In 1845, an American columnist, John O’Sullivan, writing about the proposed annexation of Texas, claimed that it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent.” Later in the same year, referring to the ongoing dispute with Great Britain over Oregon, he wrote that the United States had the right to claim “the whole of Oregon.”
And that claim is by the right of our Manifest Destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent that Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
The westward expansion did not originate with O’Sullivan’s theory. In 1803, the United States acquired 23 percent of its existing territory through the Louisiana Purchase. Seeing land as a source of political power, the government began to actively pursue aggressive expansion of its territories through the 19th century. The idea of Manifest Destiny was one component of the process which captured the popular imagination. This was further fueled by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the West attracting Easterners acting on their conviction in their right and duty to expand.
The Mexican-American conflict generated massive casualties, and when it was over, the US controlled all of New Mexico and California, and more of the territory of Texas. When Texas was annexed in 1846 as the 26th state, Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here.”
Acclaimed historian Howard Zinn told Truthout, “The Mexican War, presented as something we were doing because Mexicans had fired on our soldiers … no, we were going to Mexico because we wanted to take forty percent of Mexican land. California, Arizona, Nevada … all of that beautiful land in the Southwest that was all Mexico. I’ll bet there are very few Americans today who live in that area and know that it belonged to Mexico. Or they may ask, how come all these names? How come Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, Santa Ana, how come?”
Perhaps Americans seriously believe that the US was preordained by God to expand and exercise hegemony over all that it surveys? After all, our 25th president, William McKinley, (1897-1901) declared that “The mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation.”
In the Sandwich Island Letters from Hawaii, Mark Twain exhorted his country folk sardonically, “We must annex those people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent government. We can introduce the novelty of thieves, all the way up from street-car pickpockets to municipal robbers and Government defaulters, and show them how amusing it is to arrest them and try them and then turn them loose – some for cash and some for political influence. We can make them ashamed of their simple and primitive justice. We can make that little bunch of sleepy islands the hottest corner on earth, and array it in the moral splendor of our high and holy civilization. Annexation is what the poor islanders need. Shall we to men benighted, the lamp of life deny?”
John Trudell of the Santee Sioux comments on the use of mainstream Christianity by the United States as a tool to dominate and colonize large tracts of the continent. Talking to Truthout at Venice Beach, he said that a religious perception of reality as projected by the US, replacing a spiritual perception of reality like that held by most indigenous peoples, “… leads to insanity and incoherence. It leads to self-destruction. It eats into the spirit of the being.”
The analogy he uses in order to illustrate the spiritual impact that religious, administrative and corporate colonization has upon indigenous people is graphic and poetic. He says, “This is a form of mining. It is like a technological form of mining the energy of the planet and we are forms of that energy. That’s the ‘being’ part of us. The human form is made up of metals, minerals and liquids of earth. All things of the earth have ‘being.’ We know they can take the bone, flesh and blood out of the earth that is uranium and put it through a mining-refining process and convert its being into a form of energy, and we know they can do it with fossil fuel. And we know that when they do these things it leaves behind poisons and toxins. And they – and I’m just going to call them the industrial ruling class – but they mine the ‘being’ part of human through programming the human when the human is born to believe their obedience. So the human being that enters this reality is put in with all this distortion that is based upon there being something wrong with them and fear comes real quickly. And when you mine the being part of human, fear is the toxin left behind from that mining. And this programming begins at birth. And the way we’ve been picked apart, we end up as human beings having this tendency to feel powerless. And it’s everywhere.… This powerlessness feeling is pretty prevalent on this planet. “
An acclaimed poet, national recording artist, actor, and activist, Trudell was a spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. He also served as chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM), from 1973 to 1979.
Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee/Lenape Native American and author of “Pagans in the Promised Land – Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,” has written: “It’s a little known fact that the Catholic Church issued a number of papal edicts in the fifteenth century that set into motion patterns of colonization that became globalized over many centuries. In the documents “Dum diversas” (1452) and “Romanus Pontifex” (1455), for example, issued by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, the pope “authorized” the king to send men to the Western Coast of Africa and “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all non-Christians, “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and to “take away all their possessions and property.” Such patterns of thought and behavior became institutionalized in law and policy, and the patterns are still operative against indigenous peoples today under the concept of “the State.”
An effective means to institutionalize this process was to indoctrinate Native American children at highly religious boarding schools run by the Department of Interior. The children were severed from their families on reservations with the ostensible aim of saving them from poverty.
