02 December 2007

From Chiasmus to Columbus

Chiasmus to Columbus
Lewis and Clark did not bring the West into U.S. history, they brought the United States into western history.
Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark, 2003

We did not come to the United States at all. The United States came to us.
Luis Valdez, Aztlan, 1972
Where does American history begin? The term American history more often than not refers to the history of the United States, rather than to all of North America, let alone the Americas—something about which my teenage son was ranting last night: “What about Canada, Mexico, and South America? Isn't Canada part of America?” Even when writers are concerned with this sort of semantic precision, they do not produce a national story of American history that begins with the Declaration of Independence. Rather, the beginning gets pushed back in time, nearly always creating a long story of colonization that culminates in revolution. Nation building begins after the revolution.

The story often begins with Columbus and Indians. It might begin with Columbus setting sail, or with Indians greeting him when he lands. American history sometimes begins with the precursors to Columbus, such as the Norse and their lost colony of Vineland or Prince Henry the Navigator’s orchestration of discoveries along the coast of Africa. It also could begin with the origins of human life in America, as in The Oxford History of the American People (1965) by Samuel Eliot Morison.

Morison concluded that people began crossing into America from Asia “prior to 10,000 B.C.” (8) on the basis of archeology. Scientists since Morison’s day have pushed back the dates of this migration, some as far back as 50,000 years. Morison expressed skepticism regarding whether the first migrants were indeed the ancestors of modern American Indians, or whether their ancestors displaced earlier peoples. These questions have gained new currency since 1996 when a couple of young men tripped over a skull on the banks of the Columbia River while trying to sneak into the hydroplane races; their discovery of bones led to the arrival of forensic archaeologist James Chatters on the scene. Chatters’s Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans (2001) is one among many texts reassessing human life in early America, and the controversies generated by such study. Chatters is one among those now offering the view that so-called Kennewick Man is more closely related to the Ainu than to American Indians.

The Bering land-bridge hypothesis did not originate in archeology, as that science was still far in the future when José de Acosta wrote Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590). Acosta concerned himself with universal history as a theologian. His work “accorded with the 1537 declaration of Pope Paul III that Indians were human, hence descendants of Noah,” as I wrote in “Native Americans: An Overview,” Encyclopedia of American Studies (2001).

American history could begin with speculative accounts of migrations through a land-bridge, and with alternate theories of water routes. Such narratives would need to delve into the science of archeology and related disciplines, such as methods of garnering evidence of human migrations from comparative linguistics. On the other hand, American history could begin with Native stories of origins as Vine Deloria, Jr. recommends in Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1995). As Colin Calloway points out in the epigraph above, there was a long history of peoples in America before European-American settlers arrived. History as we have come to know it finds its structure and plot in European metanarratives—the rise of civilization,—but an accurate account of the American past need not conform always to these imported structures.

The very remote history of all nations is disfigured with fable, and gives but little encouragement to distant enquiry, and laborious researches. … From the most exact observations I could make in the long time I traded among the Indian Americans, I was forced to believe them lineally descended from the Israelites, either while they were a maritime power, or soon after the general captivity; the latter however is the most probable.
James Adair, The History of the American Indians, 1775

Many writers past and present have stressed American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States is a light to the world, the world’s best hope. Despite such quasi-religious assumptions, or even explicitly religious arguments, these writers do not write their stories with the sort of language found in the B'reshit or Bərêšîth, the first of the books of the Torah. Even if they started in such a manner, we are unlikely to find such sentences as these:
In the beginning of American history, the land was occupied. As Europeans began to arrive, lands and peoples were transformed; nations vanished and new nations were born.

We do find frequent efforts to draw upon Hebrew scriptures in order to frame the American story of the past. James Adair’s view that American Indians were descended from Israel neither found adherents in his day nor in ours unless we consider the impact of Joseph Smith imbibing the idea, and then promoting it through his sacred text. On the other hand, Cotton Mather’s expression of the Puritan colony as a “New English Israel” has produced many proselytes. In Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), Mather expressed his sense of the purpose of the colony of New England: a sense of mission akin to that uttered in 1630 by John Winthrop as he drew upon Matthew 5:14 for his sermon to the recently arrived Puritans that soon would overwhelm the Separatists whom had arrived on the Mayflower. Mather wrote:
This at last is the Spot of Earth, which the God of Heaven Spied out for the Seat of such Evangelical, and Ecclesiastical, and very remarkable Transactions, as require to be made an History; here ‘twas that our Blessed Jesus intended a Resting-place, must I say? Or only an Hiding-place for those Reformed CHURCHES, which have given him a little Accomplishment of his Eternal Father’s Promise unto him; to be; we hope, yet further accomplished, of having the utmost Parts of the Earth for his Possession?
Mather, Magnalia, 122-123, emphasis in original

The Sense of Mission

Rush Limbaugh interviewed Larry Schweikart, author of A Patriot’s History and published the interview in The Limbaugh Letter (March 2005). This interview is reprinted in the updated version of A Patriot’s History. Limbaugh asked Schweikart about his view of American exceptionalism. Speaking for himself and for co-author Michael Allen, Schweikart was clear: “We believe that America was a city set on a hill” (xv). He continues by asserting that all of the English colonies, except Jamestown, were religious colonies. His central point is that the U.S. has “a Judeo-Christian basis. We [the U.S.] embrace private property rights, and we are a democratic republic” (xvi). We are to understand that God did the setting.
The first sentence of the narrative in A Patriot’s History reflects this bias. “God, glory, and gold—not necessarily in that order—took post-Renaissance Europeans to parts of the globe that they had never before seen” (1). From there the first two pages of narrative give an account of the influence of Marco Polo, ancient trade routes to Cathay, and developments in technology: the Arabs’ astrolabe, Viking hull construction, and sternpost rudders from the Baltic coast. They note also the growth of European monarchies, mercantilism, and the rift between Protestants and Catholics “that reinforced national concerns” (2). After a brief timeline of twenty-one events from the four voyages of Columbus to the Salem witch hunts, they resume the narrative with three paragraphs concerning Prince Henry of Portugal.
In contrast to A Patriot’s History, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History opens with a description of the actions of Natives: “Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat” (1). Zinn goes on to emphasize Native hospitality and “belief in sharing,” suggesting “[t]hese traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance” (1). He also mentions Marco Polo and the silks and spices of Asia, as well as political developments of monarchies. He offers less preliminary context to the voyage of Columbus, but does mention the relative distribution of wealth in Spain, “2 percent of the population … owned 95 percent of the land” (2).
Both books begin with the voyages of Columbus, and each constructs this story in a manner consistent with the authors’ overall purpose. Schweikart and Allen labor to promote a Judeo-Christian based sense of national mission; Zinn aims to highlight racial and class inequalities, as well as “fugitive moments of compassion” (11) from which we might craft our future.


1 comment:

Sam said...

Who would ever suggest that Mexico and Canada or South America were part of America?

To put emphasis on Technology as a more valid descriptor than social or political systems in the evolution of a culture would create a sense of "White Dominance" when speaking solely for the history of America. It gives the opportunity to view the arrival of technology with a specific generation of marauders as the coming of ethereal
beings. Beings of a "higher nature" are naturally inhuman and act as gods if they believe themselves to be so. So it is in the emphasis of superiority that we derive who is superior.
Which asks the question who I greater the creator or the machine? You must then ask in what competition. Isn't there a great deal of irony in this?
When one strikes down their god or simply their predecessor is the entire world rewritten?

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