History as politics

Mr. Bookworm tried to get me interested last night in an endless miniseries from a couple of years ago called Into the West, which has Steven Spielberg as its executive producer. Here’s the IMDB plot outline:

An epic tale of two figures during the American colonization of the west, one white and the other Native American. Jacob Wheeler leaves his dull life behind to strike out west, while Loved By the Buffalo faces his destiny to try to fight a prophecy that his people will be wiped out by the settlers. Jacob marries Loved By the Buffalo’s sister Thunder Heart Woman, uniting the two families while around them relations between the two races crumble.

Aside from the fact that it’s not a plot line that would appeal to me anyway (I’m not big on endless intertwined family sagas), the first half hour of the show was a complete turn off, since it played on every Howard Zinn-esque stereotype imaginable.

As promised, the series, which starts in 1825, focused on Lakota Indians and white Christians. It went back and forth between the two in little vignettes. As best as I can remember, this is how it played out:

1. A noble Lakota shaman forecasts the end of the buffalo.

2. A Christian family bullies its youngest son for failing to be a good industrialist wheelwright.

3. The noble Lakota families hunt the revered buffalo by driving them off the cliff, only to have the buffalo turn on them. The Lakota star of the series survives to become noble shaman.

4. A white scout speaks gloatingly of opportunities to kill beavers and Indians.

5. The noble Lakota star goes through a shaman purification ritual.

6. The youngest white boy runs away, insulting one brother into joining him while the other brother, called a coward, remains at home.

7. The siblings of the noble Lakota star engage in a cute courtship ritual and quickly have multiple children.

8. The white boys steal chicken eggs from farmer who says that, as a Christian, he would happily have shared them. The same farmer then immediately switches the conversation to the reward he’s seeking for a runaway slave. As it happens, the white boys know where the slave is hiding, and the older of the two is desperate to turn him in and get the reward. The younger white boy refuses, but it’s all pointless anyway, ’cause the Christian farmer shoots the slave for the reward money.

Portrait of Jedediah Smith9. The younger white boy finds the famous trapper Jedediah Smith, who rejects him at first, because he’s never killed a man. The younger white boy convinces Smith to take him on because, as he points out, it’s easy for Smith to have killed a savage Indian, but it was much more difficult for the white boy to kill an innocent rabbit.

10. The noble Lakota star is able to suck pain out of his fellow Lakota people and then engage in the obligatory vomit ritual that seems to appear in 90% of Hollywood movies lately.

That’s when I walked out in the series.

Mr. Bookworm, that avid New York Times reader, was charmed by the show’s historical verisimilitude. He was speaking of having the children watch it so they could learn their history. I don’t think that’s too necessary. They’re already getting this type of history.

I keep on my desk as a reminder of how history is taught the colorful photo-montage my daughter put together while working on her California mission project. It states seven facts, three involving bland observations about population size, year of founding and the shape of a courtyard. Two of the seven facts, however, state that “the Indians were cruelly treated and beaten every day,” and “the Indians hated being treated like slaves.”

While these statements are no doubt true (at least as to hating slavery, although I’m not sure about the daily beatings), they are also the only human notes that appear in my daughter’s otherwise dry ruminations about quadrangles and adobe. Somehow the curriculum managed to miss all other other human notes about faith, empire, Spanish culture, etc., all of which are also true and part of the story. The school therefore is clearly doing a fine job at teaching our children to hate their Western culture without Spielberg’s help. (Fortunately, the series apparently got “stupid” — to use Mr. Bookworm’s word — near the end of the first episode, so I doubt he’ll return to it for the children.)

Having set out above my profound distaste for the series premise, let me state here a few thoughts I have about history generally and about our approach to the subject of white American treatment of Native Americans. If I don’t, I’m sure there are those who will accuse me of being a racist, imperialistic pig who ignores the horrible treatment Westerners visited on indigenous people wherever they went, and indeed validates this bad conduct as part of a white supremacist manifest destiny. I don’t ignore the bad treatment White Americans meted out to indigenous people, nor do I support or validate it. What historic people did to other historic people often defies humane belief. BUT, I still am able to see American conduct in the 18th and 19th Centuries as part of a larger historic panoply that has to be understood in order for us to draw both correct conclusions about and lessons from that behavior.

To begin with, I believe that there are historical facts. (I’m so not a deconstructionist.) How we interpret those facts is a product of how we view the world today, but the facts are what they are. That is, in 1492, Columbus definitely revealed the Americas to Europe’s view, whether or not one likes that fact.

The general nature of people can also be a fact. Thus, it is a fact that, as a group, Quakers were pacifists, just as it is a fact that, as a group, Spartans were exceptional warriors by any standards, ancient or modern. The current trend away from facts is to paint the Native Americans as angelic, noble infants, living in complete harmony with each other and the land at all time. This is a romanticized, one-sided, limited fact, that probably applied to a few lone tribes or to bits and pieces of the culture of any given tribe.

The larger story is that the Native Americans were Stone Aged tribes who lived as other Stone Age tribes have always lived: hunting; migrating; practicing limited agriculture; following animistic religious rights; and, unless they were purely gatherers who depended on their neighbor’s goodwill, engaging in constant warfare with their neighbors. At least part of the limited scope of their killing animals and enemies was that they lacked the technical ability to do more. Some of them were good human beings and some of them were bad; some peaceful, some violent; some smart, some dumb. They were, and are, people like any other people.

And it’s a historic fact that when Stone Age people come into contact with a more industrial people, the Stone Age people, in the first instance at least, inevitably bear the brunt of that contact. This was as true for the Romans and the Celts as it was true for the American indigenous people and the Europeans.

A few more facts. Because Native Americans were tribal people like any other people, they had mixed responses to the incoming whites. Some saw the whites as the beginning of the end; some attempted to be friends with them; and some tribes tried to use the Westerners’ technical skills to gain an advantage against other, rival tribes. In other words, the Native Americans acted as would all humans confronting a new culture in their environment. But no matter the tactic they took, they were always going to be at a disadvantage because they lacked the muscular industrialization that characterized the West.

Another fact: Americans were no better nor any worse than any other people up to that point in history. We, living in our modern multiculturalist/PC world, may look back with horror at our predecessors’ conduct towards the Native Americans, but those Americans were actually acting in a way entirely consistent with their times. From prehistoric times up until the modern era, conquering cultures have always done three things: they’ve killed those they’ve conquered; they’ve enslaved them; or they’ve forced them to pay tribute. America tried the first two approaches, and then, as it moved into the modern age, tried a fourth approach which doesn’t play any better in the present time: it shunted the indigenous people off their own lands onto alien reservations, where they and their culture died. Another fact is that there is no pretty way to engage in land conquest. If you push onto land where someone else already resides, there’s usually going to be a fight, and someone will lose.

Oh, and here’s another fact: Just as Native Americans weren’t all saints, Americans weren’t all sinners. There were Christians who supported slavery, and Christians who made up the backbone of the abolition movement. There were whites who hated Native Americans and wanted to kill them, whites who hated Native Americans and wanted to isolate them, whites who couldn’t care less about Native Americans, and bunches of other whites with varying opinions about the whole thing. There were also, as I noted above, huge historic trends that had whites use their industrial power to expand onto Indian territory where the inevitable clashes occurred. In these clashes, the historic reality of an industrial culture versus a pre-industrial culture meant that, one way or another, through terror or benign neglect, the whites would win. And of course, as you think about these historical realities, keep in mind that these 19th Century industrial whites were products of their time, and had not the haziest ideas about the rights of indigenous peoples.

(As an aside, people have always wondered how I’ve tolerated a couple of my favorite writers from the 1920s and 1930s, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, both of whom throw in anti-Semitic lines all the time. I’ve defended reading them on the ground that they were products of their time, and no better or worse than anyone else. In this they differed from the Nazis, who broke new barriers of inhumane conduct when they targeted a racial/religious group and went hunting it worldwide in an effort to erase it from the faith of the earth. Even the Romans didn’t do that. They killed those they conquered, but they didn’t try to conquer them for the sole purpose of killing them.)

I think it’s completely fine to point out what people did in the old days and to say that this or that behavior was bad, and we should never do it again. On the other hand, I think it’s appalling to pretend for modern political purposes that Americans were unusually evil in the old days, that they acted outside of historic norms, and that the victims of their practices (practices typical for the times) were of saintlike innocence and virtue. That’s propaganda, not history. And you can’t learn from propaganda — or, if you do learn, all you learn to do is hate.


17 Responses

  1. Another fact: It was only through the Western Enlightenment that ubiquitous human institutions and practices, such as slavery and conquest, ever came to be viewed negatively.

    On your point about Zinn-esque history: I find that such “historical” perspectives are commonly used to trump logic in discussions. And that there is a weird sort of delight that people take from playing the cards.

  2. They killed those they conquered, but they didn’t try to conquer them for the sole purpose of killing them.

    The Romans once they conquered a province would ship a lot of the province’s population to other places, as slaves. This had a couple of benefits. One, it produced a strong trade economy. Two, it decreased the chances of resentful people rebelling. Three, it was better than killing folks.

    That’s propaganda, not history. And you can’t learn from propaganda — or, if you do learn, all you learn to do is hate.

    There’s no counter-propaganda, Book.

    I strongly recommend this book by Eric Flint if you wish for historical realities.

    Eric made it available for free in electronic format

    Having set out above my profound distaste for the series premise, let me state here a few thoughts I have about history generally and about our approach to the subject of white American treatment of Native Americans. If I don’t, I’m sure there are those who will accuse me of being a racist, imperialistic pig who ignores the horrible treatment Westerners visited on indigenous people wherever they went, and indeed validates it as part of white supremacy manifest destiny.

