Indigenous Invaders Day

Doncha know me? I’m your native son.

I was born here.

Well, not here, because I’m sitting in my 1904 barn, in Fort Collins, Colorado.

By here I mean: this continent. Specifically, in glamorous Bridgeport, Connecticut, home of P.T. Barnum and a sucker born every minute. And my people have been in place in New England for many generations. Three of my relatives arrived on the Mayflower in 1620: Francis Cooke and his son John, plus Richard Warren. Richard’s daughter Sarah Warren arrived on the good ship Anne in 1623 and she married the aforementioned John, setting off a DNA cascade through my maternal grandmother’s side — a line that also ties me to the Stuarts, in the royal line of England.

Impressive, right?

Well, actually…my people were a mere 15,000 years behind the first settlers on this continent.

I’m not related to Christopher Columbus, who is the reason you won’t be receiving any junk mail on this federal holiday. Columbus is now widely acknowledged as a despoiler of all he “discovered” when he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. He never did set foot on North America, despite the way we proudly claim him as our own in the United States. He and his henchmen concentrated their efforts on exterminating indigenous people in the Caribbean, which they were shockingly good at.

A hundred years after Columbus, our part of the continent would be ransacked by the French (bienvenue!) and British (my peeps).

The tagline I’ve associated with this newsletter is “travel that transforms.” Well, my relatives’ travel certainly transformed the places they visited. The problem of course: There already were people quite happily inhabiting what some of them called “Turtle Island,” or Hah-nu-nah, after their creation story. They certainly didn’t invite the newcomers to occupy the entire continent.

“Manifest destiny,” coined in a newspaper editorial in 1845, was the excuse for the land grab. It included three arrogant self-justifications:

  • American people (i.e., the new ones) and their institutions were “special.”
  • They were impelled west across the continent to spread the agrarian ideal then flourishing in the east, running on the scarified backs of enslaved people.
  • It was the new Americans’ duty to carry out this mission, no matter the means or consequences.

Manifest Destiny achieved many things, apart from securing the future site of Disneyland.

  • It wiped out the people who had inhabited those lands for a thousand years.
  • It replaced their land-worshiping practices with economic imperatives, including extractive industries like mining and oil drilling, and it flooded vast portions of the west for hydro power, while diverting wild rivers into faucets, farm fields, and the fountains at the Bellagio.
  • It employed that sense of “duty” to justify genocide, fungible treaties, and four hundred years of slavery.

So, what now? Hand the land back to the relatives of the displaced people, and head back to Europe? That ship sailed long ago — right after the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, in fact.

But now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can refocus a bit, as we take note of the cultures that came before us on this land. A few weeks ago I visited Bandelier National Monument, forty miles west of Santa Fe. The attraction was the cliff dwellings of the ancient Puebloan people who lived there 1,500 years ago.

Part of the thrill of that monument is climbing a series of forty-rung ladders up to the site of the dwellings, which made me wonder how Puebloan toddlers and grannies did it. As I looked up at the ladders in fear, I spotted a guy coming down with exceptional dexterity, so I sought his advice. Not only was he a descendant of the Puebloan people who lived in these very dwellings, but a firefighter as well.

His counsel, based on a career climbing up and down ladders: “Forget about the heights, and take it one rung at a time.”

It’s not a bad approach on Indigenous People’s Day, for all of us whose indigenousness, like mine, came at the expense of the people who were brutalized to make room for me.

Just take one rung at a time:

  1. Acknowledgement: Stop fighting history, and confront what happened.
  2. Education: Of ourselves and our kids in the terrible legacies we’re benefiting from, even today.
  3. Atonement: Sharing a debt to those whose blood and bones are still buried in the foundation of our civilization. Let’s face it: It stinks down there.

It was eerie, in fact, climbing up one hundred rungs to the Long House in the cliffs high above Bandelier. I had the sense that the ancient Puebloans had only just extinguished their cook fires, gathered up corn and squash seeds and dried beans, lashed their kids to their backs, and moved on. Actually, they had done so about a thousand years before my Mayflower relatives floated onto the scene.

In fact, the Cookes and the Warrens had no more claim to this continent than I have to England when I step off an airplane at Heathrow. And yet, my relatives were the vanguard of centuries of violence against the people they and their descendants — that’s me! — displaced.

There’s a moral mortgage on my house and the land it sits on — one I can never repay. But at least I can stop pretending that I invented the place.

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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Where, Exactly? Hope you’ll join me for this picnic.