Updated: Aug 9, 2021
Wetiko, a Native American mythological, cannibalistic figure, is the name that indigenous people in the Algonquin language community gave to Columbus and colonial settlers because of behaviors characterized by greed and the “eating up of others’ lives and resources.
Racism is defining a social or political group, with the use of superficial and/or derogatory characteristics, and then stereotypically attributing characteristics to the entire group.
Deepening the understanding of how wetiko and racism have influenced American history is important for the navigation of present obstacles to the establishment of inclusive justice. Great men, striving to be great leaders, inadvertently stumbled into the fostering of suffering and inequality with limited awareness of the consequences of their actions. They were empowered by citizens, who were also lacking in sufficiently broad moral insight. Beyond avoiding pitfalls, a deeper understanding of the dynamics of racism, will contribute to the present and future building of a thriving democracy.
The Convergent Roots that Foster Racism
1) In-Group/Out-Group Behaviors, 2) Superficial Group Recognition Cues, such as Skin Color, 3) Greed/Dominance Driven Rationalizations for Assigning Characteristics to Entire Groups, and 4) Inadequate Self- n/Esteem Bolstered By Perceiving Others As Having Lesser Worth Than Oneself.
1) In-Group/Out-Group Behaviors, Primal Roots of Racism -
The hundreds of thousands of years that humans lived in small groups led to the hardwiring of perceptions and behaviors related to in-group and out-group experiences. Cooperation and compassion were primary survival behaviors for the in-group. Fear and suspicion came to be associated with the "other." This tendency was exacerbated by more aggressive groups coming to dominate and subjugate or even wipe out more peaceful groups.[i] When the apprehension of others evoked fear, that became a survival signal to focus increased protective energy on one’s own family or group. Conversely, fear propelled discrimination and potential demonization with aggression toward other groups.
The ancient embeddedness of these traits is corroborated by several world religions deeming it compensatory and necessary to admonish adherents to show respect and compassion for strangers, a behavior that did not come naturally. In-group, out-group behaviors can readily be observed even in elementary school children, who without instigation, form cliques.
2) Superficial Group Recognition Cues, such as Skin Color Are Used to Designate Racial Groups.
Genome research confirms what antiracist, equality advocates have intuitively known for centuries-- beneath the color of the skin, racial characteristics cannot be identified. There is more genetic variation between individuals than there is between so-called racial groupings. Race, is essentially a social and political construct, utilized to divide people.[ii]
3) Greed/Dominance Driven Rationalizations are used for Assigning Characteristics to Entire So-Called Racial Groups.
Labels such as "savage," "murderous," "ape-like," "lazy," "ignorant," "inferior," and "hypersexual” are used to categorize entire groups for purposes of justifying exploitation and inequality.
4) Inadequate Self-Esteem Bolstered by Perceiving Other “Races’ As Having Lesser Worth Than Oneself.
Two major components of self-esteem are 1) a sense of personal efficacy and 2) a sense of belonging.
· Efficacy is experienced as the capacity to impact one’s physical and social environment in intentional ways. If positive impacts are perceived as unreachable, people will sometimes engage in destructive behaviors, just to have a sense of power. When a sense of personal empowerment is deficient, a compensatory urge to achieve power over others may develop. A sense of efficacy is bolstered or diminished depending upon how it is recognized and regarded by others.
· A sense of belonging is grounded in the perception that one is liked and or loved by one’s family, friends, workmates, community and other larger groups. Rather recognized or not, it even includes a sense of being comfortable as a person who is related to all races, and all species. Deficiencies in a sense of belonging and restrictions to identification with smaller circles can foster an increase in needs to hostilely distinguish oneself from other groups, races, countries and nonhuman beings in the natural environment; often times, resulting in overlording or destructive behaviors.
Maintaining a Relative Sense of Self-Esteem by Degrading or Dehumanizing Others so As to Perceive Oneself as Superior
Societal example – in the slavery and the Jim Crow eras, plantation-oriented politicians repeatedly passed laws that gave poor Whites more privileges than Blacks, so that the Whites self-esteem and morale was dependent on there being a class beneath them. This political strategy was employed to prevent alliances between poor Whites and Blacks.
Lynching and torture of Blacks, dehumanizing them in the process gave further assurance to the victimizers that they were superior.
Wetiko is the Native American Name for the Western European, Cultural Infection, that Drives Needs to Dominate and Exploit other People, other Species, and the Resources of Planet Earth
When Columbus came to what Europeans called “America” and misnamed indigenous peoples as “Indians,” naming went in the other direction as well. Several indigenous tribes had a word to name the cultural virus epitomized by the invaders use of slaves and by their hunger for gold and resources. Depending on the tribal nation, the word was variously formed as wetiko, windingo or wintiko.[iii]
Jack D. Forbes, PhD, late Native American scholar, activist and author, chronicles the origins of wetiko in his book, Columbus and Other Cannibals[iv]. He describes this malady as a spiritual and psychological disease that infects Western civilization. At its heart are arrogance, greed and thirst for exploitative power over others that cheapens land, water, and the lives of animals and people, to increase monetary profit and wealth.[v][vi] Forbes writes,
Wetiko is a disease of aggression against other living things and, more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions. I call it cannibalism. This wétiko (cannibal) psychosis, is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man. The rape of a woman, the rape of a land, the rape of a people, they are all the same. And they are the same as the rape of the earth, the rape of the rivers, the rape of the forest, the rape of the air, the rape of the animals. Brutality knows no boundaries. [vii]
Wetiko thrives when empathy is constrained to others perceived as being like oneself. When other groups and other forms of Life are seen as dead, insensitive, “racially” different or as enemies, then they can be more readily exploited, injured or killed without conscience.
