Hello, and welcome to “Learn More, Teach More.” It has been more than five centuries since Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. We know a great deal about Columbus, of course, and about the Europeans and Africans who crossed the Atlantic after him. We know much less about the “Indians,” as Columbus mistakenly called them—the people already living in America. But we are learning more all the time, so I want to talk about early contacts between Native Americans and newcomers. We now estimate that as many as seven million people were living in North America 500 years ago, and that their ancestors had been on this continent for at least thirteen thousand years. For all this time—hundreds of generations—they had remained isolated from Asia and Africa and Europe, building their own separate world. Over many centuries, these first North Americans developed diverse cultures that were as varied as the landscapes they lived in. And they developed hundreds of different languages. Looking back, what can we say about early encounters between these diverse Native Americans and the strange newcomers who arrived from across the ocean? Let me give you a few things to think about. Remember, first of all, that these initial contacts stretched over the entire continent and occurred over several centuries. The encounters were nearly as varied as the people involved. But key issues such as language, belief, technology, and disease arose regularly in different times and places. We may never know exactly about the first contacts from overseas. Long before Columbus, occasional boats may have arrived across the North Pacific from Asia, or across the Atlantic from Africa or Europe. They may have sailed intentionally or drifted by mistake. But such encounters were brief. So was the encounter with Norse Vikings. They visited Newfoundland in Canada about 1,000 years ago—nearly 500 years before Columbus. Their little colony of 160 people was short-lived. We know from sagas (family stories passed down orally across generations) that local inhabitants attacked the Norse settlers, forcing them to retreat to Greenland after several years. In contrast, the newcomers who followed Columbus after 1492 proved far more numerous and more willing to stay. Though few in numbers at first, these European strangers brought supplies and then reinforcements from across the sea.
Now, imagine that you are one of those newcomers, approaching my small portion of North America for the first time. As a Native American, I have diverse friends and enemies living all around me, and because I engage in trade I am used to encounters with strangers who do not speak my language. But you are different in various ways, and I have probably already heard rumors about you—some true and some false—from neighbors who have seen your ships. And believe me, your ships are a big surprise. My people live near the ocean, and we understand boats. But when we paddle out to observe you, we are impressed by the size of your ship, with its tall masts. On the East Coast, I greet you from a birch-bark canoe or a dugout canoe. On the West Coast, if you sail into San Francisco Bay, the canoes of the California Indians are small. If you enter Puget Sound, the cypress canoes of the Northwest Coast Indians are much larger. Maybe you are Russian fur-hunters reaching Alaska. If so, you are amazed at my light, quick kayak. If you are the English explorer James Cook approaching Hawaii for the first time, you are struck to see our outrigger canoes and surf boards. One way or another, we can push off from the beach or the river mouth and visit your ocean-going vessel. But it is strange for us; you needed iron tools to create this ship, huge sheets of cloth to make it sail, and navigational charts to find your way. We have none of these. On the other hand, you are totally ignorant of our home waters. It is no secret that along Florida’s coast and North Carolina’s...
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