Manifest Destiny is not the Only Story: The Value of Inclusionary History

Contemporary education in social sciences amounts to teaching of the principles of Manifest Destiny. In a recent student essay from a University they stated, “set curriculums of history protect and glorify the rise of the US, it hurts true Natives to the land and increases the already growing stereotypes that they face in society.” Very Insightful!

Native History Education

Currently education about the history of the US ignores the real true history of the tribes. Most times local tribal histories are not taught at all. What education about the tribes amounts to is a generalized history of “Native Americans” and usually about some attractive aspect of the culture. I have seen good presentations about Indian dwellings where kids construct models and write exhibits about the meaning of the dwellings. I have seen exhibitions and teachings about Native Dance and costume. Rarely if ever is there instruction about the complete culture and history of Oregon tribes.

In many fourth grade classes in Oregon, when Native history is taught, students construct covered wagons or learn about the virtues of the Oregon Trail or Lewis and Clark. These subjects are rich in the history of American exploration and settlement in the West, and the Manifest Destiny of the Americans to take this land, and only peripherally addresses Native History. The perspectives of Native people, how Native people thought about this invasion of Whites into their lands, is completely ignored. The history is washed of all negativity, and nothing is said about genocide, about loss of land, loss of culture, loss of people to diseases and wars, racism against Native peoples, reservation experiences, boarding schools, the Dawes Act, additional loss of land and natural resources in the 20th century, fishing rights, treaty rights, or termination of the tribes. This is not at all a comprehensive list but you get the point.

Very Old Curriculum

Native history normally involves how native people helped the development of American civilization in the West and essentially got out of the way. There are some deviations from this in a scattering of schools, but that’s really based on the efforts of rare teachers.  I know this is the case, because after teaching Native studies and Anthropology in six different colleges in Western Oregon for the past 12 years, the majority of students, 99%, are learning about Native people for the first time. The majority have had no instruction that they remember from their public or private schools. They are amazed and surprised that there was and is a great diversity of tribes, in Oregon, and that the tribes have a extremely long history (at least 15,000 years) and that there is a diversity of cultures and languages. They are also amazed at how the United States has treated the tribes and about the fact that the US government and their settler predecessors were party to the aforementioned actions that disenfranchised and dis-empowered the original peoples of this land.

Heroes of Oregon

Instead the heroes of Oregon are primarily taught. Jason Lee, John McLaughlin, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. On rare occasions a Native chief like Chief Joseph is addressed. The Oregon Trail is a primary subject, it being an amazing journey of faith by Americans hoping to find opportunity in a new holy land, A literal American Eden. The very definition of Manifest Destiny. The Indian wars may be discussed but by definition, Indian Wars, suggests that the Indians were the reason for the wars, while if not for the settlers to Oregon and the Gold Rush, these conflicts would not have occurred.

Those Who Win Write Their History

The history as taught is a study in American privilege. The Privilege to tell the history so it benefits Americans, so that Americans are glorified, so that all actions of the Americans are justified because the Indians were first, not human, and second, rogues, scoundrels, thieves, murderers, and savages.  They are not human because settlers refused to accept that the Tribes had governance, laws, systems of counting, history, legitimate spirituality, etc. In many discussions there is in fact a denial of all of these characteristics of civilization. Many people still believe natives had no concept of time, laws, math, ownership of land, and many other denials. The notion that tribes did not own the land, is not true at all. These are new age mythologies built up by generations of pseudo-native philosophers.

History as Historical Fiction

Then, on these layers of colonized historical and cultural information, is a whole lot of miss-information. Like new age mythologies about native philosophy, of philosophies that have literally been whitewashed so that they are acceptable to the population, are fictional stories of the naming of places and of mythological heroes. The name of Mt. Hood is not Wy-east, that was invented by Frederick Balch in his book Bridge of the Gods, which is a historical fiction, not a true account. Yet generations of Portlanders and Oregonians believe that, that is, the native name of Mt. Hood as its taught that way in school. Similarly the idea of Chief Multnomah, also created by Balch, is a historical fiction.  There are many other fictions, like those addressing the extinction of tribes, the naming of the last of a tribe, like those stories about Indian Mary (of Brownsville), as being the last of the Kalapuya, when in fact that is not the case at all.

