Nation of immigrants?

“Nation of immigrants”–the phrase and its variations get tossed about by both political parties (the recent Republican convention was filled with it) by historians, and everyday people trying to explain who we Americans are.
Some large number of us who live in the United States today are indeed immigrants, and most of the rest of us can trace ancestry to points in Asia, Europe, Africa, and, increasingly, Central and South America. On the East Coast, it is a badge of honor to trace European ancestry to the Mayflower, and I imagine the Daughters of the American Revolution, who require an ancestor involved in the War of Independence for membership, still exist (though I doubt they have the clout they had when they refused their Washington D.C. hall to the great African-American singer, Marian Anderson).

But as our friend Alvin Josephy reminded often, Europeans were met by real people living here. Columbus met, enslaved, and in some cases destroyed indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. The learned scribes in fifteenth century Spain did have to decide whether these were people with souls or some lesser form of life—they quickly opted for souls in need of conversion, and, as they had not brought European women along, the conquerors quickly developed relations with the indiginous people.

The Pilgrims who landed in the northeast of what we now call North America were met by people who grew corn, squash and beans, crops their ancestors had bred and transformed over centuries from Mesoamerican beginnings. In popular history, Indians—mis-named from the beginning, have been mis-understood as uniformly hunter gatherers, when in fact their languages, cultures, and economies were as diverse as were those of the Europeans of the time. And these crops and cultures were critical in many cases to the survival of the 15th and 16th century immigrants.

So we are a nation of immigrants, but must understand that our forebears did not land on a vacant planet, but on continents thriving with diverse human, animal, plant, and even bug and disease life. We should remember that some of these American things—tobacco and potatoes to name two—were quickly adopted by Europeans, and had substantial impacts on world history from there on out. And of course the horses, measles, small pox, and religions brought by the Europeans decimated their numbers and utterly transformed the cultures and economies of the original American peoples.

We learn from Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus that Africans far outnumbered Europeans in early immigrations (though their journeys were not by choice of course). This does—or should—change the mental image anyone talking about a nation of immigrants carries.

Finally, it seems to me ironic to some nth degree that the people most often now referred to as immigrants—Mexicans, Latinos, Central and South Americano—could, in any DNA competition, trace their New World ancestry centuries—no, millennia—beyond anything that we Euro-Americans can muster.

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  1. A key scene in my book, Something to Hold, that is inspired by my own childhood experiences as a non-Indian living on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation came about because of this notion ("nation of immigrants"). I remember hearing an NPR segment of "This I Believe" recorded by former Secretary of State Collin Powell, in which he said, "We are all immigrants." I was deep into my writing of the novel, when I heard this and it hit me that NO, WE are not all immigrants. And I wrote a chapter about a Columbus Day pageant at Warm Springs Grade School in which my narrator, a white girl, realizes that what she takes for granted about our nation's "discovery" is not at all applicable to her tribal classmates. I think this is a critical perspective for all non-Native Westerners to consider and embrace.

    Katherine Schlick Noe

  2. A note on Katherine Schlick Noe and her book, Something to Hold. Katherine did grow up on reservations in the Northwest, as her father, Bud, worked at Colville and Warm Springs and, i think Yakima. Her mother Mary Schlick, learned basketry and became an "expert" with a wonderful book on Plateau Indian basketry to her credit. Katherine has been working for years on her book about being the white kid on the rez. Something to Hold was named the 2012 Washington State Book Award winner in the middle grade/young adult category! This one slipped by me and i have it on order and will read it as soon as i get it. you can get more info @(

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