Indigenous Voices: The First Encounter

By Madeleine Cho

When most of us think of the first European and Indigenous encounter, often we think of the European perspective of the whole affair. There is nothing wrong with this, not at all, but we must remember that to each human encounter, there are at least two sides to the story. In this case, it is the First Nations people and the Europeans. The reason for this column is to bring awareness of the past, present, and future from the perspective of Indigenous people.

 A friend of mine, Kelsey Diamond, of the Oji-Cree Tribe, tells me that one of her elders described their first interactions with the Europeans as so, “The first encounter for us would have been curiosity and then helping.” Humans by nature are very special beings. We are capable of something called empathy. Imagine if aliens suddenly came to Earth. How would you feel? Scared? Confused? Disbelieving? Curious? I am sure that these are a few of the many things the Indigenous people felt. Still, through these uncertain feelings, many of the First Nations people found the time to show the Europeans kindness.

The elder of Kelsey’s tribe continues with the following statement, “It was a foreign and harsh land to them. Our people initially would have helped them to survive, extending our way of sharing.” The Europeans were so used to the weather conditions and environment of Europe, it would make perfect sense for them to be unequipped for the harsh winters and sweltering summers. 

Obviously, they managed to survive. Compared to the survival specialists known as the Indigenous people, the Europeans simply paled. They were being taught the skills to survive. They would have needed to learn how to hunt, prepare different types of food, and shelter to survive.

Perhaps the Europeans knew how to calculate math, or knew science that the Indigenous people did not, but does that make them smarter? Ask the poor Europeans who froze to death and see what they think. The First Nations people mastered the skills the Europeans lacked through trial and error, wisdom, and teachings passed down from generation to generation, and decided that they would share this knowledge with the explorers.

 The elder’s tone takes a solemn turn as the story continues,

“Gradually that became our downfall as the Europeans brought foreign diseases and turned our sharing into their taking, by any means.”

“Their motive was to actually conquer us. They initially didn’t know we were here. We shared, then they deceived us because they wanted the land. ‘Discovered’ a new land. They forced their laws upon us.”

Many of the epidemic diseases that were well established in the Old World were absent from the continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Some of these diseases were: Influenza (the flu), smallpox, measles, and typhus fever. All of which would’ve been fatal to anyone unfortunate enough to catch one, especially with the limited medical knowledge at the time. The diseases were especially dangerous to the Indigenous people due to their lack of exposure to the illnesses; their immune systems were unequipped to fight back. This resulted in a devastating loss. It is said that these foreign diseases killed an estimated 90% of the Indigenous population.

In the eyes of the Indigenous people, the Europeans came with the intention of self-profiting no matter the cost. It was easier for them to take advantage of the Indigenous community, so they did. They imposed laws, undid and changed everything the Indigenous people created to their own advantage.

“They invoked their Doctrine of Discovery. Everything has led us to what we live with today. Trauma, identity issues, loss of culture and language, and land disputes.”