The list of the Republican National Committee’s resolutions and the bullet-point list of goals the Trump Administration has set for its second term show that the Republican Party is as obsessed with the teaching of American history as at any time since Rush Limbaugh began decrying the National History Standards back during Clinton’s first term. It is more racist now than it was then.
Limbaugh had read Lynne Cheney’s infamous piece in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the Standards, in which she had argued that the National Center for History in the Schools’ effort to create a guidebook for teaching American history was “politically correct.” It left out the Founding Fathers, she claimed falsely, and it celebrated the stories of minorities and women and would leave students with a cynical and pessimistic view of their Nation’s history.
Acting on this cue, Limbaugh took an American history textbook on his show (Yes! He had a television show!) and proceeded to tear the pages out of the book to demonstrate the sort of censorship “liberals” were imposing on American children. It was brainwashing, he charged, and it was dangerous.
These sorts of reactions to the teaching of history are commonplace. Teaching history is always political. There has always existed a tension between history as civic education (the production of patriotic and law-abiding citizens) and history as academic discipline (the critical study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures).
Now the target is not the National History Standards but the 1619 Project, and all it represents to the fever-dream imagination of the Republican Right. You can see this reaction in the efforts of Republican Senator (and 2024 GOP Presidential candidate) Tom Cotton, who late in July introduced his “Saving American History Act of 2020.” In it, he proposed “that the true date of America’s founding is July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress,” and that “the self-evident truths set forth by that Declaration are the fundamental principles upon which America was founded.”
Many Americans who know little of their nation’s history would have agreed with Cotton. But Cotton was worried nonetheless. He warned that “an activist movement is now gaining momentum to deny or obfuscate this history by claiming that America was not founded on the ideals of the Declaration but rather on slavery and oppression.” In the aftermath of the murder of an African-American man by four Minneapolis police officers, protesters affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement had agitated successfully for the removal of monuments to Confederate “heroes” and other racists, slaveowners, and secessionists. Earlier Cotton had called for the use of American military forces to violently remove these almost entirely non-violent protesters, a suggestion the President evidently liked.
But now Cotton was taking aim at the 1619 Project. It had appeared in the New York Times a year before he introduced his legislation. Cotton’s resolution required that no federal funding be provided to public schools that used or taught any of the 1619 Project materials. Cotton asserted that the 1619 Project was a “racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the principles upon which it was founded.” It must be suppressed. It must never be taught to children.
So we should not be surprised that the Republican National Committee last month waded into the controversy by passing a resolution “to conserve history and combat prejudice—Christopher Columbus.” The Genoese explorer was, the resolution read, “a courageous, determined, faithful man of vision, whose voyages to the Americas linked two continents…and ultimately laid the foundations for the birth of the United States of America.” Columbus’s voyage, part of “the expansion of Western Civilization, and the establishment of the United States, has led to an ever-improving free and equal society benefitting all Americans.” Therefore, the RNC resolved to encourage “public educational institutions to celebrate Columbus’s unparalleled contributions to human connectedness; his role in the creation of America, and his importance as a figurehead for Americans facing anti-Italian and anti-Catholic prejudice.”
The Republican National Committee also approved a resolution denouncing the “threats to the First Amendment,” which it believed had escalated “in the wake of the Chinese Coronavirus outbreak.” Among these threats was that “Freedom of Speech” was “trampled on daily with the notion of political correctness; the plan to eliminate ‘hate speech’; and the promotion of a ‘cancel culture,’ which has grown into an erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, and violating the free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.”
That probably sounds a bit over the top in comparison with the relatively sparse language of President Trump’s fifty-point list of goals for his second term. One of these is to “teach American Exceptionalism.”
But what that means is quite simple. The President may be a clown, but he is still dangerous.
