I’ve been reading a lot of accounts recently that argue indigenous people asserted much more control over many areas of the continent into the 19th century than modern people usually assume (check out The Native Ground by Kathleen DuVal orAn Infinity of Nations by Michael Witgen, not to mention Hamalainen’s Comanche Empire) and I got to thinking about the response my post about the teaching of Native history received.
One of the most common responses was along the lines of “Well, Native Americans didn’t contribute much to history anyway, they didn’t do much important, it’s sad but they were basically just wiped away by Europeans.” There is an incredible amount of hindsight bias in that kind of thinking. When you are living in a society in a time where Native people have been very carefully thrust out of view, it is easy to see the dominance of European-descendants as an inevitable, steadily progressing event. Manifest Destiny was always propaganda, and it has done its job beautifully.
Meanwhile, more and more historians and indigenous people at large are making powerful, nuanced demonstrations of how that view is not just a product of hindsight bias but also flatly incorrect for many parts of the continent. Others have shown how the “forgetting” of the impacts of indigenous people is part of a very deliberate political strategy in the creation of the US nation-state.
Yet still both laypeople and academics are skeptical that indigenous people had any impact on the history of the Americas besides in their legacy of disappearing. Why?
I’m starting to think it has to do with what I’m calling “two-sentence history.” Or maybe “textbook history” might work, too. A great deal of people do not seem to believe history matters unless you can explain it to them in about two sentences. Or that history outside of what would be taught in a grade-school textbook is not worth bothering with. A number of people in my earlier post pointed out that even European history is pretty shoddily written in textbooks–which is true, though it still gets a better deal than non-European history. Textbooks have historically been written with particular goals of providing an easy-to-follow and patriotic nation-supporting narrative. It’s not necessarily bad that textbooks are a specialized kind of writing–every kind of writing has some specific purpose. But too many people seem to have the attitude that any history more in-depth than that is pointless.
Note that the holder of the Two-Sentence View doesn’t just want you to be able to explain what happened in two sentences. No, you also have to be able to explain how and why what happened is of tangible relevance to Two-Sentence Viewholder right now. And then add in that what is considered “relevant” is largely determined by the narrative the viewholder was fed whenever they attended school. It’s basically a self-perpetuating cycle, with only the two sentences in their grade-school textbook ever being accepted as valid. Any new views of history are basically impossible to introduce with that sort of mindset.
This is all part of a bigger issue: why study history at all? The importance of history itself, any history, is increasingly challenged in the United States. “Why history” is an enormous question that people more thoughtful than me have answered, and I’m not going to try to do so. But if even mainstream history is being questioned, then the history of those seen as unimportant–such as indigenous people–doesn’t even have a chance.