“The ‘norm’ for humanity is love. Brutality is an aberration. We are not sinners by nature. We learn to be bad. We are taught to stray from our good paths. We are made to be crazy by other people who are also crazy and who draw for us a map of the world which is ugly, negative, fearful, and crazy.”-Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals
In his seminal book Columbus and Other Cannibals (1978), late University of California professor Jack Forbes gives a glimpse into the history of terrorism enacted upon Native Americans by European invaders and founders of the United States. But Forbes, who is of Powhatan-Renape and Delaware-Lenape heritage, also provides readers with something else: a description of the mindset that leads to such brutal acts of genocide, imperialism, and oppression. Forbes explains the concept of Wetiko, a Native American term for an evil spirit who terrorizes other creatures. This term is commonly used as a reference to cannibalism, or the self-serving consumption of another person. In Forbes’ interpretation, Wetiko underlies the most savage form of cannibalism known to man- the consumption of the lives and cultures of other people through imperialism and exploitation.
Forbes sees Wetiko as a psychological condition, a form of psychosis that distorts one’s sense of humanity and moral behavior. Sanity and normality involves a natural respect for other individuals and life forms, but Wetiko makes people believe that they can rape, cheat, lie, and steal without consequence. It was as prevalent among those who slaughtered entire Native tribes and enslaved millions of African families, as it is among those who exploit low-income workers and brutalize innocent motorists. Those afflicted with Wetiko feast upon the spiritual, cultural, and psychological “flesh” of others because they themselves are lacking and deficient. Though Forbes contends that Europeans were the first carriers of Wetiko, he acknowledges that this psychological condition is highly contagious and has appeared in various human civilizations throughout history. Like cancer, it spreads by destroying healthy cells and rapidly multiplying until it dominates an entire region.
Wetiko represents an indigenous understanding and classification of mental disorder that we are not likely to see included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (used by contemporary mental health practitioners to diagnose mental illnesses) any time soon. Why? Because the mental health industry as we know it is indeed a product of Wetiko, as is most of the social and economic order of the United States. And of course the system is not designed to question itself. So thank goodness for people like Forbes who lived to remind us that after all, letting insane people define reality for the rest of us is probably a bad idea. Have you ever tried to remain sane while surrounded by crazy folks? It’s hard!
Forbes passed away in 2011, and it must have saddened him to see that his writings from 1978 were just as (if not more) relevant in the age of capitalistic globalization as they were when he originally published them. But, alas, Forbes does provide us with some hope of a more sane future: he argues that oppressed people must develop social and political consciousness, but with a spiritual base. This path, the red road of Native American philosophy, is the only way back from the depths of madness in which most of us find ourselves trapped.