A Native American Point of View
The Indian tribes of the New World would not have considered what was talked about in Valladolid, Spain during 1550 a debate of merit. Certainly all human beings on earth have value and are capable of living their own lives without having other people demean their very existence. The only people who questioned this assumption were arrogant thinkers like King Charles V of Spain, Juan Gines de Sepulveda and even Bartolome de Las Casas whose own consciences could not decipher the truth about the world. The truth is obvious and speaks for itself. The only reason that these people and the whole of Europe itself believed that Native Americans did not have souls and were “natural slaves” is that they were deliberately prejudiced and benefited from enslaving the native peoples of America.
Juan Gines de Sepulveda belonged in the category of people that were completely ignorant to the lives of real tribesman and did not care to learn about them. He had said that Indians were barbaric because they have no written language and no government. In truth, the Iroquois developed one of the firsts constitutions ever made and this document set up a complex style of government where every person was valued and had a specific role to play in how the society functioned. He also stated that Native Americans were barbarians who worshiped idols. Certainly belief in anything but the God of the Bible would be called idolatry, but by looking at that judgment through any other point of view idolatry doesn’t exist.
Bartolome de las Casas possessed some feelings of empathy for the native cause, but his arguments rely on the theories of Aristotle and the words of the Bible. None of these things meant anything to a native person. Who was Aristotle compared to the notable native philosophers, chiefs, and medicine men that taught wisdom to others for centuries? No one ever cared to see how intelligent, developed, and successful the Indians had been for centuries. What was this Bible that missionaries forced down the throats of anyone who wasn’t born a Christian? No one wanted that religion in America. Las Casas himself kept Indian slaves in America and profited greatly from them.
Europeans admired many of the things the natives invented and technologies they had developed. Bows and arrows shot by braves and squaws travelled farther, faster, and were many times more accurate than English or French guns shot by the inexperienced Europeans. The food grown in America was far superior with nutritious maize, beans, squash, clean water, fish, and meat from indigenous animals which made the Indians appear strong and healthy compared to the weak, near-death colonists. During many winters the colonists depended on the natives for help and without their aid died during the harsh winter or resorted to cannibalism, which was one of Sepulveda’s characteristics of barbarism.
None of these leaders in Spain brought natives to the debate or even attempted to see their point of view. Certainly in 1650, most of the indigenous peoples in North and South America did not know what a soul was. To them, a soul was an invention of the Holy Roman Empire, Catholic Church, and generally every person who wanted to justify using natives for free slave labor. Catholics forced their teachings on the natives and yet each tribe had its own religion, one of nature and superstition and power just like Catholicism. Las Casas proclaimed the truth that the Church had no power over anything non-believers did or practiced. References to non-believers being rightfully punished for their disbelief must be strict misinterpretations because during biblical times no one had knowledge of America or how attractive it would be for natives to be used as slave labor. No native ever met Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine and did not recognize these people as authorities. People such as these men and the emperor Constantine as well who were mentioned by las Casas and Sepulveda began holy wars because of their refusal to submit to Catholic belief. There were Crusades and murders on such a large scale that any Indian called “heathen” would never dream of such killing.
The tribes desired their own independence and believed in rule by the consent of the governed. To them it did not make sense to arrive at some distant place across the ocean and automatically own it. Natives cared for the land and never owned a particular property indefinitely because it was shared by all humanity. European colonists would agree that native families and villages are close-knit and loving, promoting peace and community. This peace is in stark opposition to European notions of arrogance, independence, and domination. Though las Casas supposedly won the debate, it did no good for the natives he tried to protect. By promoting the idea that natives were not natural slaves, he also promoted the idea that they were owned by Spain and could be indoctrinated by Christianity. At the time, no one listened to his points of view and did what was profitable; taking natives as permanent slaves or forcing them to give up their homelands. The Amerindians were the losers in this debate.