Category Archives: History and Historians

Does Thomas Jefferson Need to Go? And Other Thoughts on Revising the Past

You have probably seen the news. The New York City Council voted unanimously this week to remove the seven-foot-tall, 100-year-old statue of Thomas Jefferson from their chamber in City Hall. The statue of the founder of the University of Virginia, and the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and the Declaration of Independence, will be relocated to the New York Historical Society, which pledged “to present the statue in a historical context that captured Jefferson’s legacy as a founding father, but also as a man who enslaved more than 600 people and fathered six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.”

It’s Jefferson’s treatment of enslaved people that has caused this reassessment, but that is only part of his record. I have written about Thomas Jefferson’s policies toward Native peoples on this blog. I hope you will take a look at that piece again. In our current period of refreshing historical revisionism, Native Americans are still too often left out of the equation. On a stolen continent, that is unfortunate.

The City Council’s action has provoked the expected response from the expected people. Donald Trump, the former president, chimed in from wherever the hell he is these days, with a predictable denunciation of all things on the left. “The late, great Thomas Jefferson, one of our most important Founding Fathers,” he wrote, “and a principal writer of the Constitution of the United States, is being ‘evicted’ from the magnificent New York City Council Chamber.”

Liz Harrington on Twitter: "NEW! President Donald J. Trump: "Well, it's  finally happened. The late, great Thomas Jefferson, one of our most  important Founding Fathers, and a principal writer of the Constitution

Jefferson, of course, had nothing to do with the Constitution. He was in Paris when it was written. It is not the first time that Trump has made historical errors and it will not be the last.

Look, even though this statue is being relocated, historians will continue to teach and write about Jefferson, and students will learn no less about him than they did previously. This is not an “erasing” of history. It is a revision. And it is fundamental to the historical enterprise.

American history is being revised all the time in scholarship, but also in public spaces, in the streets, and at sites of commemoration. As this latest story shows, it also is taking place in city hall chambers. A statue of Jefferson is, in a sense, a historical argument–a statement on an American leader’s worth, on his accomplishments, and on his failures. Acts of vandalism committed on Columbus statues, and votes to remove statues of dead presidents, are commentaries and rebuttals to interpretations of the American past that individuals and groups now find objectionable.

History is such a fraught subject—it always has been, but now, especially so. It matters. And the work historians do is often implicated in assaults on what makes this country great, a menace to what the Boston Review called the “fragile patriotism of the American Conservative.” If only we would stop harping on the bad stuff.

Virginia Politics Episode 9: Thomas Jefferson and decorum in the General  Assembly - Daily Press
Sit Yourself Right Down. Let’s Talk About History

So let me give you a definition: for those of us who are historians for our living, history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures. That is a definition I use a lot. It is one I share with my students regularly. History is not a science, but it is a discipline.  When we do our work properly, I tell my students, we ask questions about the past, we dig like badgers for the evidence we need to answer these questions, we examine and assess this evidence with our eyes, ears, and hearts open, and then try to present our answers with a measure of grace and style.  We must be truthful and honest, always, when it comes to this evidence. That is fundamental. We want to persuade you that our answer is right, our thesis correct, and our questions important. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. The measure of the effectiveness of our arguments must be the quality of the evidence and the strength of our reasoning.

 As a result, history can be a brutal business.  We question everything. We are not in the business of telling you what you want to hear.  History can provide us with an explanation for what happened, why, and the difference it made, but it seldom provides us with comfort, and solace, and your cherished myths will find no shelter with us around. It can be dark and violent and, at times, filled with heroism and bravery indeed, but there is also deceit and evil.  When the great ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his history of the Peloponnesian War, that “war is a violent teacher,” it was for him not a comforting story at all, but one of the darkest, most brutal depictions of human nature to appear in the western tradition.

And about those questions that historians ask.  When I was taught long ago how to be a historian in my research methods class at California State University at Long Beach, my professor emphasized the importance of objectivity.  Several years later, one of the professors that I studied with at Syracuse wrote at length about the historic emergence of objectivity as a value in historical scholarship. Many of those who criticize our work may raise objections that we are biased, and driven by our agendas to predetermined outcomes, that we lack objectivity. That is the point that I suspect Donald Trump was trying to make, however awkward the execution.  Bias and prejudice and ideology can indeed cause the undisciplined student of the past to ask loaded or bad questions, or to read the evidence in a distorted manner, to make it say things that it does not say.  That is bad history.  But our preconceptions, as well, which we can think of as the lenses through which we look at the world, color our perceptions of what is good and bad, right and wrong. They are the lenses through which we see the world.

The point I would like to make is that all historical writing, whether it is the essay assigned you by teacher or professor, or a term paper, or a doctoral dissertation or a book, is an attempt to answer a question.  And whether we are on the right or the left, the questions that present themselves to us as historians—that strike us as important, and worth answering, and worth investing all the time, travel, expense and energy to answer, come to us from our experiences in life, and in the archives, from our hard work, and, quite often, from our sense that all is not well.

Doing history well forces us to always be willing to reconsider our assumptions, and sometimes it involves so profound a reassessment that it becomes difficult to abide, for example, the continued presence of statues or monuments commemorating a particular part of the past. These statutes—these monuments—are texts, right? They make a claim, state an assertion about the past. They argue for the significance of this, or that, or another person, place, or thing. They offer an interpretation, and the assumptions and the evidence behind those assertions—it is our job as citizens and scholars to question them.

If you want to keep statues of Thomas Jefferson around, make your case. Engage in debate. Some good historians with whom I probably disagree on many points made their arguments. Not many of those who want to preserve these statues are willing to do that. Like the former president, they whine about being cancelled. One of the many problems plaguing this nation is a steep decline in the value placed on free and open debate. You want to keep Jefferson, others don’t. Let’s have an argument. Let’s urgently engage in some good, old-fashioned, unsettling Socratic dialogue.

I think back to a Pew Research study that was released in the summer of 2019. According to the data, the percentage of Republicans who saw value in a college education fell from 53% in 2012 to just 23% in 2019. Nearly 80% of Republicans believed higher education is headed in the wrong direction because of professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom. Republicans were far more likely than Democrats (73% to 56%) to assert that the problem of students not receiving skills they need to succeed in the workplace is a major reason why higher education is headed in the wrong direction. And three-quarters of Republican respondents felt that rampant political correctness is a significant problem.

As someone who has spent the last three decades on college campus as a student and a professor, I have some thoughts on this. All of my time has been spent at non-elite institutions, all but the four I spent in graduate school at Syracuse in public institutions of higher education. With the exception of one year at the University of Houston, I have never taught at a college with a doctoral program. And all my time in higher education has been spent in departments of history. I will speak of what I know first-hand.

It is true that the history profession as a whole leans leftward. There are a couple of points that need to be made about that. First, it is not that the academy chooses professors on the left; rather, it is people on the left who tend to choose academia. There is something about this constituency for whom years of education, the isolation and hard work of graduate school, the meager pay and the likelihood of never finding tenure-track employment, are not insurmountable obstacles. Many of them want to serve. They want to teach.

But more importantly, let’s say that you are a student in my Native American history course. Politically, I lean to the left. You can see that in many of my blog posts here. How might my course in Native American history be different from an identical course taught by a conservative professor? I have had this conversation before. I will emphasize the “bad stuff,” you might suggest, and cast American history in a negative light. Maybe I will beat up Thomas Jefferson. I may leave out any of the positive things in Native American history. OK.

What are those good things, I might ask? Could you name some of them? In Native American history? And are the negative things I mention in class, or in the textbook this website is intended to accompany, incorrect as matters of fact or interpretation? Have I not played by the rules? Have I ignored the canons of the historical profession? The truth is that how I teach my course, and how a Conservative might teach a course in Native American history, should not differ much if we both pay equal attention to the standards of argumentation, research, and evidence that serve as the canons of the discipline of history.

The point, you see, is not that a historian might bring his or her political and social views into the classroom. Some do, and they do so excessively. Some Conservative professors do too, like the Iraqi Seventh-Day Adventist at my old school in Montana who regularly told his students that African Americans were moving to Billings because it was easier there to commit crimes, or the self-professed expert on the history of lynching who told his students there was absolutely nothing objectionable about Lee Atwater’s infamous “Willy Horton” ad.

And as for preaching and indoctrinating? Relax. I can tell you that there is no way to lose an audience of 18-22 year olds faster than to be that old dude up there preaching. A better question involves asking how my prejudices and biases and interests and concerns shape what I present to my students. If you are willing to cry out that “Leftist” professors are indoctrinating their students, my reasonable response would be to ask you to prove it. Nor is it unreasonable for us to ask you to make a case as to where you think our interpretation is wrong. I will gladly listen to you. But at a certain point you need to put up or shut up. We all do. A historian without evidence is as useless as a pundit.

And when you tell me where you think I went wrong, I will also ask you questions. That is entirely fair. That is what a Socratic style of teaching is all about. These questions are designed to help you sharpen your thinking, to explore elements of your argument you may have overlooked, to consider your position from another perspective. I am also asking because I want to give you an opportunity to educate me. If I am honest, I must admit that I can learn from all my students, whatever their background, their religion, their politics. And by asking you to explore your own thinking, you learn in ways that you cannot from rote memorization, the type of soul-killing education still taking place in high schools across the country. We will ask you how you know what you claim to know. We will ask you, “What is the evidence that supports that claim?” “Why do you believe what you believe?” Sometimes, and just sometimes, in the face of questions like these members of our audiences will feel like they have been silenced. This is not censorship. It may be insecurity. Or a discomfort about engaging in debate. It is also possible that it is a simple matter of them having little interest in learning, and not having much worthwhile to say at all.

On This Day in History: The Chumash Revolt of 1824

            There are histories we remember, and there are histories we forget.  There are histories revealed and histories concealed.  Some stories are considered important and of value. Others are dismissed as trivial or unimportant. I never knew of the Chumash Revolt of 1824. Today is the anniversary of the beginning of that rebellion. This is a story of a people’s attempt at independence.

Too many histories of Native American are, at their core, stories of white America. They are stories of settlement advancing westward, with Indians thrown in. These histories begin with Columbus, talk about the Indians who encountered the first English Colonists, and their successors who marched into the American interior. A history of Indigenous America, that frees itself from colonial timelines, that allows the history of Indigenous peoples to flow through its own channels, is a rare thing indeed.

