A Mohawk perspective on the suffering of Haiti

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country April 2010

Haiti is a place of angry spirits yet to be released from the agony of their passing.

This land was called Ayiti by its Arawak-Taino native peoples who may, according to some, be the relatives of the Iroquois.  We do have a place of common origin in the American south but while our ancestors migrated to the cool woodlands of the northeast others elected to enter the rich tropical waters of the Caribbean and gradually populate its islands before reaching the South American coast.

Haiti was populated by hundreds of thousands of Natives at the time of contact with the wayward explorer Cristobal Colon (mistakenly called Christopher Columbus) on December 6, 1492.  He landed in the northern part of Ayiti and his description of the region is worth quoting from his journal:

“As I approached the entrance of this harbour (St. Nicholas) I marveled at its beauty and excellence.... From there it is level as far as the cape where there is a beautiful beach and a grove of a thousand kinds, all loaded with fruit.... There must be a lot of people in this region since I have seen many canoes."

 

On December 13 Colon wrote:

“Their land is so beautiful and fertile... Everyone fled when they heard we were coming leaving behind whatever they had. The village consisted of more than 1,000 houses and must have had a population of over 3,000... they (the Natives) gave beautiful things to everyone they met... My men told me that these people were more handsome and of better disposition than any that we had seen up to now but I do not know how this is possible… As to the country, the best in Castile in beauty and fertility cannot compare with this.”

So what did Colon and the Spaniards do to this paradise inhabited by Arawak-Tainos who may have numbered as many as three million on that island alone?

They slaughtered them by the tens of thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, by the million. They used disease, human eating dogs, mutilations, mass burnings, hangings and torture. They amputated the hands of those Natives who did not bring back a specific amount of gold from the island streams, they used others as practice for their swords, they raped children and women and murdered with impunity. They enslaved and worked to death countless natives and used the corpses to feed their animals.

These “civilized” Christian men brought about a holocaust equal in horror to the Nazis and effected the extermination of an entire people without the convenience of machine guns, zyklon B cyanide gas or carbon monoxide death vans. These men, who lived in fear of a wrathful God, hunted Natives as sport and used them as conveyances lest their silk slippers touch the earth.

 

The Native population collapsed before this savagery that the Spaniards, and their European imitators, would repeat throughout the Caribbean, in Mexico and into Central and South America.  Of the millions of Natives who had made Ayita into an ecological Eden only 60,000 survived to 1507. By 1531 only 600 Arawak-Taino were alive and a few years later none at all. Complete genocide by intent and design. Nothing remains of those people other than a weak DNA trail.

These were citizens of Ayiti’s five nations. They engineered conical buildings made of biodegradable materials capable of withstanding hurricanes. Their communities were surrounded by park like forest teemed with wildlife. Each town had a central plaza for ceremonies, athletic games and communal meetings. They had a rich diet of fruits, vegetables, seafood and meat from mammals. Their land was so fertile as to require a minimal of labour which in turn accorded them great freedom to pursue the arts. They danced, sang and held elaborate rituals to celebrate life. They ate an enviable diet based on corn, squash and beans. They consumed large amounts of peanuts, peppers, sweet potatoes and yams.

Their builders and architects did not use stone when constructing their homes.  Stone was for carving, not for living in.  They knew cones and circles were ideal shapes for tropical climates since the winds went around and over but not through. They were adept at managing their planting fields using natural fertilizers such as fish to maximize crop yields. They did not have to strip the forests or suck the land dry of nutrients. They lived in a state of tranquility and peace but were alert to the incursions of other people.

But they made a fatal mistake with regards to Colon - they let him leave to return to Spain even after they had come to blows with his men.

Colon returned with a large fleet, heavily armed and with avarice in their hearts. They wanted wealth, gold in particular, and damned the cost to the Natives compelled to squeeze that evil metal from the land.

This is what comes to mind when the latest tragedies are reported from Haiti.  It is of a land where suffering is a constant, where human life is one defined by deprivation, where death is massive, overwhelming and unmourned.  The troubled spirits from 500 years ago cross the land having never been addressed or released. They are unquiet and because they remain here without recognition they will continue to wreck havoc across time.

 

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