Having always been interested in the Druids and their religion I once bought a book on the subject called, appropriately enough, The Druids. It was a scholarly work by a man named Stuart Piggott, and was not half as interesting as I had hoped, since the druids, stripped of the myths surrounding them, such as that Stonehenge was a place of druidic worship and sacrifice, are not nearly so fascinating as one would think. In fact, the most interesting thing about the book was the preface in which Piggott discussed his approach to his research and the ideas of what he called "hard" and "soft" primitivism. Hard primitivism sees the members of less technologically advanced cultures as savages whom one kills or enslaves, or, for those of more tender conscience, attempts to civilize and preferably convert. Soft primitivism sees them as natural, unspoiled, even noble, a people whose way of life must be preserved uncontaminated by the pollution of civilization.
I was reminded of these concepts when I listened to Van Jones' Ware Lecture which I showed to some of you (and by the way the company that produces the DVDs sent me a new copy without the technological glitch that some of us found so annoying). It really was a wonderful lecture as those who heard it will attest and the DVD is available for you to borrow -- or if enough of you want it I can show it again. However, while I was listening to his lament for the treatment of indigenous peoples who lived in a sacred harmony with their surroundings with a carbon footprint so small as to be undetectable and kept their people healthy and happy with natural remedies, I was uncomfortable -- even slightly embarrassed. I wanted to say, "Wait a minute! That great-great-great-great grandmother was probably captured and sold into slavery in the new world by a neighboring indigenous people, and her tribe might well have done the same thing if they won the battle. And those remedies: the life expectancy of ancient peoples and those today without access to contemporary healthcare is about thirty years. They did have some useful drugs, some of which are still in use, some of which are even now being rediscovered. One of the most useful was an infusion of willow bark used to reduce fever. It really worked, and now it is manufactured and distributed in large quantities. It is now called aspirin and is purer and much more widely available. Herbal drugs, too many of them chosen through a kind of sympathetic magic, could not entirely counteract the lack of knowledge of basic hygiene and antibiotics that allowed huge levels of infant mortality and the deaths of too many women in childbed. Hard primitivism is, especially to the modern moral view, evil, and even in the days when it was the majority view many found it so. Soft primitivism, however, can be almost equally dangerous.
Five hundred sixteen years ago on this date Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas. Sixteen years ago on the 500th anniversary of that event, California declared October 12 Indigenous Peoples Day. Admittedly, if Columbus had not done it someone else would have shortly afterwards. The desire for another trade route to India and China was urgent as the land route was blocked by the Ottoman Empire and the route around the horn of Africa was long and dangerous. Nevertheless, that particular landfall changed the world. If it had not happened -- or its equivalent -- you and I would not be here today. What a huge shift in moral consciousness there has been when the 500th anniversary of such an event should have been soft-pedaled in a small attempt at atonement to those people he and those who followed him killed, enslaved and displaced!
I often wish that I found it that easy to make moral judgments. I'm not even sure what indigenous means. In its purest sense, the only people who might be indigenous (but probably aren't) are those living in North Africa. Did you know, for example, that the Spanish had been settled in Florida for two hundred years before the first Seminoles migrated here? How many years or what level of culture does it take to be indigenous? The Canadians call the people who were here when the Europeans came First Nations which is not only respectful but reflects the reality that they, too, came to the western hemisphere from somewhere else originally. Maybe indigenous means the first people to come to a previously empty place and settling there -- but how big an empty place? Does it have to be a whole continent or at least a detached bit of land? Human history has been in large part about the migrations of peoples, sometimes peacefully, but more often with conflict. It has been violent and far more complex than we know.
Columbus was definitely a hard primitive. As far as he was concerned the people that he found were there to be exploited, as was the land. That was the point of view of his time and culture, and from his point of view and that of many of those who followed him it was the proper one. What he did, even from our perspective, was heroic. With three tiny ships -- and it's amazing to us when replicas show us how tiny they really were -- he crossed the Atlantic with no idea how far he would have to go, and with only the misplaced hope that he would find India on the other side. The way he treated the people that he found was in those days no blot on his record. It was expected and respectable. After all, they were just naked savages. For us today it makes even his heroism evil and creates a moral conflict for his heirs. We are his heirs. The United States of today exists because of his discovery.
