The prophecy of the Fourth Fire as related by Edward Benton-Banai in The Mishomis Book:
The Fourth Fire was originally given to the people by two prophets. They came as one. They told of the coming of the Light-skinned Race.
One of the prophets said, “You will know the future of our people by what face the Light-skinned race wears. If they come wearing the face of nee-kon’-nis-i-win’ (brotherhood), then there will come a time of wonderful change for generations to come. They will bring new knowledge and articles that can be joined with the knowledge of this country. In this way two nations will join to make a mighty nation. This new nation will be joined by two more so that the four will form the mightiest nation of all. You will know the face of brotherhood if the Light-skinned race comes carrying no weapons, if they come bearing only their knowledge and a handshake.”
The other prophet said, “Beware if the Light-skinned race comes wearing the face of ni-boo-win’ (death). You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike. If they come carrying a weapon … beware. If they come in suffering … they could fool you. Their hearts may be filled with greed for the riches of this land. If they are indeed your brothers, let them prove it. Do not accept them in total trust. You shall know that the face they wear is the one of death if the rivers run with poison and fish become unfit to eat. You shall know them by these many things.”
The arrival of the Light-skinned race in North America should have been a cause for great celebration, for the Prophet of the Fourth Fire foretold that they would bring new implements and knowledge that could be joined with the knowledge of Native Americans and a great nation could be formed from the joining of the two. If the Europeans had arrived with a handshake and a smile, offering their knowledge, our world today would wear a very different face. Unfortunately, they had been led astray by greed and lust for power, and they arrived in North America with weapons in their hands. Even a cursory examination of history will show the face of death upon the Light-skinned race in North America. Through five terrible centuries, they pursued an agenda of wholesale genocide against Native Americans through land dispossession, forced economic dependency, disease, and warfare. Having “acquired” land from the Native Americans, the colonists cleared the land of undesirable wilderness to make arable farmland, causing incalculable ecological damage in the New World. To provide a labor force for their colonies, they enslaved millions of Africans and perfected the practice of “breaking” slaves into submission. The history of exploitation and genocide in colonial America casts a long shadow over the shining national mythology of the great American melting pot.
As the prophets predicted, the Light-skinned race came in suffering. Without the aid of the Natives, the settlers surely would have starved and froze to death during the harsh New England winter. The Natives saw that their brothers were suffering and offered aid, but the Europeans had arrived with greed in their hearts and betrayed the generosity of the Natives. Soon after first contact with the Light-skinned race, the Native Americas found themselves caught up in a 500-year struggle for their very survival, and ultimately for the survival of Mother Earth.
(William Penn’s Treaty With the Indians by Benjamin West)
Historian Francis Jennings, author of The Invasion of America: Natives, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, identified six complex “New World” phenomena that disrupted Native cultures:
- The Fur Trade
- Intertribal Warfare
- Introduction of Firearms
- Destructive Effects of Alcohol
- Foreign Diseases such as Smallpox
- Active Assimilation Strategies
During the first exchanges between Natives and Europeans, the idea of establishing a vast fur trade system throughout North America began to develop in the minds of European entrepreneurs. European traders wanted furs, particularly those of the beaver, to ship back to Europe. The furs were processed into felt, which in turn was used to make the hats that were the fashion throughout Europe for nearly two centuries. In trade for furs, European goods were offered. Among those items highly prized by Native traders were European cloths, blankets, glass and shell beads, metal cooking pots and utensils, silver jewelry, steel traps, firearms and shooting supplies, and tragically alcohol. The Fur Trade had a profoundly negative effect on Native culture. European trade goods were often viewed as objects of status in Native society, and many Natives preferred the European implements to their own. Thus, as the Natives became more deeply involved in the fur trade, they also became increasingly dependent upon the European market economy for their very survival. Caught in an eddy of historical circumstance, Native hunters had little choice but to participate in the fur trade.
(Winter Trade, by Robert Griffing)
Competition for advantage in the fur trade to obtain the prized European goods at better trade rates, and to increase their status in the eyes of the Europeans, compelled the Native hunters to trap greater numbers of fur-bearing animals. Ultimately, the hunters decimated the populations of the coveted animals in their own territories and began trapping out the hunting grounds of neighboring nations. Soon, unprecedented large-scale warfare erupted over control of prosperous hunting grounds. The most infamous of these wars were the so-called “Beaver Wars” of 1649 to 1654, which resulted in the complete destruction of the Susquehannock, Neutral, Tobacco, and Erie nations, and the near destruction of the Huron. The “Beaver Wars” demonstrated how the fur trade dominated Native policy. The end result of the fur trade was the over-hunting of certain animal species and the total destruction of five Native cultures. Thus, while the population of Natives was continually dropping, and the population of Europeans continually grew larger, European capitalists profited greatly at the expense of the Natives.
(Warclub and Wampum Belt)
Two of the main trade items, firearms and alcohol, had a profoundly detrimental effect on Native culture and population. Firearms became a necessity of Native existence, not only in warfare, but also in the commercial hunting of the fur trade. At first, Native hunters and warriors wanted firearms because they offered an advantage over enemies and gave the hunter an edge in the stiff trade competition, but as their enemies began to acquire firearms as well, the warriors soon needed firearms to maintain the status quo and ensure the defense of their villages. It was not long before a sort of frontier arms race developed. By their very nature, firearms increased Native economic dependence on the European market. Firearms came only through trade, and if they became damaged, only European smiths could repair them. Furthermore, the components of a muzzle loading rifle, namely gunpowder, lead balls, and cloth for patches, all were acquired from the European traders at the cost of more pelts. Perhaps the most detrimental effect of the firearms trade was the loss of Native primitive skills. As hunters and warriors adapted to firearms use, they ceased to make traditional long bows. In only a few generations, the traditional crafts of Native American culture all but disappeared. European goods had replaced traditional crafts, and in time, few Natives possessed the traditional knowledge.
