Putting Natives back into American History

Native AmericanIn the United States, November has officially been Native American Heritage Month for nearly a quarter of a century. However, beyond the borders of the US this commemmoration struggles to generate the attention of its predecessor, Black History Month. Indeed, this difference may have something to do with the difference between the Native American and Black diasporas, but some may argue that even within the US, this month’s celebration of Native American Heritage is rarely mentioned outside Native communities or specific academic circles. One hopes that this will begin to change, as the Native American past is intertwined with American history.

For more than a century Native American history was dominated by interpretations that focused on the inherent difference and incompatibility of Natives and Europeans. It was often argued that these differences ultimately resulted in retrenchment, loss, and in some cases, extermination. Historians focused on the inevitable march westwards, as well as the language and actions of the Founding Fathers. Many of these were involved in land speculation on the frontier, Thomas Jefferson argued that driving Native Americans from the Ohio valley would “add to the Empire of Liberty an extensive and fertile country”. In additional, national acts such as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which more than doubled the size of the country, the forced removal of Indians following the act of 1830 and events such as the ‘Trail of Tears’ have conditioned Native Americans within a context of inevitable decline. In this sense, Indian retreat equalled to the rise and strengthening of American liberty. Indeed, with Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ (1893), the westward expasion and the colonization of the continent to the Pacific coast were part of the new nation’s manifest destiny, and the foundation of a new American identity. Within these histories, Native Americans had little choices and few voices in the shaping of America.

The creation of Native American Heritage Month in 1990 was representative of a long-standing attempt to correct these interpretations. President George Bush Sr.’s declaration was followed by the publication of Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991). This greatly influential work went a long way to reversing the dominant trend of interpreting the Native American experience in terms of simplistic narratives of retrenchment, conflict, loss, or dichotomies of ‘savagery’ and ‘civilization.’ White demonstrates that the relationship between colonists and Native Americans was much more varied, complex, and affected by a number of social, political and cultural factors. Indeed, whites and Natives co-existed for over three centuries, and this co-existence was certainly characterised by conflict and violence, but also accommodation and co-operation. Most importantly, White gave attention to Native American voices to demonstrate that a ‘middle ground’ existed in which mutual identities were defined and negotiated. The book went a long way in addressing the problematic representation of Native Americans as passive objects of American history. Indeed, Native Americans themselves have made several attempts to reclaim their histories by reviving important aspects of their culture, making land claims to Congress, and taking part in protests, such as those during Columbus Day.

Native American Heritage Month is therefore important for not only discovering the rich cultural heritage of many different peoples, but also to discover the important role Native Americans have had in shaping American history. Our current students will get to discuss important aspects of Native American history in semester two of the Humanities in Practice module.

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