            I grew up in Ventura, California. Every chance I get I go back there.  I still consider Southern California home, despite having lived in New York for most of the past thirty years.  And at school, despite walking on a landscape rich with meaning for the history of Chumash peoples, it was a story we never learned.  No one every mentioned the Chumash in elementary school or high school. There was talk of the missions, required in California’s social studies curriculum, and vague references to “Indians,” but nothing more than that.

            One of the things I decided to do when I began work on the first edition of Native America was to write about the native communities on whose lands I have lived during my life.  It was a way to avoid a narrative that simply marched westward across the continent. So I wrote about the Crows in Montana, where I taught for the first four years of my career; and the Dakota Sioux, because my family was from Minnesota; the Caddos because of my brief sojourn in the Houston area, and the Senecas because of my long residence in the Genesee Valley.  And the Chumash.  Because I was born. on their land along the California coast.

            In the book’s opening chapters I tell students of the poorly-documented by the sixteenth century Spanish explorer Cabrillo to the region.  Then the Chumash drop from the story for a while. The Chumash encountered few Europeans during the many decades after Cabrillo’s small fleet departed. A few expeditions sailed along the coast, stopping briefly, but little evidence exists as to what they did or where, precisely, they visited. They thus had little experience with European intruders, and little reason to fear the Spanish who returned in the second half of the eighteenth century. I wish I knew more about that history.

            When the Spanish arrived in 1769 to secure their hold on the coast of what they called Alta California from their European rivals, José de Gálvez, the visitador of New Spain, instructed Gaspar de Portolá to undertake that task. Both Gálvez and Portolá recognized that they must treat the large numbers of native people on the coast with kindness and respect. Only with the assistance of native peoples could they control California’s verdant coastline. They lacked the soldiers and the funds for a military conquest, so Gálvez placed the “Sacred Expedition,” in the hands of a small number of soldiers and Franciscan missionaries.

            More than 300,000 native peoples, speaking perhaps as many as a hundred languages, lived within the boundaries of present‐day California. California was a paradise then.  Sixty thousand lived along the coast between San Diego and San Francisco. A quarter of the plant species found in North America grow in California; more species of plant and animal can be found in California than in any other region of its size in North America. It was no surprise, then, that Portolá’s men described the Chumash as living in thriving communities. The Chumash generously traded with Portolá’s men, so much so that the Spanish leader described them as a “tractable” and “pleasant” people who felt “no fear of us.” Thousands of Chumash occupied towns and villages along the Santa Barbara Channel. They lived by the waterside, harvesting an enormous variety of readily available resources. In special storage houses they kept large stockpiles of dried sardines, anchovies, bonito, and other fish, along with seeds, nuts, and grains in adequate quantities to hold numerous feasts for Portolá’s men. Chiefs organized celebrations, designed perhaps to impress the Spanish newcomers with their wealth and power.

            Portolá sought their alliance, but the Chumash looked to secure the friendship of these newcomers as well. The Spanish were impressed both by the abundance of food the Chumash collected, the variety of their economic pursuits, and the great reach of their trade networks. “Some of them,” wrote one Spanish observer, “follow fishing” while “others engage in small carpentry jobs; some make strings of beads, others grind red, white and blue clays.” The Spanish wrote that the Chumash produce “variously shaped plates from the roots of oak and alder trees, and also mortars, crocks, and plates of black stone, all of which they cut out with flint, certainly with great skill and dexterity.” They made arrows to “an infinite number,” and “the women go about their seed sowing, bringing the wood for the use of the house, and water, and other provisions.”

            Despite the obvious signs of prosperity, of regional trade and a system of currency based on the manufacture of shell beads, and despite the obvious sophistication of Chumash social organization, the Franciscan missionaries who accompanied Portolá felt that the Indians would have to change. Everywhere they looked, the Catholic priests saw signs of Chumash savagery. Though the Chumash, according to one Spanish observer, lived in “communities that have fixed domiciles,” and they arranged their “well‐constructed” and “spacious and fairly comfortable” houses in organized settlements, the Franciscans hoped to relocate the Chumash to missions where they could more easily control them. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who led this movement, ultimately established twenty‐one missions along the California coast, several of these among the Chumash. The Spanish constructed a presidio, or fort, at Santa Barbara in 1782, and a mission there, and at San Buenaventura, in 1786. La Purisima, near today’s Lompoc, followed one year later and Santa Ines, near Solvang, in 1808. The Santa Barbara Channel, in Serra’s view, was “full of a huge number of formal pueblos, and the most wonderful land.” Serra, now a Catholic Saint, is a controversial figure in my hometown.

            In the decade and a half that followed the establishment of the mission at Santa Barbara, according to one estimate, nearly 85% of the Chumash population relocated and settled under the supervision of the Spanish priests. A number of forces, working in unison, propelled this significant and abrupt movement of native peoples.

European diseases took their deadly toll, killing as many as two‐thirds of the Chumash living along the Santa Barbara Channel in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. During the same period, the enormous expansion in Spanish livestock herds compromised Chumash subsistence routines. Drought and fluctuations in sea temperature may have affected the availability of those resources upon which the Chumash relied for food. Fewer people facing significant subsistence crises, the loss of elders and ritual knowledge, and the critical numbers to maintain the integrity of their communities, the Chumash may have moved to the missions in an effort to insulate themselves from the frightening changes occurring in their world.

            Once they arrived at the missions, Chumash villagers may not have seen any fundamental contradiction between their traditional beliefs and those taught by the Catholic priests. Missionaries dressed in ceremonial attire when they said mass, led their community in song, and performed sacred rituals, like their own religious leaders. Their knowledge of the sacred set them apart from the broader community. Like the Pueblos before them, Chumash villagers may have seen in the Spanish cross something analogous to the large prayer poles upon which they made their own ritual offerings. Chumash at the Santa Inés mission, for example, hung strings of dried fish and chunks of venison upon the large cross that stood outside the church. At the outset, Chumash villagers would have had little reason to view their traditional beliefs as being in any way incompatible with those of the priests. The conflict that followed was not inevitable, and as historians we need to hold Europeans responsible for the cruelty of their acts.

            Once a group of Chumash villagers decided to relocate to the mission, it became more difficult for those who hoped to remain behind. Village economies collapsed, making feeding those who stayed even more difficult. Those who moved to the missions began working in the Franciscans’ fields, producing even more food and creating an environment where the missions seemed to offer both a source of subsistence and a community to which one might belong. But those who settled in the missions did not find relief. Death rates in the missions always surpassed birth rates. Between the years 1771 and 1820, according to one study, the average annual birthrate in the missions stood at 41 per 1000 mission Indians, while the death rate reached an average of 78 per 1000. Only two out of three children made it to their first birthday. Of these, 40% died before they reached the age of five. Few survived past their tenth birthday. Though few epidemics descended upon Alta California, chronic diseases such as dysentery took an enormous toll in Chumash lives. While the non‐Indian population reproduced rapidly, Indians succumbed in large numbers to illnesses in turn made more deadly by unhealthful living conditions, a brutal work regime, and, as one archaeologist noted, “the psychological impact of mistreatment in the missions and by cultural dislocation.” It is a horrifying story.

            Those who received baptism and survived (the Spanish called them “neophytes”), faced rigid discipline. In an attempt to impose their own sexual morality upon the Chumash, the priests confined unmarried men and women, some of whom experienced sexual abuse at the hands of Spanish soldiers, in separate crowded and unhealthful barracks. The Franciscans punished any transgression of their moral code by the neophytes with brutal beatings, the use of the lash, solitary confinement, and mutilation. Officials in the imperial center thought this brutality was not only cruel but terribly backwards. Alta California’s Governor Felipe de Neve, as early as 1778 hoped to transform the Indians of Alta California into useful subjects of the Spanish Crown by guaranteeing them a rudimentary municipal government and some control over their own communities. Neve opposed the use of corporal punishment, and believed that missions, by isolating Indians from the gente de razon, the Spanish settlers, retarded their improvement. They should interact with colonists, learn Spanish, and assimilate into the empire. The Franciscans, led by Serra, defied these efforts with all their energy, preserving a religious institution that had fallen out of favor amongst the Bourbon Reformers who took control of the empire late in the eighteenth century.

            The missionaries brutally exploited Chumash labor. The Chumash produced nearly everything consumed in or sold at the mission. They faced extraordinary limitations on their freedom. Still, Chumash men and women who settled in the missions seldom granted to the Franciscans all that the priests desired. Chumash elites continued to marry other elites, and those who led native communities outside of the missions often exercised leadership roles within. Chumash working in fields or tending Spanish livestock herds gathered traditional foods and hunted and fished as they always had done when the opportunity arose. Chumash herdsmen who worked too far from the missions to return every night established camps, like that at Saticoy near San Buenaventura, which became the basis for native communities.

Many neophytes clung to important elements of traditional belief. Some of the Chumash at Santa Inés continued to decorate prayer poles. At La Purisima, a twenty‐three‐year‐old man raised at the mission, and “instructed in everything appertaining to religion,” refused on his death bed to confess his sins and die “like a Christian.” Others ran away, joining Chumash communities in the interior where they reconstructed the social and familial relationships that always had given shape to their village communities. On occasion, the Chumash challenged directly the beliefs of the Franciscans. In 1801 a Chumash woman at Santa Barbara began to preach that non‐Christian Chumash would die if they received baptism. She had ingested datura, a hallucinogen that enabled Chumash travelers to encounter powerful spiritual forces in their cosmos. Like other prophets, she received a vision, and called upon her people to change their ways. The neophytes would suffer death as well, she said, unless they renounced Christianity, embraced their traditional beliefs, and washed their head with special water she called “tears of the sun.” The movement flashed brightly and spread rapidly, and Chumash people showered the prophet with gifts and offerings. The Spanish, clearly shaken, suppressed the movement the moment they learned of it. What, one frightened priest asked, would have happened had the prophet called upon her followers to kill the priests? The priests could not control the thoughts of the native peoples who settled in their missions.

