In which an old Native American describes to his grandson his feelings on encountering European explorers for the first time
The boy saw it before the others. Bearing down upon their canoe was a large vessel with white sails spread like the wings of a giant bird. He cried out with fear, but the old man, his grandfather, laid a hand on his arm and said calmly,
“Fear not, my son, it is the giant canoe of the white man. They will not harm us.” He spoke these words with more conviction than he felt. He rapped out an order to the other men in the boat, and six pairs of paddles guided the canoe out of harm’s way. The rowers paused to watch the ship pass. They stared in awe, their glances returned by the curious eyes of the sailors leaning over the rail of the vessel.
The old man’s eyes were drawn to a man standing proudly in the bows of the boat. The ship’s captain was a burly, broad-shouldered individual with a thick red beard. His eyes stared back at the old man with a fierce glare. Their eyes locked, and the old man felt a tremor of fear run through his body as he glimpsed the hard ruthless expression that spread across the other’s face. Then suddenly without warning the captain’s face broke into a broad grin and he waved his arm at the old man. The old man raised his hand and returned the greeting, and the ship was gone, sweeping away towards the horizon, its backwash gently rocking the canoe and its passengers.
“Who were they, grandfather,” asked the boy in wonder.
“I know not my son, nor do I know where they are bound, but they are clearly in haste! I do not believe we will see them again. Now let us return to the village.” At the old man’s command the rowers propelled the small but sea-worthy canoe across the waters of the strait towards the mainland.
Later that evening the old man sat outside his dome-shaped ki, made from willow branches woven across a stout frame. His stomach was full from the day’s catch of fish, and he was gazing pensively at the crimson horizon to the west beyond the big island.
“Grandfather Sky,” he whispered, “Creator of all the gifts we enjoy, I give you thanks for the air we breathe, the food we eat, the land we live upon. May you return again in glory after the darkness of sleep.”
He felt the presence of someone behind him. “What is it, my son?” he said softly.
“Grandfather,” began the boy as he sat down by the old man’s side. “How did you know about the ship this afternoon, about the men with white faces, I mean?”
“Because I have seen their like before, young one, many moons ago, long before you were born,” replied the old man.
“Tell me about it, grandfather!” said the boy eagerly. “Tell me all about it!”
The old man smiled and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Alas my son my memory dims with time. My life’s journey will soon be over. But I will tell you what I can still remember. But you must promise me that when my tale is done, you will go to rest. Tomorrow we have much work to do.”
“Of course, grandfather. I will do as you say,” replied the boy respectfully.
The old man smiled as he looked into the young face that seemed to shine with anticipation in the light of the fire. He felt a clutch at his heart as he remembered his own youthful curiosity and hope.
“Well,” he began, “I was a young boy, barely older than you are now, when the first white man came to our shores. I remember it was the time when the leaves turn brown and fall from the tree. I was down at the bay to the east with my father. We were searching for abalone when the ships were sighted, three large canoes with sails. We had never seen such vessels before. Many were afraid, and wished to flee into the hills, but those of us who were brave enough took up weapons to defend ourselves, spears and harpoons, clubs and some bows and arrows, and prepared to fight. The boats, meanwhile, entered the bay and halted some distance from the shore. Two small boats, filled with white men, were launched and approached the shore. We were ready to drive off these invaders.”
“What did these men look like, grandfather?” interrupted the boy.
“They were tall in stature, and their bodies were covered in clothes. Some were encumbered with heavy shirts of iron, and I remember thinking that they must feel very hot inside these iron suits. Most of them wore hair upon their faces, and they looked none too clean. They were a savage-looking band of men, and we felt fear, but we were determined to protect our women and children. But then a strange thing happened. A man in a red cloak jumped from the first boat and waded through the shallows to the shore. He was unarmed, and he raised his arm in a sign of peace. He walked forward alone, and stretched out his hand in greeting to one of the elders of our village. The elder grasped his hand, and at that moment our people and the men in the boats breathed an audible sigh of relief. Tense muscles relaxed, and some faces broke into smiles. The man in the cloak touched hands with others of the elders, and by gestures indicated that he wished for food and water for his men.”
“So there was no fighting, grandfather,” asked the boy earnestly.
“No, my son. The other men came ashore, and we escorted them to our village where we served to them fish and corn and squash and beans, and gave them fresh water to drink.”
“So, who were these men?” said the boy.
“The leader who was wearing the red cloak told us his name. It is difficult to say, but I learned to speak it,” answered the old man. “He told us that his name was Cabrillo, and that he and his men came from a land to the south called New Spain. They were looking to trade and explore, and hoped to find a way to a far-off land named China. He showed us some rocks that glittered in the light, and asked us if we had ever found any of these rocks in our hills. Although we told him we had never seen such rocks, he asked us again several times. He gave us necklaces of beads and cloth of the same material as his cloak. We gave him water and plentiful food to take on his journey. On the evening before his departure there was a great feast in our village. It was good that he left the next day because some of his men became intoxicated with strong liquor, and began to molest some of our women. Cabrillo intervened, and sent the men back to their ships, but the good feeling between our two peoples was draining away. The following morning his three ships sailed away to the north.”
“How did you feel about these people, grandfather?” asked the boy. “Were they good men or bad?”
