500 Years Later, the Americas are Alive with Indians


Five hundred years after Christopher Columbus set foot on the Americas, Indians are alive and growing in number from the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle. If you do not believe me, look at brown Mexico City!

The other day, I was walking past the theater where a movie on the life of Columbus was showing. Clustered by the doorway were pickets with signs which compared Columbus to Hitler. All the pickets I saw were white.

What is there about the Indian that makes white people think of death? In the European version, that is to say, the male version of history, the Indian is supposed to have died -- been slaughtered by the conquistador, or lost his soul to the padres, or died of disease.

A few years ago, Robert Redford sponsored an international environmental conference at his Sundance Institute. The opening session was crowded with journalist and government types. In came the Indians in their feathers and bells.

The Indian has become the mascot for the international ecology movement. The industrial countries of the world romanticize the Indian who no longer exists, ignoring the Indian who does, the Indian who is poised to chop down his rain forest for example, or the Indian who refuses to practice birth control.

A few months ago, I remember an op-ed piece in the New York Times by a man with a German surname who declared 1992 a year of mourning. There should be no celebration of the 500th anniversary, the man with the German surname said.

We know, from our history books, that Indians died from their contact with the Europeans. But those who tell you only this cannot account for the tens of millions of Indians who are alive today. I am, for example, of Mexican ancestry. I am mestizo, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood. I am alive and I count my life to be the result not simply of the European's will on my ancestral Indian mother but of her interest in the European, too.

Oh, the poor Indian! The white lament is that the Indian lost her soul when the European arrived, lost her gods, lost her purity, lost her virginity. But in 1992 it is Europe that has lost its God. The religion of Spain -- I mean Roman Catholicism -- is now centered in the Latin Americas. Christianity is an Indian religion. The Indian has stolen your God!

Do not pity the Indian in this year of Columbus. Spanish is an Indian language now. The capital of the Spanish-speaking world is Mexico City, not Madrid.

Shirley MacLaine imagines her dead lives as Indian lives, and blond divorcees troop down to the New Mexican desert to get in touch with Indian spirits. And college students romanticize brujas (witches) and the Indian arts of death.

But if the paleface romanticizes the dead Indian there remains also a fear of the live Indian. Americas say "they" keep coming over the border. Americans use water imagery to describe the life force from the South they cannot control. The border is out of control. "The border is being flooded by waves of illegals."

The trouble with those who criticize Columbus too much is that they assume Columbus and his fellow Europeans alone decided the history of the Americas. The Indians were hapless victims.

In fact, the Americas are alive with Indians. Go to Peru and you will see the new revolutionary front -- the Shining Path Maoists who are descendants of the Incas. Go to the Guatemalan mountains and you will see Indians who are evangelical Protestants. They are headed this way; they are coming to the secular United States to convert you!

Look at the brown faces around you. The Indian is alive. He commutes between his Mexican village and his job in downtown L.A. She is a nanny in San Diego. The Indians are the new Mormons. The Indian is a gay man living in San Francisco. And the Indian Virgin Mary -- the Virgin of Guadalupe -- is, we Catholics say, the patroness of the Americas.

Five hundred years ago, the European met the Indian and vice versa. But what is five hundred years? Who among us can say how the story of Columbus will end?

Richard Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father" (Viking, November 1992). He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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