~The Preamble to the US Constitution, 1789
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …
~ The Declaration of Independence, 1776
~ Paul, to the Christians of Ephesus, 1st Century CE
After much of the year (and more) spent debating and legislating about our public schools, not just about mask mandates, but also how certain subjects – like history – are to be taught, it’s time we all took a collective breath. Much nonsense has been made over the supposed teaching of “CRT!!!”, also known as Critical Race Theory, to hype this analytical perspective as the latest boogeyman or villain in some imagined culture war. And as the transition from observing this second Monday in October as Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, now seems an appropriate time to address the stories we tell.
First. let’s all take a collective breath and stop the hyperventilating. Critical Race Theory in NOT being taught in any public school at any level. Critical Race Theory is an analytical approach that developed in a few law schools and gradually became a lens to analyze a number of separate, but interconnected, developments in laws and the application thereof, history and how we tell the story of us. Critical Race Theory may shape how people approach certain topics, the understandings they develop and share with others including within the context of instructional opportunities. However, the theory itself is not being taught outside graduate/professional schools and select college classes.
Once we’ve caught our collective breath, we really need to grow up! I am talking to white people since we have played a dominant role in shaping the story we’ve been calling history, who have benefited from social structures that assume we are innately good, right, and above all else innocent of any harm or ill motive. We need to take a step back and take a good long look at what’s been happening … the stories we were once told and have been repeating … the events we have observed (and maybe tried to ignore) … the voices calling for their stories to be heard, insisting that their experiences have meaning and are just a much a part of this country, its history and heritage, the narrative that has prevailed throughout our lives to this point.
Before leveling any charges of “This is re-writing history!”, ask yourself this: Which is the true re-writing of history – putting back in chapters that we omitted, skipped over, or deleted all together OR cutting those chapters and events that actually happened from the story in the first place?
One of the tasks of maturity is to let go of an idealized past, let fall the illusions that no longer serve us well, and come to terms with who we really are, both the good and shameful. At nearly 250 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence that launched a new nation from British colonial efforts in this land … and over 500 years from the on-set of interactions between Europe and this land, it is high time We-The-People grew up. The highly sanitized, shallow story we tell about European settlement and the emergence of a nation calling itself the United States of America is on par with imaginings we cultivate as children, fit only for the children to whom we routinely teach this story and call it History.
The bare facts are what they are. However, history is about more than just the facts. Facts alone aren’t that interesting; the story we tell about the facts makes them interesting. In the story we have long been telling, unpleasant facts are treated as aberrations. Since they don’t fit with the greater narrative we wish to tell, we leave them out or gloss over them so that they don’t detract from the story we want to be telling.
It is not re-writing history to tell a fuller story; it is claiming the fuller truth of our country’s history and heritage. Telling the truth is an act of love. It is not hating our country to speak the truth of its faults and failings; it is an act of love … which is what patriotism, love of one’s own homeland, means. In that spirit of love and truth, our history requires a fuller and more honest telling. Fullness and honesty require attending to the stories and voices of two populations that are very much a part of the fabric of this nation: the people who were already here when the Europeans came and the people who were dragged here against their will or choosing. Yes, I mean Native Americans and African Americans.
Clearly, this is a lot to cover. In this part, I want to discuss the people who were already here when European settlers and explorers first arrived on the shores of this land we all now inhabit. There will be a second part to discuss the people who were dragged here from Africa against their will as property.
First, the land the Europeans began to explore was not largely uninhabited, a vast unknown pair of continents that stretched out like a blank canvas ready for new creative actions. The land was very settled with numerous nation-states who had lived for uncounted centuries on these lands which we now call North America and South America. There were histories already here that the Europeans and their descendants never bothered to understand. To act as though the history of North and South America began in 1492 is both factually and intellectually dishonest.
Our usual telling of American history centers the national origins in the colonial efforts of Puritan separatists who came to a new place to live and worship in their own way, free from the trappings of formality that were part of the Anglican compromise. We treat these Pilgrims as the sum total of British colonization … and even more, as though the British were the only ones with colonial endeavors in the Americas. In truth, the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch all had numerous colonial projects. To a lesser extent, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Denmark also engaged in colonial operations. We fail to even tell the part that involves European activity in its fullness.
The usual telling of our history allots only a marginal role to the native peoples of this land. They appear when convenient in the story and then quietly disappear when they are not needed. We tell of Squanto and his people who helped the Pilgrims survive their first hard years in Massachusetts Bay after they arrived at the worst time of year, lacked sufficient provisions, and had little idea how to grow their own food in the new place. That initial settlement might have followed the same trajectory as the original Jamestown in Virginia had it not been for the assistance of the native people.