    It is not as if they will stop doing so if you provide more explanations ; )

    Significantly, these 19th Century whites were products of their time, and were not aware of the rights of indigenous peoples.

    neither were the Ameri Indians aware of the power gap between civilization and barbarism.

    Btw Book, did you watch Serenity or any part of Firefly yet?

  3. In answer to your last question, Y, no. Mr. Bookworm, some time ago, rented Serenity on his own initiative, watched the first disc while I was working, hated it, and that canceled the rest of the series. Since he watches much more TV than I do, I’m pretty passive about these things, since I don’t mind walking away from the set, while he has a hard time doing so.

  4. I once had a friend of Apache/Cheyenne descent who married a white man that wanted to live in the mountains the “traditional” way. She had lived in the traditional way when she was living in poverty as a child. There was absolutely nothing romantic about it – she hated it! She had no illusions about romantic past. Oh yeah, she finally divorced him. Is that a metaphor or what?

  5. Actually I’m a bit surprised. According to IMBD the series had a couple of interesting writers involved with the project:
    William Mastrosimone and Cyrus Nowrasteh. The latter was responsible for The Path to 911 series. The former, a playwright, is hardly a PC scribbler; in interviews he’s decried the liberal-left conformity and political posturing that is the common currency of contemporary theatre. Of course these two were only half the writing staff and may not have exercised any real creative control.

  6. And for all I know, Z, the show got better after I abandoned it. The tone set in the first half hour was so irritating for me, I was unwilling to give the rest of the show a chance. So, if other, better, writers had a say in later episodes, I’ll never know because I can’t make myself stick around to find out!

  7. If you can’t extricate the tv box from your husband, Book, then perhaps you can download the avi format of the series/movie onto your hard drive.

  8. As a quick recap, Eric Flint researched Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. He compared the militia behavior of Georgia and such when facing Ameri Indian tribes. Andrew Jackson had loyal indigenous Ameri Indians allied to him. The Georgia militia burned the farms of Jackson’s allies and stole their livestock, when the warriors were off fighting with Jackson. This is a good example between professional and regular military forces and… militia style forces, which Eric Flint provided a very military atmosphere for in contrast to his more civilian 1632 offering.

    Sam Houston is also favored in the story. 1812 Rivers of War provides an interesting meld between fiction and historical accuracy. It leaves you guessing as to what was changed and what was true. It provides you the superior analysis capabilities inherent with telling stories as if the people in them were still alive and cognizant with historical knowledge and facts.

    In the end, Eric Flint wanted to tell a story about the Trail Tears not occuring as it did. In order to do so, he had to go back before Andrew Jackson’s Presidency to change some factors.

  9. If Mr. Bookworm watched the pilot of Firefly and he eventually stopped watching the show about Ameri Indians, then perhaps he was put off by the constant shootouts present in those times. Firefly’s pilot was essentialy a story about underdogs. Underdogs doing what it takes to survive in a mean mean world. Perhaps Mr. Bookworm found his NYTimes sensibilities offended by such crass actions, eh?

  10. If he wants a show to teach history to the kids, check out this version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” memoirs. My kids were fascinated by this sensitive, but not preachy, depiction of pioneer life and their uneasy encounters with the local Indians who resented the influx of farmers and pioneers into their lands. It also showed how hard life was then, how unspoiled the kids were, and how appreciative they were for what they had.


  11. That’s a wonderful recommendation. Thanks, Lulu. We’ve also got a copy of Johnny Tremaine in the house but, so far, no one is touching it. Sigh….

  12. This is to do with Indigenous Peoples and their Creation Myth
    as told by the supreme court
    Laughable Textbook Errors in Crucial Supreme Court Decisions

  13. I was invited to watch Into The West while visiting a friend. I found it unbearable – nothing but PC stereotypes and Hollywood cliches, packed in so tight each situation got only a brief superficial treatment.

    I completely endorse your view of Native Americans as Stone Aged people with the common failings of humanity. I am sick to death of the noble savage living in harmony with nature while practicing spiritual mysticism beyond the comprehension of the debased white man.

    These are the people who set range fires to herd animals to slaughter and stampeded them over cliffs. It was better than going hungry. Their cousins to the south were cutting each others hearts out, and sacrificing children to the gods in the Andes.

  14. Elmer Kelton’s western-themed novels are pretty good historical primers as well– his characters come across as human but not sentimentalized. Moreover, he writes well about people of all colors and races in the 19th-century American West.

  15. Actually, Jose, a lot of these atrocities happened north of the border as well: Google “Anasazi cannibalism” or visit this site: regarding the Iroquois:

  16. The point, of course, being that Book’s central points holds – American Indians were a very diverse lot – some good, some bad, some atrocious. They were hardly doe-eyed hippies living in Eden, however.

  17. Danny, thanks for directions to the Anasazi info. It was new to me.

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