At his talk at Collected Works some weeks ago, Dahr Jamail stated that if you were only to read one book all year, it should be Columbus and Other Cannibals by indigenous author and activist Jack Forbes. I took Dahr’s recommendation, picked up a copy, and have been reading it over the last week. To say it is powerful and important is an understatement.
In only 200 pages, Columbus and Other Cannibals lays out, in gut wrenching detail, how Christian thought (original sin and good & evil, in particular) serves as the underpinning and justification of Western Civilization’s imperialism in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. The book describes how capitalism has impoverished or enslaved indigenous populations throughout the world, juxtaposing throughout the narrative tremendous quotes from indigenous leaders alongside quotes from imperialists commenting on the same historic events. For example this citation depicting indigenous perspective on man and nature:
The animal had rights — the right to man’s protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, the right to man’s indebtedness…the Lakota never enslaved the animal and spared all life except what was needed for food or clothing.
This form of life was humanizing and gave to the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his life with joy and the mystery of living; it gave him a reverence for all life.Luther Standing Bear, cited in Columbus and Other Cannibals Page 12
Forbes contrasts this world view with the white man’s myopia and cruelty:
In short, the native people do not just go out with a high-powered gun, kill an animal, cut off its head for a trophy and throw its body in a dump….killing is a serious business that requires spiritual preparation. Moreover, one should feel pain for the killing of a brother or a sister, whether it is a weed, tree or a deer. If one does not feel pain, one has become brutalized and “sick.” One is, in short, out of harmony with the universe.Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 14
Throughout his book, Forbes contrasts the “sickness” of European culture and its blind drive to change what is different, and to consume and kill at whim, with the indigenous sense of harmony with the universe and sensitivity to the rights of all living things.
Forbes argues that imperialism and capitalism are essentially a viral disease that has infected most of the “civil”ized world. He uses the Cree term Wetiko, which can be translated as “diabolical wickedness or cannibalism,” to describe this phenomenon, explaining that:
Traditional ritualistic cannibalism found among many folk peoples was essentially an act of eating a small portion of a dead enemy’s flesh in order to gain part of the strength or power of that person or to show respect (in a spiritual way) for that person. Cannibalism as I define it, is consuming of another’s life for one’s private purpose or profit.”Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 24.
Forbes goes on to contrast the life and teachings of Jesus, a dark-skinned, artisan who never accumulated wealth, advocated for helping the poor and healing the sick, and publicly condemned greed, dogmatism and the accumulation of wealth. He identifies how current Christian doctrine and more importantly Christian practice bears no resemblance to Jesus. This hypocrisy is not new information for most, but the way in which Forbes identifies how original sin and the subsequent Christian assertion that man is naturally evil and in need of redemption and that nature is wild and in need of being tamed, is used to justify to enslavement, slaughter, and forced conversion of indigenous people worldwide and the destruction of land, water, and air to generate profit.
Somehow the Wetiko believes that he has a right to use another human being (or his property) in a manner that is one-sided and disadvantageous to the victim. Thus a businessman may sell an article of inferior quality for an inflated price. The difference between a truly fair price and the inflated price is not really profit, because the fair price probably included a reasonable profit. Instead the “excess profit” is a form of theft, and theft compounded by deceit. The businessman must mislead the purchaser in order to obtain the excess profit. Thus, lying is an essential element of this of thievery.”Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 24.
In this simple explanation, Forbes illustrates how capitalism is predicated on lies and theft. And this is about as mild as Forbes gets in characterizing capitalism, imperialism, and Wetiko. He goes on to point out how the elite even sanctify their deviousness.
Sophistication is a nice word, isn’t it? It means ‘lacking in natural simplicity or naivete’ and is derived from sophist: ‘One who is skillful in devious argumentation.’ Isn’t it revealing that one of the favorite words of the European elites, used to describe themselves, points openly towards deviousness and falsity? To lose one’s natural simplicity, sadly, in the wetiko world means to become a person who hides his true feelings behind a mask which deceives.”Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 97
The most interesting part of the book is when Forbes describes how Christian theology has offered the justification for the often sadistic, inhuman treatment of indigenous people and the destruction of their land. He uses another Cree term for this phenomenon: “Matchi” or evilness of the mind, to describe the disease of Christianity, carefully distinguishing between Christianity as manifested by the life of Jesus and the Christianity as codified after his crucifixion.
