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The Black Legend, Native Americans, and Spaniards: Crash Course US History #1

September 26, 2019


Hi I’m John Green, and this is Crash Course U.S. History! No, Stan. That’s not gonna work, actually. I mean, we’re talking about the 16th century today, when this was neither united nor states. By the way, this globe reflects the fact that I believe that Alaskan statehood is illegitimate! In fact, we’re going to call this whole show “U.S. History” but inevitably it is going to involve other parts of the world and also, not to brag, a small part of the moon. Sorry, we can be a little bit self-aggrandizing sometimes, here in America. So to begin U.S. history, we’re not going to talk about the United states or this guy. We’re going to talk about the people who lived here before any Europeans showed up. North America was home to a great variety of people so it’s difficult to generalize, but here’s what we can say: One, when the Europeans arrived there were no classical-style civilizations with monumental architecture and empires like the Aztec or the Incas. And two, native North Americans had no metalwork, no gun powder, no wheels, no written languages, and no domesticated animals. However, they did have farming, complex social and political structures, and widespread trade networks.>>Mr. Green! Mr. Green! So they were pretty backwards, huh? Well, or I mean at least primitive.>>”Primitive” is a funny word, me from the past, because it implies a romanticization — these simple people who never used more than they needed and had no use for guns. And it also implies an infantilization. It’s like you believe just because you have a beeper and they didn’t they
were somehow less-evolved humans. But you can’t see the human story as one that
goes from primitive to civilized. That’s not just Eurocentric that’s contemporary-centric. The idea that we’re moving forward as a species implies a linear
progression that just does not reflect the reality of life on this planet.
I get that you like to imagine yourself as the result of millennia of
advancement and the very pinnacle of human-ness, but from where I’m sitting
that worldview is a lot more backwards than living without the wheel. So no one
knows exactly how many people lived in North America before the Europeans
got here. Some estimates are as high as 75 million, but in the present US borders
the guesses are between 2 and 10 million. And like other Native Americans their
populations were decimated by diseases such as smallpox and influenza. Actually
it was much worse than decimation. As many of you have pointed out, “decimation”
means 1 in 10. This was much worse than that. It was closer maybe to 8 in 10,
which would be an “octicimation.” So there had been civilizations in North
America but they peaked before the Europeans arrived. The Zuni and Hopi
civilization roundabout here peaked about 1200 CE. They had large, multiple-family dwellings and canyons, which they probably left because of drought. Crash
Course World History fans will remember that environmental degradation often
causes the decline of civilizations. I’m looking at you, Indus Valley, and also you,
entire future Earth. Eut complex civilizations weren’t the rule in North
America. And now we’re about to begin generalizing, a bad habit historians have
partly because there’s a limited historical record but also because
Eurocentric historians have a bad habit of primitivizing and simplifying
others. So I want to underscore that there was huge diversity in the pre-Columbus American experience and that talking about
someone who lived here in 1000 BCE and talking about someone who lived here
2,000 years later is just inherently problematic. That said, let’s go to the
Thought Bubble: Most native groups in most places
organized as tribes, and their lives were dominated by the natural resources
available where they lived. So West Coast Indians primarily lived by fishing,
gathering, and hunting sea mammals; Great Plains Indians were often buffalo
hunters. These tribal bands often united into loose confederacies or leagues, the
best-known of which was probably the Iroquois Confederacy, also called the
Great League of Peace. This was kind of like an upstate New York version of NATO
but without a nuclear weapons or the incessant international meddling or
Latvians– Okay, it was nothing like NATO, actually. Religion usually involved a
vibrant spiritual world with ceremonies geared toward the tribe’s lifestyle:
hunting tribes focused on animals, agricultural tribes on good harvests. And
most Indian groups believed in a single creator god who stood above all the
other deities, but they weren’t monotheistic in the way that Christians
who came to the New World were. American Indians also saw property very
differently from Europeans. To First Peoples, land was a common resource that
village leaders could assign families to use but not to own, and most land was
seen as common to everyone. As Blackhawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe, said, “The
Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon and cultivate as far as
necessary for their subsistence; and so long as they occupy and cultivate it,
they have a right to the soil.” Thanks, Thought Bubble. Many of us tend
to romanticize American Indians as being immune from greed and class, but in fact
there were class distinctions in Indian tribes. Rulers tended to come from the
same families, for instance. That said, wealth was much more evenly distributed
than it was in Europe. And while most tribal leaders were men, many tribes were
matrilineal meaning that children became members of their mother’s family. Also
women were often important religious leaders. Women also often owned dwellings
and tools, although not land because again that idea did not exist. Also in
many tribes women engaging in premarital skoodilypooping wasn’t taboo. In general
they were just much less obsessed with female chastity than Europeans were. I
mean I will remind you the first English settlement in America was called
“Virginia.” The idea that Native Americans were noble savages, somehow purer than
Europeans and untouched by their vices is not a new one.
Like some of the earliest European saw the Indians as paragons of physical
beauty and innocent of Europeans’ worst characteristics. But for most Europeans
there was little noble about what they saw as pure Indian savagery. I mean
Indians didn’t have writing, they suffered from the terrible character
flaw of being able to have sex without feeling ashamed, and most importantly
