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For generations, misinformation and stereotyping have been promoted in curricula such as textbooks, periodicals and media; therefore, it is important that students have access to up-to-date and accurate information about American Indians. Examples include topics such as the Bering Strait Theory, the Columbus Encounter and the First Thanksgiving. Learning accurate information will assist students in becoming purposeful thinkers and self-directed learners.
CULTURAL CONTENT/AMERICAN INDIAN WORLD VIEW
A great deal of misinformation is conveyed to learners about the Bering Strait Theory, the Columbus Encounter, and the First Thanksgiving. These topics are part of the established curriculum, but each includes distortions of the truth. In the worldview of American Indians, the voyages of Christopher Columbus marked the beginning of an invasion of their homelands. This invasion resulted in genocide, which reduced the native population of the Americas by 90%. For the survivors, Columbus Day is more properly observed as a day of mourning rather than a day of celebration.
Popular renditions of the First Thanksgiving gives students the mistaken impression that the relationship between American Indians and English colonists was one of mutual help, respect and friendship. This popular belief does not take into account the way in which the colonists persecuted the American Indians of the Atlantic Coast, sold them into slavery and drove them from their homes. The tribute paid to American Indians by repeating the story of how Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant corn is a small matter when compared to what really happened to the American Indians of the Americas. From the point of view of American Indians, the establishment of Plymouth Colony and the other English colonies represented an invasion of their lands. The aftermath of this invasion resulted in epidemic diseases, genocide, slavery and the erosion of tribal sovereignty. If the First Thanksgiving happened at all, it was an isolated occurrence.
Many American Indians do not believe in the Bering Strait Theory. American Indian origins can be traced through creation and migration teachings which have been handed down through countless generations. These teachings, which are as true for American Indians as the creation story in Genesis is to many religious groups, explain the origin of American Indians. American Indians have always been here.
TEACHER BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Textbooks contain misinformation and misconceptions about American Indians. Major misconceptions are: origin of American Indians, the first encounter, the first Thanksgiving and land issues - historical and contemporary. Distorted ideas disguised the truth of what really happened to American Indians after their encounter with Europeans. One of these distorted ideas is that Christopher Columbus was a hero who discovered America. Another is that the Pilgrims had an ideal relationship with neighboring Indians which we celebrate annually by calling it the First Thanksgiving. A third distortion is that Indians came from northern Asia and populated the Americas around 12,000 years ago. [Emphasis added]
The Columbus Encounter
Christopher Columbus is not a hero to American Indians. The misinformation that he and his Spanish sailors "discovered" America is resented for good reason. American Indians know that Columbus could not have discovered a land where their ancestors had been living for countless centuries. To suggest that Columbus "discovered" America is to ignore American Indians' ownership of their own land.
The voyages of Columbus initiated the era of genocide of American Indians. Columbus and his men were directly involved in the brutality of genocide. On his second voyage to the West Indies in 1495, Columbus ordered his men to round up 1500 Arawak men, women and children. The Arawak were imprisoned in pens while he selected 500 of the "best specimens" to be sent to Spain. These 500 men, women and children spent the remainder of their lives in slavery.
Columbus and the Spanish soldiers who accompanied him were primarily interested in discovering wealth in the lands they explored to justify the expense of their voyages. In the West Indies, they ordered American Indians 14 years old and older to collect a quantity of gold every three months. When an American Indian brought in gold, a rare find in the West Indies, he was given a copper token to wear around his neck. Those caught without the copper token had their hands cut off and they bled to death.
The Arawak Indians challenged the brutal treatment of their people. They fought back, but their handmade spears were no match for the horses and armor the Spanish soldiers brought with them. Defeated in their attempt to drive the intruders out, the Arawak began to commit suicide. Many chose death rather than living as slaves in their own land. Within two years after 1495, one half of the entire Arawak population had died. A combination of all these atrocities reduced the population by half.
Columbus was not directly responsible for the 400 years of genocide which followed, but the catastrophic loss of life, property, culture, religion and human rights of America Indians began with his arrival. All the subsequent invaders, the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British and American colonists engaged in atrocities. By 1892, fifty to one hundred million American Indians had lost their lives as a direct or indirect result of the European invasion. For students to "celebrate" Columbus Day would be like asking students to "celebrate" the anniversary of the Holocaust in Europe. Students should know the whole truth about the Columbus Encounter rather than fragments of the truth which cast Columbus in a heroic light.
The First Thanksgiving
There is little historical evidence to support the idea that a First Thanksgiving ever took place. Much of what is known about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony is based upon the journals kept by the colony's Governor, William Bradford. The Bradford journals make no reference to a harvest feast taking place between the Pilgrims and neighboring American Indians. The first Thanksgiving is based on a letter written by a colonist to a friend in England. This letter, dated December, 1620, mentions in passing that some American Indians were invited to a feast some time during that year.
