Two Days in One
By Tom Rea
Mrs. Kurtz was my fourth-grade music teacher. We had a song book, with words and music in it and I can still remember—this was 64 years ago—the picture at the top of the page of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria sailing—you guessed it—a blue, blue ocean:
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He sailed and sailed and sailed and sailed
To find this land for me and you.
It’s the “for me and you” part that doesn’t seem so true anymore. When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, who was he sailing for, anyway? Well, for himself, certainly: He cared a lot about gold. And he hoped to save souls. He definitely sailed for his patrons, the king and queen of Spain (who financed his voyage with wealth appropriated from the Jewish families they recently expelled or killed in the Inquisition, but that’s a separate story). As every school kid learns, Columbus called the people he met Indians—los Indios—because he thought he was in India.
In fact, they were Taino people. They were very curious about him, and he seems to have found them deeply appealing:
They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will ... they took great delight in pleasing us ... They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal...Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people ... They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.
But on his second voyage he began demanding tribute from the Tainos—a hawk’s bell full of gold, quarterly, for every adult. If the people couldn’t pay, the sailors cut off their hands—and that was how Columbus opened the door of the Americas to Europeans. With them came their European ambitions, their hunger for gold and greater still, their centuries-long hunger for land.
Fast forward, say, 283 years to 1776. What was going on in Wyoming the year the Declaration was signed? Well, the Shoshones had European horses by then; we know that in this part of the world they got them first. The Arapahos may have just been getting horses, but soon were roaming all the way from Canada to Mexico.
These and other tribes managed the landscape effectively, largely by judicious use of fire to burn off old grass and bring up new. Vast herds of buffalo did the rest, plus prairie dogs to keep prairie dirt loose and aerated, and beavers to keep mountain meadows lush and moist. The tribes traded often with each other and moved a lot on trails, a few of which, Euro-Americans would later flood with people and livestock. Those same Euro-Americans proved skilled at killing beavers, buffaloes and prairie dogs, which brought huge changes to the once well-managed landscape.
What the tribes couldn’t defend against was disease. Just a few years after the Declaration, in the 1780s, a wave of smallpox brought to the Americas by Hessian mercenaries came up the Missouri and into the West, killing as much as 50 or 75 percent of some of the tribal populations.
Another 75 years after the Declaration, treaty-making would begin in this part of the world. It formalized the land-theft process and culminated with the government reneging on promises, forcing the tribes onto reservations that soon shrank and kept shrinking well into the 20th century.
If we think of the resilience it takes for Native cultures to withstand all that then yes, it makes sense to call today, October 12, the 531st anniversary of the landing in the Bahamas, Indigenous People’s Day as well as Columbus’s Day. It’s a good day to remember how moved he was by the mildness and kindness of the people he encountered. And then to remember how the Tainos were separated from their hands, and the Plains tribes were separated from their lands. We might also remember what they were given in return, which were promises.
Tom Rea is editor of WyoHistory.org.