The original boarding school idea came from Gen. Richard Henry Pratt who formed the Carlyle Indian School in Carlyle, Pennsylvania, in 1878. He wrote in “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260-271, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Systematically, his school and its later extensions stripped away tribal culture. Students were forced to drop their Native American names, barred from speaking in their native languages and forbidden to wear long hair. Punitive measures and torture were rampant.
Pratt’s conviction of moral superiority can be gathered from his views on slavery, “Inscrutable are the ways of Providence. Horrible as were the experiences of its introduction, and of slavery itself, there was concealed in them the greatest blessing that ever came to the Negro race – seven millions of blacks from cannibalism in darkest Africa to citizenship in free and enlightened America; not full, not complete citizenship, but possible – probable – citizenship, and on the highway and near to it.”
Marcos Terena, of the Terena people in the Pantanal region in Matto Groso do Sur, Brazil, was recently visiting the United Nations in New York City. Terena, a key participant in the creation of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, told Truthout, “Big agribusiness is commercializing our corn, yucca, potatoes and other seeds. Oil companies are also in indigenous territory and causing all kinds of destruction.”
He spoke of Parkinson’s disease, cancer, heart attacks and mental disorders, all sicknesses new to the Terena Spiritual leaders who have no means to cure them. They believe with good reason that these ailments have come into their midst with the advent of Western companies and accompanying pollution and contamination.
Terena’s words hit home: “In 1992, in our communities, there was no need for psychiatric hospitals. Now these sicknesses are arriving to us as well. I tell our spiritual leaders that the white people also don’t know how to treat these sicknesses. We are also worried about you who live in the US.”
Forty-three-year-old Moi Enomenga is a leader of the Huaorani, an indigenous group of hunters and gatherers that have inhabited the rainforests at the headwaters of the Amazon for millennia, with no contact from the outside world until as recently as the late 1950’s. Numbering approximately 3,000 individuals, they maintain a traditional lifestyle.
In 1992, the western oil company Maxus Energy Corporation, based in Dallas, Texas, showed up in his area, prompting Enomenga to organize a protest. He later traveled to the US to rally for support. In his absence, the president of Ecuador and the head of the oil company flew to his community and got them to sign an agreement that allowed the oil company to begin work. The modus operandi seems to be a replica of deals made in the earlier century with Native American groups, though not for oil. Members of the Huaorani who had been taken away and educated at missionary schools were bribed to facilitate the deal.
This caused much fighting between the indigenous communities, but did eventually lead to their reunification and they have since begun to work together again to resist the exploitation of their land with some help from outside. Since then, they have been fighting a constant battle.
After initial conflict over the matter, the indigenous communities did eventually reunite and start resisting the exploitation of their land. It has been a constant battle and to gather support for it. Enomenga, who is also ecotourism coordinator, has traveled extensively throughout the Amazon and the world.
At a recent interview in New York, he spoke with Truthout: “There are three thousand of us Hua?ani. We are one people, we all speak the same language. The more we unite, the stronger our voice will be. We can be an example for the rest of the world if we can achieve a little bit more.”
He says, “First they drill, then they extract oil, then there is a highway, then there is colonization, then there are so many problems, because, here, the forest is clean, but when the companies enter, they destroy so much. The people don’t have what they need to live, because the Americans don’t respect much, because they take the oil, instead of letting us live. This is why the Huaorani ask for the oil-drilling to stop.”
Enomenga recounts his history to explain how the struggle of his people mirrors his own, “Twenty-five years ago, we were still living free. We didn’t have borders. Our territory went from Peru into Ecuador. My father and grandfather always defended our territory … they guarded it very well. Nobody came inside. If people disrespected our laws and came to hunt on our territory, they would get killed. In 1957, American missionaries, five of them, showed up at the village of my grandfather on my mother’s side. Those five missionaries were killed there. I always thought about this when my mother and father would tell me their stories. I thought when I turned twenty-five I would then defend my land. After the five missionaries were killed, more came and said we would be bombed if we didn’t move. So they took us away from our communities and moved us to one area. Today there is a community where the missionaries took everybody. I always thought that this kind of thinking can’t be permitted on our land. My father and grandfather defended our territory by killing. Now I have to defend our territory by making friends with people and organizing.”
He has indeed done this, by working nonviolently to oppose the ongoing colonization of his land and people with success enough to draw some attention and a movie has been made of his efforts. Nevertheless, the painful effects of the missionaries and colonists are experienced daily, and he narrates them:
“About 50 years ago, colonists came here, and brought diseases, and an enormous number of Huaorani died. This is why the Huaorani don’t want them here in Ecuador. Here, we have a lot of history, stories about how the planet was born, how the Huaorani lived…. I would teach them about this, but they come here to educate us, but I don’t want them to. The missionaries lie. I don’t believe them. I believe in our own spirituality here: the forest.”