If you argue, as nearly every historian does, that enslavement was central to the growth and development of the United States, that the Constitution as an instrument of governance protected the institution of slavery and hard-wired it for control by slavers, you are anathema to today’s Republican Party. If you assert that this country could not have developed in the way that it did without a systematic program of Native American dispossession, your loyalty is suspect. If anyone has ever told you that what you have written or said is “politically correct,” what they are really trying to do is dismiss your hard work without doing the heavy lifting required to counter the evidence upon which you built it.
Republicans have committed themselves in 2020 to writing into textbooks and curricula the biggest lie in American history, a self-serving and propagandistic depiction of the nation’s history that either out of ignorance or ideology denies the role of slavery and dispossession of Indigenous peoples in its founding.
This entire administration, for the past four years, has shown its incapacity for telling the truth. Lie after lie, it is exhausting. Its brazen corruption, its monumental incompetence—I feel like it grinds me down at times. And now, they want to teach and preach that Columbus was brave and pure, that slavery was an aberrant flaw rather than the absolute foundation, and that this country was founded on principles of liberty and equality it has never managed to live up to. I write these words in the aftermath of yet another police shooting, this time in Kenosha, where a white officer fired seven shots at point-blank range into the back of a young African-American man in front of his three children. Racism lies at the heart of this republic’s story. You cannot deny that. It lies at the core of the reasons why Donald Trump became president in the first place. And in its diseased interpretations of the American past, it lies so very close to the heart of today’s Republican Party.
last week in December forces those of us who study history to remember two
particularly gloomy, and revealing, episodes in the Native American past. On December 29th, 1890, American
soldiers massacred Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, an atrocity for which the
United States government awarded a number of medals of honor. Congress is considering legislation to revoke those awards. And on the
26th of December, 1862, American military officials executed at
Mankato, Minnesota, thirty-eight Dakotas identified as “ring-leaders” in their
war against the forces of American colonialism. I have been thinking about both
of them over the course of the past two weeks.
There was a fair amount of
commentary on these horrific events on and around their anniversaries. In reading about the execution of the
Dakotas, I learned that after the execution, William W. Mayo, who later founded
the world-famous Mayo Clinic, dug up at least one of the recently buried bodies
of the condemned, dissected it in front of his physician colleagues, and kept
the bones around his house as a child’s play thing.
I had never heard this before. I
read about it in a tweet. I asked the
person who posted it about the evidence.
This was a stunning story, revealing in what it says about Minnesotans’
attitudes toward their native neighbors.
But I could not share it with my students until I knew for sure that it
was true. The person who posted
suggested I visit Google; he was merely repeating something he had heard. I poked around, on Google and elsewhere, and
found some news stories that demonstrated that this tale of grave-robbing and
desecration was indeed true.
In September of 2018, the Mayo
Clinic apologized for desecrating the grave and body
of Marpiya Okinajin, known to the Americans as Cut Nose. His remains stayed at
the Mayo Clinic until 2000, when they were repatriated and reburied. Jeffrey Bolton, a Mayo Clinic administrator,
flew from Rochester, Minnesota, to the Santee reservation in Nebraska. The Mayo Clinic was establishing an endowed
scholarship for Native Americans who aspired to work in medicine, and Bolton
wanted to apologize formally for the Mayo Clinic’s hurtful act in person on the
Bolton’s apology was widely covered
in Nebraska and Minnesota news media, but I missed the story when it came
out. The coverage was kind to the Mayo
Clinic, generally pointing out that after the passage of a century and a half,
it was trying to set things right.
Stories of white apologies for the past are sometimes covered like this,
it seems. Reporters and columnists
celebrate the courage of those who apologize, recognize their bravery and their
contrition, but they too often do so without delving into the violence and
dispossession that provided the vital context for the particular act in
question. That really bothers me.
We’re all apologies, but only for the fouls we commit in a game that you must know was rigged from the very beginning.
The execution of the Dakota 38 was
an atrocity, no question. But it was not the only one committed before, during,
and immediately after the Dakota “Uprising.”
