Historical Errors are the Rule, not the Exception

Over the past few years, I have pursued questions of the way history is written about the formation of the reservations in Oregon. I am not trained as a historian but instead as an anthropologist but the disciplines cross over well. Most of my work has been in ethnohistory, an admixture of ethnic studies, history and anthropology.  So I am now discovering that facts of history that all historians already grapple with.

One of these facts is that history as written is changing all the time. As new historians find new details, facts, and trends – they work to write these into history. This is the same for Anthropology, which has developed over the past 150 or so years to an hugely diverse set of ways to study humans and animals. I have to allow for many inaccuracies and errors in the histories of the past. Yet I also am looking for progress, new developments in history, new information and the advancements new histories that are better, more inclusive, diverse and relevant to the history of the past. History is also a matter of the cultural perspective or lens of both the writer and the reader.  The writer has to legitimize some detail and write it into their history, and the readers have a responsibility to also legitimize what is written and apply some critical thought. So history is by definition a political process. I explored some of that political process of what to legitimize in History in the first chapter of  my dissertation, Termination of the confederated tribes of the Grand Ronde community of Oregon: Politics, community, identity, completed in 2009 at the University of Oregon.

If an alternative way of thinking about history is not accepted or valued then it is eliminated from the history. As well, if certain ways of thinking about history are valued, then they become a part of history. This is a persistent issue, that has been addressed in some historical critical articles, but does not appear to be a persistent process of critical thinking or scholarship today. Understanding all of this, many of the ethical and moral issues in history are part of the puzzle. I learned much of this in my studies in Anthropology and I am now learning that the same issues exist for History as well. In  some ways, the lack of diversity in historical scholarship and perspectives, the lack of change in the academy protocols, means that history as a discipline continues to struggle with problems that are being addressed in other social sciences.

There has been much written about tribal history, yet much appears to be incorrect. The main problem is the fact that Tribal histories written today are primarily written using other 2nd or 3rd generation histories as source documents. Those histories written 30 or 50 or 100 years previously, are full of inaccuracies and errors. Usually what was written glosses the truth of the Tribal situations of the time. Histories of 100 years ago for Oregon, tend to glorify American Nationalism, the churches, the military, or the pioneers. These perspectives resonate well with the descendants of the collective settlers of Oregon, but more often, people are wondering why tribal histories are absent, and are surprised and shocked to hear that Tribal peoples have experienced issues of genocide, reservations, racism and disenfranchisement.

What pioneers did was to take advantage of the weakened tribes and colonize their lands, thereby secure their future family fortunes. Their descendants are direct beneficiaries of the land and resource appropriations. Historians who continue to write this story, satisfies the needs of descendant pioneer families to have a firm foundation and heritage in Oregon. I recently found a number of other ways in which they accomplished the goal of aggrandizing their actions. Through popular fiction, historical fiction, youth literature and in the theater, authors and artists, from 1880s to the 1950s, worked to make the colonization history seem destined, god given, even beneficial to Tribal peoples. (More on this later)

There are those who recognize this situation and welcome the telling of Oregon’s history more fully, more accurately. There are those who are ignorant of this history, the historiography of history, who have looked at ways in which history has been written, and the ways in which it has been culturally and politically altered to fulfill the stated needs.  Some scholars have called this “Centering” or “Re-Centering” history. I feel it is the work of the historian to look at all of this and tell all of the history, not just that which benefits those they wish to glorify. This is what society expects from our social scientists. This is part of their legitimacy, that they are to be objective. They are the professionals, people trust them, and as such what they write is “true”. Perhaps this is too much to expect, a naive expectation, but that is a responsibility that social scientists can at very least strive to fulfill. I think many today do take this responsibility.

Another factor that cannot be ignored is that it is hard to tell how much effect histories written in the past have on the present. I think they have a great effect. I think they are the source for so many contemporary history writers. This is very true when researching Tribal histories. So often these histories will reference previous histories as the source of facts. It is a big problem, as historians need to research the histories they write very deeply in case the previous historians missed something. They need to get into primary archival records and track down the original documents. That is a great responsibility.

So what I do now is review and evaluate those histories of the past and work within primary source documents to uncover the full history of the time. I have found so much unreliable in many histories that I find that I only use them now for their references and bibliographies. Occasionally they have unique first person perspectives on an event, but generally they do not.

This and other subjects are discussed in my recent scholarship in the fall 2014 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, in my article Four Deaths: The Near Destruction of Western Oregon Tribes and Native Lifeways, Removal to the Reservation, and Erasure from History.

 

 

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3 comments

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