The Black Legend, Native Americans, and Spaniards: Crash Course US History #1


In which John Green kicks off Crash Course US History! Why, you may ask, are we covering US History, and not more World History, or the history of some other country, or the very specific history of your home region? Well, the reasons are many. But, like it or not, the United States has probably meddled in your country to some degree in the last 236 years or so, and that means US History is relevant all over the world. In episode 1, John talks about the Native Americans who lived in what is now the US prior to European contact. This is a history class, not archaeology, so we’re mainly going to cover written history. That means we start with the first sustained European settlement in North America, and that means the Spanish. The Spanish have a long history with the natives of the Americas, and not all of it was positive. The Spanish were definitely not peaceful colonizers, but what colonizers are peaceful? Colonization pretty much always results in an antagonistic relationship with the locals. John teaches you about early Spanish explorers, settlements, and what happened when they didn’t get along with the indigenous people. The story of their rocky relations has been called the Black Legend. Which is not a positive legend.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi I’m John Green, and this is Crash Course U.S. History!
00:04
No, Stan. That’s not gonna work, actually.
00:05
I mean, we’re talking about the 16th century today,
00:07
when this was neither united nor states.
00:09
By the way, this globe reflects the fact that I believe that Alaskan statehood is illegitimate!
00:14
In fact, we’re going to call this whole show “U.S. History”
00:16
but inevitably it is going to involve other parts of the world
00:18
and also, not to brag, a small part of the moon.
00:22
Sorry, we can be a little bit self-aggrandizing sometimes, here in America.
00:29
So to begin U.S. history, we’re not going to talk about the United states or this guy.
00:32
We’re going to talk about the people who lived here before any Europeans showed up.
00:45
North America was home to a great variety of people so it’s difficult to generalize,
00:48
but here’s what we can say:
00:50
One, when the Europeans arrived there were no classical-style civilizations
00:53
with monumental architecture and empires like the Aztec or the Incas.
00:57
And two, native North Americans had no metalwork, no gun powder, no wheels, no written languages,
01:01
and no domesticated animals.
01:03
However, they did have farming, complex social and political structures, and widespread trade networks.
01:08
>> Mr. Green! Mr. Green! So they were pretty backwards, huh? Well, or I mean at least primitive.
01:12
>> “Primitive” is a funny word, me from the past, because it implies a romanticization —
01:16
these simple people who never used more than they needed
01:18
and had no use for guns.
01:20
And it also implies an infantilization. It’s like you believe just because
01:24
you have a beeper and they didn’t they were somehow less-evolved humans. But you
01:28
can’t see the human story as one that goes from primitive to civilized. That’s
01:31
not just Eurocentric that’s contemporary-centric. The idea that we’re moving
01:35
forward as a species implies a linear progression that just does not reflect
01:40
the reality of life on this planet. I get that you like to imagine yourself
01:43
as the result of millennia of advancement and the very pinnacle of
01:46
human-ness, but from where I’m sitting that worldview is a lot more backwards
01:51
than living without the wheel. So no one knows exactly how many people lived
01:54
in North America before the Europeans got here. Some estimates are as high as 75
01:57
million, but in the present US borders the guesses are between 2 and 10 million.
