A Critical Response

For a Balanced History of the American Indian

Zoltán Bruckner

As a Journal subscriber of ten years, a supporter of the Institute, and an attendee of the Tenth IHR Conference (1990), I share views similar to yours in most historical issues. But I must protest sharply against two articles about American Indians in the May-June 1998 Journal issue: "The Noble Red Man" by Mark Twain, and "Life Styles: Native and Imposed" by Kevin Beary.

I don't defend a false or romanticized image of the Indians, as propagated, for example, by Hollywood in such films as "Pocahontas" and the others mentioned in the Journal. But just as inaccurate as the currently fashionable media image of the "Noble Red Man" is the disgraceful picture drawn by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) in the article reprinted from a 1870 issue of The Galaxy, apparently a fashionable magazine of the day.

He mocks the Indian for his external appearance and poverty -- by any standard the cheapest way of vilifying someone. The one he describes -- wearing a stove-pipe hat and a necklace of sardine boxes and oyster-cans -- is certainly not an "original" Indian. He is obviously a pathetic victim of alcohol and other "blessings" of an alien, imposed way of life.


Zoltán Bruckner

Twain's description of the Indian's character is no more fair or objective. He denies him any wisdom whatsoever. The Indian's heart, Twain finds, is a "cesspool of falsehood and treachery." If so, such guile did not keep him from being cheated of his continent-wide living space. As is well known, the (White) American government honored virtually none of the treaties it signed with the Indians. Anyway, the Indian had lived in harmony with Nature for centuries, and would have continued doing so "until the end of time" if Whites had not intervened. By contrast, it is the "civilized" White man who has created conditions that now threaten the future of life itself on our planet.

Twain's description of the Indian's style of combat is despicably misleading. Actually, it more fittingly describes how Whites decimated and subdued the continent's native inhabitants, at least in what is now known as the United States: mass killing of helpless women, children and infants.

Certainly Indians sometimes acted atrociously, but such incidents were often preceded by atrocities committed by White settlers or US army troops. And anyway, it was the Indians' land. They realized that not just the American troops, but even more the White settlers they protected, represented a mortal danger to their land and life as a people. The proof of this is the final outcome: the peoples who once ruled the entire continent were nearly entirely exterminated (as Twain recommended), with the wretched survivors, robbed of their lands, driven into small, mostly barren reservations where, dependent on outside support, they eked out a miserable, forlorn existence.

While the motivation for Twain's one-sided polemic may simply have been money, Kevin Beary merely seems eager to defend, at any price, the rapacious imperialistic campaigns of White men (and the Catholic church) that have devastated numerous cultures and cost countless lives. Beary asks whether "Mexican-Americans," "Native Americans" and "African-Americans" lost or gained more as a result of their confrontation with the "West" (that is, their subjugation by the Whites). Even to pose such a the question is an expression of incredible arrogance.

With regard to the "Mexican-Americans" and the "Native Americans," the White conquerors have eradicated not only the original cultures, but also, to a considerable extent, the peoples themselves. In North America, many Indian tribes no longer exist at all. In Central America, the descendents of the original Aztecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mayas, and so forth, are biologically not the same people who lived there before the conquista. Now mixed with Spanish and African blood, their original biological identity has been lost forever.


Before the arrival ofthe Spanish conquistadors, Tenochtitlán was the capital of Montezuma's great Aztec empire. This modern rendering is based on archaeological evidence. The flourishing city was protected against floods by well-built dikes, and connected with the mainland by three causeways. Canals served traffic throughout the city, which had some magnificent buildings. In August 1521, after a three-month siege, Tenochtitlán was subdued by Hernén Cortés, who then had it razed. On the ruins he founded Mexico City.

By focusing on the Aztecs, Mr. Beary selects the most warlike of all high-culture-bearing peoples of Central America. The story of the Mayas, or virtually any other people of the region, provides quite a different picture. Certainly, the Aztecs waged brutal wars against their neighbors, but they did not exterminate them. They amalgamated with their conquered neighbors, absorbing and mixing with their cultures (much as the Romans had done with the Greeks.)

