Who Owns History And How Do We Decide? - By Barry O'Connell
Each generation shapes and writes the history it needs. This idea is almost a commonplace. A companion to it is the reminder that within any historical generation there are many groups of people with diverse interests, experiences and histories. Each group, were all to have equal access to the writing of history, would have its own versions of the past. Between the versions of any two groups one might expect to find, along with some commonalties, irreconcilable differences not only in perspective but in which is accepted as constituting fact and meaning. Is history, then, nothing more than what is in the eyes and assumptions of whoever writes it (and of the group to which he or she belongs?) Are all accounts of the past prejudiced, equally partial by reasons of the blindnesses, needs, or assumptions of their creators? How might teachers or students evaluate the relative truth or sufficiency of one account of the past as against another? How might students go about choosing one revision of once commonly accepted ideas of the past as against another? Any aspect of the long history of relations between Native Americans, Europeans and Euro-Americans immediately can make these issues and questions vivid.
Take, for example, George Sheldon, the founder In 1870 of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Sheldon has long been recognized by historians of New England as one of the best of local history writers. His "A History of Deerfield" (1895, reprinted in 1972, Deerfield, Massachusetts) has an almost classic status among local histories. Without it and the many documents and artifacts he collected there is much we would not have or know through which to study the history of this important Connecticut River Valley town. The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association's Memorial Hall Museum which houses these artifacts and documents has one of the finest small collections on Native Americans in the region. This, too, was primarily his doing. The avowed purpose of the Memorial Association seems wholly admirable, something to which no exception could be taken:
"Collecting and preserving such memorials, books, records, papers and curiosities, as may tend to illustrate and perpetuate the history of the early settlers of this region, and of the race which vanished before them, and the erection of a Memorial Hall in which such collections can be securely deposited."
But read it again, and more closely, now following the assumption that all historical accounts are "interested," that is that the person or group who generates them has particular experiences and awarenesses, ends and purposes -- some conscious and some not -- which inescapably shape both what is perceived and how. Notice, for example, who is doing the collecting, whose collection it is, and also the emphasis primarily on printed and written records. Without naming themselves as an interested party, white, highly literate, Anglo-Americans' perspectives are assumed. What happens, then, to the ways of knowing and understanding of peoples who depend on oral traditions, such as American Indians? They become, inevitably, given the presumptions here, "the race which vanished." We might also wonder what moved Sheldon and his fellows to become interested in a "memorial" at just the time they did. Might there have been divisions and conflicts among Euro-Americans which were being negotiated in this foundation of a memorial?
A usual way to dramatize these questions is to write alternative statements of purpose, to imagine what would happen to the very shape of the exhibits and the ends of the PVMA, if we had Sheldon speak very differently. Inviting students to do this and encouraging them to be even irreverent, choosing to write the statement from the point of view of other historical actors, or perhaps parodying the surface neutrality and dullness of the statement, can help them realize some of what is at issue.
One might, for example, draw on census records for Deerfield in the decade 1860-1870, give the students different persons from the census and ask each to find out as much as possible about what the life of a farm laborer in Deerfield of the time would be like, or of a young Deerfield woman working at home, or of a black person living in the town, and so on. Then the class might work jointly to develop an idea of what kind of memorial would most recognize these different parts of the population. How might it be designed? What kinds of "records'" would be most important? How might one represent the full diversity of such a community without empowering one group over another? Or without creating the illusion of a "neutral" or simply "objective" stance being available as though "we" the designers were ourselves somehow outside of history?
One might, instead, ask students to imagine a memorial association for their own community or neighborhood to preserve the histories they consider most valuable. Writing the founding statement would be the goal of this project. To reach it students would need to consider, or research, what are all the groups making up the current community? How important are ethnic and generational differences? What are the differences of class, status, and occupations of neighborhood and of length of time in the community? What are all the forms of cultural practice engaged in by people in the community? What of daily experience should be included? What materials -- artifacts, writing, official records, printed sources, music, people's voices -- should be collected? And when, either through discussion or a more extensive project, students have nearly finished, they might be asked to review all they have done and ask "who is left out'" and "whose point-of-view is taken for granted." Does the planned museum risk presenting a picture of their own times as untroubled, without any conflicts among people?
