Tag Archives: Charlottesville

Creative Destruction: Or, Let’s Bash Some Monuments

It’s what we do, at least metaphorically. For historians, the destruction of monuments can be a good thing, a visceral and often-times important act of revision. It is an opportunity to replace dated and damaging interpretations of the past with more complicated, nuanced, and correct stories. We do not necessarily need to destroy Confederate statues to do this, but certainly we can reinterpret them, knock them down a few pegs, and re-write the stories that these racist monuments to white supremacy attempt to tell. Stick them in a museum, if you want, but let’s not pretend these are sacred sites.

There was a news story I caught at the end of last week.  Among the many vicious clowns and tiki-torch bearing, racist weenies in Charlottesville, was Mr. Jerrod Kuhn, a graduate of Honeoye Falls-Lima High School. It’s about ten miles from where I live. Kuhn was photographed marching with the white supremacists while they chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” “Blood and Soil,” and “White Lives Matter.”  Kuhn said, however, that he was neither a Nazi nor a white-supremacist.  Rather, he was a “moderate Republican”(!) marching to protest efforts to eliminate statues and monuments commemorating the Confederacy and the cause for which it stood–White Supremacy.  When some of Kuhn’s anti-fascist neighbors saw his picture with the marchers, they publicized this bit of news, arguing that local residents should know that there is a Nazi in town.  And Kuhn cried foul. He was afraid. Some of his neighbors were being mean to him.  Boo-Freakin-Hoo. If you dance with the devil, people are going to think you are a sinner, and the monuments Kuhn marched to protect and which commemorated the Confederacy were erected not immediately after the Civil War, but several decades later, at the beginning of the Jim Crow era.  It is an interpretation of the Civil War that has endured, in the face of all the evidence, for far too long. If taking down statues which lionize slave-owners who were willing to kill US Soldiers in order to hang on to their human property and the system of white supremacy that lay at the bedrock of southern society is what’s at stake, then let them fall.

I have thought a lot about Charlottesville.  I have thought about the President’s support for the so-called “Alt-Right” movement.  As I mentioned in a post last week, I really do not care what the President says: systems of white supremacy are deeply ingrained. Trump has emboldened the Nazis and the Troglodytes, but those people have been living under rocks quite contentedly for generations, surfacing periodically. Even though Steve Bannon has lumbered away from the White House, and Donald Trump is saying whatever the hell it is that he occasionally says, white supremacy will endure. It is institutional, and it is part of what we are as a nation.

I have thought, however, about what all of this might mean to those of us who teach and study Native American history, a field in which we might not discuss white supremacy enough.

After I moved to Montana in 1994, one of my first trips was to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield site, about an hour or so away from Billings.  In the small visitor’s center stood a iron plaque, about a yard square, that had been placed at the battlefield by Native American activists in the summer of 1988.  It read,

In honor of our Indian Patriots who fought and defeated the U.S. calvary. In order to save our women and children from mass-murder. In doing so, preserving rights to our Homelands, Treaties and Sovereignty. 6/25/1988 G. Magpie, Cheyenne.

You can read about the history of this plaque here.  It was a protest.  An attempt to replace one monument with another, a somber remembrance of the men Custer led to their deaths in June of 1876 with a monument commemorating the efforts of the Lakota warriors who fought to protect their homelands, even if the battle took place in Crow Country. Some viewed the plaque as an act of vandalism.  But it forced a conversation. Custer was no hero.  His men fought to eliminate Lakota people, to take their homelands, and the mineral wealth that lie beneath it.  The native peoples who fought them were not obstacles to progress.  But that is how they were depicted.

The protest mattered. It gained attention.  It forced a conversation, a reconsideration.  The National Park Service responded.  When a permanent monument was erected at the battlefield site in 2003, the native peoples who participated in that protest, who defied the rangers and cemented their iron plaque over the list of Custer’s dead cavalrymen, came as invited guests.

History is not merely a collection of facts.  You can see, for instance, how Custer has been depicted over the years.  Walt Whitman described him as a Christ-like figure, one who sacrificed himself in the name of western civilization and the conquest of the American West.

From far Dakota’s canyons,
  Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch, the
  Haply to-day a mournful wall, haply a trumpet-note for heroes.

