Professor emeritus and former chair of Native American Studies at University of California Davis Jack Forbes writes in his book, Columbus and Other Cannibals, of what he calls the “sickness of exploitation,” or the wétiko (cannibal) disease.
Cannibalism, as Forbes defines it, “is the consuming of another’s life for one’s own private purpose or profit.”
Forbes notes, “Imperialism and exploitation are forms of cannibalism and, in fact, are precisely those forms of cannibalism which are most diabolical or evil.”
“Few, if any, societies on the face of the Earth have ever been as avaricious, cruel, violent, and aggressive as have certain European populations,” Forbes concludes.
Native Americans experienced wétiko in brutal fashion not long after “first contact” with Europeans.
“[Europeans] slaughtered, during one short period alone, 50 million buffalo, because thousands of us relied on them, and in less than a generation, they annihilated them,” Harold Dick Jr., a 72-year-old Chiricahua Apache, told Truthout. “And they take pride in this, and take pictures of the dead buffalo, like it takes a ‘real man’ to shoot an animal with a high-powered rifle from far away.”
He added that when Native Americans talk about “great” people, they usually speak of medicine people, “but all of the greats the whites ever write about were great at destruction and subjugating people.”
Dick Jr’s point has been true since the so-called founding of the United States — given that it was rich, land-owning white men who authored the US Constitution, setting the stage for the white supremacy that drives US policy, both domestic and foreign, to this day.
Stan Rushworth is an elder of Cherokee decent who has taught Native American literature and critical thinking classes focused on Indigenous perspectives for more than a quarter of a century, and now teaches at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California.
“As far as Indians are concerned, no administration that I know of has had Indians’ best interest at heart,” Rushworth told Truthout. “Eisenhower said, ‘We’re getting out of the Indian business and unilaterally abrogate all the treaties and do away with all the reservations.’ So the will of the American people is that we disappear.”
Thus, for Rushworth and a lot of his friends, “Trump didn’t lift a veil at all — he simply imposed another layer of a veil.”
Dick Jr. feels similarly. He told Truthout that, from his perspective as a Native American, if the US is going to talk about freedom and liberty, people need to recall that the country was founded upon genocide and slavery.
“If they want to start clean, the have to cop to the fact of what they did, and that it was wrong, and that [of] over 300 treaties written, not one was ever kept,” Dick Jr. said. “It is a huge case of hypocrisy … they talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty,’ but we don’t get any. And by extension, the citizens of the country don’t really get any, either.”
They are far from alone in their analysis about what ails this country, and how very far back that ailment goes.
A Rotten Foundation
“We [Native Americans] represent a shame, we represent a huge moral lapse in a country that likes to see itself as based on morality,” Rushworth said. “Rule of law is what people say we are based on. But rule of law is based on a society’s moral behavior. And with Indians, there is nothing but contradiction there. There is this huge cognitive dissonance.”
That cognitive dissonance stems from the history of genocide, injustice, slavery and colonial history the US is based upon.
Dr. Martin Rizzo, a post-doc fellow in the history department at the University of California, Riverside, is currently working on his forthcoming book examining Indigenous survival in 19th-century California.
Rizzo reminded Truthout of the ongoing legal injustices around the fact that there has never been a reckoning with the reality of the theft of land and resources from Native Americans, but also pointed towards the need to understand the historical traumas from what was done.
“The process of colonialism involves direct genocide,” Rizzo said, noting that scalp bounties in the West are one example of state-sanctioned violence, in which the government reimbursed white people for hunting down Native Americans.
Rizzo notes the psychological warfare component of this — how Native Americans were literally taught that they were “subhuman.”
“Like Trump today saying we shouldn’t be embarrassed about ‘civilizing’ this continent, this is deeply embedded in the colonial mindset that sees one people superior and another people inferior,” Rizzo said. “We have to reckon with this.”
According to Rizzo, Native Americans are dealing with trans-generational traumas that need to be undone due to hundreds of years of being told that their lifestyles were inferior to the colonists’ way.