            More than two decades later, a much larger uprising took place. Discontent amongst the mission Chumash had increased, and Chumash leaders at La Purisima began sending bags of beads into the interior to secure allies against the Spanish. Rumors of revolt became widespread, even if the Spanish did not take them seriously. Neophytes at Santa Inés, La Purisima, and Santa Barbara hoped to launch a coordinated attack on Sunday, February 22, 1824, during the celebration of the mass. On the Saturday before the uprising, however, an Indian from La Purisima traveled to Santa Inés to visit an imprisoned relative. The Spanish guard refused to allow the visitor to see his relative, and after an exchange of words, the guard ordered the visitor whipped for insolence. The Chumash at Santa Inés fought back. They burned most of the buildings at Santa Inés, sparing only the church. They then moved to the complex at La Purisima, which they captured after a brief firefight. The victorious Indians strengthened their defenses and prepared to hold the mission indefinitely.

La Purisima

            The next morning, Chumash at Santa Barbara under the leadership of Andrés Sagimomatsee seized control of that mission. Well aware that they could not hold it for long, owing to the proximity of the Spanish garrison at the presidio, they looted the mission and withdrew. Some crossed the channel to their old homes on Santa Cruz Island; the majority headed toward the Tulares, a five‐day march to the east in the interior. They found here shelter and a highly defensible location, establishing in effect a Native American maroon community that the Spanish could attack only with great difficulty.

The Chumash held La Purisima for nearly a month. On March 16, the Spanish attacked, exchanging musket and artillery fire with the defenders. The Spanish ultimately retook the mission, and sentenced seven of the rebels to death. Meanwhile, the Spanish marched to the Tulares. They hoped to persuade the rebels to return. At first, the Chumash refused. “We shall maintain ourselves with what God will provide us in the open country,” they said. They did not turn their backs on all the changes the Spanish had brought. “We are soldiers, stonemasons, carpenters, etc.,” they told the Spanish commander, “and we will provide for ourselves by our work.” They saw the crafts they had learned in the missions as tools that could help them sustain themselves as free persons. The negotiations continued and finally, according to a Spanish observer, “in peace, mutual joy and satisfaction, they were convinced to take advantage of the general pardon” the Spanish had offered them to “return to the mission.” When the Indians returned to Santa Barbara in June, the Franciscans felt that the rebellion had come to a close. But nearly 400 refused to return. They moved farther east, putting more distance between themselves and the Spanish. The uprising of 1824 was not simply a strike against the heavy‐handedness of the mission, but part of a movement by Chumash peoples to secure their independence, to live their lives in a changed world upon their own terms.

            That’s why I told this story in a chapter dealing with the era of the American Revolution.  Independence can mean many things.  It is something most American identify with the Revolution. Americans sought independence from their colonial overlords.  They sought “Freedom” from the British.  Many Americans will argue that the Revolution was indeed founded to establish freedom and liberty. But the experience of hundreds of thousands of enslaved peoples, and millions of Indigenous people living on this continent, showed clearly that their own independence was never considered by American founders and European colonists.  This country was born out of exploitation, and it was shaped by systematic programs of dispossession and colonialism.

A Letter to a Very Good Student Contemplating Graduate School

Every semester I find it more difficult to enthusiastically encourage students to pursue their dream of a Ph.D in history. You hope to become a professor some day, but the odds are long. I need to you to know that. This is no reflection on your talents, which I respect enormously. The job market is terrible, and I do not expect it to ever get better. Our work is neither valued nor understood by too many of our legislative leaders, which is a big deal for those of us who work in public higher education. Some of us work at institutions , like one I visited a while back in Missouri, where even the administrative leadership is entirely clueless about history and the liberal arts, and they luxuriate in their ignorance. Graduate school will consume some important years of your life when you might easily be doing something else that is more financially remunerative. Graduate school can be stressful. At its worst it can be demoralizing, depressing, and humiliating. It can beat you up.

It did all those things to me.

Yet, I loved my time in graduate school. I know it sounds crazy to say that. I feel immense gratitude to so many people who helped me along the way. I had a free ride with generous financial support, so I graduated without loans. I was very lucky. I had a fantastic cohort of fellow students, and I found in them incredibly important friendships and a mass of support. I look forward to seeing them when our travels put us in roughly the same location, whether that is a conference or merely passing through on an interstate highway. The professors with whom I worked, meanwhile, were fantastic, and I stay in touch with them to this day. I still draw upon them for advice. I know that I was one of the lucky ones. I found a tenure-track job right out of grad school. I have never worked as an adjunct. Admittedly my first job was at Hellhole State, but I was lucky again to find another tenure track job and escape. Things were so miserable at Hellhole State that I find it difficult to complain about things at my current college–I know how bad it can be elsewhere. I have been able to do my research, and teach basically whatever I want when I want. My teaching load is relatively light. I learned so much in graduate school.

And even with all this good luck, and how much I love what I do, I cannot be certain that I would be willing to pay the costs again. I want you to know that.

So when a bright and talented student like you asks me about graduate school, I am conflicted. Let’s say you have a kid someday and he tells you he wants to be a major league baseball player when he grows up. And he is pretty good. Great in little league, star of his high school team. You take him to private hitting lessons and travel ball tournaments. You encourage him, knowing full well that the odds of him making it to the majors are remote at best. If he loves baseball, and that is really what he wants to with his life, how can you not encourage him?

Sometimes I feel the chances of landing a tenure track job at a college or university where you will be happy are only slightly less daunting than making it to the Major Leagues and, unlike baseball, sometimes it has nothing to do with how good you are at your chosen profession. Academia is not a meritocracy. If your professors are honest with themselves, they will admit that this is true: there are many people out there with Ph.D. degrees in history who could do our jobs just as well as we do, but owing to the unfairness or bad luck, or macroeconomics, or a multitude of other forces, they never got the chance.

So I make sure a prospective graduate student like you understands the realities of the job market. Not just that “it’s bad,” but why it is bad, and why it is unlikely to improve.

I want you to understand that you should not take out loans if possible: if a graduate school is not willing to support you financially, it is not worthy of your talents. This is, of course, easier said than done, but given the state of the academic job market, I have to warn students about going into debt for a graduate degree that will tax them physically, financially, and perhaps emotionally.

There are some people you will meet who will tell you that your work is not good enough: one important way to avoid this trap is to never underestimate your self-worth and your value to an institution.

For me, there was enormous exhilaration that came with doing research, but not all graduate students feel like that at the end of their programs. Burn-out is real.

And consider this: the job does not always go to the hardest working or the most creative or innovative graduate student. Sometimes it goes to the person from an elite institution, or the person with an extraordinarily well-connected advisor at a college with a prestigious name, no matter how much that college seems in reality to be resting on its past laurels. Never, ever underestimate how elitist academia can be.

I hope you will think about these questions:

What is it about history that you love and how do you see pursuit of a Ph.D helping you with that?

How disappointed would you be if you did not find a job as a college professor? What else do you love doing, and might having a Ph.D help you achieve those alternative goals? (These cannot be considered “Plan B” options. I want you to think more broadly than the academy. When you finish you will have skills in research and writing, and a lot of knowledge. You will want to think creatively about how these skills can help you put food on the table and a roof over your head).

What do you think it is that professors do for a living? When you watch us, you may see the joy we take in teaching, and you may read about our scholarship and exciting research, but you may know nothing of committee meetings, scrounging for dollars to support research and travel, and the endless administrivia.

How important is it that you get to choose where you live? How important is it to be close to where you grew up, your friends, your family, and, perhaps, a significant other who may end up living someplace else? How adaptable do you see yourself: If you have lived your whole life in, say, western New York like my students, or in Southern California

In the Service of Clio: Blog CCXIII (213): Life in Hell Again
Though it need not be this bad an experience, it can actually take much more than four years.

like me, would you find it difficult to live in Texas or Billings, Montana, or some place that is so cold and snowy that you feel like you landed on the Ice Planet Hoth, or so hot and humid it makes your ears ring?

How do you envision your life five or ten years down the road? Do you want to have a family? Is it important to you to have the means to buy a house? Mind you, you can do all these things in graduate school if you have support and good luck, but I can tell you it is difficult. Do you have hobbies or other activities in which you engage which are so meaningful to you that it would be hurtful if you had to give them up? Do you like to surf? Or go see punk bands? Because that job in South Dakota may demand of you some important sacrifices. If you are in a relationship, and you want to keep that relationship going, your answers to these questions will inevitably affect your partner, too. Graduate school can be hard on relationships. You will be reading a lot. You will be writing a lot. Chances are you will need to be by yourself more than you ever have before. Are you comfortable being alone? You will have friends in graduate school, I hope, and they will nurture and nourish you, but it can be hard.

If you want to do this, I am happy to support you. I am honored to write a letter of recommendation in your behalf. If I have friends in the department to which you are applying, I will reach out to them and share my high regard for your talents. Do your research. Who are the best historians in the field that interests you, and do they work at a Ph.D granting institution? Write to that person, share your interests, and see if they are interested in working with you. Do they encourage you to apply or is their response lukewarm or uninterested. If it is possible to visit, or Zoom, or get to know them better, it might be worth an effort. That advisor will brag about your work if it is good, and the university to which you apply will benefit from your labor if you end up working for them as a teaching assistant. Do not be shy about investigating and interviewing your prospective teachers. Your advisor will be an important person in your life for the next few years. At the same time, remember, despite our howls of protest, that we to tend easily towards elitism. Remember that. I do not want you applying for a Ph.D at Slackjaw State University. People will judge you for it. I was once on a search committee with a Harvard Ph.D, who would not consider anyone from the South. It is wrong, totally, but you need to be aware of all that is wrong with this profession.

You were an immensely talented student. It was a joy to have you in my classes. I learned from teaching you. You have all the talent to succeed in graduate school. We would not be having this exchange if I did not feel that way. Knowing what I know of you, and what I have seen over the past four years at my college, you would make a fantastic college professor. I will do all I can to help you, and I encourage you to reach out to all of us who taught you here if you need help or encouragement. We will celebrate your successes and we are willing to buoy you up when you confront obstacles. You have a lot to think about. Eyes wide open, you know? I want you have a good understanding of what you are getting into. Remember always that you are always so more than what people think of your work, but that those of us here who knew you as an undergraduate are looking forward to celebrating each and every success you enjoy. It is a big decision. It cannot hurt to apply and see what opportunities present themselves to you. We got your back.