Beary's choice of Bernal D'az del Castillo as a contemporary witness shows his deceitful selectivity. He was hardly an impartial eye-witness, but rather a participant in the Spanish conquest of Central America. He naturally tried to justify his deeds and those of his commander, Hernán Cortés, to the Church and the Spanish King. The best way to do so was to portray the Aztecs, and the other "pacified" natives, as cruel, bloodthirsty savages who could be saved only by subjecting them to Spanish Christianity.

But even D'az del Castillo, in his Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España (cited by Beary under the title The Conquest of New Spain), recounts incidents that do not conform with the simple image of savage Aztecs and merciful European Christians. An example is a passage (here in my rough translation) about the fate of the Huastecs, a Maya-related people on the Gulf coast of central Mexico: "Still greater evil awaited them when Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán became their governor, who, from the very first day of his governorship, reduced almost all of them to slaves and sent them to the islands for sale." The islands referred to here are the Antilles. Because war, epidemics and slave labor had decimated the original inhabitants, the Spanish imported slaves from the Continent.

Why is Beary silent about such things? Surely he is familiar with the text, which he cites selectively. But there are other reliable contemporary witnesses, such as Hernán Cortés himself. In his letters to the Spanish King, he reported on a punitive action against the Huastecs, which he ordered after an uprising that had been provoked by looting and raping by Spanish soldiers. He sent a captain named Gonzalo de Sandoval to deal with this. After putting down the uprising, Sandoval and his men took 400 "princes and chieftains" as prisoner, that is, in addition to an unknown number of natives of lesser rank, all of whom conquistador Cortés had burned to death "for the sake of justice." Does Mr. Beary even know this? Other eye-witnesses testified to numerous similar atrocities.


In his "Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indians," missionary and historian Bartolomé de Las Casas recalled watching as Spanish soldiers "took babies from their mothers' breasts, grabbing them by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks ... They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground to prevent strangling, and hanged 13 [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve apostles ... Then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive." This illustration, from a 1598 edition of Las Casas' "Brief Account," is by publisher-engraver Theodor de Bry.

Diego de Landa, an important figure in the Spanish subjugation of the Mayas, describes in Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán (translated as Yucatán Before and After the Conquest), the case of a young Mayan woman who had been abducted from Bacalán by Captain Alonso Lopez de Avila. Because she had promised her husband not to give herself to any other man, she refused to become Avila's mistress, even at the sacrifice of her own life. Upon her refusal to betray her husband, the Spaniards had her devoured by dogs.

After his appointment as head of the Franciscans in Yucatán, this same Diego de Landa ordered a public auto da fé in Man' in July 1562. An enormous pile of Mayan artifacts and books was torched. The Indian princes and others of noble birth were brought into the courtyard of the monastery, stripped to the waist, and clad in poor quality clothes to shame them. Then, with ropes around their necks, the "heretics" were publicly flogged, some to death. Each then had his hair cut short. Finally, each was obliged to wear a dunce hat for one to three years, and to perform forced labor for three to five years. Some 4,500 Mayas were tortured, of whom 157 died during or after interrogation.

Also in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, Landa describes how the Indians in the provinces of Cochua and Chetumal were "pacified" after an uprising:

... They [the Spanish] carried out cruelties without precedent against the Indians, by chopping off their noses, arms and legs, and the breasts of the women, and then, weighted down by squashes, throwing them in deep lagoons. They stabbed the children because they could not march as quickly as their mothers. When some of them, dragged along on chains, could not march as quickly as the others, they chopped their heads off, so they would not need to hold them or free them from the chains. And there was a large number of women and men whom they brought into their service in this manner.

"The Spaniards," Landa also wrote, "pacified [the Indians of Cochua and Chetumal] in such a way, that these provinces where were formerly the thickest settled and most populous, remained the most desolate of all the country."