they weren’t Christians. The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore this part
of the world. Juan Ponce de León arrived in what is now Florida in 1513 looking
for gold and the fabled Fountain of Youth. In 1521 he encountered a Calusa
brave’s poison-tipped arrow and died before discovering that the Fountain of
Youth is of course delicious Diet Dr. Pepper. Mmm, ahh. I can taste all 23 flavors.
There were many more Spanish explorers in the first half of the 16th century
including one Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who wandered through the American Southwest looking for gold, which I mentioned entirely because I think that
guy’s last name means “cow head.” Of course none of these people found any gold, but
they did make later European colonization easier by bringing over the
microbes that wiped out most native populations. So the Spanish wanted to
colonize Florida to set up military bases to thwart the pirates who preyed
on silver-laden Spanish galleons coming out of México. But Spanish missionaries
also came over hoping to convert local native populations. This of course worked
out magnificently. Just kidding, it went terribly. Many of the missions were
destroyed by an uprising of Guale Indians in 1597, and I will remind you
mispronouncing things is my thing. In general colonizing Florida sucked
because it was hot and mosquito-y. Spain was much more successful at colonizing
the American Southwest. In 1610 Spain established its first permanent
settlement in the southwest at Santa Fe, New México. You couldn’t really say
that it flourished since Santa Fe’s population never got much above 3,000, but it had a great
small-town feel. New México is really important because it’s the site of the
first large-scale uprising by Native Americans against
Europeans. I mean the native people, who the Spanish called “Pueblos,” had seen
their fortunes decline significantly since the arrival of Europeans. How much
decline? Well, between 1600 and 1680 their population went from about 60,000 to
about 17,000. Also the Franciscan friars who came to convert the indigenous
people became increasingly militant about stamping out all native religion.
The Spanish Inquisition just wasn’t very keen on the kind of cultural blending
that made early conversion efforts successful. So while the Spanish saw all
the Pueblos as one people they also knew there were tribal
differences that made it difficult for the Indians to unite and rise up against
the Spanish. But nothing unites like a common enemy, and in 1680 a religious
leader named Popé organized an uprising to drive the Spaniards out.
Popé organized about 2,000 warriors, who killed 400 Spanish colonists and
forced the rest to leave Santa Fe. So the Spanish colony in New México was
effectively destroyed. The Pueblos tore down all the Christian churches and
replaced them with kivas (their places of worship), but like most awesome
uprisings it didn’t last. After the revolt the Spanish were much more
tolerant of indigenous religion, and they also abandoned the forced labor practice
called encomienda. Oh, it’s time for the new Crash Course feature the “Mystery
Document”? How mysterious. The rules here are simple: I read an attempt to identify
the mystery document. If I am right, I do not get shocked by this shock pen. And if
I am wrong, I do. Okay, what do we have here?
“The Indians were totally deprived of their freedom and were put in the
harshest, fiercest most horrible servitude and captivity which no one who
has not seen it can understand. Even beasts enjoy more freedom when they are
allowed to graze in the fields. But our Spaniards gave no such opportunity to
Indians and truly considered them perpetual slaves. I sometimes came upon
dead bodies on my way, and upon others who were grasping and moaning in their
death agony repeating, ‘Hungry, hungry.’ And this was the freedom, the good treatment
and the Christianity the Indians received.” Well, that’s nice. Okay, so the
mystery document is always a primary source, and since the writer refers to
“our Spaniards” I’m going to guess that he or she (probably he) is European and a
Spaniards sympathetic to the Indians, which narrows the list of suspects
considerably. So it probably wasn’t de Sepúlveda for instance, who argued that
the Indians might not even be human. Okay, Stan I’m actually pretty confident here.
I believe it is from “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” by
Bartolomé de las Casas. Ah, dang it! Stan just told me I have the author right but the book
wrong. It’s “A History of the Indies.” Oh, I hate shocks, both literal and
metaphorical. So we focused a lot on the brutality of the Spanish toward the
Indians, but at least one Spaniard, de las Casas, recognized that his countrymen
were terrible. This realization is a good thing, obviously, but it leads us to
one of the big problems when it comes to studying this time and place. The Black
Legend is the tale that the Spanish unleashed unspeakable cruelty on the
Indians. Now, that tale is true. But that idea was used by later settlers,
especially the English, to justify their own settlements. Like part of the reason
they needed to expand their empire was to save the Indians from the awful
Spanish, but were the English so much better? Yeah, probably not. As we mentioned
at the beginning of today’s episode, American Indians didn’t have writing so
we don’t have records of their perspective. Now, some Europeans like de
las Casas were critical of the Spaniards, but most considered the Indians heathens
and implied or even outright said that they deserved whatever horrible things
befell them. So at the beginning of our series I want to point out something
that we need to remember throughout: One of the great things about American
history is that we have a lot of written sources. This is the advantage of the
U.S. coming onto the scene so late in the game, historically speaking, But every
story we hear comes from a certain point of view. And we always need to remember
who is speaking, why they are speaking, and especially which voices go unheard
and why. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is
Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my
high school history teacher Raoul Meyer and myself, and our graphics team is
Thought Bubble. If you have questions about today’s
video you should ask them in comments. Everybody who works on Crash Course as
well as a team of historians will be there to answer them. Thanks for watching.
Please make sure you’re subscribed to Crash Course. And as we say in my
hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.

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