Unveiling the Hidden History Beyond Western Exploration Myths

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Exploration Rewriting

In the vast expanse of the Oregon Trail, there exists only one museum that dares to recount America’s westward expansion from the perspective of those who were being expanded into. Nestled in an Oregon corner, bordered by Washington and Idaho, this museum is a labyrinth of wood-paneled galleries and interactive exhibits that celebrate the rich heritage of Native people while lamenting the devastating losses they endured during the arrival of pioneers. As visitors descend a long ramp, they step into the brick facade of a replicated “Indian training school,” where Native children were forcibly assimilated. A century-old photograph of these students, clad in matching uniforms like miniature soldiers, gazes back at the onlookers.

Bobbie Conner, the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute situated on the Umatilla Reservation, home to the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes, explained, “We were told to write our own history if we want it told well. And this story is as old as time: conquest.”

The history of exploration has often been presented in a simplistic binary narrative—the conqueror and the conquered. The explorer stands tall, whether conquering towering mountains, remote islands, or uncontacted tribes. However, today the concept of exploration has expanded its boundaries. We explore not only the external world but also our own bodies, ancestry, cognitive abilities, and even the idea of home. We delve into history and question who holds the power to shape and tell it. The modern explorer has assumed various roles, from adventurer to showman, scientist to reconciler—a new archetype emerging to help us comprehend our collective journey and, hopefully, prevent the repetition of past mistakes.

Aviation has captivated human imagination since Alexander Graham Bell, an early president of National Geographic, experimented with flying machines on the hills of Nova Scotia. As space became the new scientific frontier, we aided in collecting samples from the stratosphere and equipped astronaut Neil Armstrong with a National Geographic Society flag to accompany him on Apollo 11, the historic first manned moon mission.

When I sat with Conner in that conference room, I had already spent six months in Oregon, my home state, patiently enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. As a writer, I had reported from remote marshes in South Sudan, the desert border between the United States and Mexico, and the mountains of eastern Congo. Now, confined within the banality of my unfamiliar home, I found myself questioning the very essence of exploration on the edge of my own state.

But let us rewind the tape approximately 60,000 years, to a time when “a small colony in Africa went into the world and lost contact,” as described by historian and University of Notre Dame professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto. He has spent nearly six decades studying the transformative impact of a process he terms “route finding.” This process describes the collision, interaction, and adaptation of different cultures on journeys driven by greed, imperialism, religion, and science. According to Fernández-Armesto, the history of exploration is an endeavor to reconnect the routes between diverse peoples, undoing the distance our earliest ancestors placed between us, for better or worse.

It was this ambition that brought together scientists, scholars, and military personnel to establish the National Geographic Society in 1888. For the past 135 years, we have delved into the seas, soared through the skies, traversed land, and ventured into space, all in the pursuit of advancing and disseminating geographic knowledge. Our funded explorations and documented endeavors often focused on being the first rather than establishing meaningful connections. Milestones abounded, from conquering Mount Everest with an American team to mapping the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

Throughout history, grueling expeditions on foot, treacherous climbs, and perilous sea crossings have forged new pathways across the globe, unraveled natural phenomena, and interconnected diverse cultures. Continuing the legacy of past explorers is writer Paul Salopek, who has spent the past decade traversing a 24,000-mile route taken by migrating humans out of Africa, effectively populating the world.

The pursuit of firsts gradually transformed into the pursuit of discoveries. Science, space, and the natural world were meticulously examined for their hidden secrets. The Leakey family unearthed our fossilized ancestors, Jane Goodall immersed herself in the world of chimpanzees, and conservationist Mike Fay embarked on a 2,000-mile trek across Central African rainforests. Today, exploration encompasses not only human endeavors but also non-human actors. Can a camera explore when plunged to the ocean’s deepest abyss, capturing images at depths humans have yet to reach? Can a microscopic robot be deemed an explorer when it skillfully maneuvers through our bodies to perform surgical procedures?

Stories have been the lifeblood of exploration for centuries. During the European age of exploration from the 15th to 17th centuries, tales of heroic journeys and chivalrous exploits inspired the likes of Columbus and Magellan. These romanticized accounts of exploration fueled subsequent generations of adventurers. National Geographic magazine, with its captivating photography and detailed maps, may have motivated countless individuals to embark on their own journeys and experience the wonders of the world. However, stories have also perpetuated a Western myth of the explorer, predominantly dominated by dead white males.

Fernández-Armesto reflects on this literature failure, stating, “There’s a failure of the literature to discuss explorers from other countries, so for the last 500 years, this was a story dominated by dead white males. That’s created the impression that it’s a white male activity—it isn’t, by any means.”

