© Paul K Davis, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 10, 2010

This is the Sunday before what is usually called "Columbus Day", though many are now calling it "Indigenous Peoples Day" or something similar. When I was a child I learned that Christopher Columbus had discovered America in 1492. A little later I learned this was not quite true - Leif Erikson had discovered America nearly 500 years earlier. But this isn't strictly true either. They both found people already here. America has in fact been discovered more than half-dozen times. There were at least three waves of Asian immigration whose descendents are those we now call American Indians. There is reasonably good evidence that Buddhist missionaries came to British Columbia during the European Dark Ages, and of transatlantic trade between West Africa and South America in ancient times. Irish Christian missionaries may have come here about the same time as the Buddhist missionaries and, of course, the Phoenicians who sailed around Africa for Pharoah Necho are widely suspected of having come here as well. Polynesians may also have discovered South America.

Nevertheless, the voyage of Columbus is the second most important discovery of America, after the original discovery by the first wave of immigrants from Siberia. It is important because it alone of all the discoveries resulted in the merging of the peoples and cultures of the eastern hemisphere with the peoples and cultures of the western hemisphere. Therefore it is a worthy day of the year to remember.

As a child, I learned that Columbus and his companions and successors had brought the Christian religion and European culture to the Americas and that they took back shiploads of gold. This is true, but I later learned that they also brought back other products of importance: corn, potatoes, squash; and that they brought back the gold at the expense of enslavement and working-to-death of large portions of the native population. They also brought epidemic diseases such as smallpox and measles which killed much of the population; in return for which they got syphilis. We now know that the epidemics brought from Europe probably killed about 90% of the American population, leaving thousands of village lands vacant for groups such as the Plymouth Pilgrims to occupy.

More recently I learned that the Spanish destroyed all but four of the books of the Mayas. But wait! How can that be? I was never taught that the Native Americans wrote books in the first place.

In the past few years I have learned that there were several notable civilizations in the Americas before Columbus landed. Some of this I learned as a curious by-product of my genealogical interest. Some I learned from friends with an interest in American archeology. Some I've learned on vacation trips in the southwestern United Sates. Much I've learned from books I was led to, such as one named 1491, which I reviewed in the October 2010 issue of the Mission Peak newsletter.

I would like to share some of what I've learned because it's fascinating, and also because American Indian culture was not completely destroyed by European conquest, but has in fact contributed in notable ways to our modern synthetic culture. We owe it to those who have gone before us on this continent to honor their contributions, as we owe it to all who have gone before to honor their contributions to our material culture and our values.

The song we heard earlier, "Colors of the Wind," though written recently, beautifully encapsulates some of what we can learn from American Indian tradition. I will return later to its content, but I wish to start with the individual in whose mouth these words are placed in the Disney movie. We call her "Pocahontas", as apparently did her father, but it was a nickname; her given name was Matoaka. Some have doubted the story of her having saved John Smith, whose fabulous account of his own life seems likely to include exaggerations, but the event fits with what we know of her character. She sought friendly interaction with the English settlers of Jamestown. They eventually kidnapped her and held her as a hostage to prevent attack. She did not hold this against them but continued to seek peace between the two communities. She converted to Christianity, was given the baptismal name "Rebecca", and married a settler: John Rolfe. They had a son and the family traveled to England where she was favorably received as "Lady Rebecca" and accorded the respect due a chief's daughter. Unfortunately she became sick and died there. This strongly soured the attitude of her father and brothers toward the settlers and they attempted to exterminate the settlement. If only she had lived, there was a prospect of peaceful coexistence.

I traveled to Jamestown a couple of years ago, after learning that one of my ancestors, John Price, was one of the survivors of the massacre which followed her death. I also learned I am probably descended from her husband, John Rolfe, who remarried after her death. Incidentally, among Pocahantas' descendents, who are cataloged in an inch-thick book in the Stanford library, is Edith Bolling Wilson, a First Lady of the United States. Both a friend of mine and a relative by marriage are probably descended from Pocahantas' sister.

Pocahontas was not the first peacemaker on this continent. Among the warring tribes found in the area which is now upstate New York and southern Ontario there were six that were not at war with each other. This confederacy is called "Iroquois" though it turns out this is an insulting term used of them by other tribes. They themselves called their combination "Haudenosaunee", which means "building a long house", referring to how they sought to live together as one family. The five original tribes had been brought together by two leaders named Deganawida and Ayenwatha. Deganawida became known as "The Great Peacemaker" for his ideas which became embodied in "The Great Law of Peace"; but he was not a good speaker and relied on his associate Ayenwatha to present these ideas. It is from the name Ayenwatha that "Hiawatha" is derived, though the poem is not based on the life of Ayenwatha.

