Homage to the Cultural Contributions
of Native Americans

Columbus bumped into this wondrous land—
Out of his ships came a little band
To offer up thanks on the golden sand.

Chris found three things that can wreck your brain,
Each one endemic to this domain:
Tobacco and syphilis and cocaine.

As soon as Chris planted the Spanish flag
An Indian gave him a heavy drag
From a pipe filled with Virginia shag.

The voyagers put up a wooden fort,
And an old chieftain who was a sport
Offered Columbus a line to snort.

An Indian princess in native wrap
Sat in Columbus’s spacious lap
And gave the explorer a dose of clap.

Soon things were spreading in all directions—
Coca leaves, pipes, and the crew’s erections
Produced new addictions and strange infections.

After recrossing the Spanish Main
Columbus came back to the King of Spain
And spoke to his master in language plain:

“They’ve got a brown weed that is swell to smoke,
And a white powder you sniff, called coke,
Though used in excess they can make you choke.”

Said Chris, while he puffed on a big cheroot,
“As for the women, they’re really cute,
With morals as light as an oaten flute.”

The captain soon paid for these novelties—
Tobacco smoke caused him to cough and wheeze;
Abuse of cocaine made his nostrils freeze.

But one thing especially fueled his rancor—
Columbus developed an ugly chancre,
And cursed the day that he had dropped his anchor.

And so the Old World got a set of curses
That filled up the hospitals and the hearses,
And what is more, and what’s even worse, is

Columbus got blamed for these three new vices.
Although he found gold and exotic spices
The wealth he brought home only jacked up prices.

Demand grew for doctors and funeral sculptures
As plagues turned poor folks into food for vultures.
How nice to be open to other cultures!

—from Masquerade, 2005



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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38 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    That is a great poetic reveal on problems brought on by what has been termed the “Columbian Exchange.” Most history books, at least at the grade school and high school levels, concentrate on things like tomatoes and other edibles from the native side along with the use of tobacco, and blame the influx of Europeans for smallpox. This is a great way to begin to set the record straight. I love your tercet verses that are so clear and beautifully rhymed!

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    For me, this is a cleverly crafted and hilarious romp through a hysterical, historical slice of discovery… all through the crystal clear lens of harsh reality. I love it!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Roy and Susan —

      Thank you both for your kind comments. I should add that though this poem was published in 2005, it had bounced around from magazine editor to magazine editor for thirteen years previously. All of them rejected it with venomous rage and spite.

      I kept getting objections that the statements in the poem were “not facts” (the liberal phraseology for this today is “disinformation”), and therefore the editors would not print it. When I replied that tobacco, cocaine, and syphilis were all Amerindian exports to Europe, I got the strangest answers. One guy said that cocaine was from Turkey ( I suppose he confused it with opium), and another idiot said tobacco was from the East Indies, brought back by the Portuguese (completely false as well). But the biggest anger against me was about syphilis, which all the editors insisted had existed in Europe long before Columbus ever sailed. When I pointed out there was no mention, description, or symptomatology of syphilis anywhere in Europe prior to the major outbreak in Naples in 1495, while after that date the medical texts describe and diagnose it very thoroughly, and the evidence in burials is irrefutable, they mulishly insisted that they still wouldn’t publish the piece.

      The syphilis charge really stings the left, so they have funded massive research to “disprove” it, the way the Soviets bankrolled Lysenko and other “scientists” to prove what Stalin wanted proven. Needless to say, they haven’t gotten anywhere.

  3. Priscilla King

    Since Columbus never saw Virginia and residents of the Andes didn’t refine and snort cocaine, this one seems to be just begging present-day haters to condemn the whole site as “racist.” Why hand them a pretext for censorship?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      You don’t understand. The mention of Virginia shag and cocaine are examples of literary license. A poem is not a tax return or a legal deposition. One simply uses language as skillfully as one can to make an overall point. The fact that Columbus never saw Virginia and that Indians chewed coca leaves rather than refining them into powder doesn’t affect that overall point, which is that all three things are Amerindian exports to Europe.

      This is a comic poem. If our enemies don’t like it, well… screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.

  4. Mike Bryant

    I love the great poetry, the provocative viewpoint and the hilarity of this piece, but most of all I love the smell of free speech wafting all the way from New York to Texas.

