The Pageant of America: A Pictorial History of the United States - Vol. 1

By Clark Wissler; Constance Lindsay Skinner et al. | Go to book overview

THE AMERICAN INDIAN

AS the sun came up out of the Atlantic on the twelfth of October, 1492, an unwonted bustle stirred aboard three small and somewhat weather-beaten Spanish ships pushing westward. Crews, plainly worried and surly, crowded the rails to discover what the watch had seen. For weeks the masts had bent before the steady trade winds blowing the boats farther and farther into the unknown ocean. For weeks the Spanish sailors had watched the western horizon with a growing dread of what monsters might be hidden behind it. There they saw on the morning of the twelfth a blurred spot in the slanting morning light. "Land!" was shouted from ship to ship. Superstitious fear relaxed into excitement. A little later, Columbus, clad in armor over which he had thrown the crimson robe of an admiral of Castile, with sword and banner in hand, stepped from the ship's boat on to a sandy beach. There was a ceremony; he knelt and kissed the earth and took possession in the name of the Spanish king. A little knot of officers and men looked on, glad to have a chance to stretch their legs on shore and vaguely thrilled at the drama of the landfall. All, including the admiral, were ignorant of the true significance of the thing that had come to pass.

Columbus, cruising amid the islands he had discovered, lost no time in searching out the people that he might learn where lived the mighty monarch for whom he bore a letter from the Spanish king. He did not find the cities that Marco Polo had said were in China and India but only a primitive people living in little villages of huts. It was a strange scene, that first meeting of the red and white races. Neither had any comprehension of the identity of the other. Columbus thought the redmen Orientals and misnamed them Indians; no record has been left of the terrifying thoughts that passed through the minds of the natives as they gazed upon the beings that had come to their country. Scores of centuries stood between the white man and the chief with whom he tried to communicate and neither could cross the gulf.

Columbus, setting out on his pioneering voyage, had left behind him a civilization that expressed itself in a Venice, a Divine Comedy or a Rheims cathedral, and in the New World had stumbled upon a primitive forest people. The Indian hunted his quarry and built his lodges and council fires amid the trees. He seemed to be the very child of the woods, his untutored impetuosity born of its wild life, his strength the fruit of centuries of conflict with the rough forces of nature, his gods articulate in the whistle of the winds in the evergreens. The rhythm of the wilderness beat in his ceremonies and dances. During the years when Europe saw the rise of Greece and Rome and later, the states of modern Europe, the redman in America remained little more than a forest hunter -- in a land unsurpassed in climate and wealth of natural resource. The soil which was one day to make America the greatest of agricultural nations, he left uncleared. His squaw scratched it with a sharpened stick. The storehouses of mineral wealth that were to furnish the sinews of a later civilization the Indian never unlocked. For thousands of years destiny seemed to hold before him a priceless opportunity and he let it slip. Because of this failure to utilize the resources of his environment, the redskin has frequently been put down as belonging to an inferior race and as incapable of achieving

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