02:01
And like other Native Americans their populations were decimated by diseases
02:04
such as smallpox and influenza. Actually it was much worse than decimation. As
02:08
many of you have pointed out, “decimation” means 1 in 10. This was much worse than
02:12
that. It was closer maybe to 8 in 10, which would be an “octicimation.” So
02:17
there had been civilizations in North America but they peaked before the
02:20
Europeans arrived. The Zuni and Hopi civilization roundabout here peaked
02:24
about 1200 CE. They had large, multiple-family dwellings and canyons, which they
02:28
probably left because of drought. Crash Course World History fans will remember
02:31
that environmental degradation often causes the decline of civilizations. I’m
02:35
looking at you, Indus Valley, and also you, entire future Earth. Eut complex
02:40
civilizations weren’t the rule in North America. And now we’re about to begin
02:44
generalizing, a bad habit historians have partly because there’s a limited
02:47
historical record but also because Eurocentric historians have a bad habit
02:51
of primitivizing and simplifying others. So I want to underscore that
02:54
there was huge diversity in the pre-Columbus American
02:57
experience and that talking about someone who lived here in 1000 BCE and
03:01
talking about someone who lived here 2,000 years later is just inherently
03:05
problematic. That said, let’s go to the Thought Bubble:
03:08
Most native groups in most places organized as tribes, and their lives were
03:11
dominated by the natural resources available where they lived. So West Coast
03:15
Indians primarily lived by fishing, gathering, and hunting sea mammals; Great
03:19
Plains Indians were often buffalo hunters. These tribal bands often united
03:23
into loose confederacies or leagues, the best-known of which was probably the
03:27
Iroquois Confederacy, also called the Great League of Peace. This was kind of
03:30
like an upstate New York version of NATO but without a nuclear weapons or the
03:34
incessant international meddling or Latvians– Okay, it was nothing like NATO,
03:38
actually. Religion usually involved a vibrant spiritual world with ceremonies
03:42
geared toward the tribe’s lifestyle: hunting tribes focused on animals,
03:46
agricultural tribes on good harvests. And most Indian groups believed in a single
03:50
creator god who stood above all the other deities, but they weren’t
03:54
monotheistic in the way that Christians who came to the New World were. American
03:58
Indians also saw property very differently from Europeans. To First
04:01
Peoples, land was a common resource that village leaders could assign families to
04:05
use but not to own, and most land was seen as common to everyone. As Blackhawk,
04:11
a leader of the Sauk tribe, said, “The Great Spirit gave it to his children to
04:15
live upon and cultivate as far as necessary for their subsistence; and so
04:19
long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil.”
04:23
Thanks, Thought Bubble. Many of us tend to romanticize American Indians as being
04:27
immune from greed and class, but in fact there were class distinctions in Indian
04:31
tribes. Rulers tended to come from the same families, for instance. That said,
04:35
wealth was much more evenly distributed than it was in Europe. And while most
04:38
tribal leaders were men, many tribes were matrilineal meaning that children became
04:42
members of their mother’s family. Also women were often important religious
04:45
leaders. Women also often owned dwellings and tools, although not land because
04:49
again that idea did not exist. Also in many tribes women engaging in premarital
04:53
skoodilypooping wasn’t taboo. In general they were just much less obsessed with
04:57
female chastity than Europeans were. I mean I will remind you the first English
05:01
settlement in America was called “Virginia.” The idea that Native Americans
05:04
were noble savages, somehow purer than Europeans and untouched by their vices
05:09
is not a new one. Like some of the earliest European saw
05:12
the Indians as paragons of physical beauty and innocent of Europeans’ worst
05:17
characteristics. But for most Europeans there was little noble about what they
05:21
saw as pure Indian savagery. I mean Indians didn’t have writing, they
05:25
suffered from the terrible character flaw of being able to have sex without
05:28
feeling ashamed, and most importantly they weren’t Christians. The Spanish were
05:32
the first Europeans to explore this part of the world. Juan Ponce de León arrived
05:35
in what is now Florida in 1513 looking for gold and the fabled Fountain of
05:40
Youth. In 1521 he encountered a Calusa brave’s poison-tipped arrow and died
05:45
before discovering that the Fountain of Youth is of course delicious Diet Dr.
05:48
Pepper. Mmm, ahh. I can taste all 23 flavors. There were many more Spanish explorers
05:54
in the first half of the 16th century including one Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca,
05:59
who wandered through the American Southwest looking for gold, which I
06:02
mentioned entirely because I think that guy’s last name means “cow head.” Of course
06:06
none of these people found any gold, but they did make later European
06:09
colonization easier by bringing over the microbes that wiped out most native
06:13
populations. So the Spanish wanted to colonize Florida to set up military
06:15
bases to thwart the pirates who preyed on silver-laden Spanish galleons coming
06:20
out of México. But Spanish missionaries also came over hoping to convert local
06:24
native populations. This of course worked out magnificently. Just kidding, it went
06:27
terribly. Many of the missions were destroyed by an uprising of Guale Indians
06:30
in 1597, and I will remind you mispronouncing things is my thing. In
06:34