What Makes You Ask “Why?”

There is a tweet by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution that has raised the ire of more than a few historians.

I will admit that I do not follow Hamid’s work. I have read a piece he wrote for The Atlantic, but I have not read his books. Tweets are a poor way to communicate a complex argument, so I want to be charitable. A large number of critics responded to Hamid’s tweet by pointing out that historians have written important and illuminating books about Hitler and the Nazis, and about Stalin and Stalinism. They wrote about people and groups who they found utterly despicable.

Hamid’s argument, as he stated it on Twitter, is simplistic and short-sighted. But it is not entirely without merit. In another tweet in the thread, Hamid seemed to call upon scholars to honor what the historian Peter Novick long ago called “That Noble Dream,” the ideal of objectivity, in their scholarly work.

This echoes the basic advice many aspiring historians learn early in their schooling. Be aware of your biases, and try to shed them when you enter the library, archives, or study hall. You need to keep your eyes, your ears, and your heart open when you frame the questions that guide your research. Historians agree with Hamid that we all must be fair when we assess the evidence we uncover. But I still see this entire argument as problematic. It is precisely not the advice we should give to aspiring historians. Objectivity and neutrality are not he same thing.

What is it that causes you to ask “Why?” History is not a science, but it is a discipline. It is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures. Historians ask questions about continuity and change, and they answer them in a thorough and disciplined manner. History is, for many of us, a subject we came to out of a sense that something is wrong, that there were better alternatives to our current reality that never were explored. Why? As the historian Tom Crick explained in Graeme Swift’s novel Waterland, the practice of asking “Why?” is fundamental to the human condition, and it emerges from a sense that not all is as it should be. Why did this happen? And why the conditions that led to that? And so on and so on and so on.

In Native American History I think this is especially the case. A student reads about an incident, an episode, or a historical process and is staggered by what she reads. She has to understand why this happened. She despises the people she studies, whether it is the Paxton Boys, the murderous militiamen at Gnaddenhutten, Chivington of Sand Creek, or the founders of the Indian boarding schools. If she works in a disciplined manner, her strong feelings will not stand in the way of sound academic work. Her passions and her interests brought her to the very questions she asks. Students always should write about those subjects that matter to them, those subjects that get under their skin. It is the questions that keep you up at night that lead to good historical work.

There is so much suffering in the past. If we are to pretend that the study of history will make things better, how can we not choose sides? History has been in the news so much during what I hope are the final weeks of the Trump administration. The President has called for a patriotic history that will teach children to love their country. In the same breath he denounces “socialist” educators who “hate America.” In a sense, Trump and Hamid share a belief that the strong feelings of a scholar will lead them to produce biased, partisan, and tendentious work.

But that is not how it works. There is dreadful and pointless history written by scholars who cling to the mantle of objectivity, and fantastic work written by activist historians. There is no necessary division between scholarship and activism when both are done honestly and in a disciplined manner.

History enters into everything. For every student who has looked at the world and thought, “this is not right,” and wondered how or why things have changed or failed to change, there is a historical answer. The young person, marching with a BLM banner may be driven to study the continued violence of law enforcement against peoples of color and conclude that systemic racism is a reality in American life. Her very existence, her understanding of the harsh realities of racism, led her to her academic work. Long ago, my own disgust about “Indian Removal,” a subject about which I knew little and responded to more on the level of emotion and sentiment rather than knowledge, launched me into a career in history.

Many of those who do not like what we say about the past will question our motives. They will assume that we are dragging up negative and hateful stories about the past because we hate the people or the places we study, and that we want or need our readers and students to hate those things as much as us. But that is not it at all. It is our sense that all is not well that leads us to ask questions about the past. We work because we are so aware of the enormous, yawning gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, and we know that we will never bridge it without understanding how that chasm formed in the first place, and those who benefit from its continued existence.

I Watched The White House Conference on American History So You Don’t Have To

In his comments at the close of the White House Conference on American History, a gathering that did not take place at the White House and that included few historians, President Donald Trump offered a chilling vision that is one more sign of the country’s steady advance towards despotism.

Trump wanted to “preserve our glorious inheritance: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,” though nothing has threatened them so much as his administration. The Constitution, he said, “was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western Civilization,” and “no political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.” So he said.

Only enemies of the American state would disagree with him. He denounced “a radical movement” that “is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance.” These enemies of the American people have demolished statutes of slaveholders, that they have engaged in protests and riots. “The left-wing cultural revolution” visible everywhere, he said, “is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”

He denounced Howard Zinn, whose forty-year old People’s History of the United States terrifies the right. Zinn has lived rent-free in the minds of think-tank denizens like panelist Mary Grabar for many, many years. Zinn, Trump said, wrote a “propaganda tract” that tries “to make students ashamed of their own history.” The 1619 Project, meanwhile, “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principles of oppression, not freedom.”

Those pushing these views are disloyal. Trump said that. Like America’s enemies, they “want to see American weakened, derided, and totally diminished.” Teaching “critical race theory” to our children, he continued, “is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.” Thus “Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” These ideas are so dangerous, in other words, that they must be suppressed. They are poisonous and they must be rooted out and eliminated. Indeed, the President boasted of having “recently banned training in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government.” We will reeducate those exposed to these subversive ideas.

The panelists, mostly white men speaking at a panel organized by the President of the United States at the National Archives, played variations on this theme. There was absolutely nothing new here. They could have plugged in the National History Standards in the place of the 1619 Project, and it would have been a 1990s flashback, or “multiculturalism” for 80’s Night. With no sense of irony these well-compensated denizens of Right Wing Think Tanks and ideologically-connected Colleges lamented their marginalization. And, one by one, they expressed their fear of ideas, taught by historians, that they know they cannot refute. It was a disgraceful affair, capped by the President signing an unconstitutional executive order establishing the “1776 Commission” to indoctrinate American children with “patriotic” values. Because he is afraid of them being indoctrinated.

I know many friends who have laughed at this President’s many monstrosities, but we are not laughing any more. This is dangerous. It is no joke.

When I hear how colonists wiped out close to 70% of the Indigenous population of the Americas and dispossessed them almost entirely, I do not believe that the country was founded on principles of liberty and equality. When I figure that more than 2/3 of the people who crossed the Atlantic to come to English America between 1630 and 1780 came in chains, liberty and freedom do not compute. When I remember that nearly 50% of enslaved children born in Virginia died before their fifth birthday, and that the United States abolished slavery only after a bloody Civil War and after our former imperial overlords in Great Britain, it does not seem to me that freedom and equality are cardinal American values, whatever we say about ourselves. When I realize that in the very same speech in which the President claimed the country was founded on such glorious principles he denounced those who want to take down monuments to white supremacy and congratulated himself on the punishments he has decreed through an unconstitutional executive order for those who damage them, all I see is hypocrisy and the emptiness of his arguments. I walk away from this still convinced that the widely held notion that this country was founded on principles of liberty and equality is the biggest lie in American history.

We can hardly expect a country founded by those who enslaved millions to have done otherwise than to create a republic based on white supremacy. And when I hear so-called historians, like some of those gathered at the President’s Conference on American History, claim that the Revolution is unfinished, that we are still engaged in the work of crafting that “more perfect union,” I am left unmoved. We have been at this for close to two-and-a-half centuries, I might point out. How much longer will it take for you to admit that our commitment to liberty and equality may be highly qualified at best?

The biggest lie in American History has been challenged in all sorts of ways. Historians, like those involved in the 1619 Project, have done so. And so have so many of the young people protesting out in the street.

The response of these “historians,” for few of them actually had any training in history, is not to engage with the evidence or to present interpretations of their own rooted in primary source research. Rather, they challenge the patriotism of those who write these histories, and who question “these truths.” You cannot possibly love the country if you believe these things, they say, and your thoughts are so dangerous that they must be suppressed.

At one level, there is nothing new about any of this. History has always been political. I think of the debates chronicled in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream years ago. I remember reading of the treatment received by Charles Beard after he published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Much of what Trump’s chosen panelists said about Howard Zinn’s People’s History and the 1619 Project was said about the National History Standards twenty-five years ago. History as academic discipline versus history as civic education and indoctrination; history as a scholarly pursuit versus a set of comforting myths we tell ourselves about our past; history as a method for studying change over time versus history as a dogma, the challenging of which is dangerous and subversive: it has all been done before.

So the arguments presented at the White House Conference were all pretty familiar. I have been at this for a while, and I have followed the “History Wars” over many years with great attention. I have seen this before. The notion that historians are unpatriotic, that they will destroy their students’ love of country, and that they are teaching kids to be ashamed of their nation’s past, has been repeated many, many times. But what strikes me as new, this time, is the stridency with which the President and the speakers at this conference cast their opponents not merely as historians with whom they disagree about the past but as enemies of the state. They advance a coward’s ideological purity that casts historians as dangerous subversives. The President likened them to child abusers, aligned with leftists, anarchists, and socialists. Oh, they are so frightened. And they will strike those who frighten them. This long ago ceased to be funny, and is one more reminder of how much is at stake in the coming election.

What’s So Great about the American Revolution?

Recently I attended a planning meeting for New York’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. National, state, and local organizations are planning events. Although I am all for public engagement with history and its consequences, discussions like these sometimes fill me with dread.

New York’s state historian Devin Lander convened this meeting at the Ganondagan State Historic Site, where French forces attacked and destroyed a Seneca town late in the seventeenth century. His goal is to create a commemoration that is inclusive and that incorporates the state’s history in all of its complexity and diversity. Hence the meeting at Ganondagan: the state historian agrees whole-heartedly that Native American history is New York State history. That’s a laudable and important goal, but it is going to be enormously challenging to pull it off. When it comes to commemorations, sometimes the desire to celebrate can cast out those who look at events with a critical eye.

Shawn McBurney, from the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, laid out his vision for the commemoration at the national level. America has never been perfect, McBurney said, but the commemoration effort should remind Americans that the nation has always tried to do better. McBurney emphasized “contributions” made by different groups to the American story. He spoke of emphasizing “the continued vitality of American institutions,” and the “shared ideals and values” embraced by Americans. The tone struck me as celebratory, as in “we” have accomplished something special, unique, and valuable in world history over the course of the past two and a half centuries. I am not always sure that “we” have worked to make things better: some us, to be sure, but hardly all of us. And that part of McBurney’s job is to raise funds from corporate donors makes me wonder how critical a reassessment of our shared past might result from these efforts. McBurney, too, has a difficult job.

Other speakers pointed out that the American Revolution is the source of ideals that we as a nation have not completely realized. They spoke of the Revolution as something that is “continuing” and “unfinished.” So Whiggish, I thought. Onward and upward. Always progressing. Always getting better. Our failures are not failures because we have not completely had a chance to fail yet.

The American Revolution, no doubt, is an important event. Obviously it led to the creation of the United States. Like a child, however unlovable it becomes as it matures, this birth of a new nation we view almost automatically as cause for celebration.

But was the Revolution a good thing? I asked the question at this meeting. The answers, to me, seemed fumbling. It is not the job of historians to describe events as good or bad, I was told. But we do that all the time. Hitler? He was bad. Penicillin? That was a good thing. See? It’s easy. So I ask again, was the Revolution a good thing? Did it make the world a better place? Seriously. We assume so, but was it objectively, demonstrably so?

Was it something more than a chapter in the long story of vicious frontier warfare that began fifteen years before the Revolution and continued for another fifteen afterwards? It was a nightmare for many native peoples in the eastern half of the continent. For enslaved peoples? A handful found freedom as a result of the Revolution, but the vast, vast majority remained enslaved and confronted hardening racial attitudes in the new republic. Women? Nope. The Revolution did nothing for them, and the Founders made no effort to “remember the ladies.” Revolution, war, and the economic dislocation that accompanied these ruined many people.

Well, of course, the promoters of commemoration might reply. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. You have overlooked the liberating forces set free, the “transforming hand of Revolution.” Those “self-evident truths” described by Thomas Jefferson in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence included the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Revolution was about freedom, liberty, and maybe a bit of equality. We began a journey in 1776, and we are getting closer to completing it every day.

Never mind that Jefferson never came close to living up to those ideals in his own life. If after the passage of two and a half centuries we have not yet fully lived up to those revolutionary ideals, isn’t it possible that we really do not value them much at all? America’s commitment to liberty and equality has been ambivalent at best. Great Britain, America’s opponent during (and after) the Revolution, abolished slavery before the United States without five years of fratricidal warfare, and it recognized the rights of women to cast ballots earlier as well. Certainly it is true that revolutionary movements in other parts of the world have borrowed the language of the American Revolution, but they seem more into its rhetoric than its substance. If after two-and-a-half centuries we continue to live in communities where inequality is so readily apparent, perhaps it is not unreasonable to ask whether we really do cherish liberty, freedom, equality, and democracy.

Perhaps we claim too much for the Revolution. Though historians have produced important scholarship, my students are shocked by revolutionary violence, saddened by the disruptions it caused, disappointed by its promises unfulfilled. Changes–at the local, continental, and global level–that are sometimes attributed to the Revolution may have occurred without it.

So what do we do, then, as part of a commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution? I hope we can leave behind uncritical stories of patriotism and heroism, of great leaders and Founders’ Chic. I hope we can avoid a repeat of the orgy of self-congratulatory nonsense that accompanied the bicentennial celebration forty-three years ago. When the American Battlefield Trust, for instance, states that the semiquincentennial “provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to celebrate the democratic ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence – principles that continue to guide us as a country and inspire people throughout the world,” I am skeptical. Can anyone honestly look at the conduct of our Bronze Creon, or Moscow Mitch McConnell, or the Republican party generally, and see any semblance of “democratic ideals” at all?

I hope that this commemoration looks instead at the different revolutionary experiences of people living on this continent to assess what the Revolution was, what it changed, and why it mattered. It is the sort of work that historians like Kathleen DuVal and Maya Jasanoff are doing, both in books my students are reading this semester in their course on the American Revolution. Different people experienced different Revolutions, and for many there was little in their story to celebrate.

Perhaps it is a function of commemorations to invoke patriotism, but that is not the job of historians. If commemorations there shall be, whether at the local, state, or national level, we historians must cast a critical eye on the troubling events of these violent years. History can be a brutal business. We historians tolerate myths poorly. We hold nothing sacred, save the critical methods we have learned over years of training. It is not our responsibility to help Americans feel good about their past. It is our job to point out to Americans their inattention and lack of interest in values and ideals for which their attachment to is hardly self-evident.

Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Revisited

Peter Feinman does important work promoting the study of New York history. It is important to give him his due. That said, a number of recent posts on his blog touching upon subjects relevant to Native American history struck me as particularly disappointing.

Over the past couple of weeks, Feinman has offered his thoughts on the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day controversy. As many readers will no doubt recognize, a growing number of states, municipalities, and other organizations have replaced their celebration of Columbus Day with recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Drawing upon the language used in newspaper coverage, Feinman sees this process as insufficiently respectful. Columbus Day has not been replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day. No. It has been “dumped” and “ditched.” In the second installment, posted on May 30 and available here, Feinman describes the origins of America’s reverence for Columbus in myth, memory, and history. There is some useful information here. Feinman argues that “the issue of Columbus is very much connected to the culture wars that are currently dividing America.”

You almost get the impression that if Columbus had not sailed the ocean blue in 1492 that Europeans, smallpox, and genocide would never have occurred and that the United States would not even exist as a country, since there would have been no one here to declare independence from England.

There is in Feinman’s post the familiar expression of concerns about matters “politically correct.” For instance, Feinman writes that “just as it is now illegal to dance to the music of Michael Jackson, laugh at a joke by Woody Allen, or watch anything involving a #MeToo person,” so “Columbus is to be cleansed from our midst.” The message these efforts send, Feinman says, is that “it is incumbent on Americans to purify the country of its sins and the stains on the social fabric.” If you read my blog with any regularity, you know I find these arguments unpersuasive. To call something “politically correct,” it seems to me, is the intellectual equivalent of calling someone a Communist in the 1950s. It is an indication that you are not interested in debate and, too often, that you are uninterested in talking about the historical experience of peoples on the margins.

In the third installment, Feinman objects to uncritical use of the word “indigenous,” which he believes has conveyed “the message that there is a global people called Indigenous as if they are a single people.”

When I was growing up I don’t recall hearing the word ‘indigenous’ often. Peoples usually had real names. Sometimes they were their own names, sometimes they were the names other applied to them–Indians, Asians, Egyptians, etc. Now these Eurocentric names are to be banished from polite conversation. People are to be referred to as indigenous no matter where they are in the world. The word “Indigenous” has been weaponized by some white Americans in the culture wars against other white Americans, and imposed on people who had names for themselves and never used the word “Indigenous.” The result is a simpleminded, superficial, bogus term that produces strange results when removed from the American context that created it. Why did the politically correct unleash this weapon?

Uncritical language use is maddening. But I do not believe that this is as big a problem as Feinman says it is. “Indigenous:” the word is commonly used, as Feinman says, but its application is hardly mysterious and hardly mystifying. Its application to native peoples countering “settler colonialism” or good ol’ fashioned imperialism is a salutary development. And look at the language in Feinman’s post. There is talk of weapons unleashed, of prohibition and proscription, of banishment and censorship. I disagree with a lot of this. This is the language of a culture war, indeed. But as a white guy who has taught Native American history for a quarter-century, I have never felt the limitations that seem to run through what Feinman has to say here. I have had debates with many, arguments with others. But that is part of the game. The past is contested, and that includes the language we use to describe it. It is not a war. It is what we do.

I have written about Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the past. As I wrote back in October of 2017, “in Native American history, there are lots of guilty parties, but Christopher Columbus is guiltier than most.” Columbus gets both more credit and more criticism than he deserves as an individual. That said, “there is absolutely nothing edifying in this story of avarice, violence, and religious bigotry, save for the native peoples who at times and places survived the carnage,” and “the continued celebration of Columbus Day does a historical injustice to the native peoples of two continents and the Caribbean.” Nothing Feinman wrote convinced me to change my mind on this matter.

Feinman says much of value about the origins of Columbus Day. He is absolutely correct in pointing out Americans’ uncritical reverence for Columbus, and he provides some interesting examples. Columbus always has been a symbol. He remain a symbol today. The Columbian Encounter, so-called, is the beginning of a horror story for the native peoples of the Americas, North, South, and Central, as well as the indigenous population of the Caribbean, who were quickly destroyed as autonomous peoples by the Spanish newcomers.  Columbus, his supporters might argue, gets too much of the blame.  He did nothing to native peoples in North America because he never set foot on the North American continent.  This much is true, but Columbus has become, and perhaps always has been, a symbol standing in for the “fundamental violence of discovery,” as I class it in the second chapter of Native America. Between the first and second editions of the textbook, one of the many books I read as I worked on revising was Andres Resendez’s excellent The Other Slavery which, among other things, described in detail the centrality of slavery in Columbus’s enterprise.  Columbus carried slaves back to Spain on each of his voyages, and promised the Crown “as many slaves as Their Majesties orders to make.”

Holidays come, and holidays go. Ask any historian. She will tell you that. Commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day does not belittle or demean the western tradition.  What it does do is allow us to pay attention to the experience of those native peoples whose losses were Europeans’ gain, and who have endured and survived through five centuries of discrimination, dispossession, and slaughter. If, after all, any number of people in our nation’s history had had their way, native peoples would be gone: They would have been wiped out by warfare and epidemic and chronic disease; or they would have been “removed” to make way for the “settlers” who championed the rise of Andrew Jackson in the first few decades of the nineteenth century; or confined on tiny reservations until the missionaries and teachers and government farmers wiped away any trace of their identity as native peoples; or assimilated into the American body politic; or “terminated” in the middle decades of the twentieth century, with the reality of their native nations erased by congressional statute.  Indians were supposed to disappear. If any number of people had their way, Native American people would not be here to call for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Columbus Day found its origins in discrimination against Italian-American immigrants. We were here from the beginning, Italian-Americans said, and we have as great a claim to this continent as any other group.  The holiday has seldom encouraged any significant and honest discussion of the consequences of the Columbian Encounter, a process which was, as historian Alfred Crosby showed a long time ago, much bigger than Christopher Columbus.  It is time for the bad history and the myth associated with this day to go away, and if recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day helps I am all for it.  Let’s talk about Columbus, to be sure, and the European invasion of America, but let’s do so with our eyes firmly upon those native peoples whose losses were Europeans’ gain, and who have endured and survived through five centuries of discrimination, dispossession, and slaughter.

