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Know the West

Relearning history in all its complexity


Remember that fourth-grade Thanksgiving pageant, the big feast with Indians providing most of the food? Squanto was there, kindly teaching the Pilgrims how to put a fish in a hole to grow corn and beans and squash.

Somehow I don’t remember learning that Squanto — more properly “Tisquantum”— was taken to England and then abducted to Spain. Years later, when he finally sailed back to his East Coast homeland, he found that his tribe had been ravaged by European disease. I also don’t remember anyone asking or explaining how Squanto even met the Pilgrims. Had we been encouraged to do so, we might have encountered the pioneering work of Alvin Josephy and Alfred Crosby.

Crosby, who taught history at Washington State and then at the University of Texas, said he just got tired of “muttering on about Washington and Jefferson,” and when he really looked at American history, he “kept running into smallpox,” a disease that arrived with the Europeans and killed more indigenous Americans than did guns.

Crosby then wondered what else had come with Columbus, and what from the “New World” had traveled back to Europe, Asia, and, eventually, Africa. Old World to New: horses, cows, sheep, pigs, wheat, guns, smallpox, measles, flu, earthworms.

New World to Old: tobacco, corn, chocolate, rubber, manioc, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. Though it is true that slavery and gold already existed in both hemispheres, the trade in them increased rapidly in Columbus’ wake. It was all part of what Crosby called the “Columbian Exchange,” and it changed the world. He wrote the book in 1972, and now you can take college classes on the subject.

If the writer Alvin Josephy were still around, I would ask him about Crosby and try to bring the two of them together —maybe have an event at the new Josephy Center in Joseph, Oregon. Josephy, who became my mentor and friend, left a couple of thousand books and history journals for us to build a “Library of Western History and Culture” in Wallowa County.

Josephy left us more than books; he also left a distinctive way of looking at history. Of course, he said, the Europeans who first touched the Americas with Columbus in 1492, brought diseases, animals and technology. But the most destructive thing they brought wasn’t their guns, Josephy said, it was a different way of looking at the world. They put the religious and cultural values of their native Europe at the top of a historical pyramid. The bottom was occupied by “heathens,” and those heathen values in the newly “discovered” lands of the Americas were labeled as primitive and without value. Indians had to be transformed or entirely destroyed in order to make way for advancing Anglo-American civilization.

In fact, as Josephy demonstrated in the award-winning book, Indian Heritage of America, published a few years before Crosby’s Columbian Exchange, the Americas were every bit as rich and complex with civilizations as was the old world. The Maya and Mississippian people had built cities larger than anything in Europe in their time.

Peoples and languages had moved, filled and transformed two continents long before Columbus “discovered” them. Corn and beans had been tamed, refined, and moved from Central America to the harsher climates of the northeast Atlantic coast. Extensive trade networks had moved obsidian, abalone shells, and gold as well as agricultural products across the continent, involving hundreds of tribes and civilizations.

It wasn’t all pretty. Some hunter-gatherers lived always on the edge. Some complex civilizations developed religions and class structures that embraced slavery and human sacrifice. But the Native Americans were not all Sioux Indians riding horses across the Plains, the stereotype that most of us grew up with and that is still promoted around the world.

If you think about corn and tomatoes traveling the world, about the trade routes that shuffled tobacco and potatoes, gold and slaves, from continent to continent in the decades after Columbus, and if you think about Maya, Inca, Roman and Greek ruins, and if you think about current efforts to restore salmon runs and figure out ways for different languages and religions to live side by side, the history to dwell on and learn from is a far bigger thing than what I learned in a class required of all college freshman in 1960 called “Western Civilization.”

Even the word “Western,” which omitted Mayans and Incans, Aztecs and Mississippians and other peoples of the “Western” hemisphere, seems ironic at best. Welcome to the wonderful complexity of real American history, where absolutely nothing is as simple as it seemed!

Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Joseph, Oregon.