The supposedly Edenesque days of early America being uncovered at an archeological dig in Mexico are looking ever more hell like.
It is one of the darker parts of the emerging picture of a continent that wasn’t nearly as peaceful as conventional wisdom paints it prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Spanish conquistadors invading Tenochtitlan, near where Mexico City is located today, in 1519 wrote about finding a rack of sacrified humans that “contained 130,000 skulls,” writes Lizzie Wade at Science. “But historians and archaeologists knew the conquistadors were prone to exaggerating the horrors of human sacrifice to demonize the Mexica culture. As the centuries passed, scholars began to wonder whether the tzompantli had ever existed.
“Archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) here can now say with certainty that it did. Beginning in 2015, they discovered and excavated the remains of the skull rack and one of the towers underneath a colonial period house on the street that runs behind Mexico City’s cathedral.”
The Mexica, as it turns out, were a war like and regularly brutal people. They were not alone. As various cultures spread across the Americas, all indications are there was a lot of killing.
“The killing of captives, even in a ritual context, is a strong political statement,” Vera Tiesler, a bioarchaeologist at the Autonomous University of Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico told Wade. “It’s a way to demonstrate power and political influence—and, some people have said, it’s a way to control your own population.”
It has become popular for some in America today to believe that the death and destruction started with Columbus and the Europeans who followed. The reality is that it didn’t.
A warring continent
Aside from African-Americans hauled to the continent in chains to become slaves, the history and pre-history of America is a tale of never-ending battles for territory and constant migration, often over long distances.
A large-scale genetic study of Native North Americans in 2008 concluded the Athabascans of the subarctic in the northwest corner of the continent – Alaska and part of Canada – invaded the American Southwest only about 500 years ago to become the Navajo.
They arrived in the New Mexico-Arizona area shortly after the Anasazi culture collapsed in what is now believed was a civil war. A shifting climate put pressure on the subsistence lifestyle of the Anasazi, University of Colorado archaeologist Stephen Lekson told Smithsonian Magazine writer David Roberts, and “‘there seem to have been goon squads (that formed). Things were not going well for the leaders, and the governing structure wanted to perpetuate itself by making an example of social outcasts; the leaders executed and even cannibalized them.’
“This practice, perpetrated by Chaco Canyon rulers, created a society-wide paranoia, according to Lekson’s theory, thus ‘socializing’ the Anasazi people to live in constant fear. Lekson goes on to describe a grim scenario that he believes emerged during the next few hundred years. ‘Entire villages go after one another,’ he says, ‘alliance against alliance. And it persists well into the Spanish period.'”
A bloody world
And this version of pre-European America appears in many ways little different from Europe, which people fled to avoid persecution only to engage in persecution in the New World.
Everyone reading this should thank God they live in the United States of today governed by laws and a generally shared belief in the ideas of fairness and equality even if society is far from perfect in living up to those beliefs.
Racism, which is really just the most obvious form of tribalism, is alive and well in the U.S. and in Alaska. Let there be no doubt about that.
If you have any question, peruse prison records in this country. Black Americans make up almost 40 percent of the population of the federal prison system, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and that is about three times their number as a percentage of all Americans.
American Indians and Alaska Natives make up another 2.2 percent of those in prisons. Their population in the country as a whole? 0.8 percent.
The situation is only slight better in Alaska where “Natives represent 15 percent of the state’s resident population, but…account for 36 percent of its prison population,” according to the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.
There is no doubt the legal system treats people of color worse than whites in this country.
“After controlling for a wide variety of sentencing factors,” the United States Sentencing Commission reported in a study last year, “Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders. Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders….”
The system is stacked against people of color because of still ingrained views on the part of both the bad racists (we all know who they are) and the good racists (the people who believe those of color remain “the White Man’s burden”) that some minorities just aren’t as good as the white folk.
They’re not smart enough or capitalist enough or trustworthy enough or reformable enough or, or, or….
It’s a troubling and disgusting paradigm still plaguing the country, but despite that, people of color – Alaska Natives among them – have it better now, way better, than they did centuries ago.
A violent land
“The weather was clear that day. The woman came out of her sodhouse and saw a mist above the village. She went back in her sodhouse and told the children something was wrong with the village. The mist was steam from the blood of all the people.
“A man was seen crawling away. He may have been the only one left. He had a big hole in his stomach. This man crawled away with his intestines hanging out. His intestines would come out but when they got too long, the man would put them back in his stomach and keep crawling.”
Her book should be mandatory reading for all Alaskans. There is no indication Alaska has ever been a place of peace, harmony and kumbaya.
“The events of the story take place either in Old Hooper Bay (as in this version) or in one of the nearby antecedent villages. There is little variation in the events of the story, and both Kilbuck and Nelson heard oral histories related to the murdering son-in-law in the late 1800s,” Funk writes.
“The Bow and Arrow War Days imperiled lives and made legends of great men and women in the Yup’ik world prior to the arrival of Russians in the mid-1800s AD,” she writes in summarizing her work. “The Yup’ik conflicts, ranging from deadly to merely threatening, comprised one portion of a nearly pan-Alaska period of violence.
“During the hundreds of years of these wars, regional Yup’ik social and political organizations formed fluid alliances against equally mutable enemy cohorts. The full range of the conflicts extended far to the north and south to encompass the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and most Yupiit.”
The Bow and Arrow Wars contain no accounts of skulls being put on posts, but there are plenty of horror stories, including those of young boys being “stretched” to death.
