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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 693-721
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Fictions of American Prehistory:
Indians, Archeology, and National Origin Myths
In the midst of a national debate about the meaning and impact of Columbus's first landfall in the Americas, Vine Deloria Jr. attempted to alter the context of discussion by insisting that "we need to know the truth about North American prehistory." By using the term prehistory, Deloria followed common practice among archeologists and anthropologists in referring to events in the Americas that predate Columbus and (European) written histories, also known as the precontact period. His 1992 address to the Society for American Archeology argued "that unless and until we [Indians] are in some way connected with world history as early peoples, . . . we will never be accorded full humanity. We cannot be primitive peoples who were suddenly discovered half a millennium ago." A member of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, a political scientist, and a longtime analyst of Indian-white relations, Deloria wanted the assembled archeologists to understand how the various quincentenary observances (including their own) of Columbus's so-called "discovery" inevitably ended up "regard[ing Indians] as freaks outside historical time." For Deloria, that "interpretation" is "all wrong." 1
Interpretations of prehistory have never been solely the province of archeology, however. American prehistory has always been up for grabs, generating one fiction after another, with archeology providing just one source of such narratives. As a result, the fictions of prehistory offer a rich—and virtually untouched—field for the literary historian and, as I shall try to demonstrate here, an especially rich field for those interested in national origin myths and their implications for Native peoples. I call the field rich because from the earliest period of colonization onward, Euro-Americans told two dominant but competing [End Page 693] stories about continental prehistory. On the one hand, there were theories that the Americas had been visited by Canaanites and Israelites, by disciples of Christ, by Celts, by Vikings, by ancient Egyptians, and by any number of other civilizations, both real and imagined. On the other hand, there was an equal certainty about a first discovery in 1492. Although apparently mutually exclusive, in fact both versions converged in their harmful consequences for Native peoples.
Because the second scenario is still so much a part of what U.S. students learn in high school, I need to begin by acknowledging that the image of Native peoples as primitives "outside historical time" has a long and authoritative lineage. It began with Columbus, of course, but gained even wider currency in the sixteenth century when Bartolomé de las Casas chronicled the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America. In a series of works that were subsequently translated into most of the languages of Europe, las Casas "describ[es] the [Native peoples] as having lived since the Flood behind the ‘locked doors of the Ocean Sea,' doors which Columbus had been the first to unlock." 2 The Spanish priest's first-hand accounts of what he had witnessed enjoyed not only credibility but three centuries of wide circulation. In the early nineteenth century, Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist and the father of modern physical geography, visited the Americas and gave the imprimatur of science to this old and popular notion. His 1810 comment that "the peoples of America" had been "separated, perhaps since the beginning, from the rest of the human race" was, like the work of las Casas, repeatedly translated and reprinted. 3
So pervasive was this view that in 1838, as the Cherokee were being forced to leave their lands in Georgia and walk the fatal Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, the influential North American Review could declare without equivocation that "[t]he moment the new world was discovered, the doom of the savage races who inhabited it was sealed; they must either conform to the institutions of the Europeans or disappear from the face of the earth." 4 The obvious intent of the statement was to articulate, yet again, what Lucy Maddox has called "the almost universally shared assumption...