What’s In A Name

In Native America I spend quite a bit of time writing about the Dakotas in Minnesota, and on a handful of occasions, Fort Snelling enters the narrative. It is an important place in Dakota history. In part that is why the Minnesota Historical Society, one of the finest in the country, chose to rename the historic site as “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote,” a nod to the location’s indigenous place name. It was a shift, an important change, in that the State Historical Society used its power to name to acknowledge the sites indigenous name. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, in turns out.

Conservatives in the state complained about the name change. They cried foul. “History was being erased,” they said. Hutchinson Republican state senator Scott Newman said “the controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history.” Newman said that he “did not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing,” because he believed “it to be revisionist history.” When asked what was wrong with specifically adding the Dakota name for the site to Fort Snelling’s signage, State Senator Mary Kiffmeyer, the chair of the committee that oversees the state budgets, said, according to, “Yes, we can add some of those additional pieces of information, but Fort Snelling is about military history, and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that. It’s the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans. It is our premiere entity for military history.” That is logic and grammar that is Trump-Like. In retaliation, Kiffmeyer and her party voted to slash the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget by nearly 20%, an action that would result in significant layoffs.

The power to name–whether we are speaking about battles or historic sites–belongs all too often to the victors. And Minnesota’s GOP state senators punished the MHS for, in essence, asking visitors to Fort Snelling to consider the region’s history anew. History often can be wielded to craft myths, to tell comforting tales, but also to justify the historic erasure of indigenous peoples as something without cause or moral responsibility. My grandmother who grew up not far from Fort Snelling, told me that she always had heard that German and Swedish settlers got along well with the Indians. It was a myth, something untrue, a comforting tale. If bad things happened, it wasn’t us. And by asking Minnesotans to consider that the state had a history before those settlers arrived, that lands within what became the state mattered to its native peoples, the Minnesota Historical Society has provoked a response that it is impossible to consider as anything other than racist.

Minnesota, historically, has done much to erase its native peoples, including the Dakotas, who welcomed the first emissaries who arrived from the United States. The Mdewakantons, for instance, one of a number of Dakota bands, provided the American explorer Zebulon Pike with one hundred thousand acres in exchange for a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of gifts, a deal which may well have appeared advantageous to them.  Pike, after all, promised to establish a fort in their territory and to defend them from the attacks of their native enemies.  “These posts,” he said, “are intended as a benefit to you.” He offered them military protection and a “to establish factories at those posts, in which the Indians may procure all their things at a cheaper and better rate than they do now, or that your traders can afford to sell them to you, as they are single men who come far in small boats.”  The Americans could supply a greater quantity of trade goods for a lower price than could the British.

            The Dakotas never played the role of pawn in the Anglo-British contest for control of the Great Lakes.  They welcomed the Americans as trading partners and kin, and expected their new allies to live up to the promises made by Pike in 1805.  When the Americans failed to provide the Santees with the goods they needed, some warriors joined with the British against the United States.  They pursued a distinctly Sioux diplomacy, using the opportunities presented by the Anglo-American struggle in the early nineteenth century to pursue the interests of their communities. Though they freely shifted their allegiance from one power to another, however, the experience of these unsettling years made it abundantly clear that the Santees could survive only with great difficulty. They needed the weaponry that only Europeans could provide.  They knew that regardless of the outcome of the war, they would have to live with the winners.  As it became obvious to the Santees that the British would not prevail, they began to withdraw their support and make additional overtures towards the Americans.

            The Dakotas welcomed Benjamin O’Fallon at the head of fifty American infantrymen because he promised American trade, his assistance in preventing intertribal warfare, and protection from the threat of starvation. Thus the establishment of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1819, seen by the United States as a critical strategic move directed towards ousting the remaining British traders from American territory, preserving peace on the frontier by policing white settlers, and fostering the fur trade, the Dakotas viewed as a promise of assistance from the Americans.  The United States would provide the Sioux with trade goods, and with the presents necessary to maintain and preserve kin connections.  The Dakotas acquired supplies, food and trade goods from the fort, had their guns and tools repaired by the fort’s blacksmith, and received from the garrison at least some protection from the growing numbers of traders who entered their homeland.  The establishment of Fort Snelling served both American and Santee interests.

            Still, they found themselves living in an ever-tightening circle.  Gary Clayton Anderson in his work has described this process in great and moving detail. The establishment of the American posts meant that traders occupied Dakota territory year round, and they sought to transform the fur trade into an economic rather than a kinship relationship.  They placed pressure on hunters to bring them their best pelts, rewarding the hunters’ efforts through gifts and presents.  Traders began to influence village politics, as hunters looked to the traders who controlled the supply of goods more directly than they did to village chiefs.  Though much of their culture remained unchanged, and they still lived most of the year on buffalo, there was no masking the growing influence of outsiders on the conduct of Santee public life.

            By the 1820s, the surviving evidence suggests that the Dakotas found it increasingly difficult to find adequate supplies of game.  To feed their families, Dakota hunters entered into those borderlands that lay between their homeland and those of their enemies.  Increased intertribal warfare resulted, as market forces pushed the Dakotas, in the words of Wanmdisapa, “into the jaws of our enemies.” Traders’ account books show that the hunters returned each year with less deer, muskrat and beaver.  Unable to pay for the supplies they purchased on credit, Dakota hunters found themselves indebted to the traders.

            Federal officials recognized that they needed peace in the west, and they undertook efforts to persuade the Dakotas to live on less land and to begin farming more intensively on a European-American model.  But none of this could be accomplished while the Dakotas remained at war.  In 1825 three hundred Dakotas attended the intertribal council sponsored by the United States at Prairie du Chien, yet another gathering that from the Dakotas’ perspective promised to benefit them and the Americans.  In order to promote peace between the Sioux and their neighbors—the Ojibwe, Sacs and Foxes, Menominees, Iowas, Winnebagos, Ottawas and Potawatomis—and “to establish boundaries among them and the other tribes . . . and thereby to remove all causes of future difficulty,” the assembled tribal delegates agreed to “a firm and perpetual peace.”

            The peace was neither firm nor lasting, and the Dakotas faced repeated calls to cede their lands.  As the number of settlers encroaching upon their homeland steadily increased, the amount of game correspondingly declined.  The Dakotas’ federal agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, called upon them to sell their remaining village on the east side of the Mississippi, and told them that the annuities the tribe received for the sale would ensure their survival. 

            The Dakotas trusted Taliaferro. He had used his own resources to purchase food and clothing for them in the past, and they believed his promises to care for them.  He had acted as an ally, as kin.  They understood that a much larger annuity could provide them with the means to acquire the material goods and support that they needed.  Dakota leaders thus willingly accompanied Taliaferro to Washington to negotiate a treaty.  There they ceded all of their lands east of the Mississippi, receiving in return an annuity in goods worth $25,000 for twenty years, and an annuity in cash based on the interest accruing from a permanent trust fund of $300,000.  The government allocated an additional sum of money to erase the debts Santees owed to individual American traders.

            The annuities helped in the short term.  The payments reinforced the bonds of kinship between them and the government, and the agents who distributed thousands of dollars worth of supplies the Santees viewed as friends and allies.  The population of the villages increased slightly, a fact that can be explained in part by the increased quantity of food available.  The kin-based relationship the Santees sought with their ally seemed to be working. But the relief provided by the annuities only masked for a time the Santees’ dependence.  As the supply of game continued to decline, the price for trade goods increased.  The Dakotas found it increasingly difficult to remain free from indebtedness.  Each year, more of their annuity funds went directly to the traders. By the end of the 1840s, most Santees were destitute.  The number of white settlers in Minnesota, which became a territory in 1849, continued to increase. Hard-pressed and impoverished, the Dakotas, under the leadership of Little Crow, signed treaties in 1851 at Mendota and Traverse des Sioux in which they gave up their claims to all their lands in Minnesota save for reservations along both sides of the Minnesota River north of New Ulm, and extending upriver for 140 miles.

The Dakotas’ experiences on their Minnesota reservations also showed early on that significant problems existed with the concentration policy. The Santees signed a treaty in 1851 after accepting federal assurances that the cession would benefit them.  They trusted their white father.  The sale would provide them with the annuities they needed to purchase the necessities for survival. 

            Federal officials viewed the treaty differently.  They hoped to civilize and Christianize the Santees, to teach them the value of private property, and transform them into farmers on the white model.  By reducing the amount of land they owned, and opening the ceded lands to white settlement, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea noted that the Dakotas would now “be surrounded by a cordon of auspicious influences to render labor respectable, to enlighten their ignorance, to conquer their prejudices.” Reservation life would bring preservation to the Dakotas.

            The government established two federal agencies to oversee the civilization program, the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood, and the Upper Sioux or Yellow River Agency.  Some Dakotas accepted the changes proposed by their agents.  Leaders like Wabasha, Wakute and Mankato cut their hair.   Others encouraged their followers to begin farming and living and dressing like their growing numbers of white neighbors.  Yet these changes generated divisions. According to Big Eagle, those who “took a sensible course and began to live like white men” received special treatment from the agents.  “The government built them houses, furnished them tools . . . and taught them to farm.” The “Blanket Indians,” or the “Long-Hairs” who rejected the benefits of American civilization, resented this special treatment.  They objected to the pushiness and cultural arrogance of the agents and missionaries.  As Big Eagle observed, “the whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men

. . . and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway.”  Too much change, Big Eagle said, called for in too short a period of time.  Big Eagle and many other Dakotas resented the racism of white men who “always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, ‘I am much better than you,’” and he did not like that “some of the white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them.”

            Some warriors assaulted the farming Indians. Some may have shot at and poisoned Christian converts. Those who accepted the government program seemed to ignore many of their obligations to their neighbors.  The houses built for farmer Indians had their own cellars that encouraged the hoarding, rather than the sharing, of food. The acceptance of Christianity signaled in part the abandonment of the teaching of Dakota shamans.  The refusal to join warriors at the agent’s request signaled the declining authority of traditional leaders.  The civilization program threatened in fundamental ways Dakota culture and community, and their world was out of balance.