Thus did Diego de Landa, who was appointed Bishop of Yucatán in 1573, record events in the region. Nowhere do we read of any effort by this pious servant of God to oppose such outrages.

A praiseworthy exception was Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who first visited the New World in 1502 and lived there for more than 50 years. From 1514 until his death, including a period as Bishop of Chiapas, this Dominican priest was an untiring defender of the Indians of "Nueva España." He did everything in his power to ease their lot, even traveling to Spain to persuade the King to adopt laws on their behalf. (Spain was far away, however, and enforcement of such laws was lax at best.)

More important, perhaps, were his detailed writings, including Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias (translated as The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account) and Historia de las Indias (first published 1875-76). In these detailed works, he provides the most complete account of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán, while immortalizing numberless crimes against the native peoples. He described the Indians very positively, while portraying some of his fellow countrymen as veritable scoundrels.

For example, Las Casas writes of Pedro de Alvarado, a ruthless lieutenant of Cortés who was appointed governor of Yucatán in 1526:

... Like the others before him, [he] abused his post with robberies ... waged cruel wars against those kind and innocent people who were peacefully in their huts, and killed and destroyed countless of them. And, because there is no gold in this land ... he made gold out of the bodies and the souls of those, for whom Jesus Christ died, and made them all, whom he did not kill, into slaves, in exchange for wine, oil, vinegar and bacon, and for clothes, horses and everything he and his men needed. He let each of them choose among 150 girls, one prettier than the other, whichever they liked, for a couple of liters of wine, oil or vinegar, or for a piece of bacon. And, for the same price could they buy a handsome young boy out of 100 or 200. One boy, apparently the son of a prince, he sold for a piece of cheese, and 100 others for a horse.


Historian Las Casas, in his "Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indians," described Spanish mistreatment of the natives: "They threw into those holes all the Indians they could capture of every age and kind ... Pregnant and confined women, children, old men [were] left stuck on the stakes until the pits were filled ... The rest they killed with lances and daggers and threw them to their war dogs who tore them up and devoured them." This illustration is from a 1598 Latin edition of Las Casas' "Brief Account."

In this way, in seven years, from 1526 to 1533 ... he ruined that land and killed those people without mercy, until the news reached them about the wealth of Peru, and his men left him ... But, then, the butcher's servants came again, to carry out still more infamous acts: slave-hunts and great offenses against God, and this shame is going on until our very days.

Reporting on an earlier expedition against other "native Americans," Las Casas writes:

Once the Indians were in the woods, the next step was to form squadrons and pursue them, and whenever the Spaniards found them, they pitilessly slaughtered everyone like sheep in a corral. It was a general rule among the Spaniards to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indian's hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying "Go now, spread the news to your chiefs." They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs.

For understandable reasons, Mr. Beary chooses to neglect such accounts. Instead, he echoes the justifications offered four centuries ago by Diego de Landa:

The Indians did not lose, but gained much through the arrival of the Spaniards ... also in small things ... they already have many good horses and mules ... also many cows, swine, sheep, goats, dogs, cats ... But, not only these useful things ... God gave the Indians, through our Spanish nation, without any payment, things that cannot be bought or deserved ... justice and Christianity and peace ...

Should we rejoice with Diego de Landa for the Indians of Latin America?

When he turns his attention to the Indians of North America, Beary is similarly selective. Ignoring the many peaceful, and even pacifist tribes, he focuses on the Iroquois, the fiercest and most warlike tribe of the region. He cites a single American historian, Francis Parkman, and just one "juicy" selection from his writings.

Yes, the Iroquois did wage ruthless wars against their neighbors -- just as Whites have done, and still do. And in these wars they did kill women and children -- just as Whites have done. So renowned were the Iroquois for their ferocity and skill in war that the Dutch and the English eagerly supplied them with arms and hired them to fight against the French. For their part, the French provisioned and deployed the Algonkin Montagnais against the Iroquois and their English allies.