  The battle-bulletin,
  The Indian ambuscade, the craft, the fatal environment,
  The cavalry companies fighting to the last in sternest heroism,
  In the midst of their little circle, with their slaughter’d horses
      for breastworks,
  The fall of Custer and all his officers and men.

  Continues yet the old, old legend of our race,
  The loftiest of life upheld by death,
  The ancient banner perfectly maintain’d,
  O lesson opportune, O how I welcome thee!

  As sitting in dark days,
  Lone, sulky, through the time’s thick murk looking in vain for
      light, for hope,
  From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof,
  (The sun there at the centre though conceal’d,
  Electric life forever at the centre,)
  Breaks forth a lightning flash.

  Thou of the tawny flowing hair in battle,
  I erewhile saw, with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a
      bright sword in thy hand,
  Now ending well in death the splendid fever of thy deeds,
  (I bring no dirge for it or thee, I bring a glad triumphal sonnet,)
  Desperate and glorious, aye in defeat most desperate, most glorious,
  After thy many battles in which never yielding up a gun or a color,
  Leaving behind thee a memory sweet to soldiers,
  Thou yieldest up thyself.

A century later, Richard Mulligan portrayed Custer in “Little Big Man” as an unhinged madman, a preening martinet, in love with his own reflection, and lusting for Indian blood.  He spouted lines that would have sounded familiar to a movie audience exhausted and angry about the Vietnam War. He represented all the foolishness, the arrogance, and the stupidity that led the United States into an imperial war it could not win.  Custer, Westmoreland, light at the end of the tunnel, we must always advance.  It was a stunning revision of Custer’s carefully cultivated image.

Interpretations change.  Monuments are not history. They are interpretations of history.  And as such, they are not sacred.  They are open to challenge, to question.  And if the claims they make are wrong or over-simplified or pernicious–Custer was heroic, or the South fought for “States’ Rights,” for example– than they ought to be replaced, revised, rewritten.  My point is that we historians, when we do our jobs well, destroy monuments ALL. THE. TIME.  We ask tough questions.  We challenge long-cherished assumptions.  We are not precious, and we should hold nothing sacred but a determination to work the sources thoroughly and honestly in order to get the story right.

And then there is the story of Juan de Oñate’s foot.  A statue of the Spanish Conquistador, considered a “Founding Father” of New Mexico, stood in the town of Alcalde.  In January of 1998, as the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Mexico approached, protestors armed with a chainsaw cut the right foot off the statue.  For them, this conquistador was no hero. They were, in effect, writing an alternative version of the Oñate story, commemorating the violent Spaniard’s brutal order to cut the right foot off of two dozen Acoma Pueblo prisoners who had resisted his advance.  I wrote about this event in Native America. The sculptor repaired the statue, but the missing foot never was returned.

We can call this act vandalism, or the destruction of public property, the sort of stuff that Vice-President Mike Pence has said he deplores.  It was those things, but it also was an act of reinterpretation, of historical revision. Douglas Seefeldt made this point in a paper entitled “Oñate’s Foot: Histories, Landscapes, and Contested Memories in the Southwest,” published in Across the Continent: Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the Making of America, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2005. Seefeldt edited this volume, along with Jeffrey L. Hantman and Peter Onuf. While some might excuse Oñate’s violence, and celebrate his founding of the Spanish province that became the state of New Mexico, and his bringing the cattle industry to what became the American Southwest, the people who removed the foot from the statue reminded New Mexicans of another side to the story, and demonstrated that history consists of many narratives and many voices.  Not all these voices are heard.  Not all of them are listened to.  And sometimes, to register, to move the debate, dramatic acts are necessary.