  5. Cheryl Corey

    It’s a fact that syphilis was often brought back to Europe by sailors who journeyed to the South Pacific with explorers such as James Cook. The artist Claude Manet contracted it – possibly from a youthful trip to Rio – and died a terrible death.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      In those days, after a very long voyage, as soon as young sailors landed the first thing they wanted was to get laid. I’m sure this was the case with Columbus’s men. The time line is unmistakable — they pick it up in the Americas in 1492, they get back to Europe in 1493, and the first major epidemic of syphilis breaks out in 1495.

      By time of Captain Cook’s voyages, syphilis was well entrenched in Europe. The first record of it in England is 1497.

    • Margaret Coats

      Cheryl is right about the artist Manet, but his first name was Edouard. He lived into his 50s, suffering painful paralytic bouts due to syphilis for the last ten years. Claude Monet, on the other hand, lived well into his 80s, working on his large panels of water lilies up to the day of his death.

      Interesting that your Chris, Joe, uses the phallic oaten flute (indeed very light because made of oat straw, not metal or even wood) to describe female morals he discovered. Also symbolic of pastoral poets and their potential wildwood behavior.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Margaret, what an eye you have for things! Yes, I chose the oaten flute for that rather obscure phallic reference, but also because I am obsessed (my wife tells me) with uncommon adjective forms that end in -en. (Examples: flaxen, hempen, brazen, silken, waxen.)

  6. Shaun C. Duncan

    I laughed out loud at this, though I’m not surprised you struggled to find a publisher for it. Some might be distracted by points of history or racial politics but for me it perfectly skewers the modern literary and academic (ie. leftist) attitude toward foreign cultures. With great wit, it says all the things you’re not allowed to say and the supreme irony of it all is that the sort of people who would take offense are the same who love to defend the vices described.

    And I respectfully disagree with Priscilla above – I’d like to see more poetry at the SCP which pokes so gleefully at the prejudices of the chattering classes. In times of increasing censorship it is a public service to thumb our noses at the prudes.

  7. Paul Martin Freeman

    Extraordinary history lesson. Thank you. Presumably native Americans had immunity to syphilis.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      No, they had syphilis in the same way as any other ethnic groups did. They just lived with it (in its early stages it is largely asymptomatic), and then eventually died from it if they lived long enough to reach the tertiary stage.

  8. Brian A. Yapko

    Joe, this is a provocative poem which packs a lot of comedic skill into some very well-wrought poetry. It is provocative because it blends historical fantasy with historical reality in a way that may be misconstrued by readers. Rather than this being polemical, I accept your description of this as satire and – in that vein – if it is offensive then it is offensive in the way Mel Brooks movies are offensive (I hope you don’t mind my saying that this comic poem reminds me of the outrageously un-PC “Blazing Saddles.”) Ultimately, I think any ambiguity in your intent here is limited to your chosen title for the poem which, though tongue-in-cheek, is also susceptible to misinterpretation. Coming from Santa Fe, I can attest that there is a great deal of high level art and culture that has emanated from the Indians here (they do NOT refer to themselves as Native Americans and find that to be a silly affectation.) Your poem more accurately reflects some of the dubious benefits received from contact between Europe and the Americas in a very generalized way and, given the inspiration, I have no doubt that a similar poem could be written from the American perspective. And from a food standpoint, I would find life greatly diminished in a world missing potatoes and chocolate.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Brian, thank you! I love Mel Brooks and it is an honor to be mentioned along with him. And yes — Indians dislike the political phrase “‘Native Americans,” since they are very proud of their individual tribal names (Cherokee, Sioux, Pima, Algonquin, Navajo, etc.)

    • Mike Bryant

      And Paul, you have just demonstrated the huge pitfall of anti-racism/CRT. The anti-racists have become the new bigots… believing themselves the high and mighty judges of every, single free individual. I think it is odd that only last week, BLM was all the rage, but now they are in the current-thing doghouse.


      Who are the bigots now?

      Long live free speech.

    • Mike Bryant

      Also, Paul you said, “as Priscilla also noted before being verbally abused.”
      Do you really believe that Priscilla was “abused” ???
      I suppose you believe that free speech amounts to violence.
      Speaking of violence, you always stand up for the “current thing” no matter how idiotic it is… also, why have you not commented on Brian’s poem?
      I don’t think you have any idea at all what abuse really is.
      Just wondering if you support the latest outrage by Hamas…

    • Joshua C. Frank

      I’m glad to see you’ve found someone other than Susan to pick on.