            Other sources of tension gripped the Dakotas. The white population of Minnesota continued to grow as large numbers of Germans and Scandinavians settled near the two agencies.  Many Dakotas learned to hate the emigrants, who not only took their land and ran off their game, but refused to share what they had with hungry Indians.  The Dakotas viewed them as intruders.

            The settlers did not want Dakota hunters trooping across land that they felt was theirs, but the conduct of federal authorities at the agencies left them with little choice.  Agents and other employees used their positions all too often for personal enrichment.  They overcharged the government for goods and services that they provided to the Dakotas, and they claimed for themselves a share of the Dakotas’ annuities. They held much of the rest of the annuity money for payment of debts to traders. What’s more, in an effort to encourage Dakotas to embrace the civilization program, the agents withheld annuity payments to traditional Dakotas.  Without food and money, the discontented left to search for game.  They viewed the farmers and traders and agents as fundamental threats to their existence.  They were very hungry. When Little Crow complained about the behavior of the traders, Andrew Myrick, one of their number, announced that “so far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”  Astute observers recognized how dangerous the situation had become.  The Episcopal Bishop for Minnesota, Henry B. Whipple, solemnly warned that “a nation which sowed robbery would reap a harvest of blood.”  Nobody paid him much heed. 

            By the summer of 1862, the annuities still had not been paid.  Four Dakotas rummaging for food killed several white settlers who confronted them near Acton, Minnesota.  Rather than surrender the four warriors, the traditional Indians at the Redwood Agency resolved upon war.  Before they struck, however, they sought the advice of Little Crow.  He had participated in the government’s civilization program.   He told the warriors that “the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one—two—ten,” he said, “as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them.” However many you kill, ten times more will come to kill you.  “Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.”

            He doubted that the Dakotas could prevail, but he reluctantly joined in the assaults. He feared the consequences of the earlier attack on the settlers, and he knew the demands for vengeance would be great.  Best to take a stand now.  On 18 August, 1862, the Dakotas fell upon the Redwood Agency, killing two dozen agents and traders. The attacks thereafter became more general. Nearly four hundred settlers died in the first few days of fighting.  The Dakotas then attacked Fort Ridgely and New Ulm.  The settlers drove back both attacks and from late August the Dakotas went on defense.  Some called for opening negotiations with the federal authorities for peace.  Light Face, a Sisseton, said that “he lived only by the white man and, for that reason, did not want to be an enemy of the white man; that he did not want the treaties that had been made to be destroyed.”  Meanwhile, the federal forces converged on the Dakotas. Led by Colonel Henry Sibley, the American troops defeated a Dakota attack at Wood Lake in September. 

            Many of the Dakotas fled.  Sibley convened a military tribunal to collect evidence against those who participated in the uprising.  By November, he had condemned over three hundred to death.  As the condemned marched downriver, they faced the insults and anger of the frontier population.  White settlers pelted the prisoners as they moved towards the place of execution.  A white woman, one observer noted, rushed “up to one of the wagons and snatched a nursing babe from its mother’s breast and dashed it violently upon the ground.” The child died several hours later.  President Lincoln pardoned most of the condemned, many of whom, along with their families, had converted to Christianity while imprisoned.  They had found some hope in the new religion.  The President ordered them incarcerated at Davenport, Iowa.  Thirty-eight others, Lincoln concluded, did deserve to die.  On the day after Christmas, they went to the gallows.  As they waited for the trap to open, they sang their war songs and said their farewells to their families.  It was the largest mass execution in American history.  Little Crow escaped, but only for a time. He fled west, but returned later to the Minnesota valley.  On July 3rd, 1863, a settler gunned him down as he picked berries near Hutchinson, Minnesota.  His scalp was placed on display. 

            The rest of the Santees faced the wrath of Minnesotans who no longer would tolerate an Indian presence within the state.  In response to calls for the removal of the Santees, Congress appropriated funds for their relocation.  No treaty, no opportunity for the Indians to offer their consent.  After their defeat, the United States interned the surrendered Indians at Fort Snelling. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, hundreds of them died there from disease and exposure. From Fort Snelling, the survivors boarded steamboats and barges. Thirteen hundred in all, they headed towards Crow Creek, a location along the Missouri in South Dakota.  Dry and desolate, lacking in timber and quality soil, the federal agent at Crow Creek said the entire region was “one wilderness of dry prairie for hundreds of miles around.”  Food was in short supply and of poor quality, a product of federal corruption and incompetence. A congressional investigator, examining conditions at Crow Creek in 1865, found that “for six weeks after they arrived . . . they died at the average of three or four a day.” Over 80% of the Dakotas who moved to Crow Creek were women and children.  The men had died in the uprising or sat in prison.  The commander of Nebraska’s Second Volunteer Cavalry, Robert W. Fornas, described the Dakota women as “filthy hags whose ugliness was only equaled by their want of anything like modesty or virtue,” but his men raped those women and the trauma of the experience continues to haunt their ancestors. More than 250 had died by the end of 1864 when federal officials began moving the Dakotas to a new reservation, Santee, along the Niobrara River in Nebraska. On the newly-established Santee Reservation, the exiles suffered continuing population decline as infant mortality remained high and diseases periodically swept the reservation. 

            Still, they attempted to adjust.  They grew wheat, built houses, made use of wagons and plows, and tended livestock. A class of Santee craftsmen trained on the reservation emerged at the Agency.  By 1880, the residents of the Santee reservation had purchased ten reapers and ten fanning mills, and began to produce more crops each year.

Like other reservation communities, the Santees made changes to their political system to help them adjust to their new reality.  In 1876, the Indians submitted a petition asking that the reservation be divided into four districts represented by two councilors serving for terms of two years. Leaders chosen for their ability to interact with white society came to the fore. They also accepted changes in how they held their lands.  Some Indians supported allotment so strongly that they left the reservation, establishing homesteads in the vicinity of Flandreau, South Dakota.  To prevent others from leaving, their agents, the Quakers Samuel and Asa Janney, called for the allotment of the Santee Reservation. By 1871, the Santees had constructed nearly eighty houses, with the allotted lands held in trust for the tribe by the federal government.  In 1885, President Chester A. Arthur opened the unallotted lands, those not distributed to Santee heads of households, to white settlement, a move popular in Nebraska.  The Santees controlled more than 71,000 acres, along with 1300 reserved for the agency.  Arthur’s order opened up more than 42,000 acres to white settlement, a large chunk of the reservation.

            While some of the Dakotas ended up at the Santee Reservation, others avoided the initial relocation to Crow Creek. They had lived a nomadic existence in the aftermath of the uprising, ultimately returning to Minnesota and settling at the Coteau des Prairies.  Delegates from the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands traveled to Washington in 1867 and signed a treaty establishing two reservations.  Government officials recognized Gabriel Renville, a committed farmer but also a traditionalist who opposed conversion to Christianity, as the leader of the Sisseton Reservation. 

            The history of the Sisseton Reservation parallels that of Santee in important ways.  Government agents instructed the Indians on how to become economically self-sufficient, an effort hampered by the sorts of natural disasters with which Midwestern farmers contended in the late nineteenth century—drought and grasshoppers.  Allotment came to Sisseton as a result of the 1867 treaty.  By 1889, 1971 allotments had been made.  Of the original 900,000 acres on the Sisseton Reservation, allottees received a third, while a much smaller parcel was reserved for the agency buildings.  The remaining two-thirds of the reservation was made available to white settlers, at the bargain-basement price of $2.50 per acre.  The settlers did not want Indian neighbors, but they sure wanted their lands, and the reservation, like Santee, took on a checkerboard appearance with white homesteads interspersed in a crazy-quilt pattern with Indian allotments.

            The 1867 Washington Treaty also led to the creation of the Devil’s Lake Reservation in North Dakota (It was subsequently renamed Spirit Lake). The Sisston and Wahpetons settled there made, one observer wrote, “comparatively rapid progress, evincing considerable capacity in taking on the habits and customs of civilized man.” Catholic missionaries ministered to those Dakotas who settled there.  But allotment at Devil’s Lake resulted in the same degree of dispossession that occurred at Santee and Sisseton.   By the late 1890s they were impoverished, and they had “nothing from which they can obtain any revenue, and they cannot depend upon the bounty of the government.”

Revisionist History. It is a phrase we hear a lot in the history business. Good historical work, we believe, should challenge old assumptions, ask new questions, explore new avenues of research. Occasionally this good work forces us to revise earlier interpretations. There is nothing dangerous, threatening, or necessarily political about “revisionist history.” We always are revising our understanding of the past.

But our understanding is not shared with conservatives who believe themselves experts in history. For them, “revisionist” is pejorative: revisionist historians, they say, are going out of their way to “erase the past” and produce “political correctness.” These arguments are, quite simply, the chicken-shit expressions of partisans, racists, and fools. What they won’t tell you is the truth: that they oppose a history that is more representative of a complex past, that explores the past from many different angles and from any different perspectives, and that challenges the comforting myths they cherish that assure them that if anything bad happened in the past, there is no need any longer to talk about it now.

That these people wield their political power like a cudgel, mewling about a lack of freedom of speech because of “political correctness” while they enact legislation designed to silence dissenting opinions and free inquiry is as dangerous as it is worthy of our strongest contempt. We are historians. And conservatives like Senators Newman and Kiffmeyer must be challenges and they must be confronted. Racism is an ideology for cowards, after all, even the sneaky and petulant sort practiced by the Minnesota GOP. Call them out. And hold them responsible.

Scholarship and Activism

In the epilogue to her powerful The Beginning and End of Rape, Sarah Deer wrote about the day she received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had won one of their coveted “Genius” prizes. The honor, so richly-deserved, would not change her, she wrote. Deer would continue to combine her activism and scholarship to help Native American communities.

