the blood lust that accompanied the gold lust and slave lust that characterized not only this but subsequent genocide in North and South America.

Apparently there were 10 million Indians (Native Americans) living in North America when the Europeans arrived, with their strange notions of property rights, their guns and superior attitudes.  Many of these natives were organized in loose confederacies by language.  The Iroquois spread through much of New York , with various centers or pockets of clans distinguished by their regions or specialties.  The Mohawks (People of the Flint), Oneidas (People of the Stone), and the like.  They were generally pacifist, meaning they existed in peaceful harmony with each other and other tribes.  Disputes were generally between individuals.  Land and housing were held and worked in common.  There was no sexual one-upmanship.  The senior women controlled the decisions about whether to wage war, elected the tribal leaders, and removed them if they got out of line.  They made the moccasins and tended the crops, so they controlled the supplies for warring missions.

The English in Jamestown and New England behaved as badly as Columbus, but here the issue was land rather than gold.  They plopped themselves in the middle of established Indian turf and used guns and deception to bully and con the area Indians into submission.  In the beginning, the natives were willing to share, because this was their way, but when the Brits began to reveal their barbaric, exploitive, attitudes, the Indians grew wary.  Brits raided Indian villages, stole women and children for sex, slavery, and sport, murdered at random, and burned crops for no good reason, even though they were starving.  They couldn’t get along with each other, either, enough to cooperate, and they were all too lazy to work.  Those settlers who defected to the Indians for safe harbor and food were severely punished if caught.

So this is our heritage.  Zinn says the combined assaults of war, disease, and famine decimated the North American Indians to about one million in a few short years (maybe 50).

A quote from Chief Powatan to John Smith in 1607:  “Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love?”

I like Zinn’s approach.  He does not romanticize or pander to the cultures that were obliterated.  He is the ultimate egalitarian, so far, recognizing the clash of values in the clash of cultures, and writing the history from the perspective of the vanquished.

The book, and especially the first chapter, spoke to my soul, because the descriptions of Arawaks and mainland natives sounds much like my ideal commune, a place where everyone has a role to play for the communal good, and no role is considered better or worse than others.  I sense the Indian spirit is rising again, by default, if nothing else.  We are backing into it, because we are too weak and debilitated to fight, and there is little left to steal.

This is the great dilemma of modern man.  We have progressed ourselves into a quandary, slaves to our own progress, with a wheel that is spinning out of control.  Progress downhill fast has hit the swampy bottom, I hope, and is having to deal with the muck, sewage, toxins, landfill, and dysfunctional technology it has created.

The “health care crisis” is a political statement, and a wise one.  “Sorry, I’m too sick to go to war, to work, to pay taxes or contribute to the economy.  Where’s my check?  You promised.”
They are learning instinctively if not intellectually, that the way to downsize government is to bankrupt it.

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5 thoughts on “Zinn on First Americans

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Rosaliene, And very readable, too. The corollary for South America is “Open Veins of Latin America,” which I’ve mentioned before. Thanks for your comment and support.

      Reply

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