I was exploring the origin of town and village names in the area where I live in upstate New York, and discovered many of them had Native American Indian names adopted by colonists in the 1600s. An image suddenly came to mind, unbidden, of what life had been like in this area before the white man arrived. For thousands of years people had lived here in much the same way, and surely imagined it would be so forever.
Into this came the white man and it was not just an arrival, it was an Armageddon. In a few generations the thousands-year-old way of life was utterly altered — forever. That is an old story now, one that everyone knows. Within those few generations, over 90 % of the Native American Indian population was gone. The Europeans brought smallpox with them, against which native populations had no defense and which decimated millions. The rest of the terror came from acts of violence in one form or another by colonists toward the native populations, including those in the region where I live. That is what invaders do, for reasons I cannot fathom.
In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson did not see the Native American Indians as equal but as “merciless savages.” None of the signers challenged the words.
I still have that image in my mind now, a visual so clear, as if I were watching it in real life. There is sunlight and men and women are carrying out chores and tasks. Children are playing. These people are not farmers, but used the land as needed. It was not an idyllic life for all, but it belonged to them. It was known territory, predictable and they were free to be utterly who they were. I can see the tall grass in summer, and hear the rains come, and watch snow falling over the land in winter. I see smoke from fires and hear voices talking, one to the other. It feels so real.
There are no guns, and no swords, and no white men racing down hillsides ready and willing to slaughter them and claim the land as their own. The image I have is like a thin edge, precarious but holding, of a time before the white man.