Archive for May 9th, 2008

Native Americans: they were people!

Posted on May 9, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America | Tags: , , , |

I can’t remember where I was reading someone complaining that Native Americans are presented in K-12 American history textbooks as a kind of flora or fauna, interesting wildlife that briefly served as a backdrop for early English settlers before disappearing.

You know the drill: you learn about the “tribes” that lived in eastern North America, what foods they ate, what they made their houses out of, how they hunted and traveled, and what clothing and jewelry they wore. You learn about their animal gods, and how they respected and worshipped nature. Maybe you read one “tribe’s” creation story, telling how the world was made, that involves the animal gods.

Just imagine if this was how the English settlers who came to North America were described.

“They wore clothing of cotton and leather that they made on machines called looms in their homes. Their homes were made of wooden posts and plaster, and sometimes had two stories. They ate wheat bread that they made in brick ovens, and drank mild ale made from native apples. They lived in family units of a father, mother, and children. Many families lived together in villages. They worshipped a God who had once taken human form, celebrating his existence by eating crackers and drinking wine during their weekly worship service. They rode on horses or went on foot when traveling.”

Of course, this is not how the English are described. We learn about their political system and arguments, the international wars they were involved in, religious differences and religious wars, their changing economy, the different policies and goals of their monarchs, and their reasons and objectives for settling the New World.

In short, we see the flux and dynamism of their culture, in relation to other cultures. Unlike the Native Americans, who are presented as being exactly the same in 1620 as they were 15,000 years ago. And, except for quaint and sort-of interesting differences in clothing and housing, Americans in the northeast are presented as exactly the same as Americans in the southeast. Native Americans are represented as uniform, unchanging, static, and simple.

So the easy way to improve the representation of Native Americans in American history textbooks would be to depict them just as the English are depicted. Talk about the different groups in the northeast, for example; their ever-changing relationships to each other, their wars, and their alliances. Compare the Narragansett-Pequot-Mohegan triangle to the constantly shifting alliances and wars between England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Talk about American religious practices, but only in the context of how those practices impacted relations with neighboring groups, political choices, and worldview.

Explain that Native Americans developed a particular type of warfare based on their goals, resources, and religion–just like the English did. Say that on the eve of English settlement in the American northeast, 16th-century American political alliances and religious policy had been devastated by a smallpox pandemic brought unwittingly by European fishermen, who had been interacting with Americans for over 100 years before English settlers came. Explain that their knowledge of Europeans shaped the American reaction to the first settlers.

Show how the Europeans had behaved in a way the Americans recognized: constantly shifting alliances. Sometimes the fishermen landed and just wanted to peacefully trade, even intermarry. But sometimes they landed and took prisoners and made war. This the Americans were used to; they understood that type of politics. They were not in awe of the Europeans, but simply incorporated them into their existing worldview, and treated them accordingly.

Do all this, and then when you get Pilgrims arriving in 1620, you have an America that makes sense. You have real people–the Americans–interacting with real people–the English. You can make more sense of the difficulties each side eventually faced in accommodating each other. You get Americans.

That would be a good textbook. There must be someone out there in a position to write it.

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