My childhood recollections of New World history move quickly from Columbus and the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria to Squanto and the Puritans on the other side of the continent. In neither case did we get much real history, but rather sloganeering echoes passed from teacher to student for decades, now centuries. And we got holidays—Columbus Day and Thanksgiving—that were and probably still are occasion for grade school pageantry.
But Allen Pinkham, Jr., our Nez Perce canoe carver, sends me back to Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., my mentor and the “Great Reminder.” Alvin reminds us that Indians were here for millennia before Columbus and the Puritans, that they had fashioned high civilizations as well as many simple but effective ways of living on their lands, that there had been catastrophes even before the Europeans came with the great upset, but that Native peoples and the land have been resilient. (I mistakenly typed “had” in place of “have” in that sentence; these things go on.)
In researching The American Heritage Book of Indians, published in 1962, Josephy combed the nation’s research libraries, and in them found the words and images of Fernandez de Oviedo. Oviedo apparently did his own art work; he was no great artistic talent, but with him we have some of the first European artistic renditions of the people of the New World.
And some of these images include canoes. This image appears in a book by de Oviedo, La historia general y natural de las Indias. The drawing is dated 1535.
One learns immediately that even in the early 1500s, men were of different minds on the treatment of Indians. In the Caribbean and Central America, beginning with Columbus, it had been brutal. It was too much for one Spaniard, Las Casas, who turned reformer, entered the clergy, and was officially named “Protector of the Indians.”
While all agree that Oviedo’s Historia furnishes a mass of information collected at first hand, Las Casas, the fellow contemporary chronicler of the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean, denounced Oviedo and the Historia thus: “one of the greatest tyrants, thieves, and destroyers of the Indies, whose Historia contains almost as many lies as pages.”
Las Casas own tome is titled, pointedly, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.
And I’ll take it that the canoes were not part of the lie, but real—and recognizable today, 500 years on, as part of a world that Allen Pinkham is revisiting with his own canoe carving here at the Josephy Center.