Where we come from

Thoughts on what California's imagined past means for how we envision the future

A long time ago, before the plague years, California’s capitol rotunda housed a statue of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella with bold words about undertaking an expedition. The symbolism always struck me both as profoundly odd and also rather illuminating. Christopher Columbus never set foot in California. He was rightly known in his own time as a grifter who went from court to court hyping a mirage. More recently, Columbus has long represented the origin story in a once mainstream American mythology.

The statute of Columbus kneeling before Isabella that once stood in the middle of California's capitol rotunda.

That story goes something like this. When everyone in Europe thought the earth was flat, Christopher Columbus boldly sought to reach the East by sailing West. Funded by the Spanish monarchy, Columbus discovered the new world and unlocked a movement to settle a largely empty continent that reached its grand finale in California. While Columbus never set foot here, this land symbolized “America’s America,” full of opportunity for immigrants to build their lives and their future. This mythology crucially gets key anchor points massively wrong.

  1. Lots of people in Europe at the time knew the earth was round. No, Columbus was just bad at math and miscalculated the distance to India.[1]

  2. Columbus also wasn’t even the first European to visit the Americas. That record goes to Erik the Red. Nor was he the first European to "discover" the new world. That record goes to Amerigo Vespucci, the origin of the name of the continent.

  3. Lots of people already lived in the Americas, with recent scholarship showing massively larger populations than were assumed in the textbooks of most people reading this post. Those peoples did not disappear themselves to make way for the grand European Discovery (tm) and March of Progress across the New World.

  4. Columbus himself enslaved, slaughtered and unleashed horrific diseases upon the “Indians” who actually were Caribbean islanders, a reality that was denounced by his contemporaries and sadly is skipped over in the sanitized songs sung by US grade schoolers about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria (like yours truly).

Like many simple yet controversial truths, these realities were long ignored and glossed over. But no longer. Currently California’s capitol rotunda sits empty, a fitting symbol for the absence of a shared mythology. A mentor of mine once argued that the rotunda should be left empty. I respectfully disagree. People need heroes, particularly in trying and turbulent times like the ones we live in today.

What might serve as a unifying symbol embodying what is best about California?

There is a whole California hall of fame full of amazing individuals with inspiring stories. One can imagine a rotating display perhaps incorporating augmented reality or other quintessentially Californian techno-wizardry to showcase the many inspiring individuals here. I firmly believe though that this state does need to acknowledge a deep, simple truth about the people that lived here long before the new arrivals.

The last (known) native California living apart from the descendants of Europeans was found in 1911. Per his tribes custom, one member would introduce another; people did not simply walk up and say “my name is so and so.” Rather one needed another member of the tribe to do the introduction. So he said his name was Ishi,[2] the Yahi word for human.

His story deserves to be uplifted for many reasons.

  1. As a symbol, Ishi reminds us that the journey to California for a better life began long before the Europeans arrived. That simple truth needs to be acknowledged and the small minded Columbian mythology needs to be discarded completely.[3]

  2. As an individual, Ishi showed incredible courage in transitioning from living by stone tools to navigating twentieth century Berkeley. That is the definition of the pioneering spirit that has made California great — the willingness to endure great difficulty in order to navigate the new.

  3. As a word, Ishi reminds us that the California story is profoundly intertwined with the larger human story[4] on this pale blue dot. American California itself began as a global phenomenon, when the entire world rushed in during the Gold Rush, as people from China to Chile to the East Coast to old continent raced to “make their pile.”

That is just one Californian’s dream, however. California could have an open contest calling on the state’s incredible creative assets for drawings, design and big dreams for the space. Such bold visions uplift the human spirit, showing what is possible and encouraging the next generation to go forth despite what difficulties may arise.

To pioneer the new.


[1] The more sophisticated navigators in Portugal didn’t lack courage or vision — they just knew correctly that India was much further away.

Portugal (rightly!) never had any respect for Christopher Columbus. The King thought him a blowhard. After his first voyage across the Atlantic to what we now know is the Caribbean and what the bad-at-math hype man Christopher thought was India, Columbus initially landed in Portugal. The king wasn’t sure what to make of the hostages which did not look like Africans or Arabs (so could perhaps be Indians). The King of Portugal’s court advised killing Columbus to nip the Spanish interest in exploration in the bud. Diplomatic tensions with Spain were already fraught so the King demurred and later the two countries would famously split the rest of the world in two, an arbitrary decision the rest of Europe’s monarchs thought somewhat absurd. '"Show me the clause in Adam's will," snorted Francis I of France' per the book The Conquerors.

[2] As an aside, Ishi developed a relationship with UC Berkeley anthropologist Kroeber, the father of acclaimed science fiction author Ursula Le Guine whose stories prominently feature anthropologist figures making contact with strange new worlds.

[3] Recent anthropological findings have placed the initial migration of Homo sapiens into the Americas tens of thousands of years earlier than the ice age land bridge 12,000 years ago.

[4] Share a brief blurb about how East of Eden shows how Genesis happened all over gain in California

Collect this post to permanently own it.
Pioneering Spirit logo
Subscribe to Pioneering Spirit and never miss a post.