Stereotypes

Then, the characterizations of natives are very racist. Indian as stoic warriors. Indians as drunks, as if they did not have the genes to process alcohol. Indians as lazy, as not working hard. Indians as wasting their lands and resources. Indians as always angry and violent. The recent Fargo series which has one angry and murderous Indian is a good example. Indians as freeloaders, welfare recipients. Indians as stupid, activists, criminals, etc. Today we have Indians seen as being wealthy casino owners. In the 1950s, Indian communities were likened to communism and socialism The list goes on, and while we cannot say that every school system is teaching this for certain,  its fairly ingrained in our society, and there certainly is not education away from this way of thinking.

Moral Center of the World

So yes, essentially our American history is biased by the principles of Manifest Destiny, the notion that Americans were destined (by God), to take over a great land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. In the present generation and for the past 160 years at least, our education system has extolled the virtues of Manifest Destiny, and presented a history of an America, built on the principals of democracy, where the only struggles are to defend the Nation from the evils of the world outside. In nearly all scenarios the United States is the moral and ethical center of the world in this history. That vision relies heavily upon not teaching about all of the immoral and unethical actions of Americans and the United States that destroyed and moved Native people out of the way.  There is currently no place for that story in education.

Holistic History

Why would that be important? What are the benefits of teaching the whole history? All people are of the world, and all people and cultures deserve the respect of that status. To only discuss the virtues of the United States is creating an artificial understanding of the history of the world we all live in. In the situation of the tribes, for the past 500+ years, tribal people and cultures were not respected, were looked down upon, and the tribes were seen as an infestation that needed eradicating so that the true and legitimate people could take over the land and make better use of it. Within that dynamic, there is little opportunity for understanding and respect.

Action

We may decry the events of the past, but we live in the present. We cannot do much about the past, or can we? So many people come up to me after my presentations and say they are sorry for what has occurred to native peoples. There is an aspect of guilt in their statements of apology, as if they cannot do anything now and want some sort of absolution for the evils of their ancestors. That is the easy way to respond, and takes little effort on their part. It is an empty gesture unless they actually act to partially fix the problem today. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it, and not continue to cover up the truth by supporting and accepting an education system that makes native peoples invisible in our history, without saying something.

Fundamental Story

A big part of our collective experience is an understanding that what has happened to us, whether 500 years ago or 160 years ago, is an unforgivable series of attacks on our peoples to destroy and eliminate us all from this world. And every part of western civilization worked against our survival, churches and religions, governments, explorers, industrialists, settlers, and even the diseases they carried and the farm animals they brought here. For centuries the whole of the societies of Europe and later the United States worked to commit genocide on our people, to eradicate us like polio or smallpox or wolves. And then in the present era, the details of those attacks on our people, were erased from the history books, erased from educational curriculum. The book Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) is a perfect story of how this has occurred, just replace all of the Black references with Native or Indian references. That is how the genocide continues today, an erasure of the history of our people.

Inclusionary History

Interestingly, the story of the past 500 years of colonization of the Americas exists not only in European culture, but in Native cultures as well. Our histories are at least half of the story of how this history unfolded. To make  half of the story invisible creates a historical fallacy, that is re-taught or re-centralized each generation.

