15 February 2012
The Native American Image Through The Colonizers’ Eyes
When the Spanish colonizers came to the new lands they perceived the Native Americans there as beast-like and not civilized according to their standards. The colonizers were convinced that the Native Americans and their lifestyles did not have logic or reason behind it, deemed it “barbaric” and were convinced the indigenous peoples needed to adopt more civilized ways with the help of the Spanish. The play “The Mission” by the Culture Clash and scenes from the movie Apocalypto portray how the Spanish then viewed the indigenous peoples; the sacred rituals they held to honor their gods were interpreted as senselss horrible sacrifices and because of the values they held and ways they lived, the Native Americans were seen as somehow inferior to the Spanish and needed guidance–which was what the first scenes of “The Mission” suggested and subsequently poked fun at. This begs the question of what right the Spanish had to make those judgements. Were colonizers in the position to have judged the indigenous peoples? Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish missionary who advocated for the rights of the Native Americans, documented the horrors he saw in the way other Spanish colonizers abused them. de las Casas suggests in his writing that the Spanish were more barbaric and cruel in their ways and in how they treated the Native Americans–essentially arguing that they were in no position to “teach” the Natives the “civilized way.” De las Casas writes:
And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. (18)
The Spanish Christian settlers acted against the Native Americans with unrelenting violence, brutally murdering and torturing those they encountered and sparing no one. It’s important to note that throughout this piece, de las Casas refers to the Spanish as “Christians” rather than Spanish or Europeans. This adds to the level of cruelty in the way the Spanish behaved towards the indigenous people because the Spaniards were not just Spaniards, they were Christians and had moral and ethical responsibilities they were expected to uphold and live by. Many of the settlers during that time wished to convert the Native Americans to Christianity because the Native American ways and spiritual beliefs were considered barbaric and the Spaniards essentially became self-appointed teachers in that respect—yet in de las Casas account, these Christians did not live by their religious teachings. The stark contrast between their (the settlers’) actions and the values they say they hold is ironic and lends emphasis to de las Casas’s descriptions. The repetition of “nor” and the categories that followed show how unrelenting the Spaniards were in their act of genocide. No one was spared, and that repetition mimics a rhythm or pattern, perhaps replicating the steady stream of murders the Spanish committed. The quote, “cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse,” shows the lack of compassion the Spanish had when dealing with the Native Americans. They did not respect them as equals which supports the idea in “The Mission” where the Spanish saw the Natives as inferior. In de las Casas’s account, the Native Americans were literally treated as animals, slaughtered like animals. It is also important to note that the use of the word “dismembering” has a much more dehumanizing effect than “killing” and the act of further “cutting them to pieces” shows how far removed the indigenous people were from “human beings” in the Spanish colonizers’ eyes. These Spanish Christians acted out “strange cruelties against” the indigenous people under the guise of Christianity, but these acts go directly against Christian teachings. The Spanish saw the indigenous peoples as barbaric, but the irony is that the Spanish were much more so and even de las Casas, a Spaniard himself, condemned these actions and called for change.
In the play performed by Culture Clash called “The Mission,” the “Indios” were kept under the command of Father Serra, the friar who founded many missions in the California region in his time. The excerpt of the play poked fun at the idea of “westernization” and how Father Serra’s character looked down on the Indios, didn’t see them as equals and treated them harshly. They were constantly spoken to in demeaning terms and treated like children or pets as if they were not sensible enough to act without supervision—they too were helpless and treated as such by the Friar and we could see that they were beginning to lose their culture, identity, and language. In a particular scene, the two Indios spoke privately in their own language, but one stopped and began to curse the Friar in “mock English” instead. It was apparent that he was struggling when speaking in his native tongue. When confronted, he responded to his companion that he was not allowed to speak in their own language and instead must use the language of the friars. This idea is similar to another excerpt we discussed in class, of the colonized adopting the language of the colonizer because they no longer had a language of their own. In an excerpt from an essay by Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Retamar writes:
This is something that we, the mestizo inhabitants of these same isles where Caliban lived, see with particular clarity: Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood. What else can Caliban do but use that same language—today he has no other—to curse him […]. (A119)
Many similarities can be drawn between these two scenarios. Just as Caliban was enslaved and taught to use Prospero’s language, the Indios in “The Mission” were similarly forced to use the Friar and his people’s language to communicate. Retamar argues that the mestizo feel Caliban’s pain as their own. There is no other language now for Caliban to use to express himself because his language had been systematically wiped away. Caliban was left in a helpless position, unable to defend himself from invaders, unable to communicate without relying on the language of his hated captors. Retamar writes that the islands were “invaded,” people were “killed” and were “taught” a language for the benefit of the captors. These three actions are repeated in Latin American history–the indigenous people living there were enslaved and captured. It is important to note the use of “curse” in this excerpt. Caliban can only use his captors’ language to describe his hate for them, effectively showing how deeply he is forced to depend on his captors now–how much he has been left helpless, invaded, and enslaved. In both scenarios, the Indios and Caliban lost their culture, identity, and language. This benefitted the invaders in both situations because they were able to take away the identities of those they invaded and effectively break them apart because they were losing their cultural singularity and unity. This also made it easier for the invaders to push their ideas and beliefs onto the Caliban and Indios, replacing what they took away with something else of their choosing.
De Las Casas, Fray Bartolome. “Hispaniola.” Trans. Briffault, Herma. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Ed. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 18. Print.
Fernandez Retamar, Roberto. “Caliban.” The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Ed. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. A119. Print.
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