general colonizing Florida sucked because it was hot and mosquito-y. Spain
06:38
was much more successful at colonizing the American Southwest. In 1610 Spain
06:42
established its first permanent settlement in the southwest at Santa Fe,
06:45
New México. You couldn’t really say that it flourished since Santa Fe’s population never
06:49
got much above 3,000, but it had a great small-town feel. New México is really
06:52
important because it’s the site of the first large-scale
06:55
uprising by Native Americans against Europeans. I mean the native people, who
06:58
the Spanish called “Pueblos,” had seen their fortunes decline significantly
07:01
since the arrival of Europeans. How much decline? Well, between 1600 and 1680 their
07:06
population went from about 60,000 to about 17,000. Also the Franciscan friars
07:11
who came to convert the indigenous people became increasingly militant
07:14
about stamping out all native religion. The Spanish Inquisition just wasn’t very
07:17
keen on the kind of cultural blending that made early conversion efforts
07:20
successful. So while the Spanish saw all the Pueblos as one people they also knew
07:24
there were tribal differences that made it difficult for
07:26
the Indians to unite and rise up against the Spanish. But nothing unites like a
07:29
common enemy, and in 1680 a religious leader named Popé organized an
07:33
uprising to drive the Spaniards out. Popé organized about 2,000 warriors,
07:37
who killed 400 Spanish colonists and forced the rest to leave Santa Fe. So the
07:41
Spanish colony in New México was effectively destroyed. The Pueblos tore
07:45
down all the Christian churches and replaced them with kivas (their places
07:48
of worship), but like most awesome uprisings it didn’t last. After the
07:52
revolt the Spanish were much more tolerant of indigenous religion, and they
07:55
also abandoned the forced labor practice called encomienda. Oh, it’s time for the
07:59
new Crash Course feature the “Mystery Document”? How mysterious. The rules here
08:06
are simple: I read an attempt to identify the mystery document. If I am right, I do
08:12
not get shocked by this shock pen. And if I am wrong, I do. Okay, what do we have
08:17
here? “The Indians were totally deprived of
08:20
their freedom and were put in the harshest, fiercest most horrible
08:23
servitude and captivity which no one who has not seen it can understand. Even
08:28
beasts enjoy more freedom when they are allowed to graze in the fields. But our
08:33
Spaniards gave no such opportunity to Indians and truly considered them
08:37
perpetual slaves. I sometimes came upon dead bodies on my way, and upon others
08:43
who were grasping and moaning in their death agony repeating, ‘Hungry, hungry.’ And
08:49
this was the freedom, the good treatment and the Christianity the Indians
08:53
received.” Well, that’s nice. Okay, so the mystery document is always a primary
08:58
source, and since the writer refers to “our Spaniards” I’m going to guess that he or
09:02
she (probably he) is European and a Spaniards sympathetic to the Indians,
09:05
which narrows the list of suspects considerably. So it probably wasn’t de
09:08
Sepúlveda for instance, who argued that the Indians might not even be human. Okay,
09:11
Stan I’m actually pretty confident here. I believe it is from “A Short Account of
09:15
the Destruction of the Indies” by Bartolomé de las Casas. Ah, dang it! Stan just told
09:22
me I have the author right but the book wrong. It’s “A History of the Indies.” Oh, I
09:27
hate shocks, both literal and metaphorical. So we focused a lot on the
09:32
brutality of the Spanish toward the Indians, but at least one Spaniard, de las
09:36
Casas, recognized that his countrymen were terrible. This realization is a
09:40
good thing, obviously, but it leads us to one of the big problems when it comes to
09:43
studying this time and place. The Black Legend is the tale that the Spanish
09:47
unleashed unspeakable cruelty on the Indians. Now, that tale is true. But that
09:52
idea was used by later settlers, especially the English, to justify their
09:55
own settlements. Like part of the reason they needed to expand their empire was
09:59
to save the Indians from the awful Spanish, but were the English so much
10:03
better? Yeah, probably not. As we mentioned at the beginning of today’s episode,
10:07
American Indians didn’t have writing so we don’t have records of their
10:10
perspective. Now, some Europeans like de las Casas were critical of the Spaniards,
10:14
but most considered the Indians heathens and implied or even outright said that
10:19
they deserved whatever horrible things befell them. So at the beginning of our
10:22
series I want to point out something that we need to remember throughout: One
10:25
of the great things about American history is that we have a lot of written
10:28
sources. This is the advantage of the U.S. coming onto the scene so late in
10:32
the game, historically speaking, But every story we hear comes from a certain point
10:36
of view. And we always need to remember who is speaking, why they are speaking,
10:40
and especially which voices go unheard and why. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you
10:46
next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by
10:48
Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is
10:52
Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer
10:55
and myself, and our graphics team is Thought Bubble.
10:57
If you have questions about today’s video you should ask them in comments.
11:00
Everybody who works on Crash Course as well as a team of historians will be
11:03
there to answer them. Thanks for watching. Please make sure you’re subscribed to
11:06
Crash Course. And as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video.

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