Indigenous peoples have occupied North America, or what First Nations people call Turtle Island, for thousands of years before European explorers first arrived on the eastern shores of the continent in the 11th Century.
According to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development website "These newcomers were Norse explorers and settlers, moving ever-westward from Scandinavia to Iceland and Greenland, and eventually to the island of Newfoundland. There they founded North America's first European colony at L'Anse aux Meadows. Although this colony was short-lived, it marked the beginning of European exploration and migration that would radically change the lives of North America's Indigenous peoples."
In the 1500's Europeans returned to the eastern shores of North America to establish settlements. It was during this time, that many Europeans heard from returning fishermen about the wealth of resources that the New World offered. This wealth of resources soon became a network of competing colonies throughout the Americas as various other European powers pushed to expand their own wealth and influence in the New World. It was in North America that the British and the French became the dominant powers to be.
First contact can be seen as a contentious issue, depending on how you view it individually. For First Nations people and our indigenous brothers and sisters of the Americas, I would like to briefly bring up the topic of Christopher Columbus and how synonymous he is when it comes to the discussion of first contact before I get back to speaking on how precisely it was through his actions that things became drastically changed for First Nations people and other Indigenous peoples of North America.
Ah! Christopher Columbus! Now just thinking of him and what he meant to us as a peoples is enough to make the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. Columbus, according to what I understand, is a romanticized colonialist, who exacted terror and near-genocide on the people he encountered upon his arrival. According to an essay "Once Upon A Genocide: Columbus in Children's Literature," written by Bill Bigelow in the book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, "Children's biographies of Columbus depict the journey to the New World as a 'great adventure' and led by 'probably the greatest sailor of his time.' It's a story of courage, superhuman tenacity. Columbus is brave, smart and determined."
But when you really think about it, what is so brave and smart about a man who arrives in the New World, and takes the land of people who have already been living on it, by any means possible? "For Columbus, land was real estate and it didn't matter that other people were already living there; if he discovered it, he took it. If he needed guides or translators, he kidnapped them. If his men wanted women, he captured sex slaves. If the indigenous people resisted, he countered with vicious attack dogs, hangings and mutilations."1
Lastly, according to the book Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, author Bob Peterson states in his essay "Columbus and Native Issues in the Elementary Classroom:"
Many of us grew up with the seemingly innocent refrain, "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Throughout our schooling, our understanding of Columbus didn't move much beyond this simple rhyme. - (Bigelow and Peterson, pg. 37)
Peterson goes onto state:
Unfortunately, the education of children today is not much different. While children's books, social studies texts, and the digital world may be more colourful, the approach is often the same ... it is not easy for early childhood and elementary school teachers to challenge the Columbus myth in a way that doesn't demonize Columbus. We need to help students understand Columbus' individual role in the context of European colonialism that sought wealth and land at the expense of millions of Native Americans. Students should understand that many Native people resisted the European invasion and despite a history of near genocide, have survived.
First contact altered the lifestyles of First Nations people and the indigenous peoples of North America. It introduced trade between Europeans and First Nations peoples. First Nations exchanged furs and food for European goods, and as Europeans explored the east coast of North America, more opportunities for trade developed.
For almost 100 years, several generations-curiosity and mutual benefit shaped most interactions between the Europeans and First Nations. A century of trade brought change, but usually in the form of opportunity. First Nations and Europeans adapted to each other, led by what they found useful and interesting in each other's cultures.
Trade followed contact for most First Nations but not all. For one First Nation, the Beothuk in Newfoundland, contact with the Europeans meant nothing but hardship. In fact, they were pushed off their land, devastated by disease and shot on sight by European traders and settlers. The tragedy of the Beothuk took 200 years to unfold. By 1800, the Beothuk people and culture were extinct.
With contact came the desire for domination by the French and the British.
French and British explorers, fur traders and soldiers followed the trades routes inland. There they established a network of forts and posts to supply their First Nations trading partners and confirm their presence. First Nations quickly adapted to this new commerce, which brought them European goods such as iron wares and firearms, but it was not without violence.2
The fur trade was so profitable and important that the various European and First Nations interests often clashed throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. Competition between groups such as the Haudenosaunee and the Huron resulted in all out warfare. In the mid 1600s, the Huron were driven from their traditional territories around Georgian Bay.
As contact spread, so did diseases that were unknown in North America before the arrival of Europeans. According to the book Aboriginal Studies 20: Peoples and Cultural Change, "First Nations and Inuit people had no acquired immunity to any of these diseases, such as measles, smallpox, typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases, and died in huge numbers." As the Europeans pressed into the interior of North America, the tragedy repeated itself many times over.
In my next column, I will try to address the topic of treaties, what they are, and how they came to be. Until then, I leave you with this quote to think of when you consider what 'first contact' meant for First Nations people and the indigenous peoples of the Americas:
" The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told."
-Yellow Wolf, Nez Perce, c 18773
1. Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years; Resources for Teaching about the impact of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, p.47
2. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada>, "History of First Nations - Newcomer Relations"
3. Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas, p. 4 (Mariner Books)