Letter to the editor: U.S. settlers’ philosophies caused lasting damage
Victor Nuovo’s Feb 7 column titled “Errand into the Wilderness” characterizes New England colonists as high-minded settlers devoted to their god and determined to paint the portrait of a model civil society, “a city upon a hill,” on the blank canvas of the New World, a virtual social void that they believed destiny had placed before them. It is necessary to compare the reality and the rhetoric.
First, 17th century settlers were neither true advocates of civil society nor of religious freedom. They created a theocracy that persecuted religious free thinkers, echoing the very religious intolerance that the Puritans had suffered in Europe. Witness Roger Williams who fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and established Rhode Island. The legacy of their decentralized congregational governance, as Prof. Nuovo notes, is indeed evident in our Vermont town meetings. But this experiment in society building and social contract making did not occur in a “lawless land” as stated. Native people were living in a millennia old society and some had created a form of confederated governance that inspired Benjamin Franklin and other founders of our nation. Then, when Indians attempted to enter into legally binding contracts or treaties with the settlers, the colonists violated the fundamental rule of law countless times and indeed made the new world “lawless” for its indigenous people.
Puritans would have perished in their first years in “the wilderness” had they not been provided with food and survival skills by indigenous people. And how did god’s chosen people respond? With genocide that reduced the indigenous population by ninety percent. Genocide is no mere errand.
Second, in their belief that they were more god-like than other creatures, colonists immediately set to work deforesting the land and driving many of the four-legged, winged ones, and rooted ones to near extinction. The western Buffalo almost vanished. In the north and east beaver were trapped for furs and nearly became extinct, as they had in Europe. Shad disappeared from rivers, cod from the oceans.
The wisdom of indigenous people, that Mother Nature should be engaged with reciprocity and respect, was ignored and replaced with an attitude of hostility and arrogance toward nature. The 1670 sermon that Prof. Nuovo cites actually refers to The New World as “this waste and howling wilderness.” Both the colonists’ attitude of entitlement to resources and their desire to dominate nature were grounded in the same belief system as their theocracy. The devastating consequences of this cultural legacy now haunt us, and we seem unable to control our own excesses with compacts, laws or treaties.
Both ecocide and genocide are legacies of those cities on the hill. Our noble experiment will succeed and survive only if and when we begin to engage indigenous peoples and other species with respect, and as our equals.
Enrolled member of Potawatomi Citizen Nation
Mark A. Nelson of Bristol
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