Ethnographic and Naturalist Writings

The genre of literary ethnography is the written description of peoples, cultures, and societies. It involves a wide variety of styles and can be adapted to many different purposes. Descriptions of nature–naturalist writings, or natural histories as they are sometimes called–have a similar character. Descriptions of the land, its peoples, and its natural resources are central to narratives of contact and exploration and dominate promotional writings designed to encourage investment and colonization. They are often enthusiastic in tone.

Another tone of this type of writing uses religiously inflected language of wonders and portents, sometimes associated with demonic influence. Drawing on folk beliefs as well as Christian traditions, they recorded observations in a quasi-scientific language influenced by the rise of empiricism, but they applied that language to events, or objects, that were not empirically observable in any direct way.

Eighteenth-century writings distinguished from these earlier works by a deepening empiricism and a complexly self-reflective tone that is often manifested through humor. Travel narratives pay substantial attention to the communities and landscapes they encountered on their journeys, offering rich instances of authors seeking new ways to understand cultures and natural environments.

First Encounters: Early European Accounts of Native America

European voyagers and colonists began writing reports on their ventures. They especially wrote about the land because that is what they wanted to colonize and use for profit. The Native peoples soon became an immense curiosity. Anthropology, as various scholars have argued, was created in the expansion of Europe to the West after 1492. Writings of initial contact between Europeans and Native Americans are often called “First Encounter” writings. European ideology allowed no place either for this other hemisphere or the peoples that dwelled in it. They wondered why Indians weren’t mentioned in the bible. Descriptions of Indians led Europeans to question what were essential human traits.
Common themes were greed, vulnerability, jealousy. European incursions soon became major factors in the economic, political, medical, and cultural life of tribal groups. The sheer geographical range of the phenomenon was enormous. Colonizers took advantage of existing group grudges between the natives. That Hudson’s crew exploited not only weaponry but also liquor as tools for dealing with the Natives reveals the unscrupulous methods often employed by their successors. Much land and people were destroyed. Empire is always implicit or explicit in these texts.
One similarity between explorers Hudson and Champlain is the amount of violence that accompanied their penetration into Native lands. It is crucial to put early American violence into a proper historical context. It occurred on both sides, although European apologists often sought to blame it on Native resistance or what they soon were describing as the inherent “savagery” of the Native peoples. The Iroquois had been carrying out aggressive warfare against other Native peoples, including those of eastern Canada, when the European powers first ventured into that part of the continent. They therefore were much feared and much resisted.
Even without European involvement, intertribal wars in this region could be bloody and widely destructive. However, it is also clear that the coming of Europeans into Native regions exacerbated pre-existing tensions. The presence of Europeans deepened and sharpened Native-on-Native violence. Furthermore, the Europeans not only caused an escalation of Native violence, but also brought their own traditions of bloody warfare with them. Native Americans of the conquest period typically waged war in a restrained, even ritualized, manner as compared with Europeans. But in conveying the Native perception that English warfare was evil because it killed too many people, Underhill provided evidence of the savagery of which European settlers were capable.

Christopher Columbus: 1451-1506

Born near the Mediterranean port of Genoa. Wanted to find a commercially viable Atlantic route to Asia, and in 1492 won the support of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, for this “enterprise of the Indies.” Series of four voyages between 1492 and 1504 provided a brief period of wonder followed by disaster and disappointment. Taino Indians of Hispaniola were the first to find trouble with the settlers Columbus left behind. When Columbus returned to see the progress of the new settlers there were none left. He tried to begin a second settlement here but it fell into such disarray that he was forced to return to Spain to clear his name of charges set against him by other Europeans in the West Indies. On his third voyage he found South America. When he returned again to Hispaniola, he found Spanish settlers there who were against Columbus. He felt he could only solve this problem by allowing the Spaniards to enslave the Tainos while he himself was sent back to Spain in chains to answer to more charges. His last voyage, in order to clear his name, resulted in a long period of suffering in Panama and shipwreck in Jamaica and a mental breakdown. He was eventually rescued and returned to Europe where he died. The West Indies remained disorderly and bloody. A letter sent by Columbus to Luis de Santangel, a royal official and early supporter of his venture, provides a more authentic account and served as the basis for the first printed description of America, issued in 1493 in Spain and widely translated and reprinted across Europe.

The Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians of the mainland: remarkable for their hospitality and their sharing. Columbus wrote in his journal:

“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Another entry:

“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”

The information Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold which was more powerful than land since it could buy anything. For finding gold, Spain promised Columbus a ten percent cut of the profits, governorship of the new found lands and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He was headed to Asia but never would have made it – he thought the world was smaller. The first one to sight land was to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life. The first man to sight land was named Rodrigo, but Columbus claimed he saw land first and took the prize.

When the Santa Maria ran aground in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic), Columbus used the wood to build a fort, the first military base in the Western Hemisphere. He left thirty-nine crew members there. As the weather turned cold on the route back to Spain the Indian prisoners began to die.
Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction. Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report, he was given more ships and men for his next expedition; (17 ships and 1,200+ men). Their aim was clear: slaves and gold. As word of their intentions spread, Columbus’s gang found more and more empty villages. When he returned to his first military outpost he found all his men dead. The Indians killed them because the men roamed the island taking women and children for labor and as sex slaves.

Because the expedition could find no gold in Haiti they sent as many Indian slaves back as possible. There was a problem with many of the Indians dying in route or during their captivity; the pressure was intense for Columbus to send back something of value. All slaves on the island over the age of 14 were commanded to find a certain amount of gold every three months. They would get a copper ring for every three month allotment of gold. If a slave was found without a copper ring they would cut the Indian’s hands off and allow them to bleed to death. There was not enough gold to find so most slaves fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed. The Arawaks could not fight the Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords and horses. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. When no more gold came in, the Indians were herded into large labor estates called encomiendas. By 1650 all of the Indians of the island had died.

from Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage
[At sea, February 15, 1493]

I found many islands in the Indies and have taken possession of them in your name. I was met with no opposition and so began naming the islands. I found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance. I took some of the Indians who told me this space was only an island, but it was fertile and limitless with harbors, rivers, highlands, sierras, mountains, trees, flowers, fruit, birds, palms, plants, honey, metals and cultivatable lands.

from Select Documents Illustrating the Four Voyages of Columbus (1930-33)
Letter of Discovery (1493)
Sir, you will be pleased at my great victory. In thirty-three days, I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies. I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me. I named many islands along the way. I saw no habitation along the coast, so I sent a couple men inland. They found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance. I understood sufficiently from other Indians, whom I had already taken, that this land was nothing but an island. I named this island Espanola [Haiti] which, along with the others, is very fertile to a limitless degree. Many harbors, rivers, sierras and very lofty mountains. This island is filled with thousands of different kinds of trees; some of them were flowering, some bearing fruit. There are birds of a thousand kinds. They have cultivatable lands, honey, a diversity of fruits, mines of metals and a population without number. Espanola is a marvel. The land is rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of every kind and for building towns and villages. Great harbors, good waters, the majority of which contain gold. Many spices. All go naked. They have no iron or steel or weapons. They are very marvellously timorous. They have no other arms than weapons made of canes. As soon as they have seen my men approaching they have fled, even a father not waiting for his son. Where I have been and been able to have speech, I have given to them of all that I had, such as cloth and many other things, without receiving anything for it; they are incurably timid.
The people are so guileless and so generous with all they possess. They never refuse anything which they possess, if it be asked of them. They invite anyone to share what they have and display love. Some of my men began to trade things of no value for things of immense value. It seemed wrong, so I told them to stop. These people may eventually become Christians. They strive to aid us and to give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us. They all believe that power and good are in the heavens, and they are very firmly convinced that I, with these ships and men, came from the heavens. They are of a very acute intelligence and are men who navigate all those seas.
And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island which I found, I took by force some of them, in order that they might learn and give me information of that which there is in those parts, and so it was that they soon understood us, and we them, either by speech or signs, and they have been very serviceable. I still take them with me, and they are always assured that I come from Heaven, for all the intercourse which they have had with me and they were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others went running from house to house and to the neighboring towns, with loud cries of, ‘Come! Come to see the people from Heaven!’ So all, men and women alike, when their minds were set at rest concerning us, came, so that not one, great or small, remained behind, and all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with extraordinary affection. In all the island, they have very many canoes which they use for getting quickly from island to island.
In all these islands, I saw no great diversity in the appearance of the people or in their manners and language. On the contrary, they all understand one another, which is a very curious thing, on account of which I hope that their highnesses will determine upon their conversion to our holy faith, towards which they are very inclined. In this Espanola there are mines of gold. There will be great trade and gain. I have taken possession of a large town and in it I have made a fort. I have left in it sufficient men with arms, artillery and provisions for more than a year. We’ve made great friendship with the king of that land who treats me like a brother. The island is without danger for their persons, if they know how to govern themselves.
In all these islands, it seems to me that all men are content with one woman, and to their chief or king they give as many as twenty. It appears to me that the women work more than the men. In that which one had, all took a share, especially of eatable things. The whole population is very well-formed with flowing hair. They eat meats with many and extremely hot spices. We heard reports of cannibals from another island. In another, larger than Espanola, the people have no hair and gold incalculable. I bring Indians from there as evidence. Their highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they may need, if their highnesses will render me very slight assistance. We can get spices and cotton, mastic and aloe wood, slaves, rhubarb and cinnamon. I should have done much more, if the ships had served me, as reason demanded.

He writes that, due to weather, he had to take shelter for a couple of weeks in Portugal, which he calls “Lisbon.” This made Spain suspicious, as Portugal was an enemy of Spain.

From Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella Regarding the Fourth Voyage
[Jamaica, July 7, 1503]

Paria was the mainland region of what is now Venezuela. Columbus, who had first landed in South America in 1498, argued that the terrestrial paradise lay nearby. It seems that everyone here is an expert at destruction. I pray your highnesses before I went to discover these islands and Terra Firma, that you would leave them to me to govern in your royal name. You gave me wide power over this and over all that I might further discover. Now all, down to the very tailors, seek permission to make discoveries. It can be believed that they go forth to plunder, and it is granted to them to do so, so that they greatly prejudice my honor and do very great damage to the enterprise. After I, by the divine will, had placed them under your royal and exalted lordship, and was on the point of securing a very great revenue, suddenly, while I was waiting for ships to come to your high presence with victory and with great news of gold, being very secure and joyful, I was made a prisoner and with my two brothers and was thrown into a ship, laden with fetters, stripped to the skin, very ill-treated, and without being tried or condemned. Please side with me and back me up. I pray Your Highnesses to pardon me. I am so ruined as I have said.

Literature before 1820: Stories of the Beginning of the World


The versions found in the Norton Anthology date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These written narratives are transcriptions or translations of oral stories whose origins long precede such transcription. Second, the Iroquois and Pima narratives present a worldview that contrasts markedly with the worldview the colonizers brought with them. They serve as representations of early Native American culture.
Literary culture and history can be presented as something changeful, alive, and available to all who read patiently and in good faith. These writings reflect the “importance of balance among all elements.”
Readings bring us into a recognition that other cultures were present, active, and imaginatively engaged at the time of European settlement. The American experience was being looked at passionately, and from many perspectives, as European and native cultures encountered one another.
Creation stories help assure people who they are because the stories attempt to describe where they came from. Native American creation stories were never written down or collected, but they are equal to the functions of Genesis for Christians who read the bible. They offer perspective on what life is and how to understand it. All Native peoples have stories of their earliest times. These stories were not understood or transcribed until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and they were written by Euro-Americans. This time was also when the Native Americans began to extensively record their myths and legends.

