Legend has it that long before Columbus County became Columbus County, a meteor fell to help to create Lake Waccamaw and name its inhabitants “The People of the Falling Star.” A friend told me that on Friday, October 17, and Saturday, October 18, on the Waccamaw Siouan Tribal Grounds in the Buckhead community of Bolton, NC, the descendants of folks who may have witnessed that star fall thousands of years ago will hold a powwow—a celebration of their heritage. I may get down there to celebrate and learn.
I’m grateful Christopher Columbus discovered the three-day weekend, but I wondered how it happened that I spent less than two years living in Northern California and learned a fair amount about the Pit River peoples that inhabited the region for over 12,000 years. Yet, I’ve lived in North Carolina for the last 20 years and know basically nothing about its original human occupants? Sure, I was younger, and we got around more than we do now. I remember running a race on aromatic trails through the huge redwoods above Burney Falls in Shasta County. Local inhabitants carved the trails maybe a few thousand years ago. We camped near the falls and learned that the first people considered the twin falls a power spot for centuries, used to vision quest, and dug deep pits there. Eventually, the white settlers called the 11 related bands of peoples “Pit River.” We attended two powwows, and I learned that time is even more relative than I thought. When a client showed up at 4 p.m. for a 9 a.m. appointment, if it was still Tuesday, he was pretty much on time.
Then again, no one accused Christopher Columbus of discovering Burney Falls, Mt. Shasta, or the Sacramento River. That’s the West for you. Clearly, “Indian Country.” Kids have played cowboys and indians on the streets of South Philly or Wilmington for generations, but the imaginary battles raged somewhere in the western prairies and high plains—where the buffalo roamed with nomad tribes of Navaho and Apache peoples for centuries.
It’s different here on the eastern seaboard. This is where Columbus and the Plymouth Rock pilgrims planted the seeds of our mythical immigrant empire. This is where American history really starts. The Delaware, Cherokee, and our Waccamaw were merely placeholders until we arrived. We act as if the original occupants were looking for a reason to sell Manhattan, leave the slums of Philly and Boston, or the swamps of South Carolina and Florida for the chance of a new start in California. After all, we know Manhattan is no place for a tee-pee.
We, of course, are descendants of those intrepid explorers like Columbus and immigrant seekers of religious freedom like the pilgrims. We are clearly not descendants of conquistadors. At least, that’s the myth.
I guess my problem with Columbus Day is that I’m aware that, in addition to being an intrepid explorer, Columbus was special forces; the tip of the spear of a 500-year “Occupy Movement.” Most of us learned Columbus sailed the ocean blue in the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Most of us didn’t learn that was only the first of three voyages, or that on a second voyage he brought 1,500 troops, canons and attack dogs, and enslaved thousands of indigenous inhabitants.
Look, I grew up a few blocks from an imposing statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza in Philly. I’m well aware that Italian Americans have made enormous contributions to art, science and humanity in general. I’m not saying that we should cease and desist celebrating three-day weekends, but Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota already do not recognize Columbus Day. On October 6, Seattle joined Minneapolis in voting to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day.
I remember that lone tear of “Crying Indian” during the ‘70s Keep America Beautiful campaign. It taught me more than not to litter. It taught me that despite what Pete Seeger and the history books say, this land was not your land, my land, or made for you and me.
Maybe it is time to celebrate and learn a little more about the People of the Falling Star.