I like this poem that tells the story of the removal of Oñate’s foot, and the subsequent celebration of another, larger, statue of the conquistador erected near El Paso:

The Right Foot of Juan De Oñate”By Martín Espada

On the road to Taos, in the town of Alcalde, the bronze statue
of Juan de Oñate, the conquistador, kept vigil from his horse.
Late one night a chainsaw sliced off his right foot, stuttering
through the ball of his ankle, as Oñate’s spirit scratched
and howled like a dog trapped within the bronze body.
Four centuries ago, after his cannon fire burst to burn hundreds
of bodies and blacken the adobe walls of the Acoma Pueblo,
Oñate wheeled on his startled horse and spoke the decree:
all Acoma males above the age of twenty-five would be punished
by amputation of the right foot. Spanish knives sawed through ankles;
Spanish hands tossed feet into piles like fish at the marketplace.
There was prayer and wailing in a language Oñate did not speak.
Now, at the airport in El Paso, across from Juárez,
another bronze statue of Oñate rises on a horse frozen in fury.
The city fathers smash champagne bottles across the horse’s legs
to christen the statue, and Oñate’s spirit remembers the chainsaw
carving through the ball of his ankle. The Acoma Pueblo still stands.
Thousands of brown feet walk across the border, the desert
of Chihuaha, the shallow places of the Río Grande, the bridges
from Juárez to El Paso. Oñate keeps watch, high on horseback
above the Río Grande, the law of the conquistador rolled
in his hand, helpless as a man with an amputated foot,
spirit scratching and howling like a dog within the bronze body.

Interpretations of Native American history are everywhere, and I often encourage students to seek them out, to engage them in a debate, to interrogate their biases and assumptions.  Good comes from this.  Every day from first through sixth grade I saw this mural on the wall of Our Lady of Assumption Church in Ventura, where I grew up and went to elementary school.  It presents a rosy picture of the arrival of the Spanish priests at Mission San Buenaventura, one not at all consistent with how scholars see that encounter today.  Nobody has suggested removing this mural to my knowledge, but it stands testament to an interpretation highly favorable to the Catholic Church.

We write history; we do not create monuments. Our purpose is not civic education or instilling patriotism. As I have said before, history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space in peoples, institutions, and cultures.  That requires asking tough questions, researching relentlessly, and presenting answers that are sometimes painful to hear.  And too much of the history that has been included on these Confederate monuments and monuments to conquistadors and conquerors is, quite simply, bad history.

In two weeks the town of Geneseo, where my college is located, will be commemorating the 1797 “Treaty of Big Tree.” It is a big deal in town. As a guest of the college, you might stay in the Big Tree Inn.  Dining halls on campus are named after Mary Jemison, who knew much about the treaty, and Red Jacket, who got screaming drunk before he signed it.  For those who do not want to drink where students drink, the tavern at the Big Tree is one of a small handful of choices along Geneseo’s short main street.  If you want to take in the sights, you can go to the Livingston County Historical Society, spitting distance from the campus, and see what its curators claim is an actual piece of the “Big Tree,” under which the treaty was negotiated.  And according to a historical marker located in a campus parking lot, this treaty was significant.  The sign reads, “Treaty Of Big Tree:  Site Of Memorable Treaty Releasing Seneca Title To 3,600,000 Acres Of Land September 15, 1797.”

Releasing title.  3. 6 million acres.  Wow.  This treaty was an alcohol-soaked affair in which Thomas Morris, the non-bankrupt son of the bankrupt financier of the American Revolution and not-too-successful land speculator Robert Morris, employed bribery and alcohol to obtain signatures to a grotesquely corrupt real estate transaction. The Senecas, who had little choice, signed over the right to nearly all of the land in New York State west of the Genesee River save for eleven reservations. Over time, those reservations were whittled down to four, and then two, and now three.  In return for this massive cession, and the bribes he agreed to pay several Seneca leaders, Thomas Morris invested $100,000 dollars in stock of the Bank of the United States, the interest of which was paid to the Senecas most years thereafter.  Some years the amount came to nearly six thousand dollars; other years it was half that.  Why did this happen?  Stuart Banner answers tough questions like this in his excellent How the Indians Lost Their Land, a book I use in my Indian Law course.  The territory was massive; the Senecas’ population small.  The speculators and the settlers were coming.  Better to sell now, get something, and preserve a few key locations than walk away empty-handed. Dispossession.  Land loss. The removal from homes and homelands.  That story is given short-shrift in the celebratory histories of Geneseo and Livingston County. Signs like this one, as the Haudenosaunee scholar Rick Hill has argued, should be re-written.   Rick put together a pamphlet some years ago in which he wrote brief retorts to these ethnocentric markers that seemingly justify the dispossession of Haudenosaunee people and the resulting Iroquois diaspora.