Explorers existed long before the era of the white male archetype. History reveals numerous examples. One of the earliest world maps, dating back 8,000 years, was painted on a cave wall in India. Harkhuf, a name we know from ancient records, led an expedition from pharaonic Egypt into tropical Africa around 2290 B.C. The Bantu migration, commencing a thousand years earlier, saw West Africans cross the sub-Saharan continent. Pacific islanders, navigating using the stars and swells, colonized islands from New Guinea to Hawaii from around 1500 B.C. In the seventh century, a Chinese monk named Xuanzang embarked on a spiritual quest, crossing China, India, and Nepal in search of original Buddhist scriptures. In that same century, Arab armies marched from the Arabian Peninsula to Central Asia and North Africa, driven by the fervor of holy conquest.

Cameras, submersibles, and remotely operated devices now unveil the mysteries hidden within the depths of our oceans. National Geographic’s early underwater stories featured groundbreaking discoveries made by the bathysphere, the first deep-sea exploration vessel. Plunged into the waters off Bermuda in the 1930s, it descended via a 3,500-foot-long steel cable.

The dominance of the white male explorer archetype emerged much later in history, overshadowing the contributions of others. However, the stories of those overlooked explorers can still be found in the archives of National Geographic. Juliet Bredon, an intrepid female explorer who published her adventures in China in the 1920s under the name Adam Warwick, and Reina Torres de Araúz, a Panamanian anthropologist who embarked on the first South-to-North American car expedition, are just a few examples. Harriet Chalmers Adams, who traversed Latin America, retraced Columbus’s voyage, and documented World War I trenches, received attention more for her defiance of feminine stereotypes than for her remarkable accomplishments.

As we delve into history, seeking to include previously marginalized voices among the ranks of explorers, we are compelled to reevaluate old narratives. What did exploration mean to those who were explored, exploited, or even exterminated? Can a place truly be discovered? Who deserves recognition as an explorer? Should Eve be considered an explorer for biting the forbidden fruit and gaining knowledge at the cost of Eden? Should Pandora be recognized for her insatiable curiosity, which unleashed miseries upon the world?

Today, the history of exploration is undergoing a transformative rewriting process, driven by individuals like Tara Roberts, who mapped sunken ships in the Florida Keys that once carried enslaved people from Africa to America. Palestinian oral historian Yazan Kopty uncovers century-old photos of Palestinians from the National Geographic archives, using social media to give voice to their stories, names, and the celebrations occurring in the background.

At the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, Conner, with her Cayuse, Nez Perce, and Umatilla lineage, describes this new form of exploration as “reclaiming.” Recently, ceremonial post-battle scalp dances, unseen for half a century, were performed. The Nez Perce tribe has acquired ancestral land spanning 320 acres, providing a space for descendants to gather, bury their dead, and host festivals. Tribal names are returning to maps and signs, reestablishing their place and presence.

Initially, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were perplexed by the notion of telling their story in a museum. There seemed to be nothing to celebrate in the destruction of their people and land. However, they considered the glorification of pioneer history in Oregon, represented by a pioneer’s wagon on the state flag and a pioneer statue atop the Capitol building. They recognized that their story extended far beyond the physical landscape—a remote corner on the western edge of America—and that it held relevance and resonance across the world. Conner aptly stated, “This is the center of our universe, but it connects to all other universes.”

Nina Strochlic, a staff writer, recently explored the legacy and resurgence of New York’s Catskill Mountains in a story for the magazine.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Exploration Rewriting

What is the main focus of this text?

The main focus of this text is to challenge and rewrite the Western myths surrounding exploration, uncovering overlooked perspectives and reclaiming marginalized voices.

What examples are provided to demonstrate the need for rewriting exploration history?

The text provides examples such as the museum along the Oregon Trail that tells the story of westward expansion from the perspective of the Native people, the inclusion of diverse explorers throughout history, and efforts to reclaim and celebrate indigenous heritage.

How does the text explore the concept of exploration beyond traditional narratives?

The text delves into the expanded definition of exploration, including exploration of one’s own body, ancestry, cognitive abilities, and the idea of home. It also discusses the exploration of history itself and who has the authority to shape and tell those narratives.

What is the significance of reclaiming and rewriting exploration history?

Reclaiming and rewriting exploration history is significant because it highlights the experiences and contributions of individuals and cultures that were previously marginalized or overlooked. It aims to provide a more inclusive and accurate understanding of exploration and its impact on different communities.

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