“History repeats itself.” What history teacher has not heard that line from a student? “Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it.” That was George Santayana’s old apothegm. In each, history is a force, marching endlessly in a circle. Because so few people indeed know their history, it becomes a sentence. If we are lazy, we can see the past as depressing, and outcomes as inevitable, or tragic. The past becomes a burden, a weight that can drag you down. I have felt that way at times and I have written about it on this blog. If you study the past, I am willing to bet that you have felt that way at times, too.

When I was taught long ago how to be a historian in the one-semester methods class I took at Cal State Long Beach, my professor emphasized the importance of objectivity. Several years later, one of my professors at Syracuse, a member of my dissertation committee, wrote at length in much of his own scholarship about the emergence of objectivity as a value in historical scholarship. Many of those who criticize our work, from outside the guild and within, may raise objections to it by suggesting that we are biased, and driven by our agendas. We might be left wingers, or “politically correct,” scholars more close-minded than we realize, and hampered by ideology from doing the simple work of reciting the facts that, brick by evidentiary brick, make up that edifice called history.

We might explain that this is not how we work, that this is not history at all. And it certainly is not how we should teach our students to work. History is not a science, but it is a discipline. Our research should be conceived, composed, and conducted in as objective and as disciplined a manner as we can. Of course we must be fair. We must keep our minds open and we must be honest enough with the evidence and our own assumptions that we are able to see clearly when they do not go together.

But the work we do, at the end of the day, is about answering questions. The questions that present themselves to us–that strike us as important, and worth answering–come from our experiences in life and in the archives, from our hard work, and, quite often, from our sense that all is not well.

Read history for a while and you will feel regret. Asking why a certain reality is ours can lead a curious mind to wonder if indeed other realities were possible. And if other possibilities existed, why did they not come to be? Who benefited from this particular outcome, and what might they have had to lose through other outcomes? And if one of these possible outcomes is superior to our current state of affairs, how do we get there? History can make clear the yawning gap between the way things are and they way things might have been.

In the opening of The Beginning and End of Rape, Deer makes the point that the current crisis afflicting native communities on and off-reservation is not an “epidemic.” Calling it that, she points out, makes it seem natural, unavoidable, beyond immediate human causes. That’s the wrong way to look at it, she writes. Rape, Deer argues, which “should be the number one priority for tribal nations,” because “all other challenges faced by tribal nations are linked to the history and trauma of rape,” resulted from the conscious choices made by the many and varied agents of colonialism over five centuries.

For Deer, as for many who study the past, there is a massive chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. To not ask the natural and logical question that follows is an abdication of responsibility: if history can guide us to a more perfect union, and if the lamp of experience illuminates a path to a better future by helping us to identify historical alternatives, how can we responsibly look away? To ask, “Why this?” leads easily to “Why not an alternative past?”

Encourage your students’ activism. Teach them the hard work involved in scholarship. Teach them to avoid polemic, to be fair, to ask tough questions of themselves and others, and to respect the discipline. Teach them that others will judge their work on the quality of their evidence, the thoroughness of their research, the rigor of their argument, and the grace and style of its presentation. Teach them that expertise is earned, not asserted. But do not allow a commitment to objectivity to stifle the questions, and hard-won answers, that can present themselves to any open-minded student of the past. Almost nothing was inevitable, and almost always there were other choices that men and women in the past might have made. There were almost always other possible outcomes.

Indigenizing the American Revolution

This past weekend, I flew to Atlanta to participate in the conference hosted by the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era. It was, as I indicated in an earlier post, the first time I presented any of the research from my current project to an academic audience.

I was part of a round table discussion called “Indigenizing the American Revolution.” While some of the panelists presented rather straight-forward papers, my goal was to suggest some changes in thinking about how we approach the Revolution, and to provoke some discussion. What follows is a distillation of what I said.

I spend a lot of time talking about the American Revolution with students who know less about it than they should, or whose understanding of the Revolution is ensnared in so much myth and legend that, despite their considerable interest, and infectious enthusiasm, they sometimes have trouble separating fact from fiction. In New York schools, if they learn anything at all about native peoples and the Revolution, it is the long-since discredited “Iroquois Influence Thesis,” which like all things from the ‘80s, still has a few remaining adherents. 

When I have a class in front of me, and I will be teaching the Revolution again in the fall for the first time in what seems like a long time, I begin by asking the students a number of questions: What was the Revolution? When was it? Where was it? Why was it a thing? And Who was it?

Let me be clear: I teach in western New York, in a picturesque village built over the burned remains of the Seneca town of Chenussio destroyed during the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779. The Groveland Ambuscade, the site of an actual battle involving Tories and Senecas attempting to pick off an advance party sent by Sullivan, sits near the campus, as do grisly and myth-encrusted sites associated with violence committed upon whites like the Boyd-Parker torture tree. There, the story goes, two of Sullivan’s scouts were tied with their own intestines by “savage” Senecas. The sites we commemorate in the vicinity of Geneseo, then, are sites of indigenous violence where white people play the starring role. Meanwhile, the sites of the burned Seneca towns are less well-known, their stories seldom told. As a result, even at a college that sits near the site of Chenussio, the answers students provide to my questions almost always do not include native peoples. 

   So to fix this problem, to indigenize the American Revolution, we need to construct from the surprisingly rich and abundant sources new narratives about the Revolution.  Despite the fantastic work being done by so many of our colleagues, this won’t be easy to do, and those of us who work with educators and local historians can expect some push-back and resistance. We must, after all, ask them to redefine and replace in important ways a story that has become comforting and familiar for one that is unsettling and disturbing.

          Still, if you will allow me, very briefly, I will try to provide some answers to these questions, inspired by this idea of indigenizing the American Revolution. These answers I base upon my current research project, a history of the Onondagas from the time when that young woman fell through a hole in the sky to land on Turtle’s back to something very closely approaching the present. It’s a big project, of which this is a small but important part.

For the Onondagas, there were no grand constitutional questions at stake in the Revolution. For them, it did not reduce to tidy dualisms like the questions of “home rule” or “who shall rule at home?” A conflict between Tories and British Regulars, American militiamen and Continental soldiers, that they hoped to avoid became for them a fight for survival, a nightmarish series of raids and counterraids that resulted in the burning of their town in the spring of 1779 by Goose Van Schaick, the death of Onondaga soldiers, and the rape and murder of Onondaga women and children. It marked the beginnings of a diaspora, the effects of which native peoples still feel today, and that the forces of colonialism have in very meaningful ways inscribed on the very geography of New York and two Canadian provinces.

When was it? Obviously that question becomes more complicated when we attempt to indigenize the Revolution. The Onondagas’ revolution does not fold easily into the time frames familiar to most historians.  The Revolution unleashed upon the Onondagas’ territory hordes of land-hungry settlers, avaricious speculators, and government agents determined to gobble up and seize control of their estate, their lands, and the valuable Onondaga salt springs. The same people who encroached upon, speculated in, and obtained through fraudulent means the Onondagas’ lands were the same men who called for the burning of their town and the destruction of its people during the war. The Onondagas’ revolution continued long after the fighting stopped. Onondagas moved between the British post at Niagara, and then Buffalo Creek, Grand River, and Onondaga, and other places still, struggling to hold together their communities in the aftermath of revolution, warfare, disease and dispossession, and they continued that struggle long after the “Miracle at Philadelphia” or other conventional signposts that mark the end of the revolutionary era. Indigenizing the Revolution requires us to step outside from Anglo-Centric and nationalist chronologies.

          And geographically, too, when we consider “where” was the Revolution.  The Revolution, after all, did not occur solely in the Urban Crucible, or simply break into the backcountry, or follow the marches of Redcoats and Continentals. No, the Revolution occurred as well in the settled towns and villages of what imperial map-makers, even on the eve of the Revolution, knew to be Iroquoia, the “Land of the Six Nations.” That geographic entity that today we call “New York” took shape through a process of Revolution, and New York quite simply could not have become the “Empire State” without a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession unleashed by Revolution. Transforming indigenous land into American states was a critical part of America’s “revolution settlement,” and the Onondagas paid enormously the price of American freedom in 1788, 1793, and 1795, to name just their eighteenth-century cessions, all of which can justly be considered rife with fraud

          Viewed in this manner, the cast of characters expands dramatically.  If we give to Onondaga, this Native American capital city, the same level of analysis historians like Robert Gross have given to Concord, or Benjamin Carp gave to the seaports, we naturally begin to see the Revolution as something other than a constitutional struggle, a military conflict, or the story of the creation of the American Republic.  The Revolution came to different communities in different ways, and Native American communities deserve the level of treatment non-native communities have received. That is what I will attempt to do in my book. As in Gross’s Concord, the Revolution at this local level becomes something larger and smaller at the same time, something greater and lesser. It includes the story of a war fought from the Niagara to the Catskills, of families that fled to the cold fields and mass graves outside British Niagara, and on to Buffalo Creek, who only returned to Onondaga proper after 1838 and perhaps the most corrupt Indian treaty in the history of the United States. It included Onondaga refugees and Onondagas who stayed behind, Onondagas who fought to avenge the destruction of their town, the capital of Iroquoia, and those shattered by the weight of total war. When we indigenize the Revolution, the patriots remain in the story. Of course, but they look less like men of principle and more like schemers who will say and do anything to get their hands on Iroquois land.

That leaves us with “Who.” Who shall we include in the story of the Revolution? Haudenosaunee leaders like Joseph Brant obviously dominate those narratives that examine the Iroquois experience during the Revolution. Stories of Native American elites can serve as a reversal of the all-too-common “Founders Chic” genre. No Onondaga, however, left even a fraction of the documents Brant, or Red Jacket, Cornplanter, Good Peter or other well-known figures left behind. But the stories are still there, scattered across the archives and collections. Ordinary Onondagas, like the ordinary people of Concord who watched British imperial policy, who watched British soldiers search their town, and who marched own to meet them at that famous bridge, literally made history with the decisions they made during these challenging years. The documents exist. We can know the names of those Onondagas who remained at Onondaga after Van Schaick’s raid, and we know the names of many of those who fled to Fort Niagara, and then went on to Buffalo Creek and Grand River, both locations that saw rekindled Iroquois League council fires. At a fine level of detail, and with the patience that archival work requires, we can reconstruct the lives of some of the people who spent time in these communities, men and women whose lives were shaped and altered by Revolution, and whose stories ought ot be as central to that history of those whose stories have been told many times before.