“We are seeing this colonial world that has been increasingly devastating the environment,” Rizzo said. “Natives were pointing out hundreds of years ago the need to take care of the Earth for seven generations to preserve life for the future, versus this colonial approach we see today that is destroying the planet.”
Dick Jr. reminds us of Article Six, paragraph two of the US Constitution, which deals with the sovereignty of Native people.
“The treaties made between sovereign nations are supposed to be ironclad and not disused … but they’ve never kept this,” he said. “One of the old chiefs once said, ‘They should put wheels on us so when they change the treaties, they could just roll us out of the way.’ The first thing they do when they come in is they take all of it. And no matter how much there is, they take more of it.”
Speaking to Forbe’s wétiko disease, Dick Jr. reminds us of the colonialists coming from Europe who called themselves pilgrims. “The bottom line is that the day these people got off the boat until today is they’ve never kept their word.”
Dick Jr. shed light on how the basic Christian belief system brought by the colonialists drove their behavior, pointing out how many Native Americans believe they were born into paradise, whereas the Christian mindset is one of being kicked out of paradise.
“They think we were ‘bad’ and god threw us out,” he said. “But we think we must be pretty good, because the creator gave us all of this.”
Rizzo pointed out the systematic annihilation then assimilation of Native Americans, a large component of which included the breaking up of their community.
“Native American policies of the federal government shifted from outright warfare and genocide against them to: Who can we integrate into societies?” he said. “The [Dawes General] Allotment Act [of 1887] broke apart collective holdings of reservation land, and this caused a rapid loss of land for Native Americans.”
According to Rizzo, during the early 20th century, in 20 years, 35 percent of all Native lands were sold, and within 40 years, roughly half were gone, and this went on until the 1930s. This furthered the disintegration and isolation within tribal societies, and contributed to psychological displacement, depression and myriad other issues.
One example of the scale and rapidity of the genocide of the Native Americans occurred between 1846 and 1880 in California, when 90 percent of them were killed by white colonists.
Rizzo consistently teaches about the slavery and genocide that the US is built upon, because, as he put it, “It’s like the guy who thinks he is flawless and continues to abuse and carryout bad things. If you’re not willing to look at the harsh realities of the past, then it is impossible to work towards justice.”
Rizzo reminds his classes that Native American children were forcibly removed from their families, forbidden to speak their native languages and suffered corporal abuse in the name of assimilation. For at least a century this was ongoing, in addition to the fact that during the period of overt slavery, African children were separated from their parents, and oftentimes sold off to plantations.
He connects this history to the crisis at the US-Mexico border, where the federal government is separating immigrant children from their parents.
“Even today people look at the border and say, ‘Oh my god, this is not the country that we are,’ but this is the country we are,” Rizzo said. “This has happened over and over in our history … We have to have proper context of this all being part of a larger systematic problem that has to be corrected.”
Part of coming to terms with this ongoing legacy involves Native Americans grappling with historical trauma and relating to a society that largely erases their existence.
Struggles for Indigenous Students
Dr. Rebecca Hernandez, a Mescalero Apache, is the director of the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) at University of California, Santa Cruz. The AIRC serves all students, but advocates for Native students who comprise less than 1 percent of the total student body, as is usually the case on college campuses. Hernandez told Truthout that her biggest struggle is retaining students, because the contemporary issues facing Native Americans in universities stem largely from the unhealed issues from their ancestors’ brutal history under colonialism.
Hernandez talks to her students about this history in the context of how it contributes to contemporary problems and how so many of them are first-generation college students who are also struggling with guilt due to the fact that their people back home on the reservations continue to struggle mightily.
“Our collective histories as Native peoples have contributed to us as having to make these difficult decisions now because of what happened in the past,” she told Truthout. “Some of us have to be these forerunners and push harder to get to the other side to get through college, or to go back (or not) and help our families, and bring other people through after us.”
