Tag Archives: George Floyd

No Mercy

It was a long drive to Gnadenhütten. It was Thursday, last week, and the weather seemed cooler than usual. The rain fell for much of the drive from Rochester. It was a dark day most of the way as we traveled along the Lake Erie shore, and cut south into Ohio.

I listened to National Public Radio on the drive, searching for a new station each time I moved out of range of the one I had been listening to before. Stories repeated over the course of the day. Because different NPR stations run different shows at different times of the day, some stories repeated several times: the end of testimony in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, for instance, and his decision not to testify in his own defense; the arraignment of the police officer who killed Daunte Wright when she pulled out her pistol rather than the taser that she intended to use; and the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer in a back alley. The child had been carrying a weapon, but when he turned toward the officer who pursued him–showing his hands as he had been instructed to do–the officer shot and killed him. Three people of color killed by white policemen dominated the news.

I am sure part of the problem is that police fear that everyone has guns. There are too many guns, and that needs to be part of the discussion about disarming or abolishing the police. Unless you are a hunter, you will never convince me that you need a gun. Owning a weapon is a choice made by those who want to control or threaten others or, for reasons I do not pretend to understand, those who need a killing machine to feel secure in their manhood, or for those who choose to live in fear.

Several months back, I dropped by daughter off at a gym about twenty minutes from our house. Attached to the workout facility was a large hockey center with a couple of rinks where youth leagues played their games. Because the workout lasted for only an hour, I always brought work, and waited outside in the car, doing reading for classes. One time I parked next to one of those over-sized pickup trucks that have become an all-too-common blight on our roadways. You have seen them, decorated with NRA stickers, or some form of The Punisher, or a blue line flag. The driver got out of his truck. He reached back in for something and as he stretched to do so, I could see that he was carrying a holstered gun on his hip. He pulled his black hoodie over belly, bullets and belt, and went inside to watch his kid play hockey, armed and ready for action. Many of the kids going into that rink must have been about thirteen.

Like Adam Toledo. I watched the video of his shooting, placed on an official Chicago website. It happened really fast. So fast. But he was shot and he went down and I saw the blood pouring out of his mouth or nose. I turned it off.

When we reached Gnadenhütten, right there beside the Tuscarawas River, the museum was closed. I called the two numbers on the locked door. The first went to voice mail. I dialed the second number. Tom answered. He drove over from his house, a very short distance away, let us in, and showed us around the museum. Lots of arrowheads. Lots of pictures of the site taken over the years since 1782, when American soldiers murdered the Christian Indians gathered there. Books that had belonged to the missionary David Zeisberger. But what really interested me was outside. The small grave where were buried the “martyrs” (to what cause?). A reconstruction of the Mission House. A site that echoes with the screams of children.

If we are to understand Native American history in all its complexity, I believe that we must confront the lacerating violence of events like Gnadenhütten. We must do so whether we are on the Right or the Left or in the middle.  I would contend that an honest rendering of this event would not differ widely on the basis of who taught it. We might differ in terms of its broader meaning. Last week, after a long drive, I saw it in the same light as I see the murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Adam Toledo, and the killing of Daunte Wright. Examples all of America’s long-enduring race war.

The frontier, we must remember, was a violent and at times a frightening place. No historian would dispute that, no matter what their politics, unless they chose to ignore the evidence completely. Many Anglo-American settlers living on war-ravaged frontiers simply could not trust their Indian neighbors. Settlers in the Ohio country, for example, experienced the horrors of warfare just as did Indians. Some of them witnessed the death of friends and neighbors in Indian attacks. More of them heard horrifying stories of Indian attack. These settlers had occasion to fear Indians. They acted, with violence and decision, to save themselves.  But settlers found in their fears justification for horrible acts of terror. They could, as did Ohio country settlers in 1782, conclude that the singing of psalms by Christian Indians at the Moravian mission at Gnadenhütten was not the pious expression of praise to the One God but the ranting and boasts of savages who had wet their hands in the settlers’ blood.

Native peoples had their own fears, of course. When Kentucky militiamen attacked a cluster of villages in northern Indiana where Potawatomis and many other native peoples lived, they threatened them with extermination. If native peoples refused to make peace, Brigadier General Charles Scott said, “your warriors will be slaughtered, your towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, your wives and children carried into captivity.”  Read Jeffrey Ostler’s excellent piece in the William and Mary Quarterly from 2015 and his more recent award-winning book.  Indians feared genocidal violence from white Americans, and you cannot miss the expressions of that genocidal intent in the writings and statements of American officials. Words and deeds combined, a frightening mix. Many native peoples who lived in the Ohio country saw in the United States and its citizens, whatever its claims to desire peace, an existential threat to their existence. Gnadenhütten. The white soldiers, these guardians of their communities, held a vote on whether or not to kill the 100 Christian Indians they had taken captive. This was, for native peoples, American democracy at work. As the Christians sang the last hymns they would sing, savage militiamen began to murder them, thirty men, three dozen women, and thirty-two children in all. Kids. Almost three dozen.

Tom, the guy who drove over to open up the museum, gave me a pamphlet reproduction of “The History of the Gnadenhütten Massacre,” written in 1843. It tells the story of the “Blackest Page in History of Northwest Territory.” It opens with a poem:

Alas! Alas! For treachery! The bestial white man came
With weapons of destruction, the sword of lurid flame;
And while the poor defenseless ones together bowed in prayer,
Unpitying they smote them all while kneeling meekly there.
The cry of slaughtered innocence went loudly up to heaven;
And can ye hope, ye murdering bands, ever to be forgiven?
We know not, --yet we ween for you the latest lingering prayer
That trembled on your victims' lips, was 'God forgive and spare!"

The pamphlet closed with the following:

May the memory of our red brethren, who at Gnadenhütten sealed their faith with their pious confessions of the Savior in their sufferings, their meek endurance, and triumphant Christian death, bear testimony to the Truth as it is in Jesus, as long as the memory of the atrocious deed shall last.

Just a couple of blocks away, in the center of Main Street, the head of the “Brave” who serves as the mascot for Indian Valley High School is painted in the middle of the intersection. Images inspired by James Earle Fraser’s “End of the Trail” sculpture appear at the entrance to the site and on a hardware store on Main Street. The large obelisk at the site of the Gnadenhütten massacre indicates that the Indians were victorious in their deaths. But they weren’t, were they? They lost before the lost everything. Statements that they prevailed over their murderers might make white people feel better, that the pious converts “went to a better place,” and you can believe that if you want to. I am inclined to believe that they were slaughtered, tossed in a mass grave, under a small mound that stands feet a way from the small gravel parking lot, surrounded on three sides by the graves of the village’s white residents. It is such a sad, sad, place.

I am so conscious that what I do as a historian and educator is viewed with suspicion by those who do not share my political beliefs. I have been told that I teach “children” to hate America, that I emphasize the negative rather than the positive aspects of American history. There is a student at my college–in my classes–who has made himself a polarizing figure on campus by loudly and stridently proclaiming his contrarian conservative politics. Among many things, he has accused those who teach him of being Marxists, Anti-Christian, Anti-American and, implicitly, demonic.

I was tired by the time I arrived at Gnadenhütten. We still had a couple of hours to go to get to Cincinnati. For me, it is a place that forces reflection. What else can one do while standing on the ground where American soldiers murdered nearly a hundred Christian Indians?

The locals remember the massacre at Gnadenhütten as a black mark in their history. But in the small museum on the site, there is little real discussion of the horrible crime itself. There are relics–a large collection of arrowheads harvested from farmers’ fields once worked by Shawnee women. There is plenty of information about the mission and the missionaries. But far less about the murders that took place a short walk from the front door. You learn who lived there, but not how it was that soldiers felt the need to slaughter children.

We thanked Tom for letting us in to the museum. We thanked him for his time and his hospitality. We dropped a small donation in the box, and walked back to the car. I am glad we stopped. I am glad we called him and took him up on his invitation to show us the collections. I took a last look again at the grounds, walked once more around the burial mound. Then I got back in my car, started the engine, and drove away. We saw the giant warrior’s head in the center of Main Street. The hourly news update came on before we left town, indicating that city officials in Brooklyn Center expected another night of protest in the aftermath of the killing of Daunte Wright, the latest battle in a race war that has gone on seemingly without end.