Many American Indians object to the myths and stereotyping that surround the First Thanksgiving. In the United States, Thanksgiving was not a legal holiday until it was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln. To many people Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration. This holiday has also come to mean a special time when families reunite. Many American Indians also celebrate this holiday. However, as a harvest celebration, Thanksgiving is not uniquely American. Harvest celebrations take place throughout the world. The Canadian Harvest Home, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and the Muslim observation of Ashura are all examples of harvest celebrations. American Indians observe many different kinds of harvest celebrations. The Iroquois Green Corn Festival, the Cherokee Great Busk and the Anishinabe Wild Rice harvest observance (mii-gwech manoo- min) are but a few examples.
The myths that have been built around the First Thanksgiving imply that the relationship between the English colonists and the American Indian of New England was one of mutual help, respect and hospitality. The only fragments of truth within this idea are that Massasoit, war chief of the Wampanoags, did arrange to provide Plymouth Colony with food. Local American Indians, including Squanto, did teach colonists how to hunt game and plant corn. The Plymouth colonists did sign a treaty of friendship with one neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags, which lasted over 50 years.
This initial friendship, however, quickly deteriorated. Miles Standish, military captain of the Plymouth colony, led several expeditions during which he and his men harassed native leaders, robbed American Indian food caches and obtained other food supplies by trade or extortion. Just one year after the First Thanksgiving was to have taken place, Standish's men attacked the Massachusetts Bay Indians and wiped them out. Atrocities against American Indians by English colonists were far more frequent than acts of friendship and these atrocities continued for the next several generations.
As the English colonies gained strength, they began to deny neighboring American Indians the right to exist as sovereign nations. They insisted that the American Indians become Christians and live by harsh Puritan laws. American Indian tribes who continued to act as sovereign nations were attacked. In 1637, an entire village of the Pequot nation was locked in their meeting house and burned to death. The conflicts between the two groups culminated in 1676 with King Philip's War. Pometacom or King Philip, as he was known to the colonists, led the Wampanoags and Narragansetts against the English colonies. When he was finally captured, the English quartered his body and displayed his severed head in one of their villages.
The message of the First Thanksgiving is that the American Indians helped the Pilgrims. "The Pilgrims were grateful and everyone live happily ever after." For many American Indians, this message is misleading and offensive. New England's Native population with the exception of a handful of small communities died from introduced diseases and warfare. They were sold into slavery in the Caribbean and they were removed from their homelands and pushed west. This important part of the story is omitted in plays about the First Thanksgiving. The novelist, Michael Dorris, observes: "The victorious group in war controls the record. They have the power to edit, embellish and concoct facts about the original encounter for generations to come."
The Bering Strait Theory
The Bering Strait theory refers to a misconception about how the Americas came to be populated by the ancestors of American Indians. According to proponents of this theory, the ancestors of American Indians once lived in Asia. Several times during the last glacial epoch, a lowered sea level caused a land bridge to emerge which linked Alaska to Asia. Around 12,000 years ago, ancient hunters crossed the land bridge from Asia and proceeded to gradually populate all of North and South America. This scenario is based on a number of assumptions.
The first assumption is scientific acceptance of the theory of human evolution. The ancient human remains discovered to date are human. The scientists further argue that humans are a single species and if the ancestors of American Indians were isolated for too long from relatives across the ocean, they would have become a distinct species. Another assumption is that the Asian ancestors of American Indians did not have the technology, such as boats or clothing adequate for survival under arctic conditions before 12,000 years ago. According to the theory, there was no other way for these ancient American Indian hunters to cross from Asia except through the Bering Straits land bridge.
One major problem with this theory is that recent archaeological evidence does not support the theory as it is stated. Ample evidence exists that the ancestors of American Indians lived throughout the Americas long before 12,000 years ago. Two sites in Alaska and the Yukon reveal human habitation between 38,000 and 22,000 years ago. A rock shelter in Pennsylvania which had yielded remnants of a basket or net, charcoal hearths, stone cutting tools and deer bones lined with knife marks have been dated between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago. One site in Brazil astounded archaeologists with a radiocarbon date of 47,000 years ago. The antiquity of this date is especially upsetting to proponents of the Bering Strait hypothesis because it would mean that homosapiens were living in Brazil at a time when Neanderthals were still wandering the European landscape.
One of the most striking contradictions to the Bering Strait Theory as it has been proposed, comes from southern Chile. At Monte Verde beneath the peat bogs, archaeologists found wooden digging sticks, mortars for grinding seeds and building foundations. Over 60 plant species, linked to medicinal plants, were also found at this site. The date of occupation is 13,000 years ago.
Despite these discoveries most textbooks continue to faithfully repeat the Bering Strait Theory as it was originally proposed. Many American Indians object to this theory being taught as if it were an established fact. Many others object to the theory altogether. American Indians, whose ancestors are the subject of scientific inquiry, were never asked about their origins. The elders in American Indian communities, who are the keepers of oral history, do not generally believe in the theory. They believe their ancestors have always been here. As evidence, they point to their own creation and migration teachings which make no mention of their ancestors migrating from Asia.
If the Bering Strait theory is to be introduced it should be presented as only one idea about how something might have occurred rather than as established fact. Teachers should be aware that recent archaeological evidence does not support this theory as it has been proposed. Finally, they need to make students aware, that American Indians maintain their own beliefs about their origins in the form of creation and migration teachings which account for time across many centuries.
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