Yet, this is only one aspect of the Iroquois character. Other historians, such as Bacqueville de la Potherie and Cadwallader Colden (both cited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., in The Patriot Chiefs, in a chapter about the great legendary chief Hiawatha) wrote of other traits. Drawing on accounts of French officials who had met in peaceful councils with Iroquois leaders, Bacqueville de la Potherie wrote:

When one talks of the Five Nations [the confederated Iroquois] in France, they are thought, by a common mistake, to be mere barbarians, always thirsting after human blood; but their true character is very different; they are the fiercest and most formidable people in North America, and at the same time as politic and judicious as well can be conceived.

Historian Cadwallader Colden, after a study of minutes and records of treaty meetings in Albany between the British and the Iroquois, concluded: "The Five Nations are a poor barbarous people, under the darkest ignorance, and yet a bright and noble genius shines trough these black clouds."

Other eyewitnesses made similar statements, particularly emphasizing the Iroquois' moral character and the wisdom of their political system (a legacy of Hiawatha), which was based on individual freedom and government by consent. But Mr. Beary does not, or will not, see this "bright and noble genius."

And while the Iroquois' ferocity against their enemies may seem quite shocking to us, what real difference is there between burning people to death on scaffolding by Indians in the 17th century, and incinerating tens of thousands of people at a time in fire-bombings (Hamburg, Dresden) or with atomic blasts (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) by "civilized" Whites in the "enlightened" 20th century?

With regard to the native Africans, I grant that their cultural level is not at all comparable to that of the native Americans. None of the African tribes ever organized a society even remotely as ordered as that of the Aztecs or the Mayas. The Africans' habits in war and peace were, and are, simpler -- shall I say more primitive? And primitiveness often, though not always, is accompanied by brutality and cruelty.

The only contemporary witness of the slave trade whom Beary cites is Theophilus Conneau, a slave ship captain. As such, his credibility is highly suspect. He was part of the game, and therefore had a strong motive for justifying his own actions. What could be easier than to describe the Africans as morally inferior? I am also skeptical of his vivid description of a tribal victory celebration, with its emphasis on the female element. It smells of sensationalism and self-righteousness.

Beary's main point here is that Whites did not introduce the slave trade to Africa, or even to America. However true, it is also true that the trade in human beings would never have reached the vast dimensions it did without White involvement. Whites organized and carried out the shipment of millions from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, of whom millions died during the journey. (And there would be no "African-Americans" today, with all the attendant racial problems, if White businessmen had not shipped their ancestors across the Atlantic.)

The White race has a rich and varied history with many achievements that have benefited all of humanity -- achievements to be proud of. The conquest of America does not belong to them. Mr. Beary laments "vanishing history" as written by D'az, Conneau and Parkman. It would indeed be a pity if such writings were to be forgotten, if only as examples of narrow-minded and parochial historiography. Along with many other accounts and narratives, they illuminate history with all its high and lows, triumphs and tragedies, glory and shame. If it is possible to learn from the past so that it actually influences our behavior (which is doubtful, in light of mankind's record through the ages), than only through balanced history.

To strive for a "clean" or righteous history of one's own people is quite understandable. Nobody wants to be ashamed of his or her own past. That is true for individuals as well as for peoples. But this desire must not permit one to falsify history. A one-sided history, based on selectively chosen sources, is a falsified history. It doesn't deserve to appear in the Journal.

(For further reading, see: David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992, and, Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes Since 1492. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.)


From The Journal of Historical Review, March/April 1999 (Vol. 18, No. 2), page 24.

Zoltán Bruckner was born in 1930 in Hungary, where he also grew up and studied theology and engineering. He left Hungary in the wake of the 1956 uprising. He holds a Master's degree in civil engineering, and has worked in Austria, the United States and Sweden (where he currently resides). He has long had a keen interest in Indian cultures, which he has developed through extensive reading and study, and in journeys to Mexico and South America.