European contact and California Native groups
The arrival of Europeans in North America created a clash of profoundly different views of the world. The story of an early encounter in California illustrates this point. In 1579, when English explorer Francis Drake anchored off the California coast, he and his crew came upon the Coast Miwok people, who behaved in very strange ways that the sailors could not understand.
The Coast Miwok viewed the strangers’ gifts with fear and refused to accept them. At the same time, they offered gifts of baskets, food, and ritual objects. The Miwok men showed awe and respect toward the strangers, but the Native women tore at their cheeks and upper chests, cried and shrieked, and threw themselves on the rocky ground as they walked among the young Englishmen. The English left after five weeks, still baffled by the odd reception they had received.
The mystery of the Indians’ peculiar behavior was solved when the Coast Miwok revealed their beliefs. The group believed that the land of the dead lay to the west. The path to that land passed directly beyond the area Drake came from. The young English sailors had sparse beards, just like Native men, and were deeply tanned from years of sailing on the ocean. The Miwok thought that Drake and his men were dead ancestors. The Miwok refused their gifts because they were strictly forbidden to bring back anything from the land of the dead. The women were simply exhibiting mourning behavior.
Like the Coast Miwok, the English interpreted this meeting with their own misconceptions. The records referred to the headman of the local Indians as a "king," when no such role existed. The English claimed that this "king" gladly surrendered all of "his" territory and authority to the English king, halfway around the world. Finally, the English concluded that the Miwok regarded them as "gods."