John Collier and Indigenous Peoples’ Contributions to the World
John Collier was the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, during the New Deal era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Collier was first appointed to that post, he had a typical view that Indigenous cultures would die out as a result of “civilization” and “progress.”
However, after a decade learning from traditional peoples, particular the Pueblo nations and peoples of the Southwest—such as Taos Pueblo—Collier had an entirely new understanding and appreciation of Indian languages and cultures. Most importantly, he had achieved deep insight into the contributions that the traditional values of Indigenous peoples have made and have yet to make to the world.
In 1947, Collier's book Indians of the Americas: The Long Hope, was published by The New American Library. I have a “slightly abridged” 1954 version. A frontispiece to the book explains that Collier had discovered “in Indian society,” a “profound sense of living and a new hope.” Indeed, Collier “learned that centuries of planned destruction had dimmed but not destroyed the spiritual possessions” which kept Indian societies alive. He opened his book with the following:
They had what the world has lost. They have it now. What the world has lost, the world must have again, lest it die. Not many years are left to have or have not, to recapture the lost ingredient.
This is not merely a passing reference to World War III or the atom bomb—although the reference includes these ways of death, too. These deaths will mean the end if they come—racial death, self-inflicted because we have lost the way, and the power to live is dead.
What, in our human world, is this power to live? It is the ancient, lost reverence and passion for human personality, joined with the ancient, lost reverence and passion for the earth and its web of life.
This invisible reverence and passion is what the American Indians almost universally had; and representative groups of them have it still.
They had and have this power for living, which our modern world has lost—as world-view and self-view, as tradition and institution. . .
By virtue of this power, the densely populated Inca state, by universal agreement among its people, made the conservation and increase of the earth’s resources its foundational national policy. Never before, never since has a nation done what the Inca state did. . .
If our modern world should be able to recapture this power, the earth’s natural resources and web of life would not be irrevocably wasted within the twentieth century, which is the prospect now. True democracy, founded in neighborhoods and reaching over the world, would become the realized heaven on earth. And living peace—not just an interlude between wars—would be born and would last through the ages.
That is an amazing assessment by John Collier, of the contributions that Indian societies and their traditional values have made to the world, and what they have yet to contribute. Some three-fifths of the foods that feed the world today originated with the pre-invasion nations and peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Medicines, architecture, philosophy, political science have all benefited from Indigenous peoples’ contributions.
Many such contributions are illustrated in Jack Weatherford’s book Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World (1988). Another excellent source is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, published in 2005.
He provides many examples, but one is particularly illustrative. In a chapter titled “Amazonia,” Mann explains “terra preta do Índio—rich, fertile ‘Indian dark earth’ that anthropologists believe was made by human beings.” One of the surprises is that “the ceramics” in “terra preta indicate that” this human made “soil has retained its nutrients for as much as a millennium.” That, of course, is a thousand years.
The presence of terra preta do Índio is found over a massive area. Says Mann: “Because careful surveys of Amazon soils have never been taken, nobody knows the amount and distribution of terra preta.” Mann cites William I. Woods as having “guessed that terra preta might represent as much as 10 percent of the Amazon basin, an area the size of France.” Mann further says:
A recent, much more conservative estimate is that it [terra preta do Índio] covers .1 to .3 percent of the basin, a few thousand square miles. The big difference between these numbers matters less than one might expect: a few thousand square miles of farmland was enough to feed the millions in the Maya heartland.
The traditional Indigenous peoples’ model contained, and still contains, an insightful understanding of the need to work with rather than against the processes of Life. This is what Collier saw embodied in the Pueblo cultures that he became familiar with, such as the Taos spiritual culture.
Part of the teaching that Indigenous Peoples have contributed to the world is this: Work to accentuate life’s creative processes, so that we as humans are able to live in beneficial and interrelated patterns of positivity, not only with each other, but with all forms of Life.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenap) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.