by Akim Reinhardt
Two months ago, a college student in my Native American history class was perturbed. How it could be that during her K-12 education she never learned about the 1890 massacre of nearly 200 Native people at Wounded Knee? She was incensed and incredulous, and understandably so. It’s an important question, a frustrating question, and a depressing question. In other words, it’s the kind of question anyone who teaches Native American history is all too used to.
My students typically begin the semester with a vague sense of “we screwed over the Indians,” and are quickly stunned to discover the glaring depths of their own ignorance about the atrocities that Native peoples have endured: from enslavement, to massacres, to violent ethnic cleansings, to fraudulent U.S. government actions, to child theft and the forced sterilization of women, to a vast, far-reaching campaign of cultural genocide that continued unabated well into the 20th century.
I started slowly, explaining to her that one problem is the impossibility of covering everything in a high school history class. Even in a college survey, which moves much faster, you just can’t get to everything. There’s way too much. A high school curriculum has no chance.
But, I said, that begs the question, both for college and K-12: What gets in and what gets left out?
Over the last 40 years there have been periodic, intense debates over this issue. These debates reflect America’s post-1960s political divisions. People on the right (conservatives, nationalists, right wing Christians) generally want more of what historians call Great Man History: a focus on important individuals (usually white men) who had an important impact. The founding fathers are a good example.
People on the right also typically want to focus on political and economic history, which they see as important and “real history,” and less so on cultural and social history, which they often see as fuzzy, unimportant, and even indulgent or divisive.
Finally, people on the right tend to want a positive interpretation of American history that emphasizes the United States as a land of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. Historians refer to aspects of this as the whig interpretation: the tale of a nation overcoming obstacles during its ascent to greatness, emphasizing progress and improvement; upwards and onwards.
This understanding of history (Great Men, politics and economics, whiggish narrative) is partly driven by ideology. People on the right tend to believe these frameworks and interpretations constitute the “real” or “true” American history, and that is how it should be told, period. But it’s also partly about generational and geographic divisions. Because this is the only way American history was taught in schools until the 1970s, when new scholarship first began to penetrate some school curricula in a few places. Anyone older than me (I’m 52) learned little more than political/economic, Great Man, whiggish History from kindergarten through high school. Since then, things have changed, but unevenly. Each state develops its own curriculum. A K-12 history curriculum in Texas will be different than the one in NYC, and so even today some Americans continue to get a heavy dose of that history depending on where they grow up.
For academic historians, there are obvious problems with interpretations and historical framings that emphasize great men at the expense of “regular people,” politics and economics at the expense of culture and society, and triumphant, hard-won American greatness at the expense of almost anything else. For starters, most people go missing: Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and women of every stripe. Their roles are all marginalized, and the overall implication is that their histories just don’t matter. Ommissions of cultural and social phenomena leave us with a flat, narrow narrative, only half the story, and often problematic interpretations. And de-emphasizing the centrality of racism and sexism to the making of America runs the risk of creating a national hagiography.
Nonetheless, Great Man History in particular is still very popular with the general public. For example, biographies of the founding fathers and other heroic white male figures have routinely inhabited best sellers’s lists for decades.
So can we count on liberals to rescue the popular historical narrative? If only.
Liberals often fall into the same traps. Even seemingly subversive versions of Great Man History from openly liberal quarters often do little to actually challenge this status quo. For example, despite Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop lyrics and reverse ethnic casting, the smash musical Hamilton is still based on a whiggish, Great Man pop biography by author (not historian) Ron Chernow. When first published in 2004, most scholarly historians dismissed Chernow’s biography as little more than a very well written celebration of a founding father, a book that lacked deep historical context and offered nothing new to the established historical literature. No surprise, perhaps, given that Chernow has an undergraduate degree in English and no formal training in the study of history.
Yet many people assume Miranda’s play is radical because its contemporary hip-hop score and particularly its diverse and thought-provoking casting upend our expectations about the preeminence of tradition and whiteness in history. But the play is actually conservative and whiggish in nature. Miranda’s Hamilton undoubtedly speaks to modern liberal concerns about minority casting, but that’s a contemporary labor issue. Of course hiring minority actors to play white historical characters can productively challenge our sense of humanity. But a play about the usual suspects, even when portrayed by different actors engaging a newer style of song craft, does nothing to challenge our sense of history if it’s just telling much the same old story.