Hernandez works to help her students appreciate their history, because as she sees it, “We’ve always had these challenges and had to adapt rapidly. We were taken away from our families and expected to be really solid human beings, but there is a lot of dysfunction and sadness in our communities that has happened from that, and we are only now seeing the results of the colonization.”
She sees colonization as ongoing, and one ramification of this is how so many of her Indigenous students are unaware of their own tribal history.
Hernandez works towards having her students learn to discuss themselves as Native in a way “that is confident, authentic, and they own that identity and do so with confidence.”
This is because part of the current colonization stems from what Native American students deal with in their interactions with non-Natives.
“People dismiss them, ask insensitive questions, and often, the students don’t have the tools to talk about themselves in a way that shuts that nonsense down,” Hernandez said. “We have to learn how to talk about ourselves as Natives. Most of us present white. Because when you don’t, instantly you are fair game for weird questions, stereoypes and other weird things.”
An example she gave is this: “If someone says they are Egyptian, people don’t ask them, ‘How Egyptian are you?’ We are the only group in the US that has to deal with that question. I’ve had people here ask me to help them figure out what their spirit animal is. I can’t imagine what a 19-year-old does to deal with that. I just wonder when is this going to end.”
Hernandez wonders when people are going to see Native Americans as part of the American fabric just like every other demographic in the US.
“I’m like any other ethnic group, that’s a big part of the contemporary experience, and I try to help students practice responding to these stereotypes and weird questions,” she explained. “These are real things students are experiencing. So how do we then collectively respond and learn how to put on the brakes and say something isn’t ok to say to me, or to dismiss me based on how I look?”
Additionally, Hernandez pointed out how underscoring all of those issues are the ongoing systemic problems of Native Americans suffering the low end of the tremendous wealth disparities in the US, having incredibly high suicide rates and having major health problems.
But, despite these massive issues, Hernandez encourages her students.
“Every day, I see these young people and I say, ‘You are our future, you have to do this, you can’t quit’,” she said. “It would be a privilege to quit, but that is not a privilege we have. You alone are going to affect so many lives by finishing. You are going to show that little girl or boy that this is possible.”
Hernandez is acutely aware of the challenge she faces.
“It’s not easy here for them; we are so invisible,” she said. “You layer that invisibility on top of feelings of inadequacy, and it makes it even harder. So I try to be that person here, to remind these young people how phenomenal they are.”
It Is and Always Was “About Resources”
Dick Jr. told Truthout that in the colonialists’ quest for freedom, they denied everybody else freedom.
“They’ve done everything in their power to annihilate us,” Dick Jr. said. “Ninety-eight percent of the Indigenous population of Turtle Island [North America] was wiped out … you have to work at that, to wipe out that many of us.”
He pointed out how, despite living on the homeland of his birth and that of his ancestors, he had to buy land to live there. “So what I’m doing is buying back my land. So that is ironic. I have to buy my land in order to live in it. There is something really wrong with that.”
Rushworth reminds us that the invasion of the continent by the colonists was always about resources, driven initially by how those who came from Europe did so because they had used up their resources there.
“Their lack of philosophical underpinnings, the idea that it is all there to be used up — that’s what happened in Europe,” he explained. “By 1492, it was trashed, by all accounts.”
He reminded us of the conditions in Europe of that time: rampant disease, no functional social networks, widespread homelessness, child labor, fiefdoms.
“These were not healthy societies,” Rushworth said. “That can be measured in how they treated prisoners, how they treated women, how they treated the environment. It was not healthy people that came here. Most of them didn’t come here with a healthy attitude.”
Hence, carrying this attitude and the soul-sickness that accompanied it, “They took what they wanted when they came here.”
“That’s when the Westward expansion began, and a really deep dehumanization became the national rhetoric, and that wasn’t that long ago,” Rushworth concluded. “And that is all about exploitation of resources. That comes into Jack Forbe’s wétiko disease of exploitation, greed and power. I think he’s spot on … It is a disease, and that is what we are still living in the middle of.”