Happy Native American Heritage Day! Here are a few more pictures from my recent visit to the Four Corners area. Monument Valley (above) is a Navajo Tribal Park, and the people that live there are almost all Navajos. One morning a Navajo guide drove us out on the red dirt to see more of the strange rocks. He was a friendly guy, and he was happy to talk about his culture, including their food, festivals, and clan system.
As we passed by little camps of people who lived in that harsh climate without electricity or running water, I wondered how they managed. But it occurred to me, of course, they help each other when they need help. And our guide helped me understand, they don’t feel like they need a lot of things. They like being there, in that land with their families.
As a schoolchild I learned the story that Thanksgiving was a holiday that everyone liked and no one could criticize. It is hard to take issue with conscious gratitude, or getting together with loved ones for a celebratory feast.
But I’ve learned more recently that Native Americans have good reason to dislike the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which makes it hard to spot and understand the greed and violence of many of the Europeans who colonized North America. I heard a good Post Reports podcast this week that included reflections from Wampanoag descendents of those who helped the Pilgrims grow food for the prototype Thanksgiving, and who ultimately became victims.
A Wampanoag woman interviewed in the podcast said she always thought America’s having a single day for giving thanks was a bit strange. In her tradition, people were taught to be thankful every day.
For those brought up, as I was, to view Native Americans as interesting but backward, and the taking of their lands as divine manifest destiny, it’s not easy to hear that many colonial Europeans were merciless pillagers. But it’s definitely worth replacing the myth with actual history, since we get connections to real people, including living Native Americans and their ancestors, rather than fantasy superheroes and supervillains.
On the history front, I started reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The book is a new synthesis of current archeology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and other research bearing on the development of humans and their institutions. It’s long, but I’ve already encountered some exciting ideas.
Graeber and Wengrow argue that the concepts of freedom and equality that we thought were developed by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment were actually first worked out and shared by Native Americans, who discussed them over a period of decades with the first European traders and missionaries. Leading eighteenth-century European theorists described these ideas and practices as coming from America, but for later colonial generations, committed to extirpating Native cultures, dissonance made it impossible to entertain the notion of those cultures as intellectual pioneers and leaders.
If recent developments are any guide, it may be a while before these ideas make it into our childrens’ history textbooks. I’m still trying to understand parents disrupting school board meetings around the country in protest against the teaching of what they call “critical race theory (CRT).” I finally figured out that this crowd has redefined the term to have nothing to do with its original academic meaning. For certain angry white parents, CRT now means “teaching history related to American slavery and its aftermath in a way that includes the physical horror and moral shame of it.”
Now Republican-dominated legislatures across the country are banning the teaching of CRT and other efforts to educate children regarding racism. This is disturbing, as are death threats against educators, but this is also educational, in a way. We might have thought everyone understood at least the basics of the American slave system and agreed it was wrong. We may have further thought that no one would feel threatened by a fuller understanding of how that system shaped our country. But now we know that for some of our fellow citizens, this is definitely not the case.
Widespread ignorance about our racial history could be viewed as a failure of our educational system. But to some extent, it has quietly been the status quo for many years. New light is being shined on this shameful history, and for many, and probably most of us, that’s something to welcome and reflect on. Deeper understanding may help us improve our institutions and our communities.
At the same time, it’s definitely frightening when angry anti-CRT parents and Republican politicians start talking about burning books and attacking educators.
This is a wake-up call. Scholars are continuing to make new discoveries, and we’re getting new opportunities for exploration of fresh ideas. But we also have new threats that we better treat seriously. We cannot allow provocative ideas to be banned, books to be burned, and educators to be terrorized and silenced. Our democracy is in trouble, and it needs us to lift our voices.