August 18, 2006

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Another look at American Indian statistics

A few weeks ago on a Catholic freelance writers’ Internet list, a fellow columnist said, “Whenever a writer puts out a thought, it can be disagreed with vigorously, vehemently, even violently. But it cannot be un-thought. That is the great, permanent gift a writer gives to this world.”

My colleague found that Salman Rushdie quotation in Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today. Rushdie’s point validates the responsibility that writers have to share what is morally and factually correct, while also respecting reader response. So, when I err in print, I try to right the wrong.

In my July 21 column about American Indians, the third paragraph contained this notation: “The number of those killed after 1492 is controversial.”

I should have let it go at that instead of adding the word “billion” to the death toll. Astute readers criticized this as impossible, suggesting instead “million.” They are correct.

Coincidentally, not long before, my South Dakotan brother, Stan, e-mailed information about the word “billion,” explaining how difficult the word is to comprehend.

Supposedly, an advertising agency put the figure into perspective: A billion seconds ago, it was 1959; a billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive; a billion hours ago, our ancestors were living in the Stone Age; a billion days ago, no one walked on the Earth.

I am a “word person” rather than a “number person,” so I have no idea if these “billions” are accurate either.

Statistics are iffy at best, so I am usually careful about sources I use. Since I cannot find my “billion” source for the Indian information, I now put the numbers of Indians who died after the arrival of Christopher Columbus into a different perspective. Several sources say that between 2 million and 100 million died after Old World explorers came to the New World.

Several sources also say 90 percent of all American indigenous people’s deaths resulted from wars and battles, foreign diseases, starvation, genocide and other factors.

No wonder this period is referred to as the American Indian Holocaust. Currently, 2 million Indians live in the United States, with 1.2 million in urban areas and approximately 800,000 on one of 300 federal reservations. These numbers can be iffy, too, depending on statisticians’ political or personal interests and human error.

However, statistics mean little if human and spiritual truths about American Indians are not understood.

By typing “Catholicism and Native Americans” into an Internet search engine, Catholic encyclopedias and many other Web sites can be found to explain tribal faith and religious values.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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