These kinds of exercises can help dramatize much of what is at stake in something that seems as simple and innocent as the founding of a memorial association. George Sheldon doesn't, for example, entirely leave Native Americans out. They are to be included in the Memorial Association, but as "the vanished race." The very term should tell us right away that there were no Native Americans involved in the founding of the Memorial Association. It should also tell us that George Sheldon could not imagine them as speakers equal in importance to himself, or to the "early settlers" who had, in one important fact which is elided in the whole history represented in the Memorial Association, actually driven out the Native Americans whose home the site of Deerfield had been for many centuries. Sheldon, instead, argues that:
"In no case can the origin of Indian hostilities in New England be traced to any claimed infringement by the whites on territory of the natives, with the single exception of the Eastern war of 1723. Even then [there were extenuating circumstances]…"
His very assertiveness can be read as a sign of his awareness that the whites' dispossession of the Indians was, and is, a substantial moral, political, and legal issue. Why else bother to argue it -- as he does in many ways and at considerable length with much documentation to prove, for instance, that the settlers paid a fair price to the Indians for the land. Or how might we read his rhetorical questions such as:
"What right had the civilized man to be here at all? What rights have savages in the face of civilization? The casuist has the field."
The terms of the questions, as well as the questions themselves, could be the basis for an important discussion about the shaping of our understandings of history by how it is written. Sheldon's own answers are clear:
"The assaults of the red man on the white, when not prompted by the French, were the natural outgrowth of his taste for a state of warfare and the glory to be thereby gained --a relish not yet extinct -- and an insatiate desire for scalps to adorn his wigwam, and plunder to make the hard life of its inmates more easy."
Adjectives like "natural," and "insatiate" are part of what makes his statement demonstrably "racist." Native Americans in this account do not act out of reasonable motives, nor are they in any important way different from each other. They are a single mass and, in most important aspects, different from the "early settlers'" who behaved reasonably in purchasing the lands they occupied and then defending them against a people who are seen as less human and more like blood-thirsty wild beasts.
So what do we do with George Sheldon, with his history, the Memorial Association, and the museum? If I tell you that he also sought out and excavated Indian graves and took from them many of the artifacts, including skeletons, which were in the museum, his '"badness" might seem indisputably established and we, in this more "enlightened" day, invited to reject him and all his works. But George Sheldon was sure of his own enlightenment, too. He considered himself a scientist, not a robber and desecrater of graves. His motives, however, do not by themselves solve any of the difficult issues. Science itself, too easily in our time taken to represent the reliably objective, something virtually above history, has been and is historically shaped. The psychological and ideological interests of its practitioners along with the nature of its institutional forms and supports has meant that science, as often as not, has enacted the prevalent forms of power. So we need to ask ourselves not only about people's intentions, but also about the full consequences of their acts and ideas. We cannot do so without struggling to make available the histories of every group, if possible to hear their voices and, when that is not possible, to learn enough to begin to grasp how they might have experienced their society. If we really understand that all historical accounts are partial, shaped by the limitations of the writer's gender, class, race, and other circumstances, then must not these limitations apply to us also? If I also add the suggestion that history is often written, though not fully deliberately or consciously, out of displaced anxieties felt about one's contemporary society which can be worked out more comfortably in the creation of a safely distant past, how can I or anyone escape a judgment that one history is as good or as bad as another? Or that the whole enterprise of trying to understand the past is so hopelessly enmeshed in our fallibility as human beings that it is useless? What is the value of studying the past, and are all who do trapped in the assumptions and needs of their own day? Can any distinctions be made either within writings by a single historian like Sheldon or between historians?
To explore this one might have students turn to groups with which they are directly familiar. They could begin by constructing a description of the whole group stopping periodically to evaluate how "adequate" any particular set of descriptions is. They might also talk about what constitutes "adequate" and by whose measure. Is everyone participating? Or a teacher could divide the whole class up into small groups and have each group work on a description of the whole, then compare them and see who is present, and who is missing.
