Americans grew up with the story of the First Thanksgiving: how the native people took pity on the Puritan settlers (Pilgrims), who weren’t quite prepared for what they would encounter in the strange new land. The Indians rolled out the welcome mat, giving them diverse foodstuffs and valuable survival skills, and the Pilgrims held a great feast to thank them. Containing elements of both truth and fiction, this story is part of the founding mythology of our country.
It wasn’t until quite recently that researchers began to discover the sophistication of the civilizations encountered by outsiders in the Americas. Academics were turning up some fascinating revelations, but their work was not widely known. In the 1990s, author Charles Mann became impatient for a book bringing this fascinating information to a wider audience. Indeed, despite academic research and growing evidence to the contrary, his own son was learning in school the same “history” he had been taught as a kid in the 1970s. Finally, he realized that if he wanted a book like that, he’d have to write it himself.
His 2005 book, “1491,” brings together a wide range of research showing that the earliest European explorers did not encounter the howling wilderness of some accounts. It was a meticulously managed landscape, molded over centuries by the native people. The forests were “anthropogenic,” open for game and grazing by controlled burns and cutting. The Indians had even lured buffalo from their native western habitat, extending their range all the way eastward to the coast. The land was lush with nut trees, medicinal plants and gardens of botanically modified plants like corn. Waters teemed with fish and oyster reefs so dense, you could wreck a boat on them. And all of this abundance was maintained with intention.
Imagine a space movie from the 1960s, an exploring ship far from home, landing on an alien planet. The arriving conquerors make short work of subjugating the natives. Later, they tell stories about the vanquished people, that they were backward and living in squalor like animals, in need of salvation and civilizing. They do this to justify their acts of barbarity, forcible kidnap, rape, war and theft. They do it to prove their moral, intellectual and cultural superiority.
Or maybe the arriving outsiders come in peace, in the spirit of curiosity and adventure, and they can see right away that they’re in the midst of a far advanced civilization. Like any good space movie, they know this because of the mind-blowing advanced technology: buildings in the sky, transportation by flying craft, telepathic communication, computer chips implanted in their oversized brains.
Space movies love this theme of the meeting of two cultures that are worlds apart, the arriving outsiders either bent on control or at the mercy of the natives — or the dramatic tension of both. I wonder if it’s a way to replay, if not rewrite, the first encounters of explorers from the Old World with the natives of the Americas.
The Indians could not understand the social hierarchy of Europeans. How could some men consider themselves inferior to others, when we are all made of the same clay? Why would they tolerate such an arrangement? Those who were (against their will) brought to the Old World were amazed that some men stuffed themselves with all manner of delicacies while others begged at their doors.
The Europeans were, for their part, astonished that Indians held themselves and each other in such high esteem. The individual was a sacred unit and no man or woman was better than another. In one passage, Mann says the story was put about that the “savages” converted to a Christian, “civilized” way of life, but in far greater numbers it was just the opposite:
“In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists’ allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members — surrounded by examples of free life — always had the option of voting with their feet.”
This clash of cultures was fueled by two contrasting world-views. The Europeans came with their stories of hierarchy, scarcity and domination, and a firm belief in progress and advancement through technology. The natives organized around the sanctity and equality of each individual, governed with democratic process, possessed a deep knowledge of place and partnership with the land, and practiced ways of living that have endured over millennia.
What would have happened if European diseases had not wiped out the natives of the Americas? If the interlopers had acted as guests, instead of seeking to conquer and convert, would it have made any difference? By some estimates, as many as 90% of Native Americans perished from viruses brought by European men and animals to their continent.
Since we can’t rewrite history, it might be useful to turn to the story of the Eagle and the Condor, an ancient Amazonian prophecy that speaks of human societies splitting into two paths – that of the Eagle, and that of the Condor. The path of the Condor is the path of heart, of intuition, and the feminine. The path of the Eagle is the path of the mind, of the industrial, and the masculine.
The prophecy says that the 1490s would begin a 500-year period during which the Eagle people would become so powerful that they would virtually drive the Condor people out of existence. This can be seen in the conquering of the Americas and the killing and oppressing of the indigenous peoples in the subsequent 500 years, up to and including today.
The prophecy also says that during the next 500-year period, beginning in 1990, the potential would arise for the Eagle and the Condor to come together, to fly in the same sky, and to create a new level of consciousness for humanity. This only speaks of possibility, emphasizing that it’s up to us to activate this potential and ensure that a new consciousness is allowed to arise. It’s a tantalizing future vision that has the power to guide our actions in the present.