The parched land the Indians abandoned

The Weekend Herald updates Gareth Morgan's motorcycle trip through the American heartland. This week he heads for a region that does not seem to offer much to attract human occupation.

You don't see many fat Mexicans. Burritos, tacos and tostadas don't seem to have that effect. But just a few miles north of the Rio Grande, we knew instantly we were back where affluenza is at its worst.

Fast food-fuelled fatsos waddle from pillar to post, but they're very friendly and welcoming despite the obvious discomfort they have to endure. The US really does have a problem holding its citizens in.

Our sojourn down Mexico way was just stunning, and we liked it so much that once we were back in the US and riding along the northern banks of the Rio Grande we were seized by a momentary nostalgia, so stripped off, lunged into the Rio Grande and swam back to Mexico.

Realising that it's hard enough to make a go of it in the Third World, let alone butt naked, we were soon stroking our way back to the US. Not a border guard in sight, despite President Bush's commitment to raise the ante. So I guess we're illegal immigrants right now. Here they call the river swimmers "wetbacks".

The southwest US is stunning, not merely for its arid, desolate landscape but also because it's here that the most vivid evidence of occupation by non-nomadic Indians is found.

The theory of course is that the Indians who originally occupied the Americas came across the Bering land bridge from Siberia (or up from China) about 40,000 years ago and lived on the meat of mammoths and wild berries and fruit. But it wasn't until around 2000BC that they started to establish village life and rudimentary farming. Traces of this lifestyle remain today in these arid parts.

The Pueblo Indians occupied this area for about 500 years before suddenly deserting their elaborate village structures and heading south and east, apparently after a couple of decades of severe drought.

Of course our knowledge of the American Indian more readily relates to their role in all those John Wayne movies. But that period of Indian history during the 19th century was really the saddest - in essence it saw their extermination at the hand of God-fearing settlers and their military agents.

On our trip across America we started seeing the evidence of Indian settlement on the east coast at Jamestown where the first English settlement was established in 1607, and the evidence of past Indian occupation is very strong through the lush hills of the Appalachians.

But of course the Georgian and Tennessee tribes were pretty well mass murdered as they were forcibly marched west to more arid lands along the Trail of Tears.

Davy Crockett, whose history we've also pursued on this visit, sacrificed his career in Congress when defending the Cherokee. The Europeans, too much of a force for the Indian to resist, were set on establishing puritanical America - forerunner of today's fundamentalist superpower.

But it wasn't until 1890, at the Wounded Knee massacre, that they finally completed the objective of virtual extermination of the American Indian. Today the Indians are but a novelty piece, barely existing on their reservations through selling trinkets and seats at their casino tables. To the victor has indeed gone all the spoils.

Long-term dividend

Having now traversed the southwest one question that strikes us is whether there really has been much of a long-term dividend from squeezing out the Indian.

The desert is steadily encroaching, water is at a rising scarcity premium, and according to a friend who monitors the weather at Los Alamos, yearly average temperatures have been steadily rising for a couple of decades.

A quarter of the homes in New Mexico are trailer homes - tin ovens to house the poor - a far cry from the smug adobe replicas of Sante Fe's privileged set. So the dividend doesn't seem large.

Overall the region does not seem to offer much to attract human occupation once you strip away air conditioning, bottled water and the readily available air transport out.

It is certainly a far cry from the lands that supported the American Indian all those years ago, where they grew their corn, squash and beans.

Even in the canyons where the streams once ran unabated, the environment now is parched and bare. Perhaps the Europeans are getting a taste of the climatic extreme that was to drive the Pueblo Indians out after their 500 years of occupation.

It's inevitable to compare the lot of the American Indian with that of the African-Americans, who have also been a feedstock of the Europeans' expansionism.

There is no comparison, really - the Indian for all intents and purposes has been extinguished, being seen as of no use in Columbus' New World.

The African-American, however, was initially of use as a shackled workhorse, so their European overlords encouraged their numbers to increase.

From slavery to peppercorn wages, and these days to over-representation among the poor, the African-American at least has survived (12 per cent of the US population today compared with 1 per cent for American Indians and 13 per cent for Hispanics), even if they still have a long way to go to get equality.

Today's debate is very much centred on the role of the Mexican American - of great use doing jobs the fatties can no longer manage or be bothered with, but nevertheless shrilly despised in many parts of America.

Latest travel blogs and photos from the Backblocks America road-trip are on World by Bike.

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