As children in primary school we heard and recited
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.
Christopher Columbus was depicted as a hero who opened up the Americas to Europeans. We were not taught this:
“By 1492 there may have been close to fifty million people in North America, from the Inuit (Eskimo) families ranging the Arctic Ocean to the populous nations of Mexico…” Professor Alice Beck Kehoe, NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, Second Edition
“The first Europeans to reach the Western Hemisphere in the 15th Century encountered a rich and diverse world—but a world already inhabited for thousands of years. The Europeans were completely unprepared for the people they found. They failed to understand cultures that seemed so exotic and different from their own, and they saw the Indians as savages, to be made over in their own image as quickly as possible.”
Professor James Fanto Deetz, THE FIRST AMERICANS
The image of man exhibited by dominant people groups has been perceived as a drawing card since human history began on this planet traversing the cosmos. When dominant humans with more advanced technology encountered the “less civilized” ones, an image reshaping began, like a human terraforming.
The Americas were rich lands and cultures. They were not totally idyllic nor a paradise, but in a short time, in comparison to the centuries of the native peoples, what the Europeans accomplished was eradication.
The First Peoples’ ways were subverted to serve their new masters. Their religious beliefs were rejected as the Church in its various incantations sought to save the heathen souls without regard to their religious heritage—which predated Christianity. Mission schools were established to suppress their religion, language and customs.
Their unique languages were replaced by English, Spanish, etc. The introduction of European maladies wiped out tens of thousands of natives who did not possess the immunity of their conquerors.
Many fought the invaders, but their victories were few and in the end assimilation into the collective was achieved. However, into many pockets (reservations) the natives were placed—supposedly for their own betterment.
“When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world. The sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?” Sitting Bull
The story of the Americas is a saga of tears.
“If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace…..Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The Earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it…….Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade….where I choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.” Chief Joseph, Nez Perces’
As the Europeans expanded across the Americas, they forgot the simple truths of the people they pushed out of the way. Thousands of years before, the people who settled the Americas had had a symbiotic relationship with the land and its wildlife. This relationship of humans and land became lost in the advancement of “civilization.”
The treasures of the Americas were not—as the Europeans believed—gold, silver, spices and new plants. The treasure was the rich heritage of a people who dwelt in their own lands for centuries without the tiny wooden shadows which dotted their ocean’s eastern horizon.
The arrival of Columbus and all his fellow voyagers did not bring a dawn of a new day, but the twilight of a great people. In twilight you have dark shadows which obscure the richness of day.
The hope of a return to the world that existed before the white man still lingers in many hearts. In our next post we will examine the legend of the white buffalo.
G. D. Williams © 2018
Professor James Deetz
Professor Alice Beck Kehoe
Trail of Tears