Discover America for Yourself (as in... its actual history)

Discover America for Yourself (as in... its actual history)

Every inch of America is indigenous. Every day of our history is an Indigenous Day. 

By Matt Colaciello  |  October 9, 2017

 
 A Timucuan village as depicted by a painting in the United States Capitol. The Timucua people once lived on the barrier island where I grew up.

A Timucuan village as depicted by a painting in the United States Capitol. The Timucua people once lived on the barrier island where I grew up.

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. 

School did little to fill in the holes. Like all Floridians who attend 4th grade at a public school, I was taught 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 people to encounter Europeans in what would become the mainland United States. Like the Wampanoag of Thanksgiving mythology, the Saturiwa were portrayed by the state'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 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 has never ended). At 15, 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 the question of who we are as Americans.

Unfortunately, the adults in my life weren't prepared to provide answers. My parents validated my frustration with the injustices of our history. But what can we do? What's done is done. Witnessing this resignation, a product of our culture of denial, drove me crazy. It's one thing to have never learned about your history. It's another to have a sense of what's there and simply avoid confronting it. And then play a role in repeating it.

 Natives of North America is one attempt to map indigenous nations before European colonization. The project is open source and constantly updated. Click on the map to explore the interactive version.

Natives of North America is one attempt to map indigenous nations before European colonization. The project is open source and constantly updated. Click on the map to explore the interactive version.

"To grapple with the injustice and violence that mark the creation 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 in the wider context of the world. 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 injustices 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.

"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."

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. Like the arrow heads in my childhood backyard, America's indigenous history is just below the surface of what you perceive. Look and you will see it rise up in front of you, unmarked perhaps but unavoidable. It's time to pay respect.