Friday, April 17, 2009


Left: (a) George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839–June 25, 1876). Known as an American Civil War hero, cavalry commander, and Indian Fighter. His father was a blacksmith who anglicized the German family name Küster, an occupational name for a church sexton or churchwarden, to Custer. He was the last in his class as a cadet at West Point yet he became a Civil War hero. Known as "Yellow Hair" and "Son of the Morning Star" to his Native American enemies.

(b) Lakota holy man Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka or Ta-Tanka I-Yotank aswe known to us as Sitting Bull. He led the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek or the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

(c) 1848 painting of orator Tecumtha or Tekamthi or Tecumseh­"Shooting Star”­ ( Shawnee) ­March 9, 1768-October 5, 1813).

(d) 1835 lithograph from a painting of Red Jacket or Sagoyewatha (Seneca)­1750-January 20, 1830. Orator and war chief of the Wolf clan.

(e) Painting of the Native American Battle of Greasy Grass Creek known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer's Last Stand. Fighting for their homeland, Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors defeated Custer’s 700-man 7th Cavalry Regiment column. In the battle, the warriors annihilated five companies and killed Custer along with his two brothers, a nephew and brother-in-law.

civilization n. from the Latin civis, a citizen or townsman governed by the law of his city. 1. places where people live, rather than uninhabitable areas. 2. a society that is marked by complex social and political organization, and material, scientific, and artistic progress.

Indian fighter n. 1. someone who fought against Native Americans and who believed that Indians should be punished, put on reservations, and forced to stay there. 2. arrogant military men who fought against Native Americans with the intent to subdue or eliminate the enemy.

arrogance .n. 1. a strong feeling of proud self-importance that is expressed by treating other people with contempt or disregard.


One day I visited the Virginia Room at the Fairfax County Regional Library. My wife and I had attended a first meeting for the kick off for a special library organization. While she was speaking to a library official, I perused a display where I came across a printed collection of newspaper articles from 1870 to 1875. An 1874 article under the heading “THE INDIAN NOT CIVILIZABLE”, from “My life on the Plains”, written by General Custer in the February Galaxy, caught my eye. This 19th century belief may have lingered into the 21st century of the present era. Custer, who met his timely end at the Battle of the Little Big Horn at 35 years old, on June 26, 1876 at the hands of his reviled objects (Lakota or Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors), wrote this opinion.

Custer’s Belief

“The white race might fall into a barbarous state, and afterwards, subjected to the influence of civilization, be reclaimed and prosper. Not so the Indian, He cannot be himself and be civilized; he fades away and dies.”

“To those who advocate the application of the laws of civilization to the Indian, it might be profitable study to investigate the effect [that] such application produces upon the strength of the tribe as expressed in numbers. Looking at him as the fearless hunter, the matchless horseman and warrior of the Plains, where Nature placed him, and contrasting with the reservation Indian, who is supposed to be reveling in the delightful comforts and luxuries of an en1ightened condition, but who in reality groveling in beggary, bereft of any qualities which is in his wild state tended to render him noble, and heir to a combination of vices partly his own, partly bequeathed to him from the paleface, one is forced even against desire, to conclude that there is unending antagonism between the Indian nature and that with which his well-meaning white brother would endow him. Nature intended him for a savage state; every instinct, every impulse of his soul inclines him to it. The white race might fall into a barbarous state, and afterwards, subjected to the influence of civilization, be reclaimed and prosper. Not so the Indian, He cannot be himself and be civilized; he fades away and dies.

Cultivation such as the white man would give him deprives him of his identity. Education, strange as it may appear, seems to weaken rather than strengthen his intellect. Where do we find any specimens of educated Indian eloquence comparing with that of such native, untutored orators as Tecumseh, Osceola, Red Jacket, and Logan; or, to select from those of more recent fame, Red Cloud of the Sioux, or Sa-tan-ta of the Kiowas?”

What are the benchmarks of a civilized society? In Custer’s mind, was the level of oratory of some Native leaders even a tiny indication of a civilized people? Apparently not. For him the “civilized white man” was the only one able to temporarily sink into the barbarism of a Civil War and afterwards, the attempted annihilation of an indigenous people, and rise again to gain his unblemished position among the civilized societies of the world.

Tecumseh’s speech

“You have the liberty to return to your own country ... you wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as common property of the whole ... You never see an Indian endeavor to make the white people do this ... Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? How can we have confidence in the white people? ” --Tecumseh to Governor William Harrison (he later became the ninth president of the United States and died in office), 1810, The Portable North American Indian Reader.

Red Jacket’s speech on the Religion of White men and the Red

“Brother, listen to what we say. There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island. Their seats extended from the rising to the setting sun. The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians. He had created the buffalo, the deer, and other animals for food. He had made the bear and the beaver. Their skins served us for clothing. He had scattered them over the country and taught us how to take them. He had caused the earth to produce corn for bread. All this He had done for His red children because He loved them. If we had some disputes about our hunting-ground they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood. But an evil day came upon us. Your forefathers crossed the great water and landed on this island. Their numbers were small. They found friends and not enemies. They told us they had fled from their own country for fear of wicked men and had come here to enjoy their religion. They asked for a small seat. We took pity on them, granted their request, and they sat down among us. We gave them corn and meat; they gave us poison [alcohol] in return.

Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book? Brother, we do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.” --Excerpt from Red Jacket’s 1805 speech on the Religion of the White Man and the Red

The epitome of arrogance or differences in values?

Today some Native American T-shirts display the saying, “Custer died for his sins.” Or, “Custer was Siouxed.” Custer, however, typified the arrogance of his time, a malady first encountered in Christopher Columbus’ writings.

Columbus’ 1492 first impression of the Taíno

“It seemed to me that they were a people very deficient in everything. They all go naked as their mother bore them, and the women also… They did not bear arms or know them, for I showed them swords and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron.”--Caribbean island of Guanahaní, October 1, 1492. --The Journal of Christopher Columbus, p.23.

Columbus judged the Taíno by their nudity since he based their practical treatment of tropical heat in a sexual context. I wonder how he would view the bikini on the same Bahamian beach today. The Taíno wove high quality cotton that married women wore as a skirt they called a nagua. They used jade and obsidian blades imported from the Maya workshops in Central America for cutting implements. Archeologists have found one of these Maya trade household items as far down the chain of islands as Antigua in the Eastern Caribbean. Obsidian knives were sharper than steel swords yet one of the benchmarks for Western Civilization was the development of steel from iron. The Taíno’s Mesoamerican neighbors, the Maya, had a network of long distance trading from the Pacific to the Caribbean. They used obsidian blades (a volcanic glass) as trade items that were even sharper than steel scalpels. Obsidian blades were also used to carry out cranial surgery or trephinin, a successful indigenous Mesoamerican and Andean practice unknown to Columbus’s medical contemporaries. “An abstract from the Western Journal of Medicine, March !982, stated, “The prismatic glass blade is infinitely sharper than a honed steel edge, and these blades can be produced in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.” (Contemporary Surgery, Bruce A. Buck, MD, Twin Falls, Idaho). According to the article, “the finest of these prismatic blades were produced in Mesoamerica about 2,500 years ago.” For example, in research done in 1982 by Dr. Don Crabtree, the possible uses of [obsidian] blades in modern surgery and animal experiments had shown the tensile strength of obsidian produced wounds to be equal to or greater than that of wounds produced by steel scalpels after 14 days of healing. Native Americans also mined, manufactured and exported obsidian implements from Casa Diablo in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California as early as 6500 to 1500 B.C. In cardiac surgery, obsidian blades produce narrower scars and less tissue damage.

Columbus’ 1492 second impression of the Taíno

[The houses of Cuba] “were made in the manner of tents, very large, and they looked like tents in a camp, with no regular streets , but one here and another there. Inside, they were well swept and clean, and their furnishings very well arranged; all were made of very beautiful palm branches. They found many images like women and many heads like masks, very well worked. [I do] not know if they had them for their beauty or whether they worshiped them.”-- The Journal of Christopher Columbus, p.47.

The first houses that some Spanish conquistadors felt lucky to buy in the Caribbean were bohios (a roundhouse) made by the Taíno since the caney (a square chief’s house) was not commonly available on the housing market. Water resistant and thatched like many English houses at the time, they constructed the walls with timber (like insect repellant mahogany and other tropical hardwoods) and decorated the interiors with painted or woven decorations of varying designs. As the Japanese also knew, wood was better suited for earthquake zones than the brick and mortar structures that the Spanish later imported from their motherland. According to an abstract on architecture by Banu Çelebioğlu & Sevgül Limoncu , Department of Architecture, Yıldız Technical University, Turkey, “Timber structures are the most earthquake resistant among other traditional forms.”

A change in the times

Europeans who came to the Americas had set their benchmarks of evaluating “civilization” after they themselves had become heirs to the civilizing accomplishments of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. They also had built on borrowed ideas from Arabia (algebra first written about by Muhammad ibn Muas al-Khwarizmi who used his al-jabr to help him in scientific work in geography and astronomy, etc.), China (invented gunpowder, printing, etc.) and India (invented zero, the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). By Custer’s time most Americans also knew nothing about the great civilizations of the Americas, so opinions were characteristically flawed. In spite of Columbus’ erroneous first impression of the “Indios”, and Custer’s last stand on the “Indian’s” inability to become civilized, we have made-enlightened strides in the knowledge of indigenous American civilizations.

Yet in the Americas, most of our current populations remain as ill informed as Custer and Columbus about indigenous American civilizations and their accomplishments. For example, both men did not know of the early Maya mathematician’s (of Central America) own independent invention of zero; the advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes; the Olmec of Mexico’s invented uses of latex rubber, or the early Mexican horticultural “engineering” of corn from a small wild grass. In President Obama’s recent speech to Congress, he expressed the importance of our educational system. Although we in the United States have made great strides in the inclusion of knowledge about Native American cultures in the school curriculum, we need to become more aware of their impact on both our and world cultures. As an educator, I have often been shocked at the abysmal lack of knowledge about the ancient history of our hemisphere. We know more about Europe, Asia, and Africa than we do about the Americas, the hemisphere in which most of us were born and in which we will probably die. Without knowledge of a people’s history we cannot award them their deserved respect.

Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate who repeatedly included Native Americans in his speeches. In the spirit of his emphasis on education in his first speech to Congress, we can go one-step further. “Change”, our educational system to include instruction indigenous American contributions to other world civilizations, as an integral part of the school curriculum. National Native American Heritage Month (November) should be treated equally as is Black History Month (February) where even the television stations use their “bully pulpit” to enlighten us. If we do not give credit where it is due, our children will continue the Custer fallacy of having a one sided view of their inherited history in the Americas.

Red Jacket’s 1804 speech in its entirety:

Maya Trade & Economy

Ancient and modern uses of obsidian

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