The single trade item that has caused the most suffering for Natives, both historically and in the present time, is alcohol. Manufactured and introduced by Europeans fur traders, the strong drink resulted in mass drunkenness and chronic demoralization throughout Native communities. Native women and elders lamented the arrival of alcohol in their villages, especially whisky, which caused emotions to flare. The drunken warriors often quarreled, leaving grieving family members to mourn for relatives lost in senseless fighting. Even worse, the colonial European powers and officials of the United States government used alcohol as a means to steal lands and rights from the Natives. Chiefs, drunk on firewater, signed away ancestral lands for a few trinkets. Make no mistake, the European traders and statesmen knew fully the damage that alcohol was doing to the Native communities, and with impunity they used this knowledge to their advantage.
As the Europeans became established in North America, a fundamental disparity began to develop in the exchanges between them and Native Americans. This disparity caused the European dependence on Native goods to greatly diminish, while the Native dependence on European goods to increase dramatically. After the Europeans learned how to survive using the Native’s primitive skills, they had no practical use for further Native guidance. Furthermore, when Natives granted or sold lands, the territory became European forever; in return, the Natives received trade goods but not the ability to make and repair such goods themselves. Thus, in the trade that came to dominate their lives, Natives had no choice but to supply the goods and services demanded by the Europeans: food, peltry, and lands. When European farms and herds became established, the demand for Native-produced food dwindled. Commercial hunting and the sale of lands perpetually depleted the stocks of the very commodities on which the Natives depended. Furthermore, after becoming dependent upon European-produced goods, Natives soon lost the knowledge of their own primitive-skills through disuse.
(The Battle of Bushy Run by Robert Griffing)
As the balance of power shifted to the Europeans, many Natives opted to trade lands to the in exchange for additional goods, but the concept of land ownership demonstrated a major perceptual difference between the Europeans and Native Americans. The Native concept of land ownership was based on communal usufruct rights, in which the Creator of Life entrusted them with a territory and permitted them to take from the land what was needed to survive, but bound them to protect, honor, and respect the land and the life it supported. When Natives “traded” or “sold” lands to the Europeans, they believed they were extending their usufruct rights to the “buyer” use those lands for subsistence just as they used them. Contrary to a Native concept of usufruct rights, the European notion of land ownership held that once an individual bought a piece of land, the borders of which were surveyed and clearly defined, that individual had exclusive legal rights to the land and could do whatever he wanted to it, providing that he did not infringe on the property rights of his neighbor.
Having bought land from the Natives, the Europeans cleared the land of trees, filled in wetlands, and destroyed all predators, effectively transforming what they perceived as “heathen wilderness” into “civilized farmland” that could be handed down generation to generation within the same family, or sold at profit. Once lands began to be sold or taken from the Natives, the differences of perception between European and Native worldviews expressed themselves in the deteriorating ecological changes that swept across the North American continent over the course of nearly five centuries of colonization. The process of “civilizing” the world has never stopped, and even now, the effects of colonization remained unchecked in many parts of the world. The Prophet of the Fourth Fire had warned that the Anishinabe would know that the Light-skinned race wears the face of death if “the rivers run with poison and fish become unfit to eat”. We are unfortunately witnessing the dire realization of this prophecy in our time.
Disease was another tragic aspect of colonization that undoubtedly forced many Natives to accept the false promise of assimilation. Native Americans faced an enemy that they could neither see, nor fight, but which killed them mercilessly, decimated entire nations, and left others destitute. That unseen enemy was the ravages of epidemic disease. Unlike the invading Europeans, the Natives had no natural immunity against the microscopic pathogens. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and even the common cold claimed the lives of Natives who yielded their lives to the overwhelming enemy. Smallpox alone reduced the Native population of the northeast to one-tenth its precontact extent. Elders, wise in the history, traditions, and ways of their people, died and carried their wisdom to the grave. Kinship and clan systems were hard pressed to maintain their historic roles in the face of the devastation. Whole nations were destroyed by epidemics.
(Christian Missionary, Artist Unknown)
Faced with such tragedy, many Natives turned to Christianity, as the missionaries urged. The first missionaries, the Roman Catholic Jesuits, arrived in Native communities with the fur traders and established permanent missions in or near villages. The missionaries undermined the clan system by promoting the church as the new community center, through which all communal activity (marriages, funerals, coming of age rituals, and other ceremonies) had to be directed. They pushed for the total conversion of all Natives to Christianity. Parents who had converted brought their children to the Church to be baptized and made Christian. It was not long before a generational schism developed between the young converts and the traditional elders. Within one or two generations, Native nations split into two major factions, traditionalists and Christians. The mission priests taught that the traditional ways were devil worship, and even went so far as to blame the traditional peoples for the evils besieging Native communities, the diseases, wars, and rampant alcoholism that afflicted the villages, despite the fact that these evils had arrived with the fur traders and the missionaries themselves. Thus, the converts came to see their traditional relatives as agents of the devil, and the missionaries successfully destroyed the solidarity of the people. Regrettably, the Church played a significant role in the casting of the “face of death”.
The significance of the Fourth Fire cannot be exaggerated. In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn estimated that there were perhaps more than ten million Natives living north of Mexico at the time of contact with Europeans, but through the combined effects of disease, war and cultural assimilation, their number was reduced to less than one million. The Light-skinned race might have arrived with the face of brotherhood, but history records the terrible face of war. The first three prophets warned the Anishinabe to migrate west or face destruction and nearly all of the tribes living on the Atlantic coast at the time of first contact with Europeans perished.