Columbus Day: the rest of the story

 “Columbus Day” was first celebrated by Italian-Americans in San Francisco in 1869, and worked its way into a national holiday in 1937. Those of us who went to school in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and probably through the 1990s and are not of Italian heritage, remember a school holiday and sympathetic portrayals of the Italian explorer in our textbooks.

We were not told of Columbus’s introduction of slavery—the Indian slaves he sent back to Europe or the “Indios” he enslaved in the mining of gold and introduction of European agriculture in the Caribbean. We did learn that Columbus thought he had arrived in Asia and his subsequent “misnaming” of Indians—a tradition that continued! He named the Indians he first met “Caribs,” a word derived from one meaning human flesh-eaters, cannibals. Columbus thought he had met the ferocious man-eating savages described by Marco Polo. They skipped that in our textbooks and didn’t tell us that he and his cohorts were responsible Read The Article

Happy Thanksgiving–and pass the cranberries

“Wild” cranberries

“America was until this last generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and it belongs to us.”

That’s a quote from Richard Spencer, self-appointed spokesman for the “alt-right” in a gathering of some sort in Washington D. C. last week.

Right now, I am reading A Land So Strange: the Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, an explorer-adventurer in the New World whose party of hundreds was put off course, shipwrecked, stranded, and lost somewhere near present day Florida in 1527. He, along with three others, were the sole survivors of an ordeal on the North American mainland that lasted over seven years and involved starvation, cannibalism, enslavement, and the first detailed descriptions of Indian societies along the Gulf of Mexico. Most likely, few early European arrivals were literate; fewer still had the gift and took the time to describe the New World. De Vaca remarked, for instance, on the size Read The Article

What about Indians?

In this election year, African Americans and Latinos are getting a lot of attention. Immigrants too. We are a “nation of them.”  Oops—Indians were here when the first European immigrants arrived, and are still. (But their voting numbers are small, and they are spread out over 500 reservations and scores of cities across the country.)

Indians don’t even speak the same language—or didn’t. Most of them speak English now, except for French speaking Metis who are mostly in Canada, and Spanish speaking Indians across South and Central America and Mexico. And the Mayan language speakers and others which are still strong enough to hold their own with Spanish and Portuguese south of our border. Linguists say there were some 2500 mutually unintelligible languages when the first Europeans arrived.

Or, you might want to count the Norse in Newfoundland as first new arrivals, or maybe some stray kon tiki boat from the Pacific that brought Islanders or Africans to the New Read The Article

The Nez Perce and the Columbian Exchange

In preparation for my Portland presentation on the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Country tomorrow night, and thinking about this ecosystems/ Pacific NW tribes class I am teaching in La Grande, I got to wondering about which elements of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange had the greatest impact on the Nez Perce.

The first one that comes to mind is the horse, because the Nez Perce became noted for their horse breeding and horsemanship. But they probably didn’t get the horse until the early 1700s, over 200 years after Columbus and his crew landed with them in the Caribbean. Late in the history of a people that had been here forever.
It was diseases, and specifically smallpox, that got Crosby to thinking about what all had crossed the ocean and united the two worlds so long divided. And the impact of diseases that the Europeans had developed some immunities to over centuries on indigenous Americans was in all ways catastrophic. In
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The end of November


It is the end of November in my 72nd year and my mind churns.
I guess for many of us of a certain age November will always be associated with John Kennedy’s death. Yes, I remember the day, remember riding my bike to class at UC Riverside, putting it in a rack and walking across campus and coming on a distraught Dr. Dennis Strong, waving his hands, tears streaming down his face, shouting that they had shot the President.
Although a couple of UCR students I knew checked out almost immediately and joined the Peace Corps, it took me almost two years to do the same. We went to Turkey with Kennedy half-dollars stuffed in our bags, tokens we would hand out to friends we made. And, like Volunteers across the world, I found newspaper and magazine pictures of JFK, in my country alongside photos of Ataturk, in small villages
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Beaver hats

Sometimes you read something or hear something or something happens that changes how you look at the world. For me, reading Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, and thinking about world history in terms of the “Columbian Exchange” did that. For the first time, I connected the fact that potatoes originated in the Andes—that I had picked up somewhere along the line, with the potato famine in Ireland and the potato lefse that my grandmother made every holiday. That the Americas were vibrant places full of humanity and human influenced landscapes before the Pilgrims settled Plymouth suddenly became obvious—how did the corn, beans, and pumpkins get to the far north anyway?
How I wish I could have talked with Alvin about Charles Mann. Better yet, how good it would have been to put them together. That is kind of what we did in our class this Wednesday
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