      The worst thing Joe seems to be saying is that Indians are human just like the rest of us. I think it’s dehumanizing when people speak as if Indians aren’t capable of human failings, as if they don’t have the same free will to choose right and wrong that the rest of us have.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Paul, this is just intolerable.

      I NEVER VERBALLY ABUSED Priscilla! I simply said that she didn’t understand something about my poem, and then I tried to clarify what the poem did, in absolutely straightforward, non-offensive language.

      The sentence that ends my post refers to “our enemies”, and not to Priscilla at all. When I write “our” it means Priscilla and myself. I don’t see how this could be clearer to speakers of English.

      Defaming my simple comic poem as “pure bigotry” tells us more about yourself and your peculiar habits of mind than it does about the poem.

      • Sally Cook

        Joe, I wonder how many people have ever considered that the beatification of minorities amounts to what liberals refer to as colonialism? I think that until people can accept each other as individuals with all their individual warts and bumps, no true acceptance of one group by another can ever come to pass.

        I may simply be a cynic, but the process involves truth, and I see precious little of that on the horizon.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        It’s out of control now, Sally. Politically certified “victims” are now hallowed and sanctified.

  9. Evan Mantyk

    To Paul A. Freeman and others, the tone in this poem is harsh, but the key is to understand that it is obviously meant to be humorous and over-the-top and not historically accurate. What is truly harsh, filled with hatred, and venomously bigoted are those who have attacked Columbus and have been replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day all across America. To strip a celebration of the huge cultural contribution of Columbus to the USA and replace it with something far less substantial (no more than say a Polish American People’s Day, which I might be partial to) flies in the face of common sense and begs comical jabs. Is anybody on here tearing down statues of Native Americans and spreading thinly researched smears? I don’t think so.

    Enjoy some poetry and literature that celebrates Columbus and hopefully corrects some of the misconceptions widely circulating: https://classicalpoets.org/2023/05/02/two-classic-christopher-columbus-poems-and-a-columbus-biography-with-pdf/

  10. Steve Todd

    I was waiting to see just how many comments it would take before the first verbal punch was thrown… quelle surprise!

    Provocateur par excellence (a badge of honour, not a slur) creates a *very obviously satirical*, massively tongue-in-cheek poem which skews plenty of things for comic effect – then has to explain why he hasn’t in fact made a thoroughly balanced, well-researched and annotated historical document with pleasant foreword instead.

    Not all art has to be ‘high art’. Sometimes a poem is just a poem. I wish more people – of *any* political, social or religious stripe, I really don’t care – took their kid gloves off and really dove into brutal satire and comedy about things. The presumption of malicious intent makes every single thing personal and political. It doesn’t need to be this way.

    Sometimes it’s fun to just whittle a stick. You’re not shaping your rage into stake-form, to be plunged mercilessly over and over into the beating heart of your mortal enemy. You’re just whittling a stick.

    I wouldn’t harangue a skilled caricature artist for not producing a photorealistic representation of me that failed to capture my inner anguish and existential angst, at the same time as making my nose look massive. I don’t complain to Burger King over the lack of Lobster Thermidor on their menu either.

    I genuinely hope that anyone who is offended at what they’ve read comes back with an equally scathing satire to ‘set the record straight’. I will very much enjoy reading that, too, even if it plays fast and loose with the topic for amusement purposes. Because… that’s OK.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Mr. Todd. I also wish that more poets would realize that sometimes a poem is just a poem, and nothing more. Not everything has to be charged with seriousness of purpose.

  11. Jeff Eardley

    Mr Salemi, thank you for a most humorous piece. I was reminded of the great Bob Newhart “Walt Raleigh” sketch. There are some cracking rhymes, I love “flag, drag, shag,” and “wrap, lap, clap” and the wonderful, “rancor, chancre, anchor” although, “chancre” is not a common word over here. I would have gone with the “w” word which as we all know, carries the risk of blindness. I am still laughing at this. Thank you for a great cheer-up today.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Mr. Eardley. Rhymes of the “rancor” variety seem not uncommon (canker, tanker, banker, danker, franker, hanker. ranker, sank her, spank her, thank her, yank her — and of course the great “wanker.”) But there’s something about them that seems to preclude making use of them in anything but a comic piece.