“Well, my son,” said the old man thoughtfully. “Let me tell you a story. When I was a boy about to enter manhood, I was given the ‘momoy’ to drink. When you take this drink, it brings visions and pictures to your mind. These visions can fill the heart with terror. I have seen boys driven mad by these sights. It is a challenge to your spirit to witness and endure them. When I took the ‘momoy’, I saw white-faced monsters come to our land. I saw them enslave us, make us sick with disease and make us forget our creator, ‘Quaoar’. It was terrifying. When I awoke from these visions, I was afraid. The Creator gave me strength to overcome my fears, but I have always viewed the white men with suspicion. Sometimes my visions return to me in my dreams at night.”
The young boy was looking at his grandfather with awe.
“Did you ever see the man, Cabrillo, again?” he asked.
“Yes, I did,” said his grandfather. “Barely two moons had passed, and I was with my father over on the big island. We had gone there to trade with our brothers. Cabrillo’s ship was anchored by the shore. He had returned from the north, and was there to restock his vessels with supplies for the journey to New Spain. All was calm until suddenly as the sun was fading from the sky, there was an uproar on the beach. Some of Cabrillo’s men, ashore to fill their water barrels, had molested two of our women, and our brothers on the island desired to kill them. Cabrillo heard the uproar, and took a boat from his vessel to try to calm the dispute. As his boat neared the shore, he leaped out. In his haste, he slipped and fell striking his leg on a jagged rock. He cried out in pain, and screamed many words angrily in his strange tongue. We rushed to help him. When we arrived, his face was drawn with pain, and he was groaning with agony. He had shattered the big bone in his leg. (Here the old man pointed to his shinbone). It was broken in many places. The sailors put him in the boat, took him back to the ship, and sailed away without further delay. We heard from our brothers on the small island that he had developed a fever, his leg had turned black, and he had died. They say that his body is buried somewhere on the small island. His men sailed back to New Spain and they never returned.”
“Have you ever seen the white men again?” asked the boy.
“Not until this day,” replied the old man. “When I saw the big ship, I was seized with fear that the white monsters had come and that my worst dreams and visions might soon be realized.”
“But, grandfather,” protested the boy, “you were brave and you made us feel safe from harm.”
“A man learns to control his fear,” declared the old man. “It is a lesson you will learn. And now, my son, it is time for sleep. For tomorrow you must coat the ti’at (canoe) with tar so that we can return to the ocean for more fish. I do not think we will see those white men again. Sleep well, my son.”
And with these words the old man spread out his mat to sleep beneath the stars.
- The red-bearded captain who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the story is English buccaneer and explorer, Sir Francis Drake. At the moment that he passes the native canoe in the strait between the mainland of California and Catalina Island in June, 1579, he is sailing up the west coast of North America prior to heading out across the Pacific Ocean to China. He is about to become the first English sailor to circumnavigate the globe. During his journey he was periodically engaged in attacks on England’s traditional enemy, Spain, and he captured a rich cargo of spices and Spanish treasure which he shared on his return with his queen, Elizabeth I. In return, he was knighted, and later achieved further fame in the fight against the Spanish Armada. He was supposed to have landed somewhere on the west coast of America, but such was the paranoia of Elizabethan times that records of his voyage were kept secret. A fire in Whitehall Palace in the seventeenth century destroyed official records of his voyage. Descriptions taken from personal accounts of the journey which survive suggest Drake’s Bay in the Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco, as the most likely site of his landing although points as far north as Oregon and Vancouver Island have registered rival claims.
- Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (or Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho – there seems to be some doubt as to whether this intrepid explorer was Spanish or Portuguese!) did visit the Bay of San Pedro on October 8, 1542, during his epic voyage north as first European to explore the west coast. He called the bay ‘Baya de Los Fumos’. He was indeed met by “a great crowd of armed Indians”, but was able to pacify and befriend them. He later continued his journey north reaching Point Reyes and Russian River, where winter weather caused him to turn back. His death, as a result of gangrene from his leg injury sustained on Catalina Island on his way home, is as described in the story. He had previously joined Hernan Cortes in his successful expedition into Mexico, and had become a wealthy landowner, enslaving the local indigenous people to work in his gold mines. He set out on his epic voyage in September 1542. There is a National Monument to him on Point Loma in San Diego Bay where he made his first landing in California.
- “Momoy’ is a drink derived from the hallucinogenic plant ‘Datura’ or ‘jimson weed’. It is believed that it was given to young boys as part of an initiation ceremony into adulthood. The drink caused strong auditory and visual hallucinations which occasionally drove partakers to the verge of insanity. Challenging and disturbing sensations caused by ingesting the drug were considered to be a test of the subject’s moral and spiritual strength. In my story, the boy who later becomes the grandfather in the story sees terrifying visions of ‘white monsters’ who destroy his culture. This may seem to some a melodramatic literary device, but the truth is that two hundred years after the time of this story the old man’s vision was in some senses realized. In 1771 the Mission San Gabriel was built near Los Angeles, and the indigenous people were essentially enslaved and forced to accept Christianity. Many of them were wiped out by exposure to Western diseases while the culture and language of the survivors was ruthlessly eliminated. So much so that those who have survived into the new century are divided and in conflict. There is even disagreement over the name of the native peoples of this area. The Spanish called them ‘Gabrielinos’, a single questionable source has conjured the name ‘Tongva’, but a sizeable group insist that they are ‘Kizh’, ‘Kij’ or ‘Kichereno’. I only hope that future generations can find peace and restore and renew the precious cultural heritage that they have lost.