The native inhabitants make a sort of appearance in the story of the American Revolution as the inspiration for the costuming for the Boston Tea Party… and then, they more or less disappear from “American History.” But in truth, the native peoples never went anywhere, at least not too far. Our telling of American history characterizes all native populations as though all were like the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. In actuality, many of the native peoples were settled. They lived in communities and cities. They had long interacted with each other, had defined territories and trade routes, engaged in treaty making and conflicts. Although the European settlers regarded the native inhabitants as savages, these original peoples were actually very civilized.
Yes, the ways of dressing were different that European customs. Yes, the technological sophistication was not equal to European development. However, this was largely due to the different understandings of the relationship between peoples and the land. Because the native relationships to land were different from European customs, the ways they engaged in conflict and resolved conflict were different as well. Wars had been happening in the New (to Europeans) World, but these wars were waged differently than in the Old (familiar to Europeans) World. As a result, war had not been the engine of technological innovations in the Americas as it had been in Europe.
The native people were not uncivilized nor were they ignorant or stupid – the European settlers were merely dismissive of what they did not readily understand. Native communities had complex linguistics, literature (mostly oral story telling), arts, laws and mores for community behaviors, commerce and trade routes. Much as we want to think the of the original inhabitants of the land naively trading huge amounts of land for shiny trinkets, that is a gloss intended to cover over the guilt of the European colonizers and settlers. In reality, the native people understood treaties very well and expected both sides to honor those agreements. Natives regularly pushed back to claim their rights when the nascent United States government (and other conquerors) broke those agreements.
The desire for more lands, which would require ending or at least renegotiating British treaties with the native peoples, was at least part of the impetus for the American Revolution. Religious freedom had nothing to do with it by the time the Continental Congress formed to explore a unified American-based governance among the British colonies. The ban on settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains was one of the numerous issues that motivated the revolutionaries, including George Washington. Ascribing religious motivations seems more lofty and gives the now dominant narrative some sense of divine favor. However, the true motivations were the usual commercial ones: land … and profits from the land.
American self-governance led to a long history in which the national government made a series of treaties with native people and then changed or broke those treaties entirely when national ambitions required more land. Native nations were typically given the choice of accepting the changed terms of a treaty or having the changes wrought upon them by military force. Even with the reservation system, Native peoples are still among us on their ancient homelands, in our cities and towns. The least step all of us can take is to honor the truth of our shared heritage and acknowledge the first peoples of the places where we live.
Although not universally true, many native peoples spoke (and continue to speak) of this land as “turtle island.” This suggests some sharing of knowledge and information between the various nations and their territories that developed into a fairly accurate picture of the contour of what is now known as the North American continent.
Who was living on the land where you call home before the colonizers from Europe arrived? What stories did they tell of their origins? What did they know about the local environment that we late-comers never bothered to learn? There are a number of ancient maps of this continent that show the difference peoples who populated these lands as far back as the stories go. Here’s one you might look at.
Who from the original peoples are still in your area today? They did not all go away; they are not all living on reservations. Here’s a fun fact: as of the 2000 Census, New York City has the highest population of Native Americans than any other city in the country. What stories do they have to tell us today? For a look at how Natives tell their stories of who they are today and how it came to be this way, check out the website of the 400 Years Project.
With recent discoveries of mass burials on the site of former boarding schools where Native children were sent, often contrary to the wishes of their families, to be “civilized” (which is to say, made into White people), that effort to eradicate Native cultures and communal identity is coming to light again. The intentions of the people who operated the schools don’t matter now; the outcomes do. There is a legacy of pain that runs through many native communities even generations later.
As this terrible chapter in American history and native experience is investigated further … as more of these children’s bodies are found and returned to the lands of their ancestors, what traditions and stories and practices are bring brought into view? How might we learn in this moment to honor the actual history of the land that we are privileged to call home … or even believe is ours? How can we honor the memory and legacy of those who were here before our ancestors ever arrived? We acknowledged that the land on which we live … gather … work … was first the home of … who? What was the name the people who first lived there gave themselves? Do you know? How might you find out?
What places in your area were considered sacred, set apart, holy by the people who first lived there? All the photos accompanying this post were taken at locations sacred to the Dakota people in the Twin Cities area. To the original people of the area, the world began at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Having learned those stories thanks to Jim Bear Jacobs and his Healing Minnesota Stories program, I had a greater appreciation for the area where I lived, worked, and commuted through for almost ten years. I haven’t learned the similar stories in my new place – yet. But I will. Where can you learn those stories in your land?
In addition to links in the post, here are some other sources to explore:
Native America Calling – A call-in radio program described as “your national electronic talking circle. The program takes calls when it airs live (1-2pm ET); archived shows are available on the website and through podcast outlets.
News sites from a Native perspective — here are a couple: