English is a labyrinth language. It has buried within it many hidden or little noticed meanings that reveal deeper insights about all kinds of things that folks tend to take for granted. There is a dimension of invisibility in English that can only be brought to the surface by deeper investigation.
Take the word “mortgage,” for instance, which people commonly understand to mean a payment that one has to make to the bank each month to pay off the loan on one’s house. “Mortgage” results from two Latin terms being joined together, mort (death) and gage (grip). Think of how differently we would think about the banking system if society commonly used the English term “deathgrip” instead of the Latin language term “mortgage.” You’d end up with sentences such as, “Damn, I have to pay my death-grip this month and I don’t know how I’m going to come up with the money.”
“America” also results from two words being joined together: Ame (love) and rica (riches, wealth). In the Portuguese language for example, ame is the command form of love, or, in other words “love!” We find rica in such names as Costa Rica (rich coast) and Puerto Rico (rich port). Ame Rica in other words is, “love riches and wealth.” And what is the love of riches and wealth? Greed?
Greed was, of course, the motive that fueled voyages and discovery and conquest (domination) in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and later centuries, which eventually led to the founding of the United States and its quest to take over billions of acres of Indian lands and resources on Turtle Island (North America).
People will no doubt think of the story about the name “America” being derived from Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian cartographer who lived during the time of Columbus. Even if that story is true, it does not detract from the deeper point about the relationship between the concept “Ame rica” and greed.
What is “the American Dream”? It is the dream of riches and wealth. Think of the television program Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Its focus was on people who had managed to achieve the dream of riches, wealth, and fame. A more recent show that also fit the model was Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Thus, the term “Americans” refers to “those who love riches and wealth,” or, “those who dream of riches and wealth.”
The dream and love of riches and wealth is a cardinal American value and part of the fabric of the American way of life that has led to runaway consumerism and mountainous national and personal debt. There are numerous negative results from this: not only is greed insatiable, it is also ecologically unsustainable. Greed is willing to operate through carefully designed systems of domination and manipulation. Greed can also become pathological, as, is well-illustrated by Charles Ferguson’s 2010 movie, Inside Job about Wall St. and the financial meltdown of 2008.
The American society, with its love of riches and wealth, fed and fattened itself on an entire continent of lands, territories of Indigenous Nations and Peoples. A key to the American addiction to riches and wealth is a belief in its own mythology of American exceptionalism and unceasing consumerism. To help feed its addiction globally, as of 2005 the U.S. had some 737 military bases all around the world (only the official ones).
As a result of its ravenous consumptiveness, the US society has managed to destroy much of the amazing ecological legacy developed for thousands of years by our ancestors. And as the dream of riches and wealth has proliferated around the world, the intensive use of mining and other forms of exploitation to satisfy greed has poisoned the waters, the air, Mother Earth, and even our cells with all kinds of toxic chemicals. Such patterns remind me of what the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh used to say: that the colonizers love gold or gain more than each another, or even their own souls.
The word “crisis” refers to a crossroads, which is where we are now everywhere on Earth. The question is, will America and global society follow the path of riches and wealth to self-consuming destructiveness, or will we develop a path that leads to ecological abundance and health through patterns of healing, renewal, and long term sustainability?
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.