Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 31, 2000
European civilization has had devastating impact
A photograph of the last surviving European wild ox in my high school history book has haunted me all these years. This magnificent long-horned animal was killed somewhere in the Polish mountains around 1865 to make room for human civilization.
I have struggled to understand the broadest meaning of such fatal interactions between humans and the natural world. A vital part of creation is forever eliminated when the last of a species has been exterminated. There is a finality to it which is eternal and therefore beyond our limited comprehension.
In 1876, around the same time that the Polish ox was wiped off the face of the earth, Truganini, the last full-blooded Tasmanian, died a natural death. Most of her fellow tribespeople had died of bullets, disease and land grabs by white settlers.
Truganini begged that her body not be cut up for scientific purposes but that her remains be buried behind the mountains. Nevertheless her bones were kept in a museum, with other curios of a "primitive" past, for a full century.
In 1976 her body was finally cremated in a special ceremony and returned to the earth.
European civilization has had a devastating impact on anyone and anything in the created world that did not serve its purposes. Entire populations were wiped out as varmints.
"When the white man came among us, " said an old man in Queensland in 1904, "we were hunted from our ground, shot, poisoned and had our daughters, sisters and wives taken from us. They stole the ground where we used to get food. All they give us now for our land is a blanket once a year."
These sentiments echo the laments we have heard from our own aboriginal people.
We will never know who the reportedly white-skinned natives were who were systematically destroyed on the east coast. Anecdotal evidence has it that a typical god-fearing father and son would go out after Sunday Church service "to get themselves an injun" until none of them were left.
Our official government policy, from buffalo hunt to residential schools, has been to make the Indian disappear, if not through outright slaughter, then through cultural genocide and assimilation.
In the U.S., this policy was more ruthlessly applied because they had an earlier start. One of the more gripping stories read a few decades ago described the last days of Ishi. Just before dawn on Aug. 29, 1911, dogs began barking at the slaughter house outside Oroville, Calif.
Workmen, who investigated, found a half-naked man crouching by the corral fence. Strips of deer thong were strung through his earlobes and a wooden plug was set in his nose. It was assumed that this was just another drunken Indian and he was hauled off to jail.
Ishi was the last surviving Yahi. His people had lived in northern California for thousands of years until the arrival of the white settlers.
In 1874, Stephen Powers wrote: "There are men in and around Chico who have sworn a great oath of vengeance that these Indians shall die a bloody death. The Yahi are resisting civilization to the last man.
"No human eye ever beholds them, except now and then a lonely hunter may catch a glimpse of a faint campfire with figures flitting about; but before he can creep within rifle range, the figures have disappeared."
Notice how the "human" eye belongs to a white man. This eye has been blind to the growing list of vanishing species in this last century. We're not just talking of extinct plant and animal life but also of endangered peoples who continue to "disappear" in the name of civilization.
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