It formerly had been thought that the Haudenosaunee coalition originated in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but recently their records have been analyzed. Though they did not have a full writing system, they recorded their successive joint chiefs by carving emblems on poles. The number of these leaders has been counted and compared with the numbers of leaders in organizations with a similar system, such as Popes of the Catholic church. The result is that Deganawida and Ayenwatha lived in the twelfth century. Furthermore, tradition recounted that an eclipse of the sun had been a critical sign convincing the tribes to join; and an astronomical analysis has found an eclipse in 1124 which would have been visible in upstate New York.

Knowledge of the Haudenosaunee is not just of intellectual interest. Benjamin Franklin cited them as an example when encouraging the thirteen colonies to join in an analogous confederation. One of Deganawida's illustrations has also found its way onto the back of our dollar bills. He gave one of the tribal chiefs an arrow and asked him to break it, which he did easily. Then he offered a bundle of five arrows, which could not be broken. Our dollar bill, at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, shows an eagle holding a bundle of thirteen arrows.

Nor is this the only way the Haudenosaunee inspired American progress. Their tribes, like many of the Indian tribes, accorded voting rights to women. This was known to the founders of our suffragist movement who drew inspiration from the Indians. It was quite appropriate that one of the first gatherings of U.S. women to begin working for their rights was held in Haudenosaunee territory at Seneca Falls. The Seneca were one of the federated tribes.

I also learned that one of my childhood heroes was a Haudenosaunee. Harold J. Smith was a Canadian of Haudenosaunee ancestry who appeared in several movies including Key Largo. He is best known though under his stage name of "Jay Silverheels" for playing Tonto in the Lone Ranger television shows and movies. He was one of the first Native Americans to break into acting. (Most of the bands of Indians attacking cowboys and settlers that you see in the movies were actually White guys in make-up.)

Earlier I mentioned Mayan books. For centuries it was assumed that Mayan writing was simply "picture writing" in which an attempt is made to depict an object or event, but there is no ability to represent other concepts. Recent research has found otherwise and, though the books were mostly destroyed, many stone inscriptions remain and the long history of civilization in central America is beginning to be revealed. Mayan civilization was already in decline when the Spaniards arrived and it was only the most recent in a series of civilizations. We do not even know the proper names of many of them yet and arbitrarily apply the terms "Olmec" and "Toltec" though these properly denote later cultures.

The oldest writing so far discovered in this hemisphere is called the "Cascajal Block", and is from southern Mexico's "Olmec" cultural area in the state of Veracruz. It has been dated to 2,900 years ago - a century before the Greeks learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians. It has not yet been deciphered.

The oldest precisely dated object from this hemisphere is from the same area. It bears a date equivalent to our 32 BCE, written in a place notation system like our modern so-called Arabic numerals. (Being interested in numbers, I would point out to you that earlier in this service we passed the special time of 10:10 on the day 10/10/10.) This illustrates the fundamentals of a place number system (as opposed to a Roman Numeral type system), in which different letters are used for the same numerical concept in different positions in a large number. The place notation system includes a concept of the number "zero", which was a great philosophical problem to the ancient Greeks and medieval Christians. The zero seems to have been invented twice - by the American Indians and by the Indian Indians. From the Indian Indians it was learned by the Arabs and then the Europeans adopted it, erroneously calling the system "Arabic Numerals." Without these numerals, science - especially astronomy - was very difficult. I believe this explains why the Greeks were very advanced in geometry but algebra was not developed until early modern times.

Continuing with the theme of writing, reading, and education, I learned that my ancestor Azariah Horton, in the mid seventeenth century, had been a missionary to the Shinnecock and Montauk Indians of eastern Long Island. He met with a reluctant reception, notsomuch because of his message, but because the Indians now realized White people were lethal because of the disease they brought. Horton was followed in this work however by a Mohegan Indian named Samson Occom who had been converted to Christianity as a teenager and became an eager scholar. He used alphabet blocks to teach his fellow Indians and may have been the inventor of these. He traveled to England to raise funds for a school for Indians, meeting with notable success; but the money was diverted to the foundation of Dartmouth College.

The greatest Indian educator, and one of the greatest intellectuals of all time, was Sequoyah who, in the early nineteenth century invented a complete writing system for the Cherokee language, without any prior knowledge of a writing system except seeing that it was possible. Within a few years most Cherokee (which is derived from their term "Tsalagi") could read and write and were considered one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" by White Americans. Unfortunately their reward was the "Indian Removal Act" of 1830 which required all Indians not completely assimilated to European culture to move west of the Mississippi River. Many perished in this process. I would take this opportunity to condemn president Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party of the time for this evil, and credit one of the virtuous few who spoke against it, congressman Davy Crockett.

You may have noticed that I have been using the terms "American Indian" and "Native American" somewhat interchangeably. Some have thought that we should abandon the term "Indian" in reference to natives of the Americas, but it is accepted and usually favored by the people themselves. While it was a mistake, it is not an insult.

Perhaps the most pervasive contribution by American Indians to our present culture is names. From "Massachusetts" Bay to "Ohlone" College our maps and directories would be much more boring if restricted to imported European terminology such as "Plymouth" colony and "San Francisco." Our stock of jewelry styles has also received the contributions of Native American cultures. These are among the aspects of culture in which variety is in-and-of-itself pleasing and beautiful.

It also sometimes happens that variety is extremely valuable for survival. The United States military has benefited from the variety of American Indian languages. Beginning in World War I, some Indians were used to transmit secret messages as an additional measure of security combined with standard codes. In World War II, a study found that the Navajo language was known only to about thirty non-Navajo, and nothing about the language had been published in Japanese. Navajo "code talkers" were critical to the action on Iwo Jima, as well as at other times. Long classified a secret, this contribution of Native Americans is now public, and I have had the privilege of visiting a monument in their honor in Window Rock, Arizona.

Variety is also essential to scientific advancement. We must have control groups and a full list of alternatives to advance in understanding, and this is especially true of human cultures. This is also one of many reasons I am involved in this congregation's "Cultural and Racial Inclusiveness Committee." Inclusiveness is valuable not just to the people being included, but also to those doing the including.

While Native Americans have frequently resented the activities of archeologists, they have usually accommodated and even welcomed the inquiries of anthropologists. At a lecture I recently attended on the calendar and record system of the Kiowa tribe, the speaker was asked whether the new rules which restrict uninvited contact with native communities had hindered her work. Her answer was that it had probably helped. The communities were more willing to cooperate when it was subject to their own control. Furthermore, she had been blessed by a predecessor. The first anthropologist to study the Kiowa had been appalled at their treatment and went on to lobby for fair dealings. He had been with the Smithsonian Institution as she was, and the tribe was eager to assist anyone from such a good institution.

Another case of Indian contribution to anthropology is Ishi, of the Yahi tribe. I must give a little background to explain his situation. The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, was an open advocate of race war and maintained that the Whites moving into California should exterminate the Indians. For the first two decades of California's statehood a bounty of $25 to $50 was paid for each Indian killed. (Too bad they didn't have a budget crisis back then.) Those Indians not exterminated went into hiding in remote areas. In 1905 Ishi, apparently the last of the Yahi, lonely and starving, decided to give himself up. To his surprise conditions had changed somewhat and he was not immediately shot for a bounty. He came to the attention of a University of California professor and was given a place to live in the anthropology museum. Despite his age, he learned a limited amount of English and was able to supply much information about his tribe, language and customs. It turns out, by the way, that he actually had no name, since at his birth there were already too few of his tribe for the proper naming ceremony. "Ishi" simply meant "person."

American Indians have also contributed directly to our religious freedom. I go back now to the year 1631, eleven years after the Plymouth Pilgrims and one year after the first big wave of Puritans came to Boston. A well-regarded scholar named Roger Williams arrived from England and was offered a position in the church roughly equivalent to our "interim minister" while the settled minister returned to England for his wife. Roger declined the position because the church was established. He believed in separation of church and state. Over the next few years his disagreements with the leadership increased. When he claimed that the land grant from the king would not be valid until the land was also purchased from the Indians, he had gone too far and was prosecuted. He escaped. The Indians recognized a friend and established him and a few of his associates in a place he called "Providence Plantations." Such was the beginning of Rhode Island, the first European settlement in America actually founded on the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

In various ways I believe I have touched on several of our Unitarian-Universalist principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person is exemplified by the leadership participation of both men and women among the Haudenosaunee and others. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are shown in how Pocahontas protected English settlers. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth are displayed in the Indian support of Roger Williams. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning are seen in the educational efforts of Samson Occom and Sequoyah, and in the contributions to anthropology by Ishi. The right of conscience and use of democracy are demonstrated by Haudenosaunee democratic federalism. And the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is illustrated by the Great Peacemaker, Deganawida.

I will conclude with brief mention of American Indian contributions to respect for the interdependent web of all existence, which was a fundamental part of much Indian philosophy. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find surviving statements in their own words. "Colors of the Wind" was, of course, written by modern lyricist Stephen Schwartz to music by Alan Menken. And even the famous speech by chief Seattle is very doubtfully his own words, which were not adequately recorded. Nevertheless, one sees this respect in various aspects of native culture. The plains Indians were appalled at the over-hunting of the bison by White Americans, as were the Powhattan by the export from Jamestown island of every last tree back to England for use as lumber.

To become the best people we can be, we must acknowledge the cultural contributions of all peoples of the world, and seek to continue to learn, even from those whom our predecessors have foolishly pushed aside. Let us continue to learn what we can of American Indian culture and to respect it and grow from it. Thank you.

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