The Biggest Lie in American History

As Americans hit the streets, and monuments to America’s racist past topple down, a growing number of people are waking up to the biggest lie in American history.  This country’s racist roots run deep, from Columbus to the Confederacy to Derek Chauvin. 

            Contrary to American myth, the United States was not conceived in liberty and it has never fully committed itself to the principle that “all men are created equal.”  The United States was built on stolen Native American land, worked by the labor of millions of enslaved Africans and African-Americans.  That deep and fundamental commitment to inequality has come under attack on a variety of fronts in the time since four Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd.

            The common cause of the American Revolution was not enshrined in the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence, but later in the document, when Thomas Jefferson charged the king with stirring up slaves and the “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” to murder white Americans. Countering those fears brought the thirteen colonies together.  The ensuing Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for Native Americans, and it ended with a Constitution that defended the institution of slavery and created a governing structure that effectively guaranteed slaveholding states control of the New Nation. Racism, illiberality, injustice are not aberrations in American history.  They rest at the core of all things.

            We are six years from the 250th anniversary of the Declaration, and it is pretty clear that our commitment as a nation to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans is highly-qualified at best.  We, as a nation, have been at this for nearly two and a half centuries.  If we have yet to live up to our nation’s ideals, maybe it is time to admit that we never held those ideals at all.

            From Columbus’s slaving voyages to the Conquistadors, from the joint-stock privateers and adventurers to the religious bigots who settled Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay, America’s colonial past was rife with exploitation and violence.  The promises of the Revolution that followed remain woefully incomplete, the protection of individual liberties enshrined in the Constitution applied selectively and partially, such that a country with 5 percent of the world’s population is home to a quarter of the people on earth who live their lives behind bars. You do not have to travel far before you see a Confederate flag. From the children, struggling and yearning to breathe free who the current occupant of the White House tore from their parents and incarcerated, to the millions of Americans who now see militarized police as a threat to their life and liberty, there results a growing awareness that we as a country have much to do to dismantle our deeply racist past.

            At the marches following George Floyd’s death, protestors silently kneeled for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee of Floyd’s neck.  That is a long time.

            And it has been a long time.

            So keep marching, and take down those statues that lionize slave-owners who were willing to kill U.S. soldiers in order to hang on to their human property and the system of white supremacy that lay at the bedrock of American society. Of course there have been excesses.  There is much debate about the destruction of a statue of Ulysses S. Grant.  But do not lose sight of the larger significance of this moment. If you own property in the United States, you benefit from the historic and continuing dispossession of Native peoples, and from the unequal concentrations of wealth that enslavement, red-lining and other structures make possible.  Monuments are not history. They are interpretations of the past. And they are not sacred. Much of America’s monumental history justifies past evils and continuing crimes.  It is time to write a new story, and erase the biggest lie. The protestors are helping in this important work, but there remains much work ahead. It is going to require much more than police reform and pulling down statues. The removal of monuments unaccompanied by action to dismantle to structures of racism and inequality that they commemorate is nothing more than a symbolic act.

Musings of an Inebriated Historian

Being a historian in a world so full of needless suffering sometimes feels like a sentence to despair and hopelessness. I am not the first historian to feel this way. A long time ago the American historian Clarence Walworth Alvord looked out a world ravaged by the first Great War and wrote an essay entitled “Musings of an Inebriated Historian.” Historians, he noted, for a generation had celebrated “progress.” They assumed civilization emerged from and prevailed over barbarism, the arc moving ever upwards. Historians reminded their readers and students of that progress, or at least they were supposed to. Like the philosopher George Santayana, who famously declared that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, Alvord believed that the story of the past could illuminate the path toward a better future. But then, he wrote, “I remembered that this boasted historical mindedness did not prevent historians of all nationalities losing their sense of toleration and feeling for proportion during the World War.” That realization left him forlorn. What, Alvord wondered, “in heaven, or hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history?” Had the historian, Alvord asked, “ever offered any plausible excuse for his existence?”

As he wandered “aimlessly amidst the shadows of dead ambitions and frustrated hopes, phantoms of many efforts to save the world from its own insanity,” Alvord lamented that the historians who wrote before the war “experienced no difficulty in discovering signs of an upward progress. To them . . . the nations were goose-stepping in serried columns toward a better world, the millennium itself was evidently on the point of capitulating before the onslaught.”

They should have seen the slaughter coming. He should have seen it, too. But he didn’t and they didn’t. And millions died for causes that were not in the end worth the expenditure of a single human life. That progress? It was a lie. He looked out at the wreckage. “After such an error, what right have professors of history to speak?” Alvord thought none. “As I kick my heels on the edge of nothingness’ chasm,” he wrote, “I look as miserable and repentant as I can in my sackcloth suit and shampoo of ashes.”

WHAT IN HEAVEN, in hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history? Not a thing, it seems, when they fail to ask tough questions and stop casting upon the evidence a critical eye.

My generation of historians, and the generation or generations of historians who have followed me, are not nearly as Whiggish as our profession once was. We know how bad things are, and we know the deep history of our country’s sins. While we are well aware that the world today is in so many ways better than it was in the past, we are far less inclined to focus on progress. We understand the depth of our imperfections. But too many of us still believe in what must be the biggest lie in American history: that he United States was a nation conceived in liberty, committed to justice for all.

If you have not seen this before, you must see it now. And if you cannot see it now, and if you are one of those who supported the President and his hollow sycophants in the Republican Party, it boggles my mind. How could you? We must stop repeating the lie.

REPUBLICANS HAD BEEN at war with historians long before the awful Lynne Cheney declared its “end” in a dismissive attack on the National History Standards which she published in the Wall Street Journal back in 1994. Those of us who teach Native American history have long told our students about all the colonialism, the cruelty, and the violence that rests at the foundation of this nation’s past. But too many of us describe the acts of racism and state-sanctioned violence, as well as the President’s recent strongman posturing, as somehow “UnAmerican.” “This is not who we are,” I hear people say. I am not so sure about hat. The President might lose the upcoming election and he might leave office afterwards–I am doubtful about both of these points–but the type of politics and the attitudes toward race he embraces are as American as apple pie. It is possible that this is who we are.

LET’S SAY THAT YOU and your partner go to see a therapist for some couple’s counseling. “She keeps breaking my stuff,” the husband says.

“Do you break your husband’s stuff?” the therapist asks.

Wiping away a tear, she nods her head.

“Tell me about that,” the therapist asks.

“I try to get him to talk about our problems. Every time I do he shuts me down. He sees neither my pain nor my anger. The only way I can get his attention is by breaking his stuff.”

“How does it make you feel to break his stuff?”

“I’m angry,” she says. “But it feels good for a minute or two, at least. I know it doesn’t make anything better, but I have been trying for so long.”

The therapist turns to the husband. “Do you hear what she is saying?”

“She’s breaking my stuff,” he says. “She admits it.”

“She has,” the therapist acknowledges, “but do you hear what she is saying about the reasons why?”

“I don’t care,” the husband says. “She is breaking my stuff. It’s wrong to do that.”

MOST AMERICANS, who are bad historians indeed, are like that husband as they look out at the riots. White supremacists–and by that I do not mean the assholes with hoods and swastikas and tiki-torches, but all of those who benefit and uphold systems and structures that have historically privileged white people at the expense of peoples of color–will focus on how people protest and not why.

Historians. We are the people who ask why. We must do this even when it is difficult to do so, even when it is frightening. The couple seeking a therapist will never heal by looking at the superficial. Good therapists share much with historians. They seek root causes. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans say to those burdened by the weight of injustice, “Why are you so angry?” You’re acting crazy. Stop being such a bitch.” So few of us have stopped and listened, acknowledged the pain, and joined in the efforts to carve a new path for this broken shell of a country.

Like Clarence Walworth Alvord, we can wallow in our despair. We can say that these have been some of the worst weeks in American history. But if your eyes were open, you saw this coming. And if your eyes are open you will see that in so many ways it is not getting better. “Racism isn’t getting worse,” Will Smith said. “It’s getting filmed.” It’s getting worse in all sorts of ways. Only a racist or a sociopath could want four more years of this.