So to those of you who marched in Charlottesville, or sympathize with them, let me make this clear: when we historians suggest that your markers and monuments ought to come down, we are not trying to steal your history and heritage.  History belongs to no one and your heritage, well, good luck with that.  You are on your own. We are suggesting that the interpretation of the past that you cling to, rather, is not only incorrect and oversimplified, but in some cases pernicious and a justification for past evils and continuing historical crimes. We hope we can reason with you, and persuade you with evidence to see things our way.   We are educators, after all, who have spent our adult lives studying history.  We know some stuff. (Some of the other people complaining about you? Yeah, they think you’re racist assholes, and some of them want to beat you up, but I don’t speak for them).  Facts, evidence, explanation: That is the world of the historian.  Myth, fantasy, and ideological comfort food–that is where the monument boosters stand.  Our goals are different. Yours are about justifying your views of the past.  Ours?  We like to think that we are speaking and writing about the truth.

And here’s a challenge for those of you who do not like what we say.  I tell my students this every semester. Ask us for the evidence.  I promise you, we will do the same.  We will support our claims with evidence, and ask that you do, too. If you hear something that you do not believe, ask us for the proof.   That is fair. I tell my students, it is entirely fair for them to ask their history professors not only, “What is the evidence for this claim?” but, also, “So What? Why does this story matter?” No historian worth his or her salt will be threatened by that question.  We can take it.  Can you?


On Charlottesville, and Our National Character

In what ways does the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville matter?

In the past two weeks I have listened to the Attorney General of the United States announce his determination to investigate discrimination on college campuses against…..wait for it….white people.  This move was endorsed by a President who has called Mexicans “rapists” and “animals,” and who has in as many words endorsed police brutality against African Americans and other people of color.  A sheriff’s deputy in Oklahoma, meanwhile, who gunned down an African American man who was walking away from her with his hands raised was rehired by another law enforcement agency.  And Friday night, and again on Saturday in Charlottesville, white supremacists marched in an American city, on an American college campus founded by Thomas Jefferson.  That flawed hypocrite whose moral cowardice was so great, who fathered children with his slave mistress while owning many other African Americans, who denounced native peoples as savages and spent much of his presidency trying to dispossess them, proclaimed his support for the premise that “all men are created equal.”

Saturday morning I sold a broken down flat-screen TV to a scrap-dealer.  Found a dude on Craig’s List who bought and sold dead flat-screens, and who included in his rapid-fire text messages a reference to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  He showed up. Never shook my hand. Never made eye-contact, and never acknowledged my wife who also was standing outside.  He had on an Infowars T-Shirt.  “Ideas are bulletproof,” it read, with the letters imposed over an image of the Constitution. And the stickers on the back window of his truck?  A gun, pointed right at me, with the caption “Not This Truck;”  a  “F–k Cuomo” sticker, with the “f” and the “k” fashioned from the outlines of assault rifles; and a seal for some sort of militia group to which he pledged allegiance (I wish I could remember exactly what it said).

I sold a broken down television, in other words, to a guy who loudly proclaimed his embrace of Christianity in every text he sent, while at the same time announcing to all whose path he crossed that he not only would use violence to protect his personal property, but that he expected somebody to try to take it.  What a dark, frightened, and violent way to look at the world.

These views, expressed on my driveway by a frightened but well-armed scrap-dealer/militia member, or acted upon by the vicious nerds, gun fetishists, racists and thugs in Charlottesville, and described as moral equivalents to the views held by those who believe in justice, equality, and that black lives do matter by our babbling President, are of course nothing new in American history.  We have seen this before.  Too many times over too many years.  Nearly all of us who study this nation’s history for a living, I suspect, were shocked, angered and dismayed, but we were not surprised.  Sick and tired, but not surprised. The racists and white supremacists appeared in Charlottesville, but they had never, every, really gone away.