After defining Matchi, Forbes describes how the Christian view of nature as untamed and wild is used to justify all forms of industry that devastates the land. But even more telling is how he links the Christian view of original sin and concepts of punishment and Hell with example after example of how imperialists, whether missionaries, invading armies, or exploitative corporations, tortured, raped, murdered, disfigured, hung, and disemboweled indigenous peoples in the name of God or profit.
If Hell is the fate the Christian God has in store for the human beings born in original sin by His own act of eternal punishment for Adam’s alleged first sin, then we must admit that such a God is not an enemy of Satan, but an accomplice who supplies Satan with multitudes of subjects for the latter’s sadistic tastes. More significantly, an angry and punishing God, terrible in His wrath, is quite clearly not a pleasant being to live with. The world, for many, becomes a threatening place where only strict obedience to disputed rules can save one from one’s own evil and the evil of temptation in the environment. The repressive, authoritarian character of many European homes has reflected this reality: the wrathful father stands in God’s place.”Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 77.
Through one example after another, Forbes illustrates how Western Civilization has been duplicitous in its dealings with the indigenous world and has justified their theft and slaughter by claiming that the innocent and honest nature of indigenous people is a sign of being savage, ignorant, and evil. Forbes’ sense of irony permeates the book.
The greatest and most extensive acts of human sacrifice have been, or are being, carried out by secular forces acting within the framework of ideologies that justify the necessity of sacrificing human lives for some larger goal, be it the attempted Nazi conquest of the Soviet Union, the anti-communist crusade, the earlier Roman Catholic crusade to convert the Americas, or the capitalist’s demand for cheap raw materials and compliant economic fiefdoms. Perhaps most victims are now being sacrificed at the feet of the god “Profit.”Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 104.
Forbes does an excellent job of constantly placing Western “Civil”ization in contrast with indigenous practice. He places side by side the simplicity and honesty of indigenous practice and its reverence for and stewardship of the land, water, and air, and the imperialists’ rapacious consumption of land and people and utter disregard for anything but self-interest. To illustrate the violence, racism and greed of imperialism, he uses the words of the imperialists and missionaries themselves.
I’ll close with a wonderful quote from Buffy Sainte Marie.
Buffy Sainte Marie, the wonderful Cree singer, tells us: ‘whites carry the greed disease….They need to be cured, but they usually don’t mind their disease, or even recognize it, because it’s all they know and their leaders encourage them in it, and many of them are beyond help.’ “Columbus and Other Cannibals, p. 52.
Just as the fish is unable to perceive the water, as it is all around them, so too, are most humans living in the 21st century unable to see how our culture and life view is shaped by the assumptions inherent in capitalism and colonialism.
We reach for our phones without a thought to the Chinese workers who live in dorms, far from their families so that they can work 14 hour days for pennies to produce our phones. We sip our coffee with beans that appear in boutiques as if by magic, without a care that forests have been cut down and indigenous people have been displaced to bring us our java.
We will never return to the Garden of Eden, but it is also true that if we have no hope of reshaping our country and our world to address climate justice, economic justice and our responsibility for the squalor in which much of the world resides, unless we continue to examine our assumptions and world view and the consequences of our presumptions. To save us from the climate crisis we need a spiritual awakening far more than a technological fix, as with more technology, we feed our hubris that we can manage and manipulate, when what we learn to do, is to care and to be mindful of our footprints.
Columbus and Other Cannibals is a painful book to read, but better than any book I’ve read in many years it lays out how our personal comfort comes at a cost and that cost is the loss of vast areas of land to corporate plunder, and the torture, death and spiritual violation of tens of millions of innocent people who possess the moral high ground but lack the power to resist Western “civil”ization and its sadistic thirst for profit.
Please share this piece with others and maybe make a trek to Collected Works and pick up a copy of Columbus and Other Cannibals. There is much there worth reading and I’ve only touched upon it in this essay.
Paul & Roxanne