Every inch of America is indigenous. Every day of our history is an Indigenous Day. This Columbus Day discover that for yourself.
As a child growing up on a barrier island on the coast of northeastern Florida, I stumbled upon unmarked burial mounds in the The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve and found a surprising number of arrow heads when digging in my backyard. My home was pervaded by reminders that it had once been someone else's. Though this was obvious to my 9-year-old self its implications were not. Yet. And school did little to fill in the holes.
Like all Floridians who attend 4th grade at a public school, I learned that the original inhabitants of the peninsula had primitive customs, outmoded technology, and adorned themselves with alligator teeth and turtle shells. The Saturiwa, a Timucua-speaking people who lived in my region of Florida, were the first indigenous Americans to encounter Europeans in what would become the mainland United States. So, like the Wampanoag of Thanksgiving mythology, the Saturiwa were portrayed by my school's curriculum as assistants to colonial settlers. Their relevance to our history—and to our present—was defined through their brief relevance to European conquest. That was it.
"Asking questions about the indigenous peoples of North America led me quickly to question who we are as Americans."
It wasn't until I dropped out of high school (a story for another post) that I was able to begin inquiring into America's indigenous history, before and during colonialism (I can't say after because, from an indigenous perspective, colonial rule continues). At 16, looking up from a stack of library books (some of which I've listed below), I started firing off questions with existential urgency: "Did you realize they had their own societies, cultures, and governments?" "Why don't we learn about this in school?" "How come we're okay with being occupiers of someone else's home?" "Why don't we call what happened a genocide?" Asking questions about the indigenous peoples of North America had led me quickly to question who we are as Americans.
The adults in my life weren't prepared to provide answers and our elected officials certainly weren't either. So as a teenager I came to see us as a people in denial. Violent denial. I lost my sense of patriotism for our country. It wasn't because of our history. No one alive today is to blame for that. Rather it was because we hold so tightly to our cultivated ignorance and cowardice in confronting that history. And then we repeat it.
"To grapple with the injustice and violence that mark the creation and expansion of our country is not an offense to America. It is the most patriotic thing we can do."
As an adult, I've become an educator and spent years running study abroad programs for American college students in Asia. Many of my students choose to leave the United States for a semester because they are yearning for perspective on their country. Working through their relationship to America from the vantage of a formerly colonized nation in Asia, they inevitably bring up our own colonial history. As they pose familiar questions about indigenous peoples, slavery, racism, and ecological exploitation, I encourage them to treat their inquiry as patriotic. To grapple with the injustice and violence that mark the creation and expansion of our country, I tell them, is not an offense to America. It is the most patriotic thing we can do. Denial has become so much a part of who we are that attempts to point out what really happened are taken as attacks on our collective identity. They are not. They are attempts to reconcile America's great values with a history that fails on many counts to exemplify them. Embracing this process is key to developing real love for our country, real cohesion as a society, and real justice for the indigenous peoples of North America who continue to struggle for recognition and sovereignty under the United States Government.
We as Americans need to cultivate a culture that bravely engages both our history and present in its fullness—the great and the ugly. We must empower one another, especially young people, to examine our history's injustices so that we may correct for their legacies in the present. That makes our country stronger. That honors our armed forces who offer their lives not for a myth but a bravely set upon collective project. And that begins to honor the indigenous peoples, the first inhabitants of the land upon which we live. Their ancestors may not be yours but their lives, territories, resources, knowledge, suffering, and struggle are everywhere in your American life, buried just below the surface like arrowheads, rising up in front of you unmarked but unavoidable. It's time to pay respect.
Here are books and book lists about the indigenous peoples of America:
As you've probably inferred, I haven't read all of the books on these lists and I'd love your recommendations for books and articles to check out on this topic. Leave them in the comments below.