A Column By Jack D. Forbes
Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

Eurocentric Concepts Harm Native People

Some European writers have developed concepts which are used as intellectual weapons against American indigenous peoples. Among these are human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, patricide, matricide and primitivism. Human sacrifice has especially been applied to the cultures of many Meso-American and South American groups but it (along with cannibalism) has also been alleged for some North American nations. Let me use human sacrifice as an example of how concepts can be made to apply only to indigenous peoples and not to European groups doing essentially the same thing.

The word "sacrifice" is derived from Latin sacer (sacred, holy) and facere (to make, do), meaning "sacred-making" or "to make sacred." Even for Romans, however, the meaning became "the destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else" or the giving up of some interest for the interest of someone or something else. Modern examples might be: "The Iraqi civilians were sacrificed for the sake of Bush's Persian Gulf policy"; or "The lives of Native Americans in Guatemala have been sacrificed in order to prevent agrarian reform."

What about human sacrifice as practiced today? In World War I and World War II virtually all sides sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and non-combatants for the sake of military goals. The Japanese frequently and wantonly killed civilians in their attacks upon China, the Germans executed millions of non-combatants, and the United States incinerated tens of thousands of civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, by way of examples.

The Japanese killed in the first A-bomb attacks were "sacrificed" for the sake of defeating Japan and saving the lives of U.S. military personnel; the Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Socialists and Communists executed by the Nazis were "sacrificed" to make room for German settlers and to eliminate allegedly dangerous subversive or non-German elements; and on it goes.

Are these "sacrifices" to be seen as a part of the concept known as "human sacrifice"? Why have many white North Americans (who probably cringe at the very mention of "bloodthirsty" Aztec "ceremonies") wholeheartedly supported with their dollars and votes the murder of tens of thousands of Indians and mestizos in Central America since about 1981 for the sake of "anti-communism"?

Most of the information on supposed human sacrifice in ancient Mexico and Central America is derived from Spanish sources which are highly questionable, such as Bernal DĦaz del Castillo's history of the conquest of Mexico. DĦaz' book is very suspect, both because it was written some fifty years after the events being described and because DĦaz invented dialogue and scenes which he could not have witnessed. Yet this book is frequently cited by non-Native historians and is used in college classes.

From 1493 onward the Spaniards were guilty of the sacrifice (for their own Roman Catholic religion and for secular wealth and power) of the lives of many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Native Americans. And yet the historians and anthropologists speak only of Aztec and Maya human sacrifice, exempting the Spaniards because of their white race and Catholic religion, it would seem.

The failure to talk about human sacrifice today may be, in part, due to the fact that many of our modern practices of human sacrifice are "secular" rather than "religious." But much of modern sacrifice involves the use of elaborate patriotic rituals, lots of military ceremony, and an overriding ideology (such as anti-communism, extreme nationalism or ethnic racism). Very often also the sacrifice is proclaimed as part of a holy war or a sacred cause and various Christian, Jewish, Muslim and now Hindu religious functionaries bless the troops or the killers and ask the Supreme Being to smite the terrible enemy, even if they are women or children.

It is just plain European ethnocentrism to avoid applying the concept of human sacrifice to the Spaniards and to our modern world. The same thing is true of "cannibalism," used to undermine the credibility of Native cultures in the Caribbean, South America and in the Iroquois regions of Ontario and New York. Anthropologists have failed, for example, to see the consuming of the lives of slaves and exploited workers by Europeans as a form of "eating." In the case of infanticide, we have many examples of that today in the inner cities of the United States where poor babies are dying at Third World rates. Similarly, the killing of parents (matricide and patricide) is being practiced on a large scale in the U.S. through the denial of health care and adequate diets to old people. It is wrong to accuse Native people of the north of leaving old ones to die when neglect of elders is an intrinsic part of classic capitalism.

As regards being "primitives" or "primal" people, such concepts might apply to our human ancestors of 30,000, 300,000 or 3,000,000 years ago, but certainly it is pure denigration to call indigenous people of modern times by such insulting terms. Maybe the leaders of modern states, with their desire to kill people in "brutal" wars, are far more "primal" or "primitive" than are any indigenous people.


[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans and other books.]

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