Joaquin, Columbus, and Indigenous Peoples Day

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!

This is a reprint of my Medium article from 2021, when the Biden administration just went ahead and did the right thing. 

Joaquin Miller, who is fondly remembered for the national poem he wrote about persistence, had a Native American daughter.

Joaquin Miller’s poem, “Columbus”* was required reading in American schools for around 75 years, but his first novel, Life Among the Modocs, is about the people lost in the American genocide. This first-person story was inspired by his own life as a young lawyer and businessman, which took a historic turn. 

He was recruited to fight the Indian Wars but, frustrated by the injustice, tried to convince the Pit River Indians, the Klamaths, Shastas, and Modocs to form an Indian republic. He lived with a Wintu tribe (but concealed their identity) for four years and recorded his experiences. Even today the book is considered to be the most authoritative account of the lives and customs of the first people whose lands were invaded by American settlers at the height of the Gold Rush. Miller was the first to have recorded the unwritten Wintu language, which, as of 2003, was considered to be extinct but . He was outspoken about the rights of Indians, outraged at the environmental destruction of their lands, and his nuanced writings humanized people thought of as “savages.”

Photo of Joaquin Miller in 1905 at his home in “The Hights”

Many years later, after he had made his name known internationally as a sensitive storyteller and inspiring poet, Miller was commissioned to write a poem to be read in schools on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. For $50, he dashed off a poem in the spirit of Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” and slapped the name “Columbus” on it. Much to his bewilderment, the poem enraptured the nation, and was hailed as a masterpiece. Tennyson called it “The greatest poem expressive of a nation’s destiny ever written.”

Miller, who lived on and cared for the land now known as Joaquin Miller Park, would appreciate the empathetic national turn the country has finally taken, from celebrating a colonizer to honoring its first inhabitants. Read more about Miller and this book. Listen to a presentation on Miller and some of the other environmental justice-seeking poets of the Park.

*(tl:dr = “Brave adm’r’l, we’re stuck, what do we do now?” “Sail on, sail on, sail on and on!”)

Kristen Caven is the California Writers Club’s Writer in Residence at Joaquin Miller Park, and wrote the children’s singaong, Joaquin Miller Went Walkin’Follow her blog about history, nature, and nurturing the poetic spirit, and learn about her art workshops for kids & grownups.


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