Saturday, September 20, 2014

3. Vengeance is Mine

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 . . .












  1. I'm intrigued by your comparison of ISIL with the plains Indian raids and violence DeLay discusses. I had not considered that angle but think it well worth a good mull. Further digging into the comparison would, it seems to me, beg the question of whether there is as much difference between the religious extremism that begets ISIL's horrific acts and the highly generalized revenge that the plains Indians exacted throughout northern Mexico as it at first glance appears. Domination is the goal, right? Or is that too simplistic...must consider.

  2. Very interesting comparison of modern day happenings and history Diane. One does need to remember that history usually repeats itself. As Carol mentioned is the modern conflict in the middle East more about religion or more about land?

  3. Diane, I am glad to see this post; there was an excerpt in Delay’s book that really stuck with me that you speak to here. He writes that the justifications that Comanche gave for waging vicious and cruel wars “might sound unpersuasive today” but that this is “not to revive the discredited stereotype of the subhuman “savage.” Rather, Delay argues that Comanches who engaged in violent raids did so for the same reasons that so many others had done before (and would continue to do after): to win honor and personal prestige and to achieve material gains. In other words, Comanche violence against non-Comanche (others) does not prove an exceptional brutality but “just the opposite… that they were fully human.” This refusal to recognize a common humanity indeed makes the murder of women and children easier to justify and this is a refusal that, as you say, works both ways.