The Iroquois Creation Story

Spend some time in close reading to help fully understand the human sensibility in these texts. Patience and comfort with uncertainty are required of all mature readers who seek to move across time, landscape, and large cultural barriers. Pull help from the head notes and introductory materials.
We can scrutinize the differences between these Native American creation myths and accounts from other cultures. These Native American stories do not enforce a distinction between the Creator and world created. These stories do not talk about a world somewhere else; the world spoken of is a world that is right here, to be gazed on and known firsthand as the tale is told again and again.
These differences matter because we have to then acknowledge certain habits of mind, habits of imagining and telling, that are culturally contingent and yet rarely recognized by us as paradigms, as ways of organizing not just experience, but also our narratives about experience.
It is helpful to create a visual “map” or interpretive sketch of the events of the Iroquois Creation Story. The woman who conceived begins in the “upper world” but falls to the “dark world,” where “monsters” collect enough earth to make a seat for her, on which she gives birth to the twins: the good mind and the bad mind. The twins transform the earthen seat, the Great Island that the monsters have created for the woman who fell, into a world that begins to resemble a world of humans rather than of mythical people; indeed, the story ends with the twins retiring from the earth, as the creation has been accomplished. There are three “generations” of beings: the original parent (the woman who fell from the sky), the twins (one of whom, the good mind, creates the earth and, by deceiving the bad mind, sets in motion the “nature of the system” we know as the world), and the first people with souls (who come to inhabit the universe).
The Iroquois Creation Story is only one variant of a story whose main elements may be relatively fixed but whose details change in its communal and participatory retelling. Communal participation results from viewing creation as a process of descent rather than as a one-time construction in a single god’s image.
Compare to the Book of Genesis. Descent in the Iroquois story suggests a process of creation rather than the completed act of a single creator; the woman who fell from the sky may have become parthenogenetically pregnant, thereby linking the origins of the world to women (or to an asexual being capable of parthenogenesis) rather than to a patriarchal god (note that the Iroquois were matrilineal); and the monsters in the “dark world” are benign compared with the devils that inhabit Western conceptions of hell, and these monsters actually help the falling woman give birth. The good twin creates “two images of the dust of the ground in his own likeness,” unlike the single male image the Western god creates in Genesis, where the female image is later created from a rib of the male.
One could make a list of the characters in the myth and try to determine each one’s particular contribution, without which the creation would not be complete. While a Western narrative might suggest that the woman who fell from the sky and the good twin are “central” characters, the Iroquois story highlights the importance of the other characters and the interdependence of all. The turtle, for example, who offers to endure the falling woman’s weight and who enlarges to become an island of earth is essential to the origin of the world, as are the contrivances of the bad twin, without whom we would not have mountains, waterfalls, reptiles, and the idea that even the good twin’s powers are limited (as are those of humans). This suggests that there is no human agency without help from a variety of participants and that all creative powers must know their limits. If possible, read Wiget’s beautiful interpretation of the story of the woman who fell. He says, in part, that the Earth-Diver is the story of the Fortunate Fall played out against a landscape more vast than Eden and yet on a personal scale equally as intimate. It is a story of losses, the loss of celestial status, the loss of life in the depths of the sea. But it is also the story of gifts, especially the gift of power over life, the gift of agriculture to sustain life, and the gift of the vision to understand man’s place as somewhere between the abyss and the stars.

Pima Stories of the Beginning of the World

Two prevalent themes in Native American creation myths: the “woman who fell from the sky” and the “emergence” of the world. One of the images that distinguishes the emergence narrative, connecting the Pima myth to it, is Juhwertamahkai poking a hole in the sky with his staff and emerging through this hole into another dimension, where he begins his act of world creation anew. Some scholars have suggested that this movement is a metaphor for the numerous migrations of Native American peoples, and that these myths may implicitly record those migrations. In discussing this story, students might try some comparisons, locating similarities and differences between Iroquois and Pima myths and among other Native American and Western versions of “genesis.” Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, which favors one story of origin, Native American traditions offer many creation stories, as if this wide and fecund world required many exploits to get it going.
In the Pima, as in Genesis, the world begins “in the beginning” with a person who floated in the darkness; in Genesis, the spirit of God hovers over the darkness. Even so, recognizing the perils of the transcription is crucial to “reading” the opening of this story, for the language of the English transcription itself echoes the language of Genesis—and those echoes could have been wished for by the English-speaking translator as much as inherently there in the original text. Later on the story ceases to resemble Genesis. Indeed, Juhwertamahkai makes several mistakes in the process of creating the world. Unlike the Western god, whose destruction of the world by flood is blamed on human behavior, Juhwertamahkai takes a trial-and-error approach to creation, starting over or letting the sky fall each time the creative act sets in motion a process that will not sustain life. As the headnote points out, he makes the world four times before he is satisfied with his creation, establishing the number four (corresponding to north, south, east, and west) as significant in Native American cosmology.
The Pima Story of the Creation includes the birth of Coyote, the trickster of many Native American legends.
In the Pima Story of the Flood, Seeurhuh, or Ee-ee-toy, and Juhwertamahkai seem to engage in a struggle—not about creation but about recreation. This is an interesting theme and a promising basis for a conversation.