September 22, 2019
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Let’s celebrate the explorers

Bebeto Matthews | AP
Bebeto Matthews | AP
The Christopher Columbus statue is seen at Manhattan's Columbus Circle in New York, Aug. 27, 2017.

Gov. Janet Mills and Maine lawmakers this year took important steps forward to rebuild the state’s vital relationship with its Native American tribes. A law was enacted banning the use of Native American names and imagery for school sports teams. Mills appointed six new members to the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission and appointed a senior adviser on tribal affairs.

And Indigeneous Peoples Day will now be celebrated statewide each October.

These steps, of course, don’t mean that Maine should or will turn its back on the other players in our state and nation’s diverse and complex history.

Along those lines, we renew our call to celebrate exploration, not just the conquerers, but also the audacious wanderers and those who helped and guided them.

Journalist Tony Horwitz has written several books about exploration, including novels about the voyages of Capt. James Cook, who travelled to both Hawaii and Alaska and was the first European to make contact with many Pacific islanders, and about the discovery of America.

In an interview with IndyBound, an independent bookstore website, Horwitz spoke of a “novelty-seeking” gene that drives exploration. “An archaeologist I met in Alaska told me in scholarly literature that there’s discussion of whether there is this ‘novelty-seeking’ gene that leads some people to seek adventure. “These were the sort of people who led early man out of Africa, and they’ve been with us throughout time,” he said.

Horwitz died unexpectedly last month while on a book tour.

In his book “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World,” Horwitz wonders why so much emphasis is put on Columbus and Plymouth when others had come to the continent first and significant exploration happened between 1492 and 1620. During his study and journeys for the book, Horwitz was surprised to learn the first colony in present-day New England wasn’t at Plymouth, but at Fort St. George in Popham (in present-day Phippsburg, Maine), a place he had never heard of.

“History isn’t a sport, where coming first means everything,” he writes. “The outposts at Popham and Cuttyhunk were quickly abandoned, as were most of the early French and Spanish settlements. Plymouth endured, the English prevailed in the contest for the continent, and the Anglo-American Protestants — New Englanders in particular — molded the new nation’s memory.

“And so a creation myth arose, of Pilgrim Fathers seeding a new land with their piety and work ethic. The winners wrote the history,” he continues. “But the losers matter, especially in the history of early America.”

The “losers” were the people who were already here when the explorers arrived; those Christopher Columbus called “los Indios,” Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano dubbed “la genta de la terra” and the English called “the naturals.”

Their stories didn’t make the history that the winners wrote, but they too should be honored and appreciated.

So, let’s celebrate the explorers. Let’s honor those, of any culture, who have the audacity to strike out for places and things unknown: Brave souls such as polar explorer Adm. Robert Peary, whose home on Eagle Island in Casco Bay recently was named a National Historic Landmark and who said, “Find a way, or make one.” Invaluable guides such as Sacagawea, who, while carrying her baby son, accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey along the Missouri River, serving as an interpreter and teaching them what was edible and how to make clothes out of animal hides. And, yes, Columbus as well, for although he may not have discovered America, he had a lot of gumption to set sail on long journeys to lands unknown.

Let’s honor their collective audacity.

 



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