For fans of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the title of today’s post should seem familiar – it’s a play on “Encounter at Far Point,” the first episode of the series, in which the meeting between the Enterprise and a new species was fraught with misunderstandings. Likewise, the encounters between Europeans and Native Americans could be stressful, even on those occasions when neither side intended harm to the other. Exploring these contacts teaches us a lot about the original societies, as well as about the amalgamated culture they formed in convergence.
Start by reviewing the overview and ancillary materials in from American History I: Period of Exploration to Reconstruction Chapters 1 and 2. These chapters provide an account of this time period, told in the tradition of European-style historical narrative. Then experiment with thinking about this history in a different way, by using the Winter Counts of the Lakota people at the National Museum of Natural History’s National Anthropological Archives (part of the Smithsonian Institution).
These records chronicle years by using a picture that represented the event most important to the community in that year. They were used as visual reminders, part of a more extensive oral history tradition. The community historian was responsible for remembering, recording, and retelling this history.
Next, practice hearing the voices of those involved. The Digital History site from the University of Houston provides a number of Native Voices throughout history, allowing individuals to tell us their story in their own words (as well as voices interpreted and reported by Europeans and Americans of European descent). For example, Black Hawk recounts the loss of his village:
This summer our agent came to live at Rock Island. The trader explained to me the terms of a treaty that had been made, and said we would be obliged to leave the Illinois side of the Mississippi….
During the winter, I received information that three families of whites had arrived at our village, and destroyed some of our lodges, and were making fences and dividing our cornfields for their own use….
What right had these people to our village and our fields, which the Great Spirit had given us to live upon? My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold….
The site also chronicles the views of Europeans, from those like H.H. Brackenridge, who couldn’t even see Native Americans as human beings,
They have the shapes of men and may be of the human species, but certainly in their present state they approach nearer the character of Devils….
and those who tried to defend their rights under the laws of the United States, such as Thomas L. McKenney,
In vain did the Indians implore the government to protect them; in vain did they call the attention of the Executive to the provisions of treaties, and to the pledges of the law.
The encounter between Native Americans and Europeans also changed the world for non-humans (shades of Star Trek again!). For example, visit the “Song for the Horse Nation” exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. The re-introduction of the horse to the Americas knit together Native American societies in many ways, and continues to inspire artists to this day.
Encounters among cultures in American history have often been collisions. This is a theme you can keep revisiting during the course of the year, as new culture groups are represented in American history.