Those Europeans who followed him were mostly also hard primitives, feeling that the nomadic tribes of the north and even the cities of the south being non-Christian and with little technology (or at least one that the Europeans didn't understand) were worth no consideration. Those feelings were not entirely universal. Although the motto that the only good Indian was a dead Indian was frequently repeated, people were forcibly displaced and treaties were broken, it was the United States government's policy that any land taken from the Indians must be paid for. There was unhappily no guarantee that the people paid for it were actually the owners. Even the beads that Peter Minuit paid for the island of Manhattan went to a tribe that had no title to it. When the reservations were set aside, places that have too often become pockets of grinding poverty and ignorance, it was in part to protect the people from further depredations. They could there maintain their culture and their faith. For the soft primitives that we have become today, it is the least we can do to atone to enable them to hold onto that identity.
Many of you remember Earl Stotesbury, a member of our congregation who came each year for a few months from Canada. Before he retired he was a minister in the United Church of Canada, and much of his ministry was on First Nation reservations. His ultimate goal was to remove the people from the reservations and integrate them into the larger society. I asked him about the loss of their own culture when such integration occurred, and he said that he had gotten a lot of criticism for his work for that very reason, and he had decided that poverty, ignorance and often disease were too high a price to pay for maintaining a culture. And it's not really the culture that was lost. Ritual chants and dances, beadwork and leatherworking, are not the same as the nomadic culture of the northern American Indians.
Nor could it be. Real cultures change, grow, develop in various ways -- not always in ways that we could wish. The culture of the United States of 100, 50, even 25 years ago is not the culture of today. All of us lose the beauties of the past to the necessities -- and sometimes just the changing tastes -- of the present. I deeply regret the beautiful building called the Rivergate in New Orleans, neither old enough to be historic nor young enough to be fashionable, torn down to be replaced with a faux Mediterranean style casino. The soft primitivism which is now the approach of those who change Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day overlays the historical reality with romanticism, forgetting the hardships of the nomadic life, imagining that all indigenous people were peace-loving environmentalists whose culture should be preserved, whose land should be somehow given back, for whom, at the least, we should forget our debt to Columbus and hang our heads in shame for the evil actions of our ancestors. It has been suggested that we might do as South Africa did and set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to dredge out and assign responsibility for the injustices that have been done in the past, not only to the American Indians but to the Africans who were brought here as slaves. Except that in South Africa the people who maintained apartheid in this generation were still around, while the settlers who displaced and enslaved the Indians and the slave traders and slave owners are long gone. Even the smallest thought recognizes that a return of land is impossible, and it is equally unjust to hold people responsible for the injustices of their ancestors.
There is also the reality that soft primitivism tells the story no more truthfully than hard primitivism. Some of the First Nations were gentle and peace-loving, but many were not. Their carbon footprint was undetectable because their technology was stone age level. They did not all share the same culture, the same religion or the same values. The Calusa Indians, for instance, about whom little is known, were here when the Spanish came. They had conquered most of the tribes of south Florida from Cape Canaveral on the east coast to Tampa on the west. What little can be discovered tells us that they were a fierce and warlike people, practicing human sacrifice and perhaps even ritual cannibalism. Even their vaunted environmentalism is somewhat exaggerated. The Mayans in Central America, according to research, declined in power because their slash and burn agricultural methods ultimately degraded their environment. The tragic reality is that people are people, and if the culture of the American Indians had been one of technological advancement greater than that of the Europeans, it would have been they who had crossed the ocean and the people of European descent in Europe would today have been demanding reparations.
I am more than glad that the hard primitivism of our ancestors is no longer respectable, that we no longer assume that because a culture is different it should give way to our own and its people should have no say in their own destiny and can be exploited and oppressed at will. It is one of the things that I believe we can point to as real moral progress in human culture, if not in our nature. I think, however, that we need to give up soft primitivism as well. Hearkening back to a time that never was too often keeps us from dealing justly and healthily with what is. We need, too, to give up guilt that is not ours and blame for those who are not guilty. In the sweep of human history all of us have had ancestors who were invaders, oppressors and slave owners. All of us have ancestors whose lands were invaded, who were oppressed, who were slaves. We cannot atone for sins we did not commit nor take payment for injustices that were not done to us. We can and should retain the beauties of past times and cultures. They enrich our lives. But our lives are now, with its comforts and its difficulties, and while those beauties can be loved and kept as a living part of who we are, we must not cling to ways that cannot thrive. We must look realistically with neither guilt nor misdirected anger at how we can best repair the lingering consequences of errors of the past. They are there. There is poverty, ignorance, disease among those whom our ancestors oppressed because of that oppression. Discrimination, racism, still exist. We must not keep it alive with romantic longings for the past but instead deal honestly with present realities. It is not because our ancestors did evil and we must therefore atone, but because we ourselves must not allow oppression and want to continue to exist today. We must finally learn in our heart of hearts that all of us, whatever our color, however long ago our ancestors came to these shores, whether they came willingly or unwillingly, belong here and belong together.