When European colonizers brought this cultural disease to the Americas, indigenous peoples were confounded, stunned, and rendered victims to the encomiendas, the royal mandates that gave colonizers rights over land and over people, including forced labor and slavery. Although Dr. Forbes traces the roots of wetiko back 2000 years, well before the development of capitalism, America’s wetiko culture has created an economic environment in which markets are often distorted toward profiteering and the exploitation of the weak by the powerful.
Paul Levy, also writing about wetiko, describes it as an infection within capitalism, “it is eating through the life energy of this planet in service of its own growth.” While acknowledging that capitalism has also unleashed human ingenuity, it has nevertheless fueled “insatiable hunger for finite resources, a need for perpetual hyper-consumption and a disregard for the pain of cultures and species it consumes or destroys in pursuit of its overriding obsession with its own material growth. In this regard, it is cannibalizing life.[viii]
The Merger of Racism and Wetiko in America
When Christopher Columbus reached the West Indies, he found a people who practiced a radically different way of life from that of Europe. He reported:
They are generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts . . . And they know no sect nor idolatry; save that they all believe that power and goodness are in the sky . . . And this comes not because they are ignorant: on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelous good account of everything . . . And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force . . . Their [Spanish] Highnesses may see that I shall give them [The Spanish Crown] as much gold as they may need . . . and slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped, and these shall be from idolators.
Columbus proceeded to enslave these “loving” people, shipping thousands of them to Europe and Africa for a profit. Then he and his European cohorts enslaved tens of thousands of others and liquidated several millions of similar humans in the islands within a generation.[ix] Note his use of the concept “idolaters.” Christian exclusivism and supremacy, as well as racism, were used as justifications for ignoring the moral repugnance of his behaviors.
Now, were Columbus and his fellow European exploiters simply greedy men whose ethics were such as to allow for mass slaughter and genocide? Forbes argues that Columbus was a wétiko, that he was mentally ill or insane, the carrier of a terribly contagious psychological disease, the wétiko psychosis, a blinding of perception and empathy into the life of Others. The Native people Columbus described were, on the other hand, sane people with a healthy state of mind. Sanity or healthy normality among humans and other living creatures involves respect and empathy for other forms of life and other individuals.[x]
The convergence of racism and wetiko was escalating in Europe, prior to Columbus’s voyage. Imperialism and the slave trade had become internationally competitive in Western Europe. The economic and morally driven needs to intellectually and theologically rationalize slave trading sparked a burgeoning of racist theories.[xi] Prominently, these ideas included that Blacks evolved as a separate race (polygenesis), closer to the apes; or, that Blacks inferiority was a Divine punishment because of original sins going back to Cain and Noah’s curse on his son, Ham. More than artifacts of history, wetiko and racism continue to foster the generation of religious and political ideas that justify economic success even when it is based upon accompanying exploitation and inequality.
Almost from Columbus’s arrival, Spanish colonists began to degrade and enslave the indigenous peoples, naming them negros da terra (Blacks from the land), transferring their racist constructions of African people onto Native Americans. Over the years that followed, they used the forces of the gun and religious supremacy in one of the most frightful and sudden massacres in human history. Thousands of Native Americans died resisting enslavement. More died from European diseases, from the conditions they suffered while forcibly tilling fields, and on death marches searching and mining for gold. Millions of Native Americans were driven off their land by Spanish settlers dashing into the colonies after riches.[xii]
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[i] [The parable of the tribes by Andrew Schmookler] [ii] [iii] [iv]Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism Seven Stories Press, Revised Edition, 2008, Kindle Edition. [v] Patel, Raj. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet . University of California Press. Kindle Edition, 2017. [vi] [vii] Jack D. Forbes, Op. Cit. [viii]Dispelling Wetiko [ix] [x] Forbes, Jack D.. Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism (p. 22). Seven Stories Press. Kindle Edition. Wetiko and racism have converged in the underbelly of American history politics from our colonial and national inception to the present. America's educational mainstream has imbued most of us with the positive aspects of American ideals such as freedom, the development of communities, entrepreneurship, and individual opportunity. But if we are to socially and politically create an inclusive future of freedom and prosperity for all, indwelling healthy ecosystems, we must also become familiar with the wetiko/racist underbelly of our history. [xi] [xii] Kendi, Ibram X.. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (p. 26). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.