Quick quiz. Name five Native Americans.
If you got stuck at Pocahontas and Squanto, you are in good company with the majority of people who live in the United States. Unfortunately, what you know about Pocahontas and Squanto (not even their real names) is undoubtedly untrue. Especially if you are relying on Disney for your history.
Those with an interest in the west may know the story of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who traveled thousands of miles with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. Some may remember Sitting Bull (again, not his real name). Bonus points if you recall Sequoyah and the development of the Cherokee alphabet. After that, most people draw blanks.
However, we all know the poem, or at least the first stanza: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Guess what? The underlying story told in that poem is also false.
As Megan Hill, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development puts it, Columbus didn’t really “discover” anything, in one sense of the word.
“Not only was he lost, thinking he had landed in India, but there is significant evidence of trans-oceanic contact prior to 1492. The day celebrates a fictionalized and sanitized version of colonialism, whitewashing generations of brutality that many Europeans brought to these shores.“
I’m not here to denigrate the legacy of Italian-Americans, which is multi-layered and complex, as are most American stories. However, there is ample evidence that the establishment of Columbus Day in the late nineteenth century was part of a concerted effort to help Italian immigrants become “white” in a country where one’s standing in the racial hierarchy could mean the difference between life and death. President Benjamin Harrison “proclaimed it as a one-time national celebration in 1892 — in the wake of a bloody New Orleans lynching that took the lives of 11 Italian immigrants,” writes Pulitzer-prize winning author Brent Staples in the New York Times. “The proclamation was part of a broader attempt to quiet outrage among Italian-Americans, and a diplomatic blowup over the murders that brought Italy and the United States to the brink of war.”
And there is a reason that so many people, and a number of states, have either de-emphasized or stopped celebrating Columbus Day altogether on the second Monday in October and instead honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in its place. For Native people and a growing number of non-natives in the U.S., Columbus Day represents a celebration of genocide and dispossession.
Charles C. Mann put forth the thesis in his groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus that much of what we understand about indigenous peoples is wrong. Those who were here before the Europeans arrived were large in number (some 90 million – 112 million in the Americas) and they actively shaped their land as seen in places like Yosemite. “The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city.” Corn was created in a specialized breeding process that has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering, and the trapping of fish involved not a few scattered Indians, but hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in some communities.
And it was not the Europeans vaunted military might that crushed the indigenous peoples. According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent may have died almost immediately on contact with various European diseases, particularly smallpox. That would have amounted to about one-fifth of the world’s total population at the time, a level of destruction unequaled before or since. Letting a virus run rampant to do its destruction is a time-honored tactic than extends from first contact to communities of color in present-day Texas and Florida.
Today, on Indigenous Peoples Day, we are nearing the end of a family vacation at Mohonk Mountain House, a place with a long history of respect, increased learning, and growing recognition of those who were on the land before first contact. The name Moggonck appeared in early boundary records and was possibly derived from the Lenape, the Munsee, or the Mohican languages. From 1883 to 1916, annual conferences took place at Mohonk, sponsored by founder Albert Smiley, to improve the living standards of Native Americans. They included government representatives, members of Congress, educators, philanthropists, and Indian leaders.
It is important to remember and acknowledge that no matter where we are today, we stand on land that once belonged to indigenous peoples. That land carries a complicated and layered history over thousands of years. The United States’ land seizures were a project of physical and spiritual destruction that denied those people free and unhindered access to land that fundamentally shapes their identity and spirituality.
Historian Patty Limerick writes in The Legacy of Conquest, her history of the west, that we need to think as anthropologists, because “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” What we know about indigenous peoples grows with each passing day, and we do well to understand, recognize, acknowledge, and respect that history.
“America could learn a lot from its first peoples, Megan Hill notes. “But it must start with the truth.”
More to come…
Image: Mesa Verde