Ah, good ol’ fashioned North American history. Glorifying the deeds of murderers and racists never feels as good as it does around Thanksgiving. It’s a lovely thing for our children to learn about such great people as the Pilgrims, the original 13 colonies, and Columbus. While we’re at it, why not discuss the merits of Hitler’s final solution or the Soviet gulags.
While it may be somewhat hyperbolic to compare what Europeans did to Native peoples to the acts of such monsters as Stalin and Hitler, I don’t think it’s entirely off base. Native people across the Americas suffered immensely at the hands of European colonialists, the only reason we don’t call it what it is is that it hits too close to home. The history of the Americas is fraught with bloody wars, tense political situations, and a great deal of land-grabbing and, unfortunately, the people who originally called this place home got caught in the crossfire, literally and historically.
Like most things, there is no black and white with regards to morality and colonial expansionism. Many of the people arriving in the Americas didn’t intentionally seek out to steal land and commit genocide. Some did (primarily military and political leaders) but many were just people looking for a place to live, an important factor to keep in mind. It’s also important to note that not all Native American societies were peaceful or helpful people. There were plenty of hostile and aggressive people that would have gladly killed Europeans or each other simply because it was what they did. The problem with revisionist history (the sort written by the victors rather than the sort written truthfully) is that it muddies the way we see ourselves as humans and muddies our perception of how we got here; a theme I’ve talked about before and one I feel very strongly about. History, like mythology and religion, is an incredibly important part of our experience as human beings. The ability to learn from the mistakes of the past is what offers us the hope of true progress.
Unfortunately, history books for a long time have sugar coated what happened here when colonists arrived, painting a rosy picture of people holding hands and having a hippie style love-in. We’re just now (in the last 30 years) realizing and discussing the sorts of atrocities that happened before and after the arrival of the pilgrims and, as so often happens, we’ve gone the other way entirely with it. Rather than having a rational discussion, we’ve been embracing white guilt since the 70′s, where many of us, at some level, think that white people (especially males) are just bad and that everything native or non-white is good; that it is somehow more natural and therefore more true. New Age spiritual ideas are a perfect example of this embracing of other cultures while shunning the European heritage of this country and many others.
The truth of the matter is that none of these things is real. There is no black and white in morality, only shades of gray. White people acted abominably toward natives, sure, but that is the history of colonialism in general. Whenever people expand outside their borders for resources and land, they commit atrocities to those already living there. Japan did the same thing in World War II. Not everything about Europeans was totally awful nor was everything about Native Americans totally great. We have a duty to ourselves and to history to recognize that sometimes what we are taught is not the full picture and that there are often very complicated relationships between the things that have occurred. We should not look to the past as a paragon of anything good. It is just what has gone before, plain and simple.
Because when we look back and idolize the past, we sow the seeds of our own misfortune.
Either that or we lay the groundwork for our children to engage in biological warfare and shady land deals.
Y’know. One or the other.