Officially, today is Columbus Day. At Virginia Tech — and a growing number of other places — it’s Indigenous Peoples Day.
The former involves the history we know about. The latter involves what radio commentator Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”
Most of us were taught that American history began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and bumped into some new continents he wasn’t expecting. History, though, didn’t begin in 1492. For some, it ended. All those people who fret that we’ll somehow erase history by taking down Confederate statues? Umm, a lot of history has already been erased — or at least conveniently overlooked. The state’s official history textbook for 7th graders — used from the 1950s until the early 1970s when Gov. Linwood Holton ordered it retired — begins this way: “Chapter 1: The Land Awaiting Settlement.”
The problem, of course, was that the land was already settled. The story of the people who lived here before the Europeans arrived is one that usually gets skipped over. In that textbook many of us learned from, the first 20 pages deal with plants, animals and geography before we there’s much acknowledgement that, oh, yes, the first English colonists “found people living here.” How inconvenient! For a state that reveres history, theirs is a history we’ve never done much to acknowledge, except for the obligatory references to Pocahontas.
Columbus is undoubtedly a major figure in history, although an accidental one. His voyages set off a wave of European exploration and later colonization that wound up transforming whole continents — principally North America, South America and Australia. Of course, what we regard as “exploration,” the natives regarded as invasion, and what we call “settlement” often amounted to genocide of the existing population. The old maxim says that history is written by the winners; Columbus Day is one of the clearest examples of that.
There are a handful of dates that really matter in history; 1492 is one of the starkest. Europeans brought Christianity and superior technologies; they also brought disease and a sense of moral superiority that meant the occasional slaughter of natives was not something to be worried about much. According to a Public Radio International report earlier this year: “Our new data-driven best estimate is a death toll of 56 million by the beginning of the 1600s — 90% of the pre-Columbian Indigenous population and around 10% of the global population at the time. This makes the “Great Dying” the largest human mortality event in proportion to the global population, putting it second in absolute terms only to World War II, in which 80 million people died — 3% of the world’s population at the time.”
This “great dying” was big enough to change the planet’s climate, PRI tells us: With fewer people in the Americas, the farmlands of the indigenous people were taken over by trees, which sucked enough carbon out of the atmosphere to briefly cool the planet in the 1600s, a period now known as “the little Ice Age.” There were surely other environmental factors involved, too, but here’s an instructive example of human-induced climate change. (Want to help slow down or reverse rising amounts of carbon in the atmosphere today? Plant more trees.)
It’s only relatively recently that the United States has started to acknowledge the pre-Columbian history of the lands we now inhabit. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have pretty much the same basic history as ours — Europeans showed up and displaced the locals — but those countries are much more willing to talk about their past. It’s now customary at many public events in those countries to acknowledge whose lands people are now standing on. In Canada, many sports events and school days begin with such a declaration. Now Virginia Tech is doing the same. When Penny Nance brought her son to freshman orientation this summer, “the administration made the stunning choice to open orientation by recognizing two Native American tribes on whose land the college was built (with the implication that it was stolen).” Umm, that is kind of how it went down. Nance, who heads the conservative group Concerned Women of America, went back to Northern Virginia and wrote a blistering account for The Federalist website: “My Son’s Freshman Orientation at Virginia Tech Was Full of Leftist Propaganda.” Maybe being forced to declare one’s sexuality through preferred pronouns does amount to “leftist propaganda” but acknowledging who was here before us isn’t anybody’s propaganda — it’s just a fact. If anything, honoring those who were here before us would seem to be a pretty conservative value, but conservatism seems to have changed.
Indeed, the first Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States was observed in South Dakota — which has both a large Native American population but is also quite reliably Republican. The list of communities observing the day now certainly trends left — in Virginia, it includes Alexandria, Charlottesville, Falls Church and Richmond. However, Indigenous Peoples Day is recognized in at least 24 towns and cities in Kentucky, not exactly a state known for liberalism. The point being: We’re still not sure why Nance was so upset by Tech’s pretty benign reference that long before Tech was Tech the campus belonged to some people who never got paid for it. So who was here before us? Or, put another way, who are the indigenous peoples that Virginia Tech is honoring today? In the specific case of Virginia Tech, that’s the Tutelo/Monacan people, one of seven federally-recognized tribes in Virginia. How many people can name all seven? At one time, Virginia schoolchildren had to memorize the seven presidents born in the state, but never learned the names of the seven tribes. For the record, they are the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Pamunkey, the Rappahannock and the Upper Mattaponi.
We don’t know exactly how many Native Americans were in Virginia when Jamestown was settled. That old state history book said 10,000. More modern estimates say about 50,000. Either way, here’s the context that matters: Native Americans apparently lived in what we call Virginia for 12,000 years before the Godspeed, Discovery and Susan Constant sailed up the James River in 1607. To focus just on the years since then means we’re only learning 3.3% of our history. As Virginians, we ought to want to know more history, not less.