3. Vengeance Is Mine
September 20, 2014
A "severed head" proved that "it was acceptable to avenge themselves upon an enemy who had no connection whatever to the one that brought them grief." (DeLay 169, 131). If you read that sentence in a daily news blog, your first thought would be of the three western journalists recently beheaded by the terror group ISIL. But this is a history blog. The "barbarians" in question are American Indians. In both these instances, separated by almost two centuries, the responses of western civilization to terrorist attacks are very much alike: fear, revulsion, anger -- and incomprehension.
In War of a Thousand Deserts, Indian Raids and the US-Mexican Border (2008), Brian DeLay gives equal credit (and discredit) to mid-nineteenth-century Indians and settlers in the history of the Southwest. Along with the voices of white and Latino pioneers, DeLay speaks for historically silent Native Americans, presenting succinct rationales for their warlike behaviors. In the Comancheria region of Mexico, pioneers considered the death-and-destruction response of indigenous people as vastly disproportionate to simple immigrant acts of settling new lands; they saw Indians as indiscriminant terrorists. DeLay, however, describes natives living out their ancient political, economic, religious and social conventions. Each group saw their enemy as prey; neither viewed their opponents as individuals, but rather as the Other.
The private and public aspirations of Indians comingled, "bound up in concerns of wealth and poverty, honor and shame, and life and death." It did not occur to the settlers that Native Americans might "promote a value system that bestowed communal legitimacy and honor upon men's pursuit of glory and wealth" (119). Instead, they attached sanctity to their own western beliefs. The idea of definitive, functional Indian cultures would undoubtedly have struck whites and Hispanics as ludicrous.
Yet as DeLay points out, Indians' needs and desires were as human and inviolable as those of westerners. The opposing forces had more in common than either imagined. Comanches felt the usurpation of their land and the loss of their comrades as keenly as Mexican settlers felt attachment to their farms and to their murdered kin. Recovering the bodies of slain warriors was as important to Native Americans as a Christian burial was to settlers (132). Both groups craved violent revenge and acted upon it; if Indians arbitrarily plundered and killed, settlers responded with equal savagery by dismembering and scalping their enemies (128). Neither side perceived the human frailties -- indeed, the humanity -- of their adversary. Neither was willing to sacrifice their way of life.
Mexican President Anastacio Bustamante declared that Indians "are not similar to us, except in their human shape." DeLay suggests that Indians "were perhaps like Beduins" (157). His unintended prescience likens El Presidente's comment about American natives to our own reaction to ISIL revolutionaries today. Most contemporary westerners cannot fathom the attitudes of Middle-Eastern radicals, any more than pioneers discerned Native American mentalities in the 1800s. The misunderstandings go (and went) both ways . . . a distressing symptom of why history tends to repeat itself . . .