For many years a debate hung over the use of the word “discovered” when talking about Columbus Day. Italian Americans lobbied Congress in 1934 for a holiday to honor their heritage and recognize the contributions of their immigrant ancestors. However, Americans failed to acknowledge the role of the many people who lived in the Americas when the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies on the island the Lucayan people called Guanahani. Claiming the island for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus renamed it San Salvadore.
In 2021 President Joe Biden officially endorsed the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ day. Many states now observe this holiday instead of, or as well as, Columbus Day. I found this holiday a good reminder to reflect on Native American heritage and even to discover what tribes lived on the lands I’m now on. An interactive map for the Canadian website Native Land Digital (native-land.ca) shows territories throughout the Americas that Indigenous people inhabited. You can learn about this nonprofit’s sources for its map on its website. When I clicked on the California state area, a box popped up listing the names of the many tribes that had dwelled there. I’ve researched several of them and found that each group had its own language, customs, ceremonies, foods, and tools depending on its location. For example, some peoples used locally-sourced clay to make pots while others living near marshes used reeds to weave baskets and mats. I feel I now have a better understanding of their lives and their world before Spanish explorers came.
A notice about knitting scarves for homeless people caught my attention and I am now adding my donation to the cause. As I calculated how long the project might take (probably about two weeks), I paused to think about making clothing two hundred years ago. It took me a year to knit just one sweater, but in early California, every stitch of clothing was sewn by hand. Talk about labor intensive! All baby clothes, dresses, shirts, linens, bedding. Often many pieces were decorated with embroidery. The Native American women at the missions were taught to weave to make blankets and rough cloth, using the wool from mission sheep and goats. The Franciscan friars taught them to sew clothing also. My knitting is just a hobby. The women in the past made their clothes out of necessity. And some men too. They did buy some clothing from trading ships—boots and shoes, hats, fine Peruvian wool or Chinese silk shawls, men’s jackets.
Pioneers across the West did such work. We have all heard of sewing bees and women neighbors gathering to make patchwork quilts as gifts for soon-to-be-married couples. But think of all the cooking and cleaning that women did as well! Churning butter, making cheese, baking bread, endless housework. They served as the family doctors and nurses and prepared birthday and holiday celebrations. They performed truly amazing amounts of work and should be remembered and honored as much as the well-known male historical figures are.
Fresh, ripe fruit just picked from a tree is much juicier and sweeter than store-bought. As I bit into one of our plums, I thought about the lives of early California people, both Native Americans and the Mexicans, and understood how much they yearned for fresh fruits, berries, and especially greens after a long winter without any. When my plum tree produced masses of fruit last year, I decided to preserve as much as I could. It takes lots of time and energy, boiling jars, picking, pitting, and cooking the fruit, and preserving it in canning jars. But it is worth it to have sweet plum jam on toast when snow covers the ground. Early settlers would not have that luxury of juicy stone fruit jams, but they would have stored apples and pears for winter and maybe citrus fruits would be brought on ships from southern Alta California. How lucky we are in the twenty-first century to get produce from around the world. Yet I still think that your own homegrown fruits and vegetables taste the best.