Reflections on the Meaning of “Discovery” and Colonization, 2004



by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies

Colonialism wrought a type of historical trauma, as many call it, that has been affecting indigenous communities since the first arrival of Europeans—whether we refer to the Vikings in Newfoundland, Columbus and the Spaniards in the Caribbean, or the English along the coast of what is now Virginia and Massachusetts. For the next several centuries, in fact now more than a millennium if we count back to the Vikings, Native communities suffered from invasions and intrusions, aggressive land grabs, waves of epidemic disease, distorted and then broken treaties, concerted efforts at indigenous peoples’ annihilation, then being pushed aside, followed by a focused policy to urbanize and assimilate the “urban Indian,” and finally, capped off with a reversal of many of the “terminations” and renewal of a degree of autonomy in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite that recent turnaround, for the long sweep of history, Native cultures were disrespected and tribal needs and wishes were overruled, all the while this nation was supposedly building a “democracy.”

When we seek to honor tribal legacies, we cannot ignore this historical trauma. When the Bicentennial was approaching, some Native communities feared that, once again, there would be a “celebration” of the coming of Euro-Americans to the West with little or no recognition of what it meant to the first peoples on the scene. Some tribes did not wish to participate in any associated events. Fortunately, the leader of the planning of the Bicentennial, funded by the National Park Service, was Gerard Baker (Mandan/Hidatsa), and he ensured that the Tent of Many Voices would be set up as a safe place for all interested people to come together to speak about their own interpretations of this pivotal expedition into Indian territories. Mr. Baker is, in fact, one of the people whose speeches are captured in the Tribal Legacy website.

While Native speakers were all very aware of the historical trauma that their peoples had suffered, words that recognized all that suffering and its ramifications were not as abundant as we might imagine. The speakers we have singled out here cautiously raised their voices before mixed crowds, speaking truth to power.

Most of the Native people who came out to the Tent of Many Voices know that any reconciliation is unlikely without first having revelations of the truth of what happened in colonial history—which for indigenous communities continues to have oppressive aspects up to the present. Once the truth has been aired, once the non-Native society has been educated about the fuller, shared stories of the nature of colonization, perhaps then people could come together to face a more equitable and just future.

We offer these rare speeches in the hope that readers will accept their candid nature and try to understand their perspectives. For indigenous audiences, understanding will run deep. Ideally, healthy conversations will come out of this exercise that is meant to get us to think deeply about the impact of the European occupation of the Western Hemisphere for those who were here first.


Sample “entry questions”:

In the first testimonial, Mr. Pekas starts by speaking about “ignorance.”  Whose ignorance does he refer to, and who was ignorant about what?

Mr. Pekas then jokes a bit about the Europeans’ belief that they had “discovered” the Americas. Who besides the English colonizers does he mention as having this view of “discovery”?

Elizabeth Cook Lynn, in the second testimonial, speaks of “historical blindness.”  Who had been blind about what?

Ms. Lynn also speaks about a need for “tribal nationalization,” and says progress has been made in that direction.  What might she mean by “nationalization”?

In the third testimonial, Mr. Baker expresses support for AIM, the American Indian Movement, from the 1960s, which brought people together from different tribes to find common cause and make the U.S. more aware of Indian cultures and their histories. But he also says that AIM should have been around prior to contact.  What does he mean by that?

Mr. Baker points to the way the pride stirred by AIM made non-Natives point to some obscure indigenous heritage in their family tree, such as Cherokee.  Why is he cautious about these “wannabes”?


Sample “essential questions”:

Try to think carefully and come up with what Europeans meant when they said they “discovered” a land, when they knew well that other people were already there.  What does it say about the Europeans’ way of thinking, and why would indigenous people object to that point of view?

In the second paragraph of the first testimonial, Mr. Pekas speaks of the U.S. government’s effort to annihilate Native Americans.  What is his main takeaway when contemplating the death and destruction?

Toward the end of the second paragraph of the first testimonial, Ms. Lynn rejects the idea that the Lewis and Clark expedition was romantic and a journey of “mutual discovery.”  What might she mean by that and why would she find that unacceptable?  Why might she point to “white supremacy” and “religiosity” as being at the heart of “criminal” colonialism?


Sample “big idea”:

One big idea to consider is the theory of “settler colonialism.” Wikipedia summarizes it as: “a form of colonialism which seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organized or supported by an imperial authority.” Other definitions take it farther, referring to an “ongoing system of power that perpetuates the genocide and repression of indigenous peoples and cultures.” (See Additional Resources, below.)

But how to Native people see the impact of this?  Regarding the ill-treatment of Indians by certain individuals in society, Gerard Baker recalls his grandparents and parents saying, “You shouldn’t hate, you should . . . educate them.” He suggests that anger is a reasonable feeling, but that one’s energy must be translated into something positive.  Elizabeth Cook Lynn ends her testimonial by saying that she is hoping that discussion will ensue, that Indians and non-Indians (“in connection”) should consider what they “are going to do” about how to forge a better future.  This is something we can all be discussing in our classrooms.


