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Childhood slogan is still relevant

As best I can tell, it all started when my wife was a child.

She grew up along a stretch of Erastus Durbin Road in Mercer County over which the west wind blows so constantly that the telephone poles all have a faint easterly tilt.

In the days before no-till farming, Ann and her sister, Betty, were put to work in the fields on the kind of job that drove generations of American children away from the family agribusiness: Picking rocks out of the field so they wouldn’t damage their father’s farm machinery.

Sometimes I mention this ever so casually just to stir them up a little. I wouldn’t do it so often, but they always rise so grumpily to the bait that I can’t stop myself.

In the previous generation, my mother’s desire to avoid an adulthood that involved picking rocks out of her father’s potato fields inspired her to earn advanced degrees in the field of higher education.

Although the saying “she’s got rocks in his head” doesn’t originate with picking them out of fields, the sheer weight of boredom involved clearly carries with it the potential to petrify the brain.

It was as she was trying to keep rocks out of her head and her father’s combine that my wife found rocks that have been in her head ever since: so-called arrowheads.

Those who know anything about “arrowheads” know that most of the rocks described that way never were used on arrows. The points are too large and heavy to have been shot through the air on a thin shaft of wood.

Many of her rock discoveries were spear points. Others were cutting tools and knives of different sort, used to fashion wood, scrape hides, hunt and discourage ill-tempered neighbors from making unwelcome visits. Some, she found out last year, are at least 10,000 years old.

And her childhood love of “arrowheads” has kept their makers and fashioners on her mind.

At most any time, she’s likely to ask her husband (as if he knew anything) and other family members two questions: What would the Indians do or what would the Indians think?

The questions sometimes arise over technological advances like computers and smart phones. Other times, they are over things we take for granted, like the availability of fruit shipped the world over so we can eat it out of season in this hemisphere.

But the questions most often are precipitated by bad weather. What would the Indians have done on a night like this? How could they have kept warm?

Despite the legitimacy of the questions, their predictability and appearance at times when her husband is suffering through raging bouts of cabin fever have produced, at times, unfortunate answers.

A couple of winters back, when she asked what the Indians might have done, I came up with the kind of answer most often associated with an even more famously ignorant Springfielder, Homer Simpson.

So, Homer, what would the Indians do in a winter like this?

“Well, Marge, they’d open motels and gas station mini-marts so they can stay warm.”

On the face of it, this seems a colossally stupid and politically incorrect statement, which is the reason I’m attributing it to Homer. But, I’m doing so to point an arrow toward an even more colossally stupid historical reality.

I mean, think about it – and hard this time: Why are Native Americans called Indians? Why is the state next to us called Indiana?

When they arrived, did the explorers not know the difference? I mean, eventually, they called it the New World. I’ve got to wonder whether the truth that the crews hadn’t reached India and discovered a lucrative and shorter trade route as was hoped might have been too much for those who’d underwritten the expedition to handle.

Picture a stammering Columbus standing before the thrones: “I’ve got good news and bad news, Ferdinand and Isabelle. Which do you want first?”

In that kind of a setting the distinction between India Indians and the people he encountered might have seemed not worth the trouble of mentioning.

In another way, it’s to be expected from our species. We only know what we know, and when we discover something new – say a “new world” — we try to wedge it in to our limited store of knowledge. Maybe it was “new.” After all, nobody they knew had seen it before.

On the other hand, it’s also a reminder of how seemingly intelligent people can, through such colossal blind spots, be colossally ignorant. It doesn’t take away from the courage of those who “discovered” the New World, but it does speak to their limitations of knowledge and the consequences that sprung from them.

And so I wonder not only what the “Indians” might think of ignorance on such a scale, but what we all should think about the current blind spots of a species with this kind of history.

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