Why the wars started is unknown, but they ended with the arrival of the Russians. Funk credits both Russian trade and “firepower” for calming the situation, and she ironically adds this:
“In fact, the mid- to late 1800s may have been a freer time in Yup’ik history. After the danger of war ended, people moved about the landscape without worry,engaging in hunting, fishing, social activities, and travel without fear. Some elders in the 1980s were finally beginning to forget the events of the war stories, although the Bow and Arrow War Days resonate still for some Yupiit.”
Still, there was a dark side.
Anne Fienup-Riordan, who has devoted most of her life to studying the pre-history of Western Alaska, is of the opinion that although trade helped end the wars, a 1838–39 smallpox epidemic had a big influence.
“This seems a reasonable hypothesis given the perspective stated above that fewer people meant less war,” Funk writes. “It is possible that a desire for the newly arriving Western goods replaced the raiding parties with trading parties, and hostilities faded away or transformed into different forms of competition in the new economic situation.”
Almost ever since Alaska has been in the process of being “transformed into different forms of competition in the new economic situation:” a series of gold rushes, an economic bust, the boom of World War II, the post-war slowdown, then the explosion of oil wealth.
The transition of Alaska from subsistence economies to cash economies would have been difficult for the descendents of the state’s original inhabitants even if the Catholic Church hadn’t dumped some of its worst miscreants in rural Alaska and the U.S. government had refrained from its one-time policy of forced acculturation and assimilation.
Thankfully such behavior is in the past where it joins a global history dominated by war and brutality among all people. The Russians in Alaska were brutal. The Natives before them were brutal. The Americans who finally took over were brutal.
“The Bow and Arrow Wars deeply influenced daily life activities for generations of Triangle area Yupiit and Cupiit. These wars may have been part of a pan-Alaskan, even pan–North American, series of conflicts in which small nations raided each other, sometimes to complete annihilation,” Funk writes.
“Nearby in Alaska, other Yup’ik, Aleut, and Iñupiaq peoples engaged in similarly violent and constant war, using remarkably similar techniques to perpetrate and justify the incessant homicide. It seems now that these wars, in Alaska and throughout North America, preceded the influence of Western states by hundreds of years.”
It’s nobody’s fault. It’s the way things were. We can argue about all that remains wrong today, but Alaska has come a long way from Bow and Arrow War Days. And though there might be a considerable way to go, anyone who thinks the old days were nirvana is simply delusional.
If you have doubts, just try living primitive in Alaska for even a summer. It killed Chris McCandless, although humans can survive for long periods of time often cold, wet and hungry if they truly understand how to live off the land.
Not that it’s easy. It is a hard way to live, an incredibly hard way to live.
There’s a reason McCandless moved into an abandoned bus. Just having that sort of shelter reduces the hardship significantly, and yet the hardship of feeding oneself off the land remains, a hardship McCandless could not overcome.
McCandless died because he was ill-prepared to go into the wild. Most of us are.
Americans – all of us – seriously underappreciate how easy life has become in the 21st century. There is no doubt some of us are better off than others, but we’re all better off – even Anchorage street people – than the inhabitants of Alaska were 200 years ago.
We should all be thankful.
The system isn’t perfect. The children of the economically prosperous start life with better odds of success. For the children of the ruling elite, it is even more so. But we have created a society where people have at least a chance of fighting their way up the social order.
And a society that does more to help its weaker members than the society that was here only a few generations ago. It is not by accident that average lifespans in rural Alaska have increased significantly over the past 35 years, and almost unbelievably over the last 60.
Life-expectancy for Native people when Alaska became a state was 34.7 years. It is now over 70. It still lags the life expectancy of white Alaskans, but the gap has been closing for years.
And yet it seems the gap between Native Alaska and White Alaska is growing. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was supposed to help put this behind by incorporating Natives into the economy of Alaska, but it only made things worse.
Alaska Native corporations, most of them formed under the act, now comprise 16 of the state’s biggest companies, but many Natives remain in poverty or struggling to hang onto the lower rungs of the middle class.
And efforts to help them there are now resented by other Alaskans who see the corporate success and lament how “the Natives have it so good,” as Jennifer Quinto wrote in an op-ed for the Juneau Empire.
An Alaska Native, Quinto was in turn resentful of the people who see all around them the success of Native entities in Alaska and conclude that all or most Natives have reached the point where they don’t need government assistance with loans, health care or other programs.
We live in complicated times. They are difficult for many and full of anger, most especially so under the supercharged presidency of Donald Trump. It has reached the point where a flawed President is too regularly called a Nazi.
“The only discernible difference between what Donald Trump is doing to undocumented immigrants on our southern border and what the Nazis did all over Europe to Jews is that the Nazis had to go from house to house to round up their victims, while all Trump’s Border Patrol has to do is wait for their victims to walk or swim across the border,” Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote at Salon just days ago.
Actually, there a couple rather large and discernible differences. The Nazis took both the parents and children to death camps where millions of them were killed and their bodies burned. And Nazi leader Adolph Hitler did not respond to public pressure as Trump has.
But don’t tell that to Truscott. He is clearly among those today so comfortably well off they have the time to allow their own Trump-size resentments to run wildly out of control.
It ought to be enough to make reasonable Americans yearn for President George W. Bush, the man who proclaimed “I’m a uniter, not a divider”, or then Sen. Barack Obama, who observed that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”
Slowly but surely, the country is now becoming the Ununited States of America. But it could be a lot worse, a whole lot worse. The government could be killing people and stacking the skulls to underline who is in control.
So take heart that no matter how bad it might look, things are a lot better than they were once.