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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Commemoration (p. 117)

From chapter "Giving Back the Land"

As we walked, it began to come clear to me why so often we do not commemorate the slaughters of indigenous peoples: There are too many sites from too many massacres, and to commemorate them all—even with an action so simple as that of a Catholic who reflexively makes the sign of the cross each time she encounters a cemetery—would afford little time for us to enjoy the comforts and elegancies civilization affords. I would wager every county in the United States has hosted at least one massacre, recorded or forgotten. Del Norte, where I live in the far north of California, has at least three, and it was far from any of the major Indian “wars.” Tecumseh, of the Shawnees, wrote, “Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun.” Tecumseh’s list was of course far shorter than it could have been, even counting only his extended neighborhood. There were the Wampanoags, the Chesapeakes, the Chickahominys, the Potomacs (of whom only Pocahontas is remembered): all exterminated. There were the Montauks, Nanticokes, Machapungas, Catawbas, Cheraws, Miamis, Hurons, Eries, Senecas: all scattered or reduced to remnants, clinging tight to their cultural existence.

The pattern has been repeated on all continents. In southern Africa in 1812, for example, the commissioner for the frontier, Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, stated: “My intention is now to attack the savages in a way which I confidently hope will leave a lasting impression on their memories, and show them our vast superiority in all situations. I have ordered 500 men to enter the wood on foot… with orders to stay there so long as a kaffir [a colonial term for an African, with the rough connotation of ni**er] remains alive. …” As he drove more than twenty thousand Xhosa peoples out of that region, Graham told a reporter, “The only way of getting rid of them is by depriving them of the means of subsistence and continually harassing them, for which purpose the whole force is constantly employed in destroying prodigious quantities of Indian corn and millet which they have planted . . . taking from them the few cattle which they conceal in the woods with great address, and shooting every man who can be found. This is detestable work…. We are forced to hunt them like wild beasts.” The “detestable work” paid off for Graham: the governor directed that the spot where Graham was headquartered “shall in future be called . . . Graham’s Town … in respect for the services of Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, through whose spirited exertions the kaffir hordes have been driven from that valuable district.”

The nightmare goes on, even, once again, in that same neighborhood. On August 25, 1828, an expedition under Henry Somerset attacked a sleeping Ngwane encampment “with great guns, and small guns, and sabres and assegais, and made … indiscriminate havoc before the savages were awake or knew what had come upon them. . . The survivors, “gaunt and emaciated by hunger and age, crawled out of their miserable sheds, but with pitiable apathy sat or lay down again, as if heedless of their fate. . . . The field presented a scene indescribably shocking: old decrepit men, with their bodies pierced, and heads almost cut off; pregnant females ripped open, legs broken, and hands severed from the arms for . . . the armlets, or some trifling ornament; little children mutilated and horribly mangled. . . .” And again: Colonel Harry Smith, who later became Cape governor, described his normal military activities to his wife: “You gallop in, and half by force, half by stratagem, pounce upon them wherever you can find them; frighten their wives, burn their homes, lift their cattle, and return home quite triumphant.”

These triumphs have been replicated everywhere, although in some places, for example, much of Europe, many of the massacres, the conquerings, the burned villages, the wasted crops, have by now been almost fully erased from memory, by time, by a belief system that excuses the slaughters as necessary or desirable, and, perhaps, most importantly, by a deep need to forget the atrocities—and underlying hatred—upon which our system is based.