When the English began populating North America in the early seventeenth century, the colonists inevitably drew some conclusions regarding the continent’s indigenous population. Perhaps most significant is that these “noble savages”—to use the term that expresses these first impressions—lived in a state of nature, within a pristine wilderness, and in sync with the flora and fauna of which Native Americans were simply another part.
If Native Americans prospered, so the perception went, it had little to do with the virtues of their culture and much to do with the great fortune of living in a bountiful land.
With profound consequences, most of the documents upon which we rely to shape this narrative were produced by the visitors to North America and not by the indigenous peoples. Therefore, unsurprisingly, the interactions were first chronicled to satisfy contemporary impulses; to market the idea of colonial settlement and justify the tremendous risk of crossing the Atlantic in a wooden boat to start anew, and to portray one’s actions as righteous in deference to others and to posterity.
This European-based history of North America endured for centuries and, of course, had a purpose. From the moment Indians were characterized as the scattered occupants of the land and not the possessors of it, the entire Western Hemisphere was up for grabs.
Today, when thinking about whose land is whose, it is extremely helpful to have a story that backs things up. The history of a people often functions to soothe, to defend, and in the end, to justify.
For the record, even though you and I have personally done very little plundering and conquering, there is also little to dispute the fact that our place in this world is largely the result of many of our ancestors having done a lot of plundering and conquering. There really is no way around it; this land was once occupied by one group of people and now it is occupied by another.
As for the original inhabitants of New England, it would take over 300 years for the descendants of the First Contact Englishmen, and the hog squabble of immigrants and their descendants who decided to join them over time, i.e., you and me, to discover that Indians were not passive occupants of the land.
History can certainly get it wrong.
Yet, history can also change its mind by questioning those stories whose endurance can be attributed more to passion than truth.
Amazingly, it is the land, itself, upon which an entirely new narrative was written, turning upside-down what we have been teaching our children for centuries.
Rather than a pristine wilderness, the Anglos who arrived to create Jamestown and Plymouth actually settled onto land that had been intentionally designed to support the needs of the people who occupied it, understood it, changed it, and thrived in it, largely through the use of controlled burning.
According to environmental historian William Cronon: “Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, hare, porcupine, turkey, ruffed grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes and wolves. In short, Indians who hunted game animals were not just taking the ‘unplanted bounties of nature;’ in an important sense, they were harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating.” *
In turn, the new arrivals transformed the land themselves by introducing livestock and the crops that support them; fences, permanent settlements, bridges, and roads; and new wilderness areas that now host a unique variety of plant and animal species, including humans, who have always interacted with one another in ways we are only beginning to understand.
This new environmental history is not being written without controversy. Perhaps the most significant debate to arise in recent years among archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists, is that Native American populations may have been extraordinarily underestimated.
Some scientists argue that European diseases swept through the Western Hemisphere, not when Europeans arrived in large numbers but, long before they appeared and began documenting what America, pre-Colombus, was like. Therefore, the history that was actually recorded regarding Native Americans, as Charles Mann has written, might be akin to coming “across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and [concluding] that they had always been barefoot and starving.” **
Other long-held views of Native American history are being challenged, as well. Many researchers believe that the Amazon rain forest, often seen as nature at its most pristine state, is actually the direct result of human populations shaping the land in their favor.
Some have suggested that, instead of a single migratory moment during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago, there may have been as many as five great periods of migration to the Americas dating back 50,000 years.
This much deeper timeline of potential human occupation of the Americas unleashes a vast array of unexplored possibilities. Most interesting to me, given pause to rethink and question my own assumptions about what I know and do not, is that the Maya, who as a civilization no longer existed when Europeans arrived, may, themselves, have had museums that honored a long-lost civilization that predated their own.
So, as we go through our lives in these tumultuous times, let us not be so sure of our own thinking and assumptions. Let us all resist the temptation to adopt only that narrative which tends to sooth, to defend, and in the end, might exist only to justify our own behavior.
- *Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
- **1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann