Pretty much every human society puts itself at the center of history. Communities (and modern nation-states are no exception!) tend to understand the present primarily through how it affects them, and they tend to interpret the significance of major events in the past in terms of how those events lead to their community’s creation and its current condition. Sometimes those of us who live in the United States can fall into the trap of viewing European expansion westward as inevitable. We can almost picture Europeans like little kids with their noses pressed up against the glass of history’s toy store, just waiting for the opportunity to set sail to the west and usher in a new chapter of the human story.
But the truth is that through the mid-fifteenth century, inhabitants of the Eastern hemisphere weren’t looking west much at all! Rulers in Europe, Africa, and Asia were focused on securing inland territory. The idea of an ocean-spanning empire was pointless, given the limitations of available geographical knowledge and available sailing technology.
Besides, what would eventually drive Western Europeans into the ocean and bring our part of the world into a new global story could be obtained easily enough without risking ocean travel. Certainly, water-based trading was important for portions of both Europe and Africa, but the Mediterranean Sea, not the Atlantic Ocean, was the commercial sea hub of medieval Europe and Africa. And any meaningful connection between Europe or Africa and Asia was over land.
This entry is going to discuss how Native Americans made sense of themselves and their world prior to contact – or, a Native American “worldview,” if you will. But to do that, I have to discuss two HUGE caveats up front.
First, while the manner in which Native Americans understood themselves and their world differed in very significant ways from the Europeans they would encounter … this does NOT mean that we can speak of a uniform Native American worldview applicable to all indigenous communities in North America.
You might think of it as trying to describe monotheism. On the one hand, we can speak of a monotheistic worldview that differs in important ways from a non-monotheistic one. In other words, most monotheists share general characteristics that separate how they understand themselves and their world from how polytheists, atheists, etc, do these things. And yet, if we start diving too deep into individual monotheistic traditions in our quest for commonalities, we are going to find significant differences rather quickly. Despite some general characteristics they share, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity still have major differences—as do other monotheistic traditions.
The Story of the Land of Your Sojourn, Part V: A Whirlwind Tour of the Continent on the Eve of Contact
Last week we discussed how the ancestors of today’s Native Americans had to make drastic adjustments in light of the disappearance of megafauna. As these communities adapted to local environments, they produced a remarkable array of new ways of life. This doesn’t mean that these new local communities developed in isolation from reach other. We have evidence of continent wide trade networks crisscrossing North America during this time period. Nonetheless, the ancestors of today’s Native Americans showed remarkable ingenuity and creativity in adapting to new localized existences. Today, let’s take a whirlwind tour of the continent, so that you can get an idea of how the peoples of North America lived on the eve of contact with Europeans.
In the Pacific Northwest, Native American cultures mostly developed around the hunting of salmon and other marine life. Because of the overabundance of local food sources, intensive agriculture was not part of the life of these communities—though they certainly gathered local plants for their own purposes. Instead, they focused their efforts on “farming” the sea, developing cultures centered on rituals and ceremonies related to fishing and seafaring. Communities in the Pacific Northwest could grow as large as 2000+ members, leading to significant population density throughout the region.
Well, as I’m sure will happen many times in the process of writing a blog series a week at a time, we’re not going to discuss in this entry what I said we would last entry. I’m trying to keep each entry at a casually readable length, and I vastly overestimated what I could fit into this particular entry. We will still take that whirlwind tour of the continent, but we’re not quite ready to do that yet. We have a bit more background work to do this week that will have significant consequences for the development of North America prior to contact with Europe, and that will significantly affect what happens when contact does occur.
Roughly 11,000 BC, something happened that would not only impact the development of Native American cultures, but also impact contact between Europeans and Native Americans millennia later: all of the megafauna (Latin for “big honkin’ animals”) died off in a relatively brief period of time. Hunting these massive animals had not only provided the basic nutritional needs of North American populations up to this time, but it had also provided the foundation for their societies.
Suddenly the ancestors of today’s Native Americans found themselves adopting new localized ways of life – each group harnessing local resources and realities in order to create new societies and cultures, now that the life of megafauna hunters was no longer viable. In doing so, they faced two important differences compared to groups doing so in other portions of the world in light of the disappearance of their own megafauna.
Imagine picking up a friend from the Springfield airport who is preparing to move to the region. As you start driving away, you notice your friend has their nosed pressed against the passenger window like a kid looking into a candy store. You don’t think too much of it; after all, this is a beautiful part of the country! But after another fifteen minutes of gasping, “ooh”ing, and “ah”ing, you finally ask your friend what’s going on.
“Look at this untouched country!” your friend exclaims. “We’re the first humans to ever live here!”
Hey, maybe you picked your friend up at some weird hour. Maybe they really had just gone fifteen minutes without seeing another human being. But there would be other evidence, right? Where did he think these streets, buildings, and landscaping came from?
I doubt that any of us are quite as silly as your hypothetical friend. We all know that North and South America were inhabited when Europeans arrived. But, like the hypothetical friend, we don’t often take seriously what previous occupation means for how subsequent events unfolded. If we’re not careful, we can think of the ancestors of today’s Native Americans as simply waiting around for “real” history to begin and “real” progress to arrive from overseas.
Yet the chapter of American history that most of us might be more familiar with – European exploration, conquest, and settlement – makes no sense unless we take seriously that the Americas were already occupied territories.
One of the ... benefits? … of teaching introductory history courses is that I get a ton of textbook samples from publishers every year. I’m always curious where these textbooks start the story of the United States. Why? Because there’s really no answer everyone can agree on. Even among my fellow historians here at MSU and beyond, the answer can vary widely. In fact, most universities just call their introduction to the first half of US history something like “US History up to 1865” or “US History up to 1877.”
One textbook sample I received started the story of American history with the evolution of homo sapiens. I know not everyone who reads these blogs will share the same views regarding evolution, but regardless, most of us would probably agree that the specific story of the United States does not begin with the appearance of modern humans. I mean, every tribe, confederacy, kingdom, empire, or nation-state throughout human history could claim the same starting spot, right?
Another textbook sample I received went as far back as Pangaea—a supercontinent that scientists hypothesize existed up until 175 million years ago. Yeesh! We certainly do want to take seriously the effects that geography can have on human history, but most of us would probably agree this is also a tad early to start talking about something that is distinctively the story of the United States.
Those two examples are extreme, of course. But it still raises the question: when does United States history start? Our individual answers to that question illustrate how we think about the story of how the country we experience came to be.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:16-20)
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:19-21)
Weird question: have you ever thought of America as a foreign country? Have you ever thought of yourself as an ex-pat living in a place that is not actually your home?
Kinda strange, huh?
And yet this perspective is at least part of how the Scriptures call us to live out our Christian faith. We are “aliens,” “strangers” – “sojourners,” some translations say. And yet that does not mean that we simply wander about the surface of the earth in aimless waiting between conversion and death. We’ve actually been assigned an important duty: We are ambassadors of the kingdom!
Cards on the table: one of the reasons I study the Church’s past is the same reason I study the American past for a living: I’m a giant history nerd. But I hope to convince you that studying the Church’s past is of great value to all believers, even if you won’t all get that kid-in-a-candy-store look in your eyes while you’re doing it, like I do.
Here are a few reasons why I live out my Christian life in the company of the dead:
IT HELPS ME STAY ACCOUNTABLE
Christianity isn’t about you and God. Or me and God. It’s about us and God. Through Christ, God is not merely creating a multitude of individual relationships He can enjoy forever. He is creating a community, a people, a nation – a family. There’s no “solo mode” option when it comes to Christianity. As frustrating as it can be for my rugged American individualism, the truth is that God has entrusted the gospel, the kingdom, the Scriptures, and the sacraments to the Church. Not just to you, not just to me. And He expects us to be accountable to the others to whom He has entrusted these sacred things. We practice this accountability through interacting with our fellow Christians here on earth, of course; however, I would challenge you to think of accountability as something that connects the various members of the Church through bonds that even death cannot sever.
I would encourage you to be accountable to the dead.
On August 12, a protest by various white supremacist groups against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly. That murder was part of yet another confrontation over how we as a nation ought to treat Confederate monuments and displays of the Confederate battle flag. And of course, these confrontations are really conversations about how we ought to remember the Civil War and the Confederacy itself. This particular on-going round of national debates began a little over two years ago when a white supremacist murdered nine African-American Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. It might surprise you to know, however, that questions about how to remember the Civil War and the Confederacy began right about the moment the last guns fell silent.
In short, the United States has never fully stopped fighting a war that ended 150 years ago. As Southern writer William Faulkner once penned, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”