My Thoughts on “October 11, 1491” by Ursula K. Le Guin
After quickly scanning the poem, it is quite evident to me that it is an entailment of the struggles faced by the Native Americans in lieu of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 expedition, which inadvertently ended up in the Americas.
I love how cautiously suspicious (and justifiably so) the narrator is of the newcomers in the beginning of the poem. It seems that the native peoples were only initially concerned with what superficial wealth might be lost to what they saw as mystical invaders. Did they not realize that the very fiber of their beliefs and society were about to go to pot?
A bit further along in the poem we get a glimpse of this in what I believe is some of the most superlatively-crafted foreshadowing I have seen in quite some time. If you haven’t caught on by now, I am referring to the lyrics from the popular Christmas carol “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In”, which was written in BRITAN and published in, appropriately enough, 1666 C.
E. This poem, due to the fact that it accurately foretells the future, is written in the third-person omniscient form, from what I believe to be the perspective of a supernatural Native American entity of the time period. The usage of a phrase such as “You will see three ships come sailing in.” is evidence to the inevitable Western influence on the Native American social structure and system of beliefs. The narrator, being all-knowing, was unable to stop any of these negative things from happening to his/her peoples. This, I think, points to why we, as humans, are not all-knowing. “All knowing” is undoubtedly synonymous with “ever-worrying”; the narrator knows of the impending calamity and the sickening bastardization of his/her peoples’ culture that is soon to transpire, yet he/she remained utterly helpless. The question now is, was this poem a warning to the Native Americans or simply the resigned lamentations of the raconteur? I am inclined to believe that it is the latter. If this was a warning, history certainly doesn’t reflect such, given that the Native Americans were woefully ill-prepared for any outside influence, much less that of the ruthless Europeans.
The narrator refers to the Native Americans as “you” throughout the overwhelming majority of the poem, yet in the second-to-last stanza, he uses the pronoun “we”, which to me is additional evidence to support my theory that the narrator is a somewhat supernatural entity, yet one whom is connected, to some degree, with his/her peoples.
The fact that the narrator continually refers to the world as “young” and voice quite a number of concerns for how the foreigners will treat the earth, brings to my attention the deep, intrinsic respect that the Native American peoples had for their environment. Just imagine the total mental inability on the part of the natives to grasp the selfish, capitalistic, “What can I get from this monetarily?” attitude that the European “explorers” had towards it. I am also quite fond of how the narrator sees the world growing older as a direct result of the European “invasion”. The natives are completely oblivious to and other “world” than their own and it seems only natural that they would perceive it to be “young”, due to the fact that it is full of vibrancy and verve, just like a young person would stereotypically be. This type of oneness with nature is yet another indicator of their deeply rooted (ancestrally, no doubt) reverence for the earth.
The aforementioned inevitability of the arrival of the Europeans and their subsequent abuse of the land and the Native American peoples, causes the narrator to elaborate on how his/her people will react to the situation. It is no coincidence to me that the narrator chooses to be short and sweet in doing this. This stanza is the last of the poem, and its to-the-point, yet emotionally riveting arrangement is, to me, tantamount with the initial contact between the Europeans and the Native Americans – the indigenous peoples were timorous yet hopeful , whilst the foreigners were quick and precise in their avaricious exploitation of the natives.