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Rick Santorum says ‘there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture’


Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum drew criticism for comments last week that “there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

In remarks to conservative group the Young America’s Foundation on Friday, Santorum argued that the culture of the United States is largely unchanged since it was birthed by “Judeo-Christian” values.

Santorum, 62, a Republican from Pennsylvania who served in the Senate from 1995 to 2007 and is now a CNN commentator, said there was “nothing here” before European settlers arrived.

“We came here and created a blank slate,” Santorum said. “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

The reaction to Santorum’s comments, which were first transcribed and publicized by Media Matters for America, was swift.

Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called Santorum’s comments “hot garbage.”

“Televising someone with his views on Native American genocide is fundamentally no different than putting an outright Nazi on television to justify the Holocaust,” Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement. “Any mainstream media organization should fire him or face a boycott from more than 500 Tribal Nations and our allies from across the country and worldwide.”

Sharp said European colonizers found “thousands of complex, sophisticated, and sovereign Tribal Nations, each with millennia of distinct cultural, spiritual and technological development.”

“Over millennia, they bred, cultivated and showed the world how to utilize such plants as cotton, rubber, chocolate, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco. Imagine the history of the United States without the economic contributions of cotton and tobacco alone. It’s inconceivable,” Sharp said.

Some pointed out that Santorum’s comments simply weren’t historically accurate.

Robert P. Jones, a scholar of history and culture with the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, called Santorum’s history an “ex nihilo myth” that “is straight up white supremacy.”

In fact, Indigenous cities and settlements spread across the American continent before the arrival of Europeans.

Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire until it was conquered and destroyed by Spanish explorers in 1521 and renamed Mexico City, is estimated to have contained over 100,000 residents at its peak.

One settlement known as Cahokia, in what is today southern Illinois, is thought to have been the largest city before Tenochtitlan, with over 10,000 residents around the year 1100, which then rivaled the population of some of Europe’s largest cities.

The St. Louis skyline is seen on the horizon beyond Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Ill. on July 11, 2019.Daniel Acker / The Washington Post via Getty Images

“We have proof positive of massive Thanksgiving festivals at Cahokia with lots of the same ingredients that the pilgrims were treated to centuries later,” Timothy Pauketat, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and a scholar of Cohokia, wrote in an email.

“I wonder if Santorum doesn’t appreciate that the absence of certain kinds of native culture in certain parts of the United States — say Pennsylvania — is because the native people there were exterminated.”

Historians have pointed out the links between America’s early founding period and one of the largest organized native government at that time, which coexisted alongside various European settlements: the Iroquois Confederacy or the “Six Nations.”

A House resolution passed on the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1988 explicitly acknowledged this link between that Native government and America’s own founding documents.

Charles C. Mann, author of 1491, which chronicled native cultures prior to the arrival of European settlers, said in an email that “the contributions of Native Americans to US society and culture today are so various and comprehensive that it’s hard to know where to begin.”

“Up till the late 19th century, European visitors (especially rich ones) complained about how Americans were disrespectful to their social betters, American women didn’t know their place, and the society as a whole was governed by the mob,” Mann wrote.

“They frequently blamed this on the pernicious social influence of the Indians. In my view, this is quite accurate. Much of what we think of today as the ‘American spirit of freedom’ owes its inspiration to this nation’s original inhabitants,” Mann said.



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