By the end of the 1840s, most Dakota Sioux 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 signed the 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 in a tightening circle. But 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
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
August 18, 1862, the Dakotas fell upon the Redwood Agency, killing two dozen
agents and traders. The attacks thereafter became more general. Nearly 400
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
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 300 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 toward
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. His decision was unpopular in
Minnesota. An editorial in the Winona Daily Republican thought that all 300
“It would be amusing, were the circumstances too solemn to be turned into a subject for ridicule, to point out the subtle distinctions which are thus made in the cases of these murderous barbarians—how one Indian is to be hanged by the neck until dead, because he fired the fatal shot which sent a defenceless white settler suddenly into eternity—how another is to be pardoned because he stood by approvingly until the shot had been sent on its mission of death, and then indulged his savage instincts by scalping the victim and horribly mutilating his dead body. The barbarian ravishers of women and the butcherers of infants are to be divided into two classes, guilty and innocent, upon the principle of nice metaphysical distinctions which turns over to execution one assassin where it directly applauds the conduct of ten others by pronouncing them worthy of again entering into society and running at large as the independent lords of a land laid desolate by their devilish deeds of outrage and blood.”
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. And it clearly wasn’t enough
for many Minnesotans. The St. Cloud Democrat resented the in depth
coverage of the executions, and the treatment received by the condemned. “The soldiers, reporters, officers and
preachers, who shook hands with those demons, should each and every one wear
his paw in a sling during the term of his natural life, or dip it into boiling
lye and skin it.” The paper’s editorial
“It makes one sick to think of the cunning, cowardly brutes thus lionized in sight and hearing of many of their surviving victims and in close neighborhood to the unburied bones of others, as they bleach in the wintry winds. Uncle Samuel’s soldiers are so busy feeding Indians, guarding Indians and shaking hands with Indians, that they have not had time to bury the neglected remains of their victims.”
White settlers killed by “miscreants,” “pigs,” and “wild beasts.” They were animals, and should be disposed of like the menace they were. If Minnesotans “do not shoot, or hang, or drown, or poison with wolf-bait, these erring misguided, unfortunate, wronged injured Siox [sic] hyenas they will deserve and receive the contempt of the civilized world.” White people in Minnesota “should kill them as they would crocodiles.” They were not worthy of the sympathy reporters showed them. “The sights and sounds of horror, the tales of death partings and hideous tortures brought into St. Paul by hundreds of survivors of the massacre of fifteen hundred whites has not occupied half the space in the St. Paul dailies which is consumed in the farewell grunts, dying hypocracies, and obscenities of thirty-eight of these demon-brute murderers.”
Little Crow escaped, but only for a time. He fled
west, but returned later to the Minnesota
valley. On July 3, 1863, a settler gunned him down as he picked berries near
Hutchinson, Minnesota. His scalp was placed on display. The Dakota Sioux were driven out of
Minnesota. Any Indian presence was too
much for white Minnesotans in the aftermath of race war.
The New York Times 1619 Project has been in the news a good bit lately. Older historians, some of whom have not done much work at all in the history of slavery and the enslaved, have dismissed the enterprise. That older historians dismiss the work of their younger colleagues is nothing new, of course. It is the way that hey dismissed this important work that is troubling. They question the centrality of slavery in the formation of the American state and society. They see the institution of slavery as standing in contradiction to the nation’s founding principles.
As a scholar who studies Native American history, the
opposition of these old-timers at elite institutions to their younger
colleagues is baffling. They may still
have power and influence, but no longer much by way of respect. Not any more.
I look at the past and see a continent taken from native peoples, built
on stolen lands, with labor seized from enslaved Africans and
African-Americans. Dispossession and
slavery, colonialism and racism: they rest at the black heart of the American
story, from the arrival of Columbus to its Trumpian apocalypse. The founders,
who too many people still revere as demi-gods, knew what they were doing and
were open about it. True, they spoke occasionally of civilizing and
assimilating native peoples, but that effort cannot be separated from the
larger effort o acquire Indian lands and erase their culture. The Mayo Clinic has taken significant steps
to address this repugnant part of its past, of its own history. This country has barely even started.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History