  12. Paul A. Freeman

    The First Nation, original inhabitants, of North America (who apparently don’t like being called Native Americans according to … whoever) have been dispossessed of their land and have suffered ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, until they now live as a marginalised minority, mostly on marginalised land, suffering a variety of social ills (high suicide rates, poor academic achievement, high rates of alcohol abuse and domestic abuse, etc.).

    They were also killed off in massive numbers (90% is bandied about) by disease – germs brought by New World interlopers, diseases such as measles, flu and smallpox (the latter which was weaponised and delivered to Native American tribes through the ‘gift’ of smallpox-infected blankets).

    Therefore, a ‘satirical’ poem asserting that one of the Native Americans’ single contributions to the world is syphilis is disappointing and demeaning.

    Anyhow, that’s my contribution to the free speech that’s wafting about.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Paul, it would appear that you and I are never going to see eye to eye in this world gone insane and I don’t want to follow you down rabbit holes that I’m tired of revisiting… so I’ll just say this: even though you have labeled Dr. Salemi a bigot (which obviously includes all those who have enjoyed his poem and the SCP for seeing fit to publish it) it fills my heart with joy to hear you say: “Anyhow, that’s my contribution to the free speech that’s wafting about.” At long last, you have acknowledged that you’re in the company of those who respect and appreciate free speech… with all the difficulties that come with it. I’m smiling… broadly! Perhaps we can move forward to a greater understanding of our insane world. Only the privilege of free speech enables us to do that.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Paul, although I’ve apparently been demoted in your poetic eyes as “whatever” let me say this. You are 100% accurate in your sorrowful history of the Indians. You are not accurate in your understanding of Indian sensibility and sensitivity. I live in New Mexico which is a full one-third Indian — Pueblo, Navajo, Apache and other tribes. I come into contact with Indians weekly if not daily. I have heard them share intimately in support groups. We actually talk. I don’t say things lightly on this or elsewhere. I am a lawyer and if I post publicly I post for the record. I suspect strongly that you have never met an Indian in your life. You’ve read about them, of course, as have we all. That’s a start. That’s not an end point. Reading about people does not qualify you to be a moral arbiter. You do not get to coast.

      Now what really does disturb me in the light of this thread is the way you weep deep, salty tears for people you have never met and for a genocide that occurred over 100 years ago, but when it comes to the slaughter of over 1300 Jewish babies, grandmothers and other civilians in real time within your very geographical area your reaction is “meh.” (I shudder to think that it might be worse for that would be monstrous.) Perhaps this is because of where you live. Perhaps this is because you don’t give a damn about Jewish lives because you think the most-discriminated and threatened people on earth are rich and entitled. But I subscribe to the words of the martyred Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

      When idealism becomes entrenched ideology, some scary things can happen. Paul, I know your heart is in the right place — from you comments I know you care deeply about the world — but I simply no longer trust your moral compass.

      • Paul A. Freeman

        Brian, I want you to know that I completely and utterly condemn the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas terrorists against Israel and Israelis, and I’m sorry if you thought otherwise. In my book it should be a given.

        On another note, I now work in West Africa. And lastly, if it’s really of any importance, I had an incredible Pueblo Native American friend and work colleague a few years back who I spent much of the day of 9/11 with.

  13. Joshua C. Frank

    I laughed out loud reading this! It’s refreshing after having heard the mainstream anti-Columbus narrative all my life.

    I always laugh reading your satire; I send these to my mother, and she loves it too.

  14. Mike Bryant

    Every single group and every single individual has their grievance. The haters/bigots of this world are those who must continually highlight every single grievance over and over ad infinitum.
    However, to what end? The powerful remain powerful because the people have been successfully brainwashed. Anyone who endlessly repeats the current media-spread victimology is aiding and abetting the hate.
    If anyone has a very recent legitimate grievance it must be Italian Americans.


  15. Brian A. Yapko

    I’m really glad to hear that, Paul. Thank you for clarifying where you stand. I didn’t know you relocated. We’ll look forward to some poems from you about Africa!


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