Or take a recent event in the community -- the more controversial the better -- and have students, again in small groups, become active researchers, examining newspaper accounts using the questions here, and others, to evaluate them, interviewing participants, their parents, teachers In the school, and others about their perspectives on the event. At the end, ask students what important issues or questions remained unsettled or in dispute and if there are other perspectives on the event that might be important which are missing. These could include how it might look after the passage of some time and how people not involved at all might judge the actors and the event.
If a person behaves badly or has prejudices, like George Sheldon's unapologetic racism about Indians, does this discredit everything he has to say? How does one judge what is valuable or can be learned -- from the bad acts and prejudices themselves as well as from other material which does not seem affected though it originates with the same person?
I would like to end with some cautions as you think about these questions and debates about the nature and value of history. No one alive is "innocent." Each of us is inescapably partial, limited, to some measure bound, by circumstance. Each of us has interests in, and gains or loses -- not simply materially -- from, any set of social, political, and economic arrangements. At the same time these facts should not be used either to say that all accounts, or all persons' actions, are equal in their value, or equally true and equally false. If human beings were utterly determined by their limitations and circumstances then, indeed, history could not be anything but meaningless and all learning, other than the most technical kind, a foolish and wasteful enterprise. In our daily lives we "trust" not only some people more than others, but aspects of our own instincts and behaviors more than others. There are reasons, and good ones, for this. Even very young students can make, and be helped to think well about, these distinctions from their own experience.
What, above all, needs to be learned is that there is never any single right or sufficient version of human actions, but that there can be some which are wrong: demonstrably incorrect, or unacceptably partial to one group, or ignorant of too many other realities in the society than the ones they recount. All others will inevitably miss some or many things of great importance. Revising history is the one constant. Making our own mistakes and learning from them about our ignorance and assumptions should be a part of uncovering the mistakes and the assumptions of others. Not only is this process necessary to learning to question and to discriminate, it is the substance of historical inquiry.
The end to be sought is not to get something "absolutely right" but to make it come alive in all of its uncertainties. The more we can multiply perspectives from many different kinds of people the better able we are to ask useful and specific questions out of which can come the fullest sense both of what did happen in the past and how we might understand and judge it. It will help, in all cases, to struggle with a difference which can sometimes be unambiguously established between "facts" (did or did not war break out? was a person injured or not? was this person born in 1870? what kinds of houses did people live in?) and the meaning or the understandings we create -- which themselves lead us to choose some facts as more important than others, to ignore or not even to see the possibility of other facts.
Should we let George Sheldon "off"? Might we say simply that he was but a product of his class and his gender and his times? To do so would be to pretend that all persons in a given time, or of a particular class or gender, are in all essentials alike. We know better from our own experience. George Sheldon was, in part, defensive about his rendition of Indians because there were others in his own time, "sentimentalists," he called them, who were raising questions not only about Euro-Americans' treatment of Indians in the past but also about what was being done in the late-nineteenth century when Sheldon was writing.
Sheldon was also not without his own qualms. In his "History of Deerfield" he includes a morally and historically complex discussion of the enslavement of black people as it was practiced in the town. In the midst of that he notices that the Rev. Peter Thatcher of Milton, a prominent minister in the colony who "besides owning one Indian, body and soul ... was also a missionary, who preached the gospel to a neighboring tribe." Sheldon's continuing sentences are alive, deliberately so, to the ironies and hypocrisies involved in Reverend Thatcher's ideas and behaviors, but also, I think, to his own questionable status as a moral arbiter:
Of his methods, and the result of his dealings with the latter, Thatcher is silent, but his method of dealing with the heathen in his own household is shown in his own words:
"Aug. 18, 1679, came home and found my Indian girl had liked to have knocked my Theodora on head by letting her fall, whereupon I took a good walnut stick and beat the Indian to purpose, till she promised to do so no more."
It would be instructive to learn the outcome of Thatcher's home missionary work, but all search has been in vain. This child of nature disappears in the mist from which she emerged.
It is our task, as students and teachers, writers and citizens, to bring everyone and everything out of the mist so we might hear their voices, follow their actions, and respect each person, past and present, as a maker as well as a subject of history.