The Problem today

In Oregon, there have been efforts to create curriculum to address the history of the tribes. By and large, the curriculum is not being used. Whether related to the fact that most teachers are not trained to teach Native studies, or there is no “approved” curriculum available, that they know of, or there is no will on the part of administrators to offer any new units that change the content of the 4th grade curriculum, or there is no money to implement such a program. The fact is that it is not being taught, and most efforts have been in vain. The education system is now saddled with a succession of national education programs that attempt to standardize all education in the country. one of the latest, No child left behind, now repealed was a failure. And now the STEM program, attached to federal money, is directing education away from Social sciences altogether. STEM will create a generation of students who do not know anything of America’s past, much less that of any other ethnic or cultural groups. What will happen when there are generations of adults who are a-historical? What does this do to our communities, to our national cohesion, to our past and future? This is one of the greatest experiments in the history of education and ranks up there with Indian Boarding Schools and their assimilationist curriculum.

(What is now taught needs a new phrase, manifest education, an education built on creating intentional ignorance in the next generation of Americans by erasing the minority perspective of history.)

A Well-Rounded Education?

The Tribes have offered some education and curriculum, but the tribal resources are not enough to handle all of the need. Tribal educators have been going into classrooms and offering historical and cultural education in one hour segments to numerous schools. This has been somewhat successful but unsustainable. Still some education is better than nothing. The fact is education of our children needs to be not a focused effort at a few mathematical or scientific programs, but more well rounded, where people have the opportunity to become knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. The extreme need to grow scientists, engineers and mathematicians and perhaps take the lead on innovation in the world, I believe, is a path to an immature society.

Conclusion

There is a significant role in society for offering perspectives and histories of Natives and other minority peoples. People like to see how they relate to the history of the United States, and others appreciate seeing a holistic history that truly represents the diversity of our society. As the history of our education system has shown it will not change unless the community demands that change needs to happen. This means we need to support efforts to stop teaching history through the lens of Manifest Destiny. We need to “decolonize” our education system to accomplish this.

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4 comments

  1. Well said, David Gene Lewis. When I was posting bits on Facebook about the treaties, I found a similar reaction, “Oh, no, what can we do?” With The Tualatins, I was hoping to give more information. I feel I have a small understanding of what happened and others need to know. We also need to celebrate those who are left and appreciate their lives.

    Ginny

    Ginny Mapes 25185 NW Svea Drive Hillsboro, OR 97124

    503-647-2896 ginny@coho.net

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  2. This post explains everything I have felt over the course of years of reading about a number of the ‘Indian Wars’ that occurred in my neck of the woods (Southern Oregon). The most notorious Native conflict in probably the entire West Coast was the Modoc War of 1872-3. I’ve read numerous articles, journals and a few books on the conflict which occurred just miles from my hometown. Through reading about these accounts and the attitudes back in the day towards the Modoc and nearby Klamath tribes, I have gained I whole new level of understanding about why these events occurred. They were the result of relocating whole populations of native people who didn’t want to leave their tribal lands and lose their way of life in which they and their ancestors had flourished for thousands of years. The Modoc War centered around one individual, Captain Jack, and the conflicts he faced in trying to maintain the peace between his people and the government officials trying to ‘peaceably’ relocate his people to the Agency Lake reservation. Ultimately, Captain Jack chose to return to his ancestral grounds and it ultimately cost him his life as well as others. This dark episode is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, in our mainly ‘unpublished’ annals of American history. Good for you, sir, to finally bring many of these unjust historic events back out into the public forum. History can ALWAYS be rewritten, it just takes the right people to convince!

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      • I should also point out that in my local paper today, the community of Chiloquin, in particular the students at Chiloquin schools, have sent a proposal to the Klamath County commissioners to rename Columbus Day as ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Remembrance Day’. I fully support this, since a large number of Chiloquin students are of Klamath ancestry and would affect the Modoc and Yahooskin tribes in my area as well. This all comes during a sensitive time in regards to the Natives peoples across America rising up together to fight the North Dakota pipeline. The media won’t cover it like they do with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem and that’s a travesty. America’s priorities are in a bad place right now but I feel Native tribes across the country rising together as one, unified people is a start in the right direction for recognition of its unfortunate place in history after the ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the acknowledgement of its near-demise by emigrants, i.e., foreigners.

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