The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Walking Dead, Sir Francis Drake's Ego, and Cultural Context

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake (a man with a commanding history considering that he was named after a type of waterfowl) made landfall on the Pacific Coast of North America and had a strange encounter with the native peoples. The exact location is unknown*, but is generally thought to have been along the northern California coast, probably somewhere in the vicinity of the San Francisco ay area, although arguments have been made that the fabled landing occurred in Oregon and not California, and at least one claimant puts forward the notion that a massive conspiracy has hidden Drakes' exploration of the Canadian coast**.

Regardless of where, exactly, it occurred, Drake landed on the Pacific Coast of North America, and met a group of natives. Duck, er...I mean Drake, accompanied by some of his men, met a group of natives who, amongst much pomp, presented Drake with a crown made of local vegetation, and a scepter, amongst many other gifts of food and other goods. Drake took this to mean that these people, so impressed by his regal bearing, had proclaimed him their king.

Healthy ego, that Drake.

To be fair, Drake came from a culture in which the ceremonial placement of fancy headgear and ornate staves was part of ceremonies intended to bestow power upon a political leader. It had never occurred to ol' Sir Francis that perhaps the fashionable hat and walking stick given him by the natives might not have the same meaning in the Americas as it did in Europe. And so Drake went on believing that, not only had he claimed that land for England, but that he had done so rightfully after being named the king.

Re-examination of Drake's account by modern anthropologists has produced a rather different story.

Ceremonies in which the dead ancestors, or the recently dead, return to interact with the living are common throughout the world, and were a normal part of the cermonial/religious life of the native peoples of western North America. In many of these ceremonies, it was necessary that the dead return in the flesh in order to accept gifts and witness rituals by those still living. This creates a bit of a logistics problem, as the dead aren't exactly known for getting up and taking part in elaborate rituals. The solution to this is to have people from another village appear and act essentially as proxies for the dead***.

And it appears that Drake and company showed up at just the right place at just the right time to serve the role of the returning dead.

The "crown" and "scepter" that Drake received are consistent with ritual objects used by the Miwok and other coastal Native American groups as part of such ceremonies. The description given by Drake of the other gifts and the activity surrounding them are also consistent with one of these ceremonies.

So, Drake thought that he was being made a king, and the natives thought that Drake and crew were the walking dead. Sure, a bunch of ship-bound limeys probably weren't what the locals were expecting, but they showed up at the right time and right place, and therefore they would do. I can only imagine that the natives were rather non-plussed when the people who were supposed to be playing the role of the dead finally showed up.

It's worth keeping this in mind. Every time that I hear someone discuss the wars in the Middle East, or travel to Asia, or any of the other myriad of situations where two different cultures come into contact, they assume that the people of the other culture view the world in the same way as them. But if the Zombie Drake Affair teaches us nothing else, it should teach us that even actions and items that seem absolutely clear-cut to one culture may have wildly different meanings to another. Leaving aside all of the Kum-By-Ya "Can't we all just get along" stuff, this is important to keep in mind if we actually want to emerge from interactions with other cultures while keeping our own skins intact.

Or, hey, you can always just treat this whole thing as a funny story. Which, it must be said, it is.

*For many years, a brass plate found in Marin County was held up by many, especially historian Herbert Eugene Bolton, as physical evidence of Drake having landed in the Marin County area. The problem is that the plate was manufactured in the 1930s by members of E Clampus Vitus (ECV) - a historical group which intentionally gave itself an absolutely meaningless Latin-sounding name - as a joke. Bolton didn't get the joke, and went on to proclaim the plate the real deal. Members of ECV tried to subtly tip Bolton off to the forgery, but were never successful, and were apparently too polite to call him on it and embarrass him publicly. In the 1970s, a battery of tests showed the plate to be a hoax, but the full story didn't come out until 2003, when Bolton was gone and the hoax could be revealed without causing him trouble.

You know, I wish I could invent something as funny as the true story of this brass plate.

**No, I'm not buying it, either.

***Whether they are viewed as proxies, or are viewed as the dead actually returning in the form of the neighbors, is a debate that I will leave to my ethnohistorian colleagues, as they are better at undertsanding, or at least accepting, the often convoluted reasoning that people use in many religious ceremonies.

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