Unfortunately, not everybody does. The colonists have never believed the forest, land, buffalo, lakes, and the ocean to be the right of indigenous populations.
In 1872, John Gast created an allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny called American Progress. The painting shows the US, personified as Columbia, floating through the sky holding a school book, stringing telegraph wire as she travels, leading civilization westward with American settlers while the Native Americans and wild animals flee.
The chairman of the Maa Civil Society Forum in Kenya, Ben R. Ole Koissaba of the Massai People, says, “Before the white man came we were the rulers of East Africa, both Kenya and Tanzania, but because of the kind of land God gave us, the kind of resources God bestowed upon us, there was envy and greed.”
He described to Truthout how the Massai were dispossessed of all the land and livestock that was their way of life and their lifeline. “For the colonists to be able to rule over us, they had to introduce an education system that demonized our (own) education system. They brought in a new concept. The “I” – “me” – “myself” – kind of stuff. That’s the first thing.”
He has personal experience of the religious impact of the belief borne in Manifest Destiny, “If it was not for the church, the world would not have been colonized. I am a living example. I was doing my masters at the University of Leeds in the UK. I wrote a story about how the church marginalized me as a Massai. They came with a gun in one hand to rule and a bible in the other to close my eyes. I blame the church wholly for what we are. They discontinued me from my masters at Leeds. They discontinued me from my education just because I said the truth.”
Koissaba explains to us how the spirituality of his people differs completely from that of most mainstream Christians in the United States, “Ours was not a Sunday God. For the Massai, God was everything. The first milk from the cows is thrown to the East, West, North and South. You sacrifice that. When you look at the sky you see God. When you look at the ground you see God.”
Western missionaries used the double-pronged fork of Christian education to rob the Massai of their religion so that their resources could be robbed. “Some of our best schools are missionary schools. As a way of colonizing our minds they had to put us in these institutions. They skin us, they remove what we are, they put us in some new thing so we sing their tune.”
The term Manifest Destiny ceased to be used in a political context in the early 20th century. However it would seem that the idea continues to impact political actions overseas in the 21st century, if nothing else, to camouflage serious economic and political violations that the United States indulges in, across the globe.
Historian William E. Weeks noted three key themes that the advocates of Manifest Destiny emphasized at the time. These themes are just as applicable today for supporters of the US Empire and corporate globalization:
1. The virtue of the American people and their institutions; 2. The mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the US. 3. The destiny under God to accomplish this work.
On reading an article posted earlier on Truthout about the cultural impacts of the Iraqi occupation, Commander Edward C. Robison, of the U.S Navy told us in an email, “I read your article and agree with it strongly. It was my experience that the Army was working directly as a point of doctrine to defeat the Iraqi culture and history as a major component of their strategy to fight the insurgency.”
His experience in Iraq from February 2007 until August 2007 only underscores the impression that the concept of Manifest Destiny remains embedded in the minds of many Western colonists: “I was assigned to the II MEF Forward as a Reconstruction Officer under the G5 directorate. I was detailed to Al-Asad to work with RCT2 in western Al Anbar province. Because of this I travelled throughout the province and dealt with a large variety of Iraqis and the full spectrum of the Iraqi Government. I worked closely with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to stand it up and get it functioning.
“In my work I tried hard to emphasize using Iraqi solutions, working within the Iraqi culture and social structure. This concept seemed very novel to those above me, but they saw the success it was achieving. I argued with the State Department “experts” about how to get agriculture functioning again. They said we needed to teach the farmers how to use irrigation, and I reminded them that irrigation was invented in Iraq. There was a very strong attitude in the Bush State Department and military that anything Iraqi or Arab was inherently inferior and had to be replaced.
“I heard repeatedly from ‘experts’ that never went into the field about all the cultural problems about Iraqis. How they were lazy, poorly educated, won’t mainta?n anything, can’t be trusted and much more. There was a continuous diatribe against the culture from people detailed there to help them. They had no appreciation of the culture and most hated the Iraqi people and saw them as enemies.
“There were only a few of us that saw the Iraqis as intelligent, creative and capable. I found that like people here the Iraqis lived up to our expectations. If we expected them to accomplish something, they did. When the expectation was failure, it usually failed. I have believed for a long time that the best thing was for us to pull out completely and allow an Iraqi solution to occur. There may be an increase in violence for a short time, but in the end things will be better than they are now.”
For this hope to bear fruit, a strong collective force of similar American voices will have to rise and thwart the destructive march of American Manifest Destiny on the planet.
(Bhaswati Sengupta also contributed to this report.)