SAVIORS AND SCOURAGE OF NATIVE PEOPLES

September 25, 2007

THE SPECTACULAR RISE IN THE POPULATION
spectacular decline in the population of Native Americans. and disease and exploitation do not entirely explain that
decline. The Indians were losing out in the biological corn- petition with the newly imported livestock. The peoples of
the high civilizations lived chiefly on a vegetable diet, so
anything radically affecting their croplands, radically af-
fected them. The Spanish, anxious to establish their pastoral
Iberian way of life in their colonies, set aside large sections
of land for grazing, much of it land that had once been
cultivated. And the livestock, in this new continent where
fences and shepherds were so few, often strayed onto Indian fields, eating the plants atnd trampling them. As New Spain's
first viceroy wrote to his king aboutthe state ofaffairs around
Oaxaca: "May your Lordship realize that if cattle are al-
lowed, the Indians will be destroyed." Many people went
malnourished, weakening their resistance to disease; many
fled to the hills and deserts to face hunger in solitude: some
simply lay down and died within the sound of the ]owing of
their rivals.*
On the other hand. the impact of livestock on native
peoples beyond the boundaries of European settlement often had a positive affect. These Indians were not as numerous as
those ofMesoamerica and Peru, andtherewasplentyofroom
fortheimmigrants. Many of them were already nomadic, and the new arrivals multiplied the rewards of such a life. They
received the horses, cattle, sheep, and goats not as rivals but
*The European animals doubtlessly transmitted to the native stock
Sdevastating selection of animal diseases. The lama and alpaca
populations diminished as spectacularly as the Indian population after the Conquest, and the reasons were largely the same: disease and brutal exploitation.
as immensely valuable additions to their sources of food.
clothing, and energy.
T HE EUROPEANS WERE FULLY CONSCIOUS OF
the advantage the horse gave them over their American
subjects, and so tried to prohibit Indian ownership or use of
horses. But the prohibition always failed: Native Americans
were needed as cowboys; native allies were ineffective in
war unless mounted; and, above all, horses reproduced so
fast and strayed beyond European control in such numbers
that soon acquiring mounts became as easy Ifor many Indians
as for Spaniards. Both horses and diseases moved through
the virgin lands of America faster than did the people who
had brought them to the New World.
The story is similar for all the peoples of the great
grasslands, from Alberta to Patagonia. Before the horse
came, the steppe land had few human inhabitants. The tough
sod discouraged farming, and the plains animals were tooe
fleet of foot to provide a dependable supply of food for large
numbers of pedestrians. The horse gave people the speed and
stamina needed to harvest the immense quantities of food
represented by the buffalo herds of North America and the
herds of wild cattle that propagated so rapidly in the grass-
lands of both Americas. Indians stopped farming. finding nomadic life more comfortable and richerthan they had ever known before.
Beyondevery line of Spanish settlements in grass Country
were peoples who came to depend increasingly on the meat
and hides of cattle. In New Spain, the cattle immensely enriched thed the Yaquis, Tarahumaras, Pueblos, and others,
and-beyond the most northern frontier-the Athabascan
people of which the Navaho and Apache are the best known.
In the vast grasslands south and southeast of Peru, the
Spanish steer seemed to be agift from the gods. Just after the
opening of the seventeenth century, Vazquez de Espinosa
wrote that the plains of the Santa Cruz de la Sierra region
were "full of cattle which today have run wild and cover the
fieldsforadistanceofover The potato traveled from the
eighty leagues....These In- New World to the Old, but
dians profit by the cattle, European conquest killed
keepingthemclosetothemn off more American species
and the poor Spaniards than a million years of
who lost them, far away. evolution
By 17 or 00 1750, the
Charria of the Banda Ori-
ental (Uruguay). the
Pehuenches, Puelches,
Aucas, Tchuelches. and
Ranqueles of Rio de la
Plata were all in the saddle
and ranging the pampas,
encouraged and pushed
from behind by those
Araucanians who had cast
aside muchoftheirAndean
culture to come down onto
fl fl tl J t I ii it,
herds. All these peoples of the Argentine pampas lived off
cattle and made tools, clothing, and shelters of their hide,
bones, and sinew.
in the area of similar topography and climate in North
America the impact of the horse came later but was similar.
By the late eighteenth cent ry the Great Plains were full of
native people on horseback: the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Chey-
enne, Crow, Sioux, Comanche. The Indians of the Great
Plains and the pampas, tempted into similar extreme special-
ization by the horse, even grew to look alike.
In the long view of history, the greatest effect of the horse
on native peoples was to enhance their ability to resist the
advance of Europeans into the interiors of North and South
America. Not only did mounted Indians defend themselves effectively, but they were sometimes tempted and often
forced by the needs of theirrapidly changing cultures to raid
the rich herds of the whites.

Tags: horses, conquest, indigenous peoples


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