European “discoveries” have long relied heavily on native guides • Earth.com
A look at the help European explorers have received from native peoples and how natives are often left uncredited.
07-05-2018

European “discoveries” have long relied heavily on native guides

In 1806, 19 men set out on the Burke-Willis expedition from Melbourne with the objective of crossing Australia.  By May 1861, the expedition was trading sugar for essential food with aborigines.

Burke, one of the leaders of the expedition, shot his pistol at one of the Native Australians.  The whole group of aborigines left the area and within a month, Burke and Willis were both dead.  In total, seven men on the expedition died and only one man crossed Australia and returned to Melbourne alive.  The whole expedition in its structure followed European standards. Several camels and one horse were used to carry supplies across a land where the indigenous people traditionally had no pack animals.  Broken down wagons slowed the expedition down.

Burke was a former Australian army officer born in Ireland with little actual outdoor expedition experience.  As was typical of the day, being a military officer meant that more competent leadership was assumed and greater authority assumed over others with more outdoor but less military experience.

The foolishness of ignoring experience and alienating helpful natives highlights the arrogance and assumptions that has been inherent in most exploration in European experiences from Columbus onward.  

The expeditions often most successful in Antarctica learned how to live and travel in Polar Regions from Natives in the Arctic first.  Roald Amundsen, the first man to lead a successful expedition to the geographic South Pole, learned much from the Inuit. Amundsen, a Norwegian, was quick to learn from working seal hunters and whalers that had sailed the edges of the Arctic for centuries, while these men were generally looked down upon by the British navy.  Amundsen learned to train and use dog sled teams from time spent with the Inuit as well as how to hunt, fish and kayak. Essentials like expedition clothing were also based on clothes worn in the Arctic by the Inuit.

In December 1911 and January 1912, Robert Falcon Scott, a British explorer of a different sort, raced Amundsen to the pole.  At stake was an antiquated sense of national pride as well as personal reputation and scientific discovery. Scott embodied the assumptions of the official British Navy of the time.  Scott had the impression from his first polar expedition that dogs weren’t an efficient means of travel in Antarctica. Scott’s experience though was the experience of men who never properly learned how to use sled dogs.  In fact, Scott and his men were inefficient skiers, who overloaded the dogs to slow them down and keep pace with their inexperienced skiing. Amundsen, on the other hand, had years of experience on skis, starting from his youth in Norway.

With Scott’s distrust of sled dogs, his expedition relied more on ponies, which couldn’t handle the Antarctic conditions and new motorized sledges that still in their infancy broke down often.  Scott’s expedition quickly turned to hauling their sledge’s manually, an exhausting and slow way to travel. In the end, Scott’s party reached the pole to find Amundsen had planted his flag there a month earlier.  Scott’s entire party died on their return from the geographic South Pole. Amundsen’s men were healthy enough to actually gain weight on their return trip from the pole.

The example of Scott and Amundsen highlights something important in the history of European exploration.  When Europeans set out to ‘explore’ the globe, there were already people living in almost all the places they intended to explore.  The exception of course is Antarctica, but it’s still obvious that there were people already living comfortably in similarly demanding environments in the Arctic.  Europeans general failed or succeeded by how much they were willing to accept or illicit help from indigenous people the world over.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was a geologist, geographer and ethnologist originally from Guilderland New York.  In 1832, he set out to explore and find the headwaters of the Mississippi River for the U.S. government. Schoolcraft is often credited with the discovery of the headwaters of the Mississippi River but this account fails to acknowledge the reality.  Three branches of the Algonquin tribe lived in the area before Europeans ever arrived. Schoolcraft’s discovery was mainly an exercise in asking Native Americans where the source of the Mississippi River was, visiting it and then taking credit for discovering it.  

Sacagawea has of course been well known for her help as a guide and translator for the Lewis and Clark expedition.  What is less known is the level of help given to the expedition by other Native Americans.

In April 2018, a graduate student from University of New Mexico rediscovered a map drawn by Too Né, a leader of the Arikara; a Native American tribe from the modern Dakota region.  The map was drawn for the expedition, showing that the land Lewis and Clark were entering wasn’t terra incognita except in the European mind. Too Né also accompanied the expedition for a time. The Nez Perce probably saved the Lewis and Clark expedition by deciding to aid them rather than kill them, as they considered doing at first contact.  

Food from the Nez Perce came at a time when the expedition was nearly starving.  All together the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered almost 50 Native American tribes during their journey.  It’s not hard to imagine that any one of the tribes could have killed an expedition of at most 59 people (and one dog) in lands they were much less familiar with.  Instead many tribes helped the expedition by trading, supplying food and giving good advice. It’s an interesting commentary that we consider Lewis and Clark’s expedition as one of discovery rather than simply one of establishing new trading routes with already established indigenous communities.  

Exploration of the Amazon Rainforest by Europeans began in earnest when Francisco de Orellana took boats down the Coca River and subsequently the Amazon.  The expedition is stunning, Orellana basically stumbled blind into the trip, sailing farther than he was originally ordered and building ships at the mouth of the Amazon to sail home to Spain.  On the trip Orellana encountered populations of Native Americans in densities contested by modern historians. The reluctance to accept Orellana’s firsthand accounts of native villages says as much about the European concept of ‘wilderness’ as it does about how many people lived in the area in pre-Columbian times.  The fact is that when the Spanish first came into the Amazon, there were a number of thriving native civilizations already there.

The truth of the matter is that when Europeans encountered other parts of the world, they carried their biases with them.  You can see a bias towards a certain pastoral landscape when you look at an expansive golf course created with imported grasses in Tucson Arizona.  The same landscape is recreated in its basics in every corner of North America and indeed Europe. Instead of living in the landscape as it is, European Americans have imported their own landscape.  We’ve dammed rivers and pumped out aquifers to create the illusion. There are fountains everywhere in Las Vegas Nevada, and an artificial seascape where pirate ships fight to the fictional death, all on an average of less than 5 inches of rainfall a year.  

Europeans act as if they’ve discovered new continents, new islands, colonized barren landscapes.  In reality all too often what we’ve done is destroyed the landscape and culture left behind by people crushed under the boot of imperialism.  Time and again we’ve purported the myth of empty landscapes, most notably in North America. The reasons we do this is as much about creating an illusion of an inhospitable landscape that must be conquered through technology and hard work as it is about justifying the destruction and robbery of natives.  Instead of learning from native peoples how to live in harmony with a different type of environment, European exploration is a legacy of destroying and reducing environments. It’s no coincidence that the help given to these ‘explorers’ by native peoples is often discredited or ignored, instead emphasizing the destructive European view point.  Instead of learning landscapes, we’ve all too often destroyed them until they’re compatible with our established and unimpeachable world view.

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Contributing Writer           

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day