Sample “enduring understandings”:

The Circle of Tribal Advisors has written about “understanding” in their book Enough Good People, published at the time of the Tent of Many Voices of the Bicentennial:  ” The tribes stirred things up during the commemoration, primarily in a non-confrontational way. As a result, the general public became, and continues to grow a bit less fearful and more understanding of Native peoples and our issues.”


Place-based considerations:

Searching for references to reflections on “discovery” in the Tribal Legacy video collection, few search results come up.  Two of these testimonials come from the Nakota and Lakota, whose historic location and cultures are significant. The speakers’ ancestors bore the brunt of some of the most severe conflict on the Plains, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre (see the Glossary).

Mr. Baker was the Superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which is a national park that runs across a large part of what is now the United States. As a Mandan/Hidatsa of North Dakota, he tries to serve as a bridge between the more than 40 nations affected by that fateful journey of the military-like “Corps” and the Euro-American descendants who wish to understand better the significance of that episode in history for all concerned. His ancestors were mentioned in a major way in the Lewis and Clark journals, which have been digitized and are online and searchable.  Searching the word Mandan brings up 468 results! Hidatsa brings up 251 (with some overlap).


A journey of healing:

Mr. Pekas’ phrase, “we are still here, and we are getting strong,” is one that will echo across indigenous communities of the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. “We are still here” was a rallying cry of the American Indian Movement, too (see Additional Resources). This emphasis on survival is a positive reflection on the impact of colonialism, no matter how harsh it was. Cultures have survived, nurtured by those tribal members who withstood the prolonged nightmare of the invasion and occupation of their territories. Indigenous cultures are very much present today, showing “resilience in the face of hardship,” as Alexandra Fuller says in her essay about Wounded Knee (see Additional Resources).  Elizabeth Cook Lynn points to tribal colleges and Indian Studies at state universities, implying that these are positive developments for a brighter future.  Gerard Baker also states “we now are renewing ourselves.” These conclusions help us review the negative dimensions of colonialism and yet not be deterred from seeking a more positive future.



Supplemental Glossary:

A.I.M.:  The American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt, who came together to look for solutions for the large numbers of urban-dwelling Native Americans who were hard-pressed to find jobs, decent housing, and who faced racism.  The federal government had de-recognized many of their tribes and encouraged the abandonment of their reservations, hoping that as urban individuals their cultures would disappear. In 1972 AIM led a march of the “Trail of Broken Treaties” on Washington, D.C., and when they got there, they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs, calling for improved conditions.  Both the FBI and CIA, frightened by the specter of the power of the movement, sought to suppress it. In 1973, then-leader Russell Means occupied Wounded Knee in South Dakota as part of a protest. A siege at Wounded Knee led to the deaths of two people, twelve people wounded, and 1,200 arrested. These controversies may be why Mr. Baker says that he saw both good and bad in the movement, but in the end, he came to see that it was “needed.”

Cherokee Nation:  This tribe, which speaks a language in the Iroquoian family, occupied a large part of what is now the southeastern U.S.  According to Wikipedia, they may have been the first ethnic group to be offered U.S. citizenship, in 1817. But, when gold was discovered in what is not Georgia in 1829, major abuses began and Indian “removals” got underway in earnest, as they would in other regions. The Cherokee tribe might be one of those that have intermarried the most with non-Natives, or at least many people who would appear to be non-Native claim to have some Cherokee heritage.  Nearly a million people claimed this in the 2010 census. Exemplary of the pride in having some indigenous roots is the claim by Senator Elizabeth Warren that she has Cherokee and Delaware heritage. This was nastily disputed by President Trump, who mocked her with the nickname “Pocahontas.” But her DNA tests did show support the assertion of some Native American background in her genealogy.

The Verendryes:  What Mr. Baker refers to in his testimonial may be the French family, Pierre Gaultier De la Verendrye and his sons, Francois and Louis-Joseph Verendrye, who led an expedition into South Dakota in 1742, looking for a water route to the Pacific Ocean.  While they failed to find that water passage, they had apparently penetrated farther west than any prior European “explorers” (imperialists might be a more accurate word).  They also visited with the Arikaras, one of the Three Affiliated Tribes. In 1913, some children found a buried lead tablet that the Verendryes apparently buried in 1743, now taken as evidence of their colonizing aspirations in the name of France.

Wounded Knee Massacre:  In 1890, U.S. troops massacred about 300 Oglala Lakota men, women, and children near Wounded Knee Creek at the Pine Ridge Reservation.


Additional Resources:

Circle of Tribal Advisors, Enough Good People (n.d., np.).  Free downloadable PDF.

Defender, Mary Louise, Voyage of Domination,” a video reading of a paper she wrote with her son, James B. Fenelon, in 10 parts.

Fuller, Alexandra, In the Shadow of Wounded Knee,” National Geographic Magazine, August 2012.

Minnesota History Center, Gale Family Library, American Indian Movement (AIM): Overview.”

Veracini, Lorenzo, “Introducing Settler Colonial Studies,” A Global Phenomenon: Settler Colonial Studies 1:1 (2011), 1–12. See Summaries online.

Wittstock, Laura Waterman, We are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement.  With photographs by Dick Bancroft.  (2013)