Reports of the very earliest encounters between Europeans and Native Americans may break your heart.
Listen To This Story
Today, in honor of Native American Heritage Day, I want to share a curious story with you. A few years ago, I read something about Native Americans that startled me. It appeared in an online Irish newspaper. The headline read:
‘Beyond amazing’: Navajo Nation’s AG Praises Irish Generosity to Coronavirus Fund
The Irish had donated over $1.5 million to something called the “Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund.” Even more amazing was their reason for the donation: It was “in remembrance of Native American aid to Ireland during the Great Hunger.” Donors’ comments as reported by The Irish Times:
Some read “Ní neart go cur le chéile” and others simply “Ireland remembers.” “173 years ago, the people of the Choctaw nation showed Ireland unimaginable generosity,” wrote donor Michael Foy.
And to commemorate this unique connection between the Choctaw and the Irish, Alex Pentek created a sculpture he named Kindred Spirits. It stands in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland.
The paper goes on to explain that, in 1847, members of the Choctaw tribe raised $170 [well over $5,000 in today’s money] in famine relief for Ireland, “a huge sum for a time when they had very little, as it came after they had been driven from their land in the devastating so-called Trail of Tears.” [Emphasis mine.]
These nearly starving Native Americans handed over money in response to a man who was fundraising for the starving Irish. But why had they done such a thing? I had to know more.
It is assumed that the Choctaw contributed because they felt immense empathy for the Irish situation, having experienced such similar pain during the Trail of Tears a little over a decade earlier,” explained one historian. (For details on President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, go here.)
How did the white colonizers in America react to this poignant gesture? When I came upon comments reflecting their attitude, the words literally hit me in the gut, like this quote from the Arkansas Intelligencer:
What an agreeable reflection it must give to the Christian and the philanthropist to witness this evidence of civilization and Christian spirit existing among our red neighbours. They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism. Not only by contributing a few dollars, but by affording evidence that the labours of the Christian missionary have not been in vain.
Only a “few dollars.” And how did these people with “benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism” treat these superior Christians when the first Europeans came to the Americas so long ago?
Below are a few examples of their earliest interactions that I found, mostly in David Stannard’s. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press).
1493. From Christopher Columbus’s “Letter to the Sovereigns on His First Voyage.” In Samuel Eliot Morison (ed.) Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus:
They are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.
Columbus also said “They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
1502. Amerigo Vespucci — from whom “America” got its name — said this of the South Americans:
Many of them swam out to receive us with as much confidence as if we had been friends for years.
1535. Jacques Cartier had a similar story about his encounter in Canada:
[Indigenous people] freely and familiarly came to our boats without any fear, as if we had ever been brought up together… one of them took our captain in his arms, and carried him on shore.
- After a few weeks of friendly contact with the natives of [South Carolina], the captains of two Spanish ships invited a group of them to come aboard and see what it was like. They had walked into a trap. Once on board, the captains raised their anchors and sailed for Santo Domingo where these same trusting people were turned into slaves. They worked on plantations, but could have none of the food they produced. They had to scavenge for food — eat garbage, dead and decomposing dogs and donkeys.
- From William Brandon’s New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Development in Europe, 1500-1800:
The terrifying army of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado… meeting on the great plains of the American west… the buffalo-hunting people who were to become centuries later the Apaches… [the latter] greeted the fearsome strangers with perfect, and perfectly fearless, friendship.
1580s. A ship arrived in Roanoke, VA. What happened then seems to have been typical. The locals took care of them for a long time:
Wingina [local chief] welcomed the visitors and gave freely of their supplies to the English, who had lost most of their own when the Tyger [their ship] grounded. By the time the colonists were settled, it was too late to plant corn, and they seem to have been helpless when it came to living off the land. They did not know the herbs and roots and berries of the country. They could not or would not catch fish in any quantity because they did not know how to make weirs [an obstruction placed in a body of water to trap fish]. And when the Indians showed them, they were slow learners: they were unable even to repair those that the Indians made for them. Nor did they show any disposition for agriculture. … The English … grew nothing for themselves, even when the new planting season came round again.
- They gave to the Irish, as described above.
Response of the White Visitors from Europe
Here are some depressing statistics:
- 10 million+ — Estimated number of Native Americans living in land that is now the United States when European explorers first arrived in the 15th century
- Less than 300,000 — Estimated number of Native Americans living in the United States around 1900
- 5.2 million — Identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in the 2010 census
Much of the killing was done with various weapons in various wars. For especially gruesome details, see today’s Washington Post. Possibly more killings were due to disease, spread accidentally as well as deliberately. When it comes to spreading disease, none can compete with the early Europeans. Look what they brought to the New World:
Smallpox …bubonic plague … measles … chickenpox … whooping cough … influenza … cholera … diphtheria … malaria … scarlet fever … typhoid and typhus (not quite the same) … tuberculosis.
In 1763, a British commander suggested a way to spread smallpox to the natives: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Native American Heritage Day
The abominations described above are fairly well known, but they seem all the more inexplicable when you consider the generous and trusting nature of the victims. So when you think of the heritage shared by Native Americans (a big subject), please remember those early encounters. I keep trying to picture those men as they first boarded the Spanish ships in 1521. Were they smiling as they cheerfully stepped aboard, maybe carrying little gifts, anticipating with wonder their little adventure to come?