There’s been a brouhaha of late in tony Santa Barbara County, California, between the Chumash Nation and many of the locals. The Chumash want to build a bigger and better gambling casino, including more hotel space, for those who like to loll away the hours depositing money in electronic slot machines. The locals very much want things to remain the way they are, and fear that proposed changes will alter the nature of the area – more traffic, more outsiders (read, the hoi polloi?), less bucolic peace and quiet, which they pay a lot for. And, to be completely fair, I ought to add that there are no doubt other factors at work, as well, in terms of zoning laws, environmental regulations etc.
So, I’m not exactly taking sides on this one, since I admit to feeling very torn. First off, I’m not really much of a fan of gambling. Sure, in a sense it’s like drinking alcohol, or any other thing that some consider to be a vice. If done in moderation, what harm can it really do? And while that’s true, it’s also the case that there are those who get hooked on it and ruin their lives, as well as the lives of those who love them. Personally, I can’t even stand going into a casino. Just the ping-ping noise of the machines sets my teeth on edge, and somehow I get this feeling of a vast aura of desperation. For me, it’s an uncomfortable place. On the other hand, it seems to be one of the only ways that Indians have ever been able to accumulate a degree of wealth in a society that has long considered them to be second and third class citizens. There’s definitely nothing glamorous or virtuous about being poor, so who can blame the Indians for latching onto a thing that works? The money gambling brings in can be used for education, healthcare, housing, and a whole host of other necessities that much of white society takes for granted, though not always all people of color.
Looking back at history, there’s no doubt that Indians have gotten the rawest of raw deals from Europeans, and later on from white Americans. In fact, as a measure of how invisible Indians are, most people don’t even think about or bother to educate themselves regarding what has happened over the years. In a short essay, I certainly won’t attempt to encapsulate the enormous, sad history of Indian-white interaction ever since that fateful day on Oct. 12, 1492, when Columbus “discovered” the so-called New World. Even the use of the term “discover” highlights the arrogance and high-handedness with which native populations have been treated. After all, the word means to find something new, something that no one had seen before, a place that was not known to exist. When, in fact, it was only the Europeans who didn’t know. Depending on which anthropologist and which theory you believe, Indians have been in this hemisphere anywhere from between twelve and twenty thousand years.
Naturally, once word spread that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria had landed everybody wanted to get in on the act. That meant that everyone wanted a piece of the giant pie that had been “discovered.” The indigenous population of Indians, so called because Columbus was so turned around he thought he’d somehow landed in India, counted for very little. They were, in fact, pretty much just in the way. And besides, they were pagan savages, so Europeans were duty-bound to convert them to the true religion and in so doing to civilize them.
The very briefest of historical sketches might help to set the stage for that day when Columbus and his men first set foot on Guanahani Island, and the whole world changed for those who lived there, as well as for all other native inhabitants of the Americas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what is called a Papal Bull (a kind of official “letters patent,” granting an office, a right, a title etc.) to the King of Portugal, allowing him to declare war against non-Christians throughout the world and sanctioning conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christians and their possessions. Later on, the King of Spain, who was not to be outdone, demanded one of his own, and got it. The Bull “inter Caetera” was issued in May of 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had “found.” This included all rights over peoples so discovered, who were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.” Pope Alexander went so far as to draw a line from the North Pole to the South Pole, stipulating that the Spanish Crown could take any lands to the west of this line of demarcation, unless, of course, such lands had already “come into the possession of any (other) Christian lords.” Indigenous peoples were considered the “lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”
In essence, this document, and the legal reasoning found therein, was used for the next several centuries as a blueprint for how to deal with Indians. It has come to be referred to as “The Doctrine of Discovery.” In the United States, it was the basis for a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1823. In this ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that Christian nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the Americas during the so-called Age of Discovery. As a result, all Indians living within those lands had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations.” Marshall specifically gave the U. S. government the right to occupy lands previously controlled by “the natives, who were heathens.”
The logical result of these legal documents can be seen in how Indians have been treated in this country. If their lands were not simply taken from them by force, if Indians were not killed off by smallpox or other European diseases against which they had no natural defenses, if their cultures and ways of life were not decimated by alcohol, then so-called treaties were made, which were largely legal conveniences that were never meant to be upheld, once it came time for white people to make their move. And all this was done in the name of civilizing and Christianizing them, a logical and legal throwback to the Papal Bull promulgated by Pope Alexander VI.
No apology has ever been forthcoming from the Catholic Church (or from the American government, for that matter) for these injustices done to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, no admission of wrong, no acknowledgement of pain or suffering or loss, no compensation, no acceptance of guilt, no mea culpa. This is a fact of history, a thing that most Indian peoples have simply learned to live with over the years. The best lands were taken from them and given to white settlers, and what was left was “reserved” for them. For many years, it was forbidden that their languages be spoken, their religious traditions were belittled and condemned, and their wonderfully varied cultural expressions denigrated and disparaged. They were put into servitude by Franciscan friars, and their children were forcibly taken from them and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles away, where they could be taught to “behave like civilized white people.” While those left on the reservations came to know the meaning of poverty, want, and cultural dispossession.
So, fast forward to the 21st century, and we wonder whether or not the Chumash of Santa Barbara County, California, ought to be given permission to expand their gambling casino. Should the Chumash really take into consideration the rich people who live around them and their desire for peaceful country living? And what about the zoning and environmental regs? I still don’t claim to know the answer to all this, but if I were to try to put myself in the shoes of a member of the tribe, I guess I could imagine myself thinking, why shouldn’t it be my turn now? The Doctrine of Discovery, after all, did what it was intended to do. It “civilized” and Christianized the heathen Indians. So, why is everyone complaining now that those same Indians want to take advantage of an opportunity to make money? You know, just like those good, civilized, white Christian folks, who live in the beautiful country surrounding them, have always done?