499 Years Later, What Can We Salvage from the Encounter?


October 12, 1991|By 'ASTA BOWEN

SOMERS, MONTANA. — Somers, Montana -- Four hundred ninety-nine years ago today, Europe met America. This was not, we now know, the first European footfall on American soil; Norse ruins in Newfoundland tell us that Leif beat Chris by another 499 years. Indeed, many historians believe Columbus never even knew what he found, and died thinking he had discovered a shortcut to the Orient.

Never mind the facts. For most of us Christopher Columbus is more fable than history, a mythical giant in our mental landscape. Say what you want about education in this country, any child who stayed awake through first grade can tell you who discovered America, and when: ''In 14-hundred-and-92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.''

But what the schoolchildren, and most adults, know is only half the story. The other half is the story of the people who discovered Columbus: the original Americans.

I am not an Indian. I am a melting-pot original, daughter of the Irish potato famine, a Leif-come-lately, and other assorted pawns of history. I cannot speak for the Indians, but as the big 500-year Columbian bash approaches, I cannot help speaking of them.

Sensitive historians sometimes use the word ''encounter'' instead of ''discovery'' for what happened in 1492, but the truth is in neither. What Columbus and his successors did was invade and conquer. Their mission was not, after all, anthropological or diplomatic. Chris was the prototype entrepreneur, and all he wanted to discover was the biggest possible payback for his investors, while spreading the glory of Christendom far and wide.

As a result, the civilizations of America were never treated as such. The people were objects of curiosity and their land was territory to be claimed. On first sight Columbus decided that the Arawak would make good servants and easy converts, and on October 12, 1492 he wrote in his journal, ''I, please our Lord, will carry off six of them at my departure to Your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak.''

Kidnapping was only the beginning. The encounter that proved so fortuitous for the people of Europe proved disastrous for the people of America, and our quincentennial should not celebrate the one without grieving for the other.

Like funerals and wakes, history is for the living, not the dead. The issue that should concern us now is not the size of the Santa Maria, or even the exact number of Indians murdered and enslaved versus the number lost to smallpox.

The focus of the quincentennial should be the encounter as we live it today, the here-and-now relationship between native Americans and European Americans. In what ways does the slaughter continue? Do the tribes feel at home on their land? Are we satisfied that justice has been served? What have we all lost in this brutal colonization, and can we possibly get it back?

We have lost, among other things, thousands of years of wisdom. We have lost art and language and systems of law. We have lost a way of life that did not ruin the land. We have lost whole cultures that had as much to offer to the world as to their own members. Not least of all, we have lost honor.

Columbus discovered a New World, and we have lost much of what he found. To find it again, we must go to the Indians. They are not lost. As one said, ''We are not a vanishing people. We are right here.''

After 499 years, it is time to go beyond the first-grade version of history. We can start with a new rhyme from a song by Dan Wildcat, a Yuchi Indian college professor in Lawrence, Kansas. His ''Submuloc Blues'' is part of a quincentennial exhibition of native American art:

They say he found us in '92,

But the world he found was only new to you;

So let's re-examine who discovered who.

Way, Hey, Submuloc.

Submuloc? Spell it backward. Just like history: look at it from the other side, and then you can see the whole picture.

'Asta Bowen is a free-lance writer.

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