5 Misunderstandings We Got Thanks to Explorers Being Dumbasses
An explorer asks a native, “What do you call this place?” The native, who doesn’t speak English, responds in his own language, “I don’t know what you’re saying.” “Ah,” says the explorer. “Idontknowhatyouresaying. Lovely name. Got it.”
Some version of that anecdote exists on at least five continents. Many times, the legend’s apocryphal, but even then, it’s based on a real concept: The explorer who makes only the most token attempt to understand the people whose land he’s inspecting. The story gets less goofy and more aggravating when the explorers’ friends continue using that ridiculous name after seizing Idontknowhatyouresaying and/or killing everyone who lives there. And in all such stories, the misunderstanding would have vanished with any communication whatsoever after that initial faltering one, saving us from such mistakes like...
‘Indian Giver’ Is a Phrase Because Lewis and Clark Were Dumb
An Indian giver is someone who gives you something and then takes it right back. That’s just a bizarre expression right there. Most stereotypes, even if they’re wrong, are at least based on some assumption about a group, but who’s out there thinking that Native Americans keep taking back gifts?
Louis C.K. had a routine about the phrase, saying it’s because white people imagined Indians changed their minds after giving up America (the bit mocks this framing of history). But the phrase didn’t really come from that idea. Other people, struggling to make sense of it, think the phrase was originally about giving gifts to Indians, because Europeans seemed generous enough at first, before they began acting very differently. But the phrase didn’t come from there either.
The phrase really originated when explorers — definitely Lewis and Clark, but also previous explorers, perhaps going back centuries — received goods from natives in America. And then the natives, rather than leaving it at that, asked for goods in return. Europeans started using “Indian gift” to mean a gift “for which an equivalent return is expected,” and the meaning mutated from there.
We already have a word, by the way, for someone who gives something in exchange for something else. The word is “trader.” The natives were trading, and the explorers mistook the offers as gifts just because the trade involved no money. When the natives expected something in return, the explorers thought, “Wow, that’s a strange kind of gift,” rather than, “Oh, so it wasn’t a gift after all, my mistake.”
The real irony is there’s now a belief that Native Americans had no commerce or conception of property, just because they didn’t buy and sell land. They did have commerce, and they were trying to barter with the explorers. You’d think barter would be the most universal form of trade, the default one between two societies that don’t share a currency, but the explorers didn’t understand trade unless it used government-approved coinage.
Devils Tower Isn’t That Hellish
This famous Wyoming landmark, which you might know from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, used to have several names, mostly based on bears. The Lakota called it Mato Tipila, or “Bear Lodge.” The Cheyenne called it Daxpitcheeaasáao, or home of the bears. When Colonel Richard Irving Dodge came by in 1875, his interpreter asked for the name, got it wrong and told Dodge it was “Bad God’s Tower.” That just automatically sounds like a bad translation, but Dodge wrote it down and it became Devil’s Tower.
Devils Tower is in the Black Hills, by the way. The U.S. signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, declaring that this land belonged to the Sioux. The U.S. government then took the land anyway and kicked the Sioux out, a move that was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1980.
But back to the name: We really lost out by dropping the bear part. That chunk of rock (geologists call that sort of formation a “butte”) wasn’t named after bears just because a few unremarkable such animals lived in the area. It was named for this bear, that’s 500 feet long:
The Sioux legend says Mato there was chasing some boys, and so Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, raised that rock to lift the kids to safety. The markings on the butte (butte scratches) are from Mato’s claws. If the legend is true and Mato is still out there, do you seriously want him angry at you for denying him recognition? We’d feel safer pissing off the devil, personally.
The Abominable Snowman Isn’t So Abominable
Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury was the first Western explorer to see footprints near Everest that he thought were from the yeti. He asked sherpas about it, and they said it belonged to met-teh kangmi. Met-teh meant an animal the size of a man (or a man-bear, if you will), and kangmi meant some kind of snow creature. It was a generic description rather than their name for it. When he documented his finding in 1921, Howard-Bury took that down as the name Metoh-Kangmi, which translates as *filthy* snow creature.
A newspaper columnist, Henry Newman, then chose his own translation for Metoh-Kangmi: abominable snowman. This name turned out to be really catchy. Other newspapers repeated it, the legend spread and people forged new expeditions to chase after the beast. But take a step back, and boy is that name dumb. If a creature lives in the snow, you can call it a snow creature or a snow-man or whatever, fine. But in English, “snowman” is already a word. It refers to an inanimate sculpture made of snow. You could also imagine a snowman coming to life, sure, but if you’re talking about an animal that isn’t made of snow, taking the word snowman, and sticking “gross” in front of it, really doesn’t get across what you’re talking about. It’s like if someone saw Godzilla and named it “The Smelly Beanie Baby.”
And speaking of snow...
Tropical Islands Got Igloos on Their Flags
The Turks and Caicos Islands are a couple dozen isles near the Bahamas and are a territory of Britain. In 1869, the Colonial Office in British-held Jamaica told the islands to put together a flag with an official seal on it. The seal had to contain some kind imagery to uniquely represent the place. The island came up with a design of someone raking salt pans and creating piles of salt, since they’d been exporting salt for hundreds of years. The design reached the Colonial Office, where they had no idea what those piles were supposed to be. Maybe those were where people lived, mused the office. So they drew little doors on the piles, transforming them into houses. And that’s how igloos wound up on the flag of a tropical archipelago.
The Perfect Map of Polynesia
When Captain James Cook was doing his tour of Polynesia in 1769, the ship took aboard a local named Tupaia. Tupaia wanted Cook’s guns so he could fight a bunch of Bora Bora warriors who’d invaded his home island. Cook wanted Tupaia’s navigational skills and knowledge of the surrounding area. Cook never did provide that firepower, but Tupaia did provide navigation. He offered direct instructions, and he also drew a map.
With this map, the crew lost some faith in their guide. They tried to follow it, but islands just didn’t pop up in the spots they were supposed to. Maybe Tupaia wasn’t very good at drawing. Or maybe, concluded Georg Forster, one of the naturalists aboard a later Cook voyage, Tupaia had lied about how widely he’d traveled.
In the centuries that followed, scholars looked closer at that map. They found that, though Cook had been unable to use it, it really does accurately describe the positions of various Polynesian islands. It just doesn’t use a bird’s-eye view. It conveys positions and relative distances as experienced from a canoe, rather than seen from above. It also places north in the middle of the map rather than at the top. Placing north on top is an arbitrary choice, and even the eventual U.N. logo would choose to stick the North Pole in the center.
Complicating matters, Tupaia didn’t just use some conventional Polynesian map style. He combined his own way of charting with Cook’s, to try to produce a map that the Europeans could use. To really understand exactly how the map works, you’ll have to read an analysis much longer than we can get into here. For now, we’ll leave you with another drawing by Tupaia, one much easier to understand. It shows a Māori man trading a rock lobster for a British man’s bit of cloth.
Not only is this a reminder that natives understood commerce and that they often got the bad end of trades (it’d take a lot longer for everyone to realize how great lobster is). This was apparently a receipt, trying to document one specific transaction that the ship’s scientific leader denied.
Tupaia died soon after drawing the map, from a disease he caught aboard Cook’s ship. A lot of people on these voyages died. Cook himself died after trying to kidnap the king of Hawaii. The natives pushed him to the sand, stabbed him and then tore his body to pieces. It wasn’t exactly an undeserved attack.