Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving; happy history

I wrote this piece a few months ago as my Chieftain newspaper column--but it is really a Thanksgiving item. So apologies if you saw it then, and Happy Thanksgiving--and Turkey and Corn and Squash--in any case!

Remember that third or fourth grade Thanksgiving pageant? The big feast with Indians providing most of the food? And maybe the scene before the feast or after, with Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to plant; he squatted, surrounded by Pilgrims, and put a fish in a hole and planted corn and beans and squash.

I don’t remember learning how Squanto—more properly “Tisguantum”—was captured and taken to England, abducted and sent to Spain, made his way back to Newfoundland and then to his Patuxet tribal homeland, only to find his tribe had been decimated by European disease.

I don’t remember anyone asking or explaining how Squanto met the Puritains, and how the Indians got corn and squash and beans. Had we been encouraged to do so, we might have arrived at the work of Alvin Josephy and Alfred Crosby.

Crosby, who taught history at Washington State and then at the University of Texas, said that he got “tired of muttering on about Washington and Jefferson,” and when he really looked at American history, he “kept running into smallpox,” a disease that arrived with the Europeans and killed more indigenous Americans than did guns. Crosby then wondered what else had come with Columbus, and what from the “new world” had traveled back to Europe, Asia, and, eventually, Africa. Old to new: horses, cows, sheep, pigs, wheat, guns, smallpox, measles, flu, earthworms. New to old: tobacco, corn, chocolate, rubber, manioc, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. And, although slavery and gold were around in both hemispheres, the trade in them increased rapidly in Columbus’s wake. It was all part of what Crosby called the “Columbian Exchange,” and it changed the world. He wrote the book in 1972, and now you can take college classes in it!

If our onetime neighbor and my mentor, Alvin Josephy, were still around, I would ask him about Crosby, and try to bring the two of them together—maybe have an event at the new Josephy Center! Alvin left a couple of thousand books and history journals for us to build a “Library of Western History and Culture” in Wallowa County. What I didn’t understand eight and ten years ago was that he also left a way of looking at history. The Europeans who touched the Americas with Columbus in 1492 brought diseases, animals, and technology—most importantly, guns. But Josephy said that the most destructive thing that they brought was a way of looking at the world, a way that put European religious and cultural values at the top of a historical pyramid—and “heathens” and their values in the newly “discovered” lands of the Americas as primitive, discovered so that they could be destroyed or transformed to make way for advancing Anglo-American civilization.

In fact, as Josephy demonstrated in the award winning Indian Heritage of America (in 1968, a few years ahead of Crosby’s Columbian Exchange), the Americas were every bit as rich and complex with civilizations as was the old world. The Mayas and Mississippians had had cities larger than anything in Europe in their time. Peoples and languages had moved, filled and transformed two continents long before Columbus “discovered” them. Corn and beans had been tamed, refined, and moved from Central America to the harsher climates of the northeast Atlantic coast. Extensive trade networks had moved obsidian, abalone shells, and gold as well as agricultural products across the continent and its hundreds of tribes and civilizations.

It wasn’t all pretty. Some hunter gatherers were always on the edge. Some complex civilizations had religions and class structures that embraced slavery—and even human sacrifice. But the Americas were not Sioux Indians riding horses across the plains—the stereotype that most of us grew up with and that is still promoted around the world. The Sioux didn’t start on the plains, and got their horses from Europeans!

If you think about corn and beans traveling the world, about the trade routes that shuffled tobacco and potatoes, gold and slaves, from continent to continent in the decades after Columbus, and if you think about Maya, Inca, Roman, and Greek ruins, and if you think about current efforts to restore salmon and figure out ways for different languages and religions to live side by side, the history to dwell on and learn from is a much bigger thing than what I learned in a class required of all college freshman in 1960: “Western Civilization.” Even the word, “western,” which referred to Greeks, Romans, maybe some Huns and Mongols, Germans, Scots, Irish, and other fair “Europeans,” but omitted Mayans and Incans, Aztecs and Mississippians and other peoples of the “western” hemisphere, seems now ironic at best.


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