“I climb the black rock mountain
stepping from day to day
I smell the wind for my ancestors
pale blue leaves
crushed wild mountain smell.
up the gray stone cliff
where I descended
a thousand years ago.
Returning to faded black stone
where mountain lion lay down with deer.
It is better to stay up here
watching wind’s reflection
in tall yellow flowers.
The old ones who remember me are gone
the old songs are all forgotten
and the story of my birth.
How I danced in snow-frost moonlight
distant stars to the end of the Earth,
How I swam away
in freezing mountain water
narrow mossy canyon tumbling down
out of the mountain
out of deep canyon stone
into the world."
-- Leslie Marmon Silko, “Where Mountain Lion Lay Down with Deer”, from Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by American Indians, Kenneth Rosen, ed. (Viking, 1975)
* * * * *
The past two years I’ve brought up the subject of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” which as you may know, has been proposed as a new name for Columbus Day.
In fact, on next year’s schedule I just added that name to our 10/5-8 wilderness camping trip in NY’s Adirondack Park (which is a native name, of course).
Columbus still has his advocates, but many of us now know that much of the history we were taught in school about Columbus was distorted and sugar-coated.
Far from being a heroic and admirable figure, Columbus committed many atrocities against the native peoples he met on this continent and elsewhere.
He proudly wrote about his violent exploits in his journals, and some of his quotes are stomach-turning. Here’s a not-so-nauseating quote that nevertheless says a lot:
“The Indians are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say ‘no.’ To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. [...] They would make fine servants … With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” -- Christopher Columbus, Captain’s Log, 1493
The native people who inhabited this continent for thousands of years had human flaws like everyone else, but the majority apparently lived peacefully and with dignity.
Unfortunately, many of us grew up with distorted Hollywood portrayals of bloodthirsty Indians, which were no more true than other ethnic caricatures.
Many indigenous traditions included wisdom about how to live in harmony with nature and the earth, which our own culture is woefully ignorant of (our economy clearly thrives on exploiting the natural world and unraveling “the web of life.”).
According to native teachings, we have a responsibility to consider the effects of our actions on future generations of people and on ALL other living things. Making selfish decisions that maximize profits but harm Mother Earth are unthinkable.
We still have access to such wisdom in books and other media, of course. Years ago I took workshops taught by native people that offered eye-opening insights.
Probably no ethnic group has been more thoroughly ignored by our media, even though millions of American citizens are descendants of native peoples, and some still live on ancestral lands and practice ancient traditions that we rarely hear about.
It’s regrettable that we’re taught so little about the people whose names grace many of the mountains and parks where we hike (names like Shawangunk, Minnewaska, Schunemunk, Kittatinny, Ramapo, Wawayanda, Adirondack, and many more). But it’s never too late to educate ourselves on these subjects.
-- Charlie Cook