Modern society is coming to realise that the wisdom of many of the indigenous populations around the world has some profound insights into the damage done to our planet through the processes of industrialisation and subsequent technological developments.
Campaigns and advertising have highlighted the plight of those same indigenous populations, whose lands have been raped and their cultures all but annihilated.
But who are the non-indigenous who are getting the blame for the woes of the world and indigenous populations?
Travelling the world and meeting people from different cultures and lifestyles to my own has brought home to me just how much I have taken my country’s history for granted. I may not have been a star in history classes but I can still rattle off references to Bede’s History of England; the Doomsday Book; and the time when the town of my birth was part of an actual island, the Isle of Thanet, separated from mainland England by the River Wantsum, until the monks of medieval times set about land reclamation, reducing the flow of the river water until what is left today is no more than a ditch in most places.
With Columbus discovery of the Americas in 1492 Europeans became the architects of invasion in the name of progress. From the early 1500’s the Spanish in particular were successful in colonising the Central and South Americas, most famously wiping out the Inca civilisations and leaving behind Catholic colonialism, Catholicism remaining the dominant religion to this day. In the light of modern thought the methods of the conquistadors, the enforcing of their religion, seem inappropriate and unduly harsh. Yet, for many, although trade was a part of their goal, what they did was in the sincere belief that the peoples in these countries needed to hear their message, needed the gift of salvation that they brought. Their descendents can only trace their heritage no more than some five hundred years before they have to go to another culture to follow their ancestry.
The conquest of the North Americas took a little longer but still destroyed many of the native cultures. The early settlers brought with them their developing knowledge of what would become the industrial revolution, along with guns and gunpowder and a determination to mine the ground for gold, silver and other precious metals.
Modern North Americans have a cultural history that goes back only a few generations in their own homeland.
The pioneers who broadened the early settlement areas to reach the west of the continent faced unknown dangers, crossing barren and hostile territory, carrying few possessions: blankets to sleep under, a few clothes, pots and pans for cooking, and, often, their Bibles. They demonstrated physical and emotional strengths beyond imagination. Many died before they reached their destinations, some from the harsh elements of the lands they travelled across, others at the hands of the various tribes of North American Indians (the local indigenous populations) who soon realised that the white man did not have much sympathy for either their lands or their cultures.
Mechanical relic at the Queen of Sheba Mine in Death Valley
The relics of the “forty-niners” who settled from 1849 to mine in the harsh dry desert of Death Valley still stand as a monument to their achievements: the remains of mine shafts, topped with the rusting hulks of the machines they used to ferry the rocks to the surface and begin the process of extracting the precious metals.
With those who settled on the west coast came new needs: communication with the east coast and Europe: friends and family left behind. It could take several weeks for a mail coach to cross through the harsh lands of what are now the central states of the USA. The Pony Express fast mail service, started in 1860, brought down the mail delivery time to just ten days. But even this was not good enough for the new settlers. Instead they developed the telegraph and railways, putting the Pony Express out of business in just eighteen months.
In doing so they defended themselves against the local populations who were alarmed at the changes being brought to their homeland, so much so that they all but wiped out the heritage of the indigenous North American Indians. Their old lands have all but disappeared under the sprawling cities that have sprung up over the years, their old hunting grounds turned over to ‘management’ in the form of national parks. The stories of their battles became the legends of children playing “Cowboys and Indians” for years to come, the stuff of John Wayne and spaghetti westerns.
Today, the descendents of those pioneers are the non-indigenous population of North America. They are people who can only trace their history back a few short centuries before they have to look to the history of the cultures of their ancestors. They are faced with the dilemma of admiring the amazing achievements of their forebears in overcoming tremendous physical difficulties, demonstrating amazing emotional and mental fortitude, against coming to terms with the cultural destruction of the indigenous populations that that involved.
But the North American population of today are not the only non-indigenous in a foreign land.
From the late 1700’s until 1868 those lovely British people decided they were did not have room to look after criminals of all sorts and so shipped them all off to live in another New World: Australia. Their crimes might have been varied, from petty theft to murder and everything else in between, but these people had nothing to lose. They may not have made the same choices as the pioneers travelling to North America but they too brought with them the knowledge of the developing industrial revolution and settled in to make the best of what fate had brought them. Mostly survivors of the poverty wrought by the English industrial revolution they too were fighters and survivors. Between 1851 and 1871 their numbers were swelled dramatically by the Australian gold rush. But again, their descents, the non-indigenous of Australia, have only a little over two centuries of history before they too have to look to the cultures of their ancestors in Europe.
Whether by choice or force these were people who found themselves forging new lives in new environments.
But what of the non-indigenous today? Their identities are rooted in short histories in their lands. They have to live with the criticisms of their ancestors. They are denied pride in the strength, determination and suffering endured by their ancestors. They are left with the shame of the knowledge that their ancestors, despite what they thought were good intentions, caused damage and harm. Will social workers one day ask questions about the emotional damage caused by current policies to the non-indigenous?!
In asking the question “Who are the non-indigenous?” there is no intention to undermine either the indigenous populations or their beliefs or cultures. Only to recognise that there is always more than one side to a story, and to recognise the impact on the descendents of the perpetrators of the crimes against the indigenous populations. It has taken many years but we should now know that everyone loses and suffers when it comes to violence and war, domination and destruction.