And that is a lesson, I believe, that must now inform my courses in Native American History even more than they have done in the past.  Hatred and fear of a racialized other.  It runs through the colonial period of American history. You cannot miss it if you look at the sources: from the treatment of native peoples by a frontier population intent on extracting a livelihood from ground seized from native peoples, to the slave owners, and the the lawmakers and legislators and founding fathers who regulated and policed the expropriation of native peoples’ lands and African peoples’ labor.   As I make my way slowly through Robert Parkinson’s magisterial The Common Cause, the best book I have seen on the American Revolution in some time, it is abundantly clear how important a fostered hatred of warlike native peoples and rebellious African slaves was to give shape to the “common cause” for which American patriots fought during the Revolutionary war.  Racism was there at the outset, fundamental to the formation of American national identity.  There have been, of course, many courageous people who have spoken out against this blight at the heart of the nation–some of them were mowed own by a white supremacist’s car on Saturday–and this heroic tradition is important.  But to deny the centrality of its opposite–racial antipathy–is to fail to examine closely the entire content of our nation’s character.

Three times more Africans migrated to the English American colonies than white people between 1630 and 1780.  Slavery was fundamental to the settlement and growth of the Anglo-American empire.  That dynamic and expansive process of enslavement, as historians like Brett Rushforth, Alan Gallay, Linford Fisher, Christina Snyder and many others have recently shown, ensnared many native peoples, too.  Slavery was central.  So was the systematic and organized dispossession of native peoples. I have tried to write about all of this in the second edition of Native America.

“This was all in the past,” you might say.  That is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to think.  The President, too, ever-ready with insult and slur, has proven himself time and again incapable of denouncing the white supremacists who believe strongly that he endorses their views.  This all is heartbreaking, you might say.  You might say that what we are seeing in Charlottesville is inconsistent with who we are as a nation.  You may respond to the news  by tweeting out a message of hope or inspiration under the hashtag #thisisnotus.  That is naive.  Dispossession. Discrimination.  Police forces, armed and militarized to the hilt, locked and loaded to protect the lives, liberties, and property of white people from what  they perceive as the threat posed by people of color, slay African Americans and Native Americans largely without fear of the consequences.

I have seen an increasing number of “Police Lives Matter” flags in the Rochester area, and “Blue Line” American flags.  I see on the news stories about how a Canandaigua woman quickly sold out of the shirts and signs she printed proclaiming that “I Support the Police,” or something like that. It’s a tough job. I get that. If you cannot do it without fearing or discriminating or murdering people of color, please for the sake of humanity do something else.

Is it worse than it has been in the past? We have talked about this as a family. We live in a small suburb of Rochester, a faculty ghetto of sorts where most residents like to think of themselves as tolerant and open to diversity.  My wife, whose skin is dark, is pulled over frequently by our local police; in nineteen years living here, I have never been pulled over.  It has been bad in the past.  There is no denying that.  But it is bad now, and it is getting worse even in the short time since the last election.  For too many white Americans, black lives do not matter.   Native lives, for too many of them, matter not at all. Too many white people view programs like affirmative action, intended to address past systematic injustices, as a threat.  And the people who hold these views? They know the president has their back.

I would like to think that we historians can make a difference, however small, by discussing this history in our classes. I do not see how one can understand American history in its complexity without doing so.  Few people read our work, I know.  But if we are to be effective educators, we must reach out.  We must have faith in the power of knowledge and reason and dialogue and debate.  We must write and teach with the urgency that comes from knowing that our words matter.  And in African-American History, or Native American history, we have the opportunity to explore the structural inequalities and profound injustices that have always rested at the core of this nation’s story.  We must be straight with our students.  Most of my colleagues are already doing this, but the urgency for doing this is growing. Cast away the comforting myths.  It is not our job to instill love of country, patriotism or civics.  We must counter this argument every chance we get. Leave that to the hacks and the partisans, the liars and the myth-makers and the members of the PTA.  We must defend what we do. We must be honest.  Look the evil in the eye.  Expose it to the light of day.  Name the evil, and show our students where it has manifested itself in the past, and the many forms it can take, the contortions and distortions it demands and justifies.  We will take some heat in doing this.  The dingbats and the right-wingers and some of the most conservative evangelicals and others will say that we are not doing our jobs, that we must stick to the facts.   And we cannot take these foolish charges sitting down. We must challenge those who denounce what we are doing with the meaningless and stupid epithet, “politically correct.” Debate these people.  Call them out, politely, professionally, but persistently. Only by standing tall can we help to inspire in our students the courage to speak out, to ask tough questions, and demand reasoned and relevant answers.  Only by doing so can we, in some small way, encourage them to confront and to resist the rottenness that has plagued this nation for far too long.