Liberal popular history does have a greater proclivity than its conservative counterpart for including women and people of color, but this often dead ends at some form of tokenism. Attempts to expand beyond Great White Men narratives often add this Great but under appreciated Black Man or Woman, but fail to challenge larger narratives and frameworks. Too often it’s about little more than hanging a few new portraits in the gallery.
Meanwhile, for the last half century, academic historians have dug deeply into archives, not only highlighting the stories of previously ignored peoples, but reconceptualizing the larger narrative itself. Not content to simply expand the cast, academic historians have challenged and moved beyond popular understandings of history that still generally revolve around limited domains of economy, war and politics, and are colored by rose-tinted lenses of American exceptionalism and glory.
Academic historians are not reactionary; of course we still study economic and particularly political history. My own two academic books have covered Native political history. However, we now study these endeavors as part of a more complex and textured story that analyzes society and culture, the integral roles of under represented groups, and the critical nature of colonialism, slavery, genocide, empire, patriarchy, economic exploitation, and other difficult but vitally important topics. Because it can’t all just be about forging a new nation in the name of freedom.
For the vast majority of today’s academic historians, the whiggish narrative is simplistic, Great Man History is narrow and one-sided, and economic and political history are half the story. We still acknowledge advances and achievements, and of course some people have a bigger historical impact than others. But the whiggish narrative, Great Man History, and the fetishization of politics and economics over everything else, require ignoring the history of most Americans and most of America. That is something academic historians are no longer willing to abide.
So, I asked my student rhetorically, is something like the absence of Wounded Knee and the countless other massacres from a K-12 curriculum part of an insidious plot?
Well, if you’re in, say, Texas, then that’s actually part of the story. In ongoing political and ideological battles there, conservatives push Great Man and whiggish history, and attempt to minimize the difficult topics and questions that arise from studying the more unsavory aspects of our collective past. And because the Texas market is so large, K-12 textbooks tailored for that state end up getting used in numerous states throughout the region.
But in the Northeast (my university is in greater Baltimore) and the Pacific coast? Curricula might be less whiggish, and pose the occasional difficult question about, say, slavery or Japanese American internment during World War II, but there is still a lot that gets left out. That is partly because of the inability to cover everything. But in large part it stems from ongoing U.S. colonialism, so pervasive that it shadows our entire society, across otherwise dominant political divides.
Despite regional and political differences, Native peoples and their history typically make only passing appearances in most K-12 history curricula. Furthermore, they are often largely left out of, or at best ghettoized, even in more sophisticated, fast-moving university history curricula. In examinations of both the present and the past, America generally ignores Native peoples and societies.
Today, Indigenous peoples compose between 1 – 2% of the U.S. population. They are also, by many measurements, the nation’s poorest ethnicity. These relatively small numbers and lack of wealth contribute to them having little voice in popular culture.
Meanwhile, that same popular culture actively works to erase them. Why? Because U.S. colonial processes did not end with physical genocide, ethnic cleansing, and cultural genocide. They are still at work in modern forms. They have evolved a lot, but consistent over the last 150 years is Americans’ insistence that Native peoples and societies are not modern or of the present. That they should be relegated to the past, largely ignored, and brought only out on rare occasions when Americans want to use Native people to celebrate themselves, employing cartoonish representations of Native culture as props to define their own Americaness.
This is a large, systemic process. Unfortunately, it’s widespread and effective. One result is that most Americans know next to nothing about Native history and absolutely nothing about today’s Native nations and peoples. And worse than knowing nothing, they imbibe stereotypes about Native cultures and fairy tale mythology about a smattering of select historical actors like Pocahontas and Sacajawea. Few Americans know the actual history, but all of them get fed a steady diet of self-serving colonial propaganda.
The only people who lived here 530 years ago, who have played an enormous role in American history, and who continue to live here and have and make history, are almost entirely absent from K-12 curricula save for some sporadic, pre-1900, token tid bits. Maybe Thanksgiving in grade school and the Trail of Tears in high school. Other than that, almost nothing. Catch as catch can Wounded Knee or the countless other massacres, ethnic cleansings, and cultural attacks that, taken on the whole, add up to a convincing argument for a prolonged campaign of genocide.
