A People's History
of the United States

Dialogues

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn is most likely not the version of our own country's dramatic, sometimes ugly history the majority of us learned growing up. Howard Zinn presents a view of the American past, as it began with Columbus' touch down in the West Indies, in a light that is not purportedly favorable toward the American rise of Democracy and capitalism, but is instead realistic as to the cost of human life, and the toll on quality of life. This covers those groups who were (and are) oppressed, exploited, murdered, and taken advantage of in the great explosive growth of the Americas. The book covers happenings most of us would cringe at reading about, things swept beneath the rug of 'progress'. This particular page focuses on Chapters 1 and 7, which deal with colonial effect on Native Americans.

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  Dialogues

The first chapter in A People's History of the United States deals with Columbus' arrival to the West Indies. The native inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, swam out to greet the European boats the first time they landed (see Morning Girl, by Michael Dorris). Zinn cites Columbus' journal entries many times, including his reaction to the initial encounter with the Arawaks: 'They would make fine servants....With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want (Zinn, 1).' This attitude led to enslavement, highjacking, murder and rape. The Spaniards main goal was to prove to the royalty back home that the islands were rich and loaded with resources, mainly gold. Columbus took some natives back to show the queen (they died en route), and when he came back with many more men and many more ships, they began a regimented system of slavery and punishment on the natives of the West Indies. All reports speak of the friendliness of the Arawaks, of their genuine kindness and hospitality, and of their generosity. On his second voyage back home, Columbus took 500 slaves to Spain, saying in a letter, 'Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold (Zinn, 4)'; two-hundred died en route.

Columbus and his men were excited over the gold earrings some of the Arawaks wore. This is what escalated the rapid, excited mad dash for gold in the islands (they had to make money for Spanish investors). The men took slaves and enforced mandatory mining on the natives, who, if found without the proper coin around their necks to prove they had brought in enough gold, were then murdered. A young priest named Bartolome de las Casas came along with this new 'exploration' to the West Indies, and he noticed all the attrocities that were happening - and he documented them. In his book History of the Indies, he says '..our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy,(Zinn, 6)' certainly a far cry from Columbus' many religious quotations claiming his groups following of 'His [God's] way.' de las Casas' writings conclude that in the years 1494-1508, over three million native lives were extinguished on the island of Hispaniola from slavery, war, and mining. The invasion of the West Indies resulted in a complete genocide.

Zinn goes on to recapitualte similar conquests by people such as Cortes, Pizarro, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts( see the Colonizers page). Cortez was greeted as a god by the Aztecs, whom, after enduring repeated deception and enormous Spanish-documented slaughter, were completely destroyed by the Spanish for their gold and silver. Pizarro mirrored the horrifying tactics of Cortes in Peru to totally decimate the Inca culture. Chapter 1 of Zinn's book also speaks of the early English colonists in Virginia. It is noted that the natives of the eastern shore were also friendly during initial encounters with whites, though when one native stole a silver cup, an English captain and his men torched an entire Indian village in retribution. The early colonies waged war and succesfully pushed out the native inhabitants of the east coast, namely Powhattan's confederacy, the Narragansetts, and the Pequots. More people came from Europe, and more space was needed. The colonists forced an awful choice on the natives: migrate, or go to war with us.

Chapter 7 of A People's History of America revisits the idea of the plight of the American Indian, this time with a documentation of an endless series of promises made to various Indian tribes, none of which was ever kept. Thomas Jefferson engineered the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, doubling the size of the country. He told congress that the Indians should be encouraged to farm small plots of land, to quit hunting, to trade with whites and to incur debts that they would have to pay off with huge tracts of land. He also said, '..Two measures are deemed expedient. First to encourage them to abandon hunting...Secondly, To Multiply trading houses among them...leading them thus to agriculture, to manufacturers, and civilization...(Zinn, 125).' Jefferson echoes clearly the point of Karl Marx, who states, 'It [capitalism, the bourgeoisie] compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst...' Through uncountable wars and skirmishes, thousands and thousands of lives, the American Indian was ousted from his/her land in all corners of the continent. Andrew Jackson instructed an army Major to tell the Choctaws and Cherokees that they would be given land, outside of the state of Missippi (their homeland) in which they could be free, and he would protect them as their white father. They could have the land 'as long as Grass grows or water runs (Zinn, 132).' This eloquent lie became famous for its symbolic falseness, as it epitomized the whites' ability to make grand promises that kept changing and changing to meet the needs of their growing society, while never considering the lives of the people who lived on the land first (see the plight of the Dakota, and Crazy Horse). Forced migration and land grubbing by the whites eventually encompassed the entire continent.

  Notes

History is a powerful thing, as the interpretation of past events into a new language that is representative of something resembling 'objectivity' is impossible from the start. Those with certain agendas often call history that does not reflect and promote the positives of their agenda 'revisionist history' - itself an ironic term.

On the back of the book are several comments; one, by Eric Foner of the New York Times Book Review, says, 'Those accustomed to the texts of an earlier generation, in which the rise of American democracy and the growth of national power were the embodiment of Progress, may be startled by Professor Zinn's narrative.'

Zinn's book is not without controversy. Reed Irvine's group Accuracy in Media called it a 'hate America book.'

'Whenever you introduce a new view of historical events, the guardians of the old order will spring to the attack.' - Howard Zinn

'Whoever controls the past controls the future.' - George Orwell

  Links

*** www.metroactive.com Zack Stenz has an article posted on Howard Zinn, and some of the controversy surrounding his work - as well as some quotes from the author and intersting related information. Very informative.

  Teaching

Here are some study questions and some ideas to consider when reading and talking about this book in a class.

1. How does Zinn's portrayal of Columbus' 'discovery' differ from the version you were taught in elementary and high school? Do you feel it is more just to present him as a hero, or as Zinn does in Chapter 1? Why?

2. Given some of the poverty and religious oppression going on in Europe at the time of the colonization of America, do you feel the Westward surge of white-occupancy on Indian land was justified?

3. Darwin's theory of natural selection has been used (often quite offensively) in attempts to explain the rising dominance of the caucasian race over minorites such as African Americans and Native Americans in the last few centuries. Talk about this justification, and what you think might be right about it, and what you think might be wrong and dangerous about it.

  Citations
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of America. New York, New York, USA. HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: May, 2001