Thanksgiving 2015: A brief examination of how colonialism may inform my masculine performance.
I am Puerto Rican. Therefore, I have roots and identify with Africans who were brought to the Caribbean, the Tainos, the native people who were enslaved, colonized, and victims of genocide, and the Spanish colonizers. This Thanksgiving, I spent some time trying to question how the different ways masculine performance had to have intermingled and morphed over centuries into what I experience today. Here is what I came up with.
The history of the United States is a brutal one. If you don't already know, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is available online (for now) so you can read about the Columbus, the Pilgrims, and everything that came with them, right here. In this post, I aim to begin wrestling with the foundation of my exploration of the ways that colonialism has shaped the ways we understand and perform masculinity in the United States.
In the Americas, indigenous people were practicing masculinity in particular ways. They then came face-to-face with colonialism. This mingling of masculinities is, to me, an important stage of the development of American masculinities as we know it today. We often talk about the ways that cowboy and Indiana Jones movies impact our mainstream understanding of masculinity because it is in our face and has been for generations but what about the real thing? What has been the transgenerational impact of masculine performance through "Cowboy and Indian" battles on American masculinities?
As a way to practice critical remembrance for Thanksgiving 2015, I've decided to focus on Christopher Columbus' interactions with Native Americans and essentially share and very briefly begin to unravel my analysis on Howard Zinn's account, which is italicized below.
The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Las Casas transcribed Columbus's journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume History of the Indies. In it, he describes the Indians. They are agile, he says, and can swim long distances, especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.
Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas describes sex relations:
Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man's head or at his hands.
The Indians, Las Casas says, have no religion, at least no temples. They live in
large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time ... made of very strong wood and roofed with palm leaves.... They prize bird feathers of various colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality. ...
In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:
Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians....
Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings."
It is clear that the comparisons are made immediately upon contact with native people of the Americas. What I believe is most important is the ending of this passage. The ways that the Las Casas talks about Spaniards becoming conceited and taking full advantage of the Native Americans, to me, speaks to some of the very first creations of American patriarchal order and furthermore American masculinities.
It is clear that in the accounts there were essentially no women traveling to the Americas with Columbus. What we see on the colonists side is the greed and exploitation of human labor and inhumane treatment of people due to convincing the self that others are less than. We also see some cognitive dissonance in the colonists' minds when they are trying to comprehend the Native Americans' disinterest in gold and European relationship structures, which include ownership over women through marriage, monogamy, cohabitation of large populations - implying a different understanding of land ownership.
It is important to note that with this account alone, we aren't able to gather the nuanced experiences of Native American understandings of love, relationships, familial structures, etc. but we can assume it clashed with the European way of life. As I seek to explore indigenous masculinities, I will revisit this more thoroughly.
The end of this snippet is also critical in understanding the ways masculinity was performed by the colonialists. They were under pressure from the King. It is not to excuse, it is simply to add on a layer of their lived experience - they didn't want to die and that calls for drastic measures. That said, the Native Americans didn't have all of this context so it is possible that they simply took their performance as their normal behavior and worked with that.