It’s so bad that my own peers in American history, professional historians with Ph.D.s, typically know almost nothing about Native American history unless their own field overlaps with it in some way. And if they teach the history of the eastern hemisphere? Forget it. There’s virtually no chance they know as much about my field as I know about theirs. We call this asymmetrical knowledge: if you teach Native history, odds are you know more about your colleague’s field of study than she knows about yours, no matter what her specialization, because along the way you had to learn something about hers and she did not have to learn much of anything about yours. In my own department this is true of at least fifteen of my eighteen colleagues, all very smart, highly educated people whom I admire and respect.
This is the ongoing legacy of colonialism that Indigenous people face daily: erasure. Not in lieu of ongoing racism and bigotry, but in addition to it. American culture renders them largely invisible, absenting them from the history books and ignoring in the present, except to indulge in stereotypes.
And this is not merely the practice of conservatives on the right, but of nearly everyone. Conservatives may generally be guiltier than liberals of ignoring or downplaying the nation’s historical sins. But nearly all Americans are guilty of erasing Native peoples, cultures, and histories. Because American colonialism was never a left-right issue. Nearly all Americans embraced it once upon a time, and all of us continue to live with and within its legacies and modern forms, dedicated to the erasure of Native societies and peoples from our national consciousness and history.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests indirectly reflect this erasure. BLM is a vitally important movement, challenging simplistic whiggish interpretations of history and highlighting ongoing inequalities and racism in America. It is forcing a much-needed conversation about race that most white Americans, liberal and conservative alike, generally wish to avoid because it discomfits or angers them.
But as vital and needed as BLM is, it also inadvertently reinforces a two-tone discussion of race. As much as white Americans try to ignore race altogether, when forced to confront it, they typically where blinders that allow them to see the issue only in black and white. This leads to omissions and distortions.
Let me be clear: this is not the fault of African Americans advancing their agenda. It is the result of white Americans severely limiting their own understanding of “race” by ignoring all of it as best they can until a minority group successfully punctures the cone of silence, something African Americans have been able to do much more often and effectively than any other group.
But the result is a progressive narrative that marks slavery as America’s original sin instead of colonial invasion. That ignores the enslavement, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of Native societies. That erases today’s Native peoples.
Obviously my point is not to pit red against black, or to even fashion some perverse justification for another tone-deaf proclamation that all lives matter. Fuck that. I fully support Black Lives Matter.
Rather, the goal is to answer my student’s question about why it is that she and most other Americans know even less about the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples than they do about the enslavement and segregation of African Americans (of which they do not know nearly enough).
That answer indicts all non-Indigenous Americans, no matter on which side of the political divide we stand. It results from a national culture and ongoing colonial processes that we are all party to. And it reflects on this nation’s present as well as its past.
The numbers don’t lie. Native peoples, as a group, remain near or at the bottom of most social scientific measurements of racism, oppression, and poverty, in category, after category:
- Life Expectancy
- Infant Mortality
- Killed by Police
- Rape (2x likelier than other Americans to be victimized)
Indigenous North Americans belong to hundreds of distinct tribes, pueblos, rancherias, and Alaska Native villages. And for nearly half-a-century now, a majority of them have lived in cities, suburbs, and towns, not on reservations. They are not all the same. Far from it, they are a highly varied and diverse group of peoples speaking and practicing a wide range of languages, religions, and cultures. But one thing they all have in common is their inheritance of a vast colonial system that sought to eradicate and dispossess their ancestors, and today continues to marginalize their histories and their modern presence, concerns, and practices.
What the rest of us have in common is complicity in ongoing colonial practices of Indigenous erasure, indulging in our collective ignorance about Indigenous history, and maintaining our collective ignorance of today’s Native peoples and societies, even in this crucial moment, when we begin to ask long overdue questions about the histories and current realities of African American peoples.
The onus is on us to remember that Native Lives Matter. That begins with listening to and learning from Native peoples.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com