Newfoundland & the Myth of Land Discovery

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

Reader Johanna sent us this ad:

and kindly typed out the copy for us, which says:

Discovery is a fearless pursuit. Certainly, this was the case when the Vikings, the first Europeans to reach the new world, landed at L’Anse aux Meadows. While it may only be a three-hour flight for you, it was a considerably longer journey a thousand years ago. But it’s a place where mystery still mingles with the light and washes over the strange, captivating landscape. A place where all sorts of discoveries still happen every day. Some, as small as North America. Others, as big as a piece of yourself.

Ok, so we get that Newfoundland-Labrador Tourism is speaking more of discovery in terms of the self/Oprah kind here, not the Columbus kind. But as Johanna notes, there is still something off-putting about fusing the notion of colonisation with pop-psych finding yourself, and that fact that the land is so strange and sparkly.

This ad seems to encapsulate two of the ways that North America cleanses the story of its origin, refusing to acknowledge that our nations are founded on genocide.

The first: calling the Europeans’ arrival in the Americas “Discovery,” rather than Colonisation or Genocide. You can only call their arrival “discovery” if there weren’t any humans here who had already discovered the land. And if you think about, that’s the implication: it was a discovery, because the people who were already here were not considered human by the Europeans.

Ronald Wright puts it best in his fascinating book Stolen Continents, which tells the story of the conquest of the Americas through the eyes of the indigenous people who experienced the catastrophe of European arrival. This excerpt is from the prologue:

When I interviewed people for the final chapters of this book, I was told by Dehatkadons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Iroquois, “You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and ‘discover’ England.” that such an obvious point has eluded European consciouness for five centuries reveals that the history we have been taught is really myth…Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations…those vanquished by our civilization see that its myth of discovery has transformed historical crimes into glittering icons. Yet from the West’s vantage point, the discovery myth is true.

The second: Speaking of the land – or indigenous people, or their culture – as so mysterious and spooky.  Indigenous people and the “uninhabited” land are often portrayed as “mysterious” and “unknowable”…as if they are strange alien creatures who aren’t living side by side with everyone else and just trying to get by. Romanticising and mystifying the people and their culture is dehumanising, as if we’d prefer to encounter them in museums rather than on the street. They’re really not that mysterious. Just go to the library. But rather than learn about the real lives of the real humans who lived on the land before us – and how their modern descendants deal with the horrible legacy of colonisation – we’d rather speak wistfully of dream catchers and the majesty of their wild landscapes.

No thank you, Newfoundland.