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In conclusion, Europe is a land of contrasts.
June 2, 2013 4:34 PM   Subscribe


 
So good.
posted by odinsdream at 4:40 PM on June 2, 2013


Well, first of all, you would be Cochise In Sweatpants.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:41 PM on June 2, 2013 [26 favorites]


I appreciate what the author is trying to say, but a big part of why we don't teach more about pre-contact Native American history is that we just don't know a whole lot about it. Also because, at least in the United States, our cultural history is largely European history, not Native American history.

This ignorance impoverishes us. I've greatly enjoyed learning what I can about pre-contact Americas, mostly via books like 1491 and Cahokia. But even these detailed, scholarly (if accessible) works are very limited in what they can say with certainty. And it's the history of a destroyed people. An interesting one, one I want to know, but comparing it to European history is a false equivalence.
posted by Nelson at 4:42 PM on June 2, 2013 [34 favorites]


Also, I'm more appalled by my ignorance of Asian history. Because that's as enormous as European history, and as well documented, and arguably more relevant than European history for understanding the cultural shifts in the coming 100 years.
posted by Nelson at 4:44 PM on June 2, 2013 [27 favorites]


a big part of why we don't teach more about pre-contact Native American history is that we just don't know a whole lot about it

For one thing, most of these cultures didn't have a writing system.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:47 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


To carry on Nelson's point, there is almost no pre-Columbian American history, in the proper sense of that term. Almost all of America's societies were illiterate, leaving a lot of material culture, architecture, megaliths, and the like, but very little written documentation to tell us their thoughts and ideas and rituals. And those that did leave such things mostly had them destroyed by overzealous Christian missionaries. I'm actually in the middle of 1491 right now, and as amazing a book as it is, most of it is based on extrapolation and educated guesswork as to the characters of the societies it discusses. Alas, sad but true.
posted by cthuljew at 4:47 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]



Well, first of all, you would be Cochise In Sweatpants.


I learned about him from The Warriors! Which is an adaptation of a Greek war story!

I feel like we're not taught enough history in general; I'm just starting to get into Roman history and that's amazing and completly influenced America, but we don't here much about it.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:52 PM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not only do we not know much about it, but most of what we thought about it just ten years ago (especially our views of Amazonian and Mississippian cultures) appears now to be dead wrong. We've got a fairly solid grasp of what European, Asian and North African history is, and only a few details change when new evidence is dug up or discovered in some dusty archive somewhere. That isn't true of the Americas.

Not to say that there hasn't been (and isn't still) a great deal of prejudice and dismissal in the way Native American societies have been portrayed - we could definitely do more with what we have, even if we don't have much.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:54 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I appreciate what the author is trying to say, but a big part of why we don't teach more about pre-contact Native American history is that we just don't know a whole lot about it.

Good point. Though I'm still impressed by how effective that simple reversal of perspective trick is here. About the oldest conceptual trick in the book...but it can still surprise you.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:56 PM on June 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yeah, it helps you get a perspective on how much history there IS, we just don't know enough about it to tell the story. We are missing something as significant as missing on all of that European history.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:00 PM on June 2, 2013


This is awesome. I certainly get the point that less is known about pre-contact Native American history...but certainly we know more than a few paragraphs worth.
posted by medusa at 5:01 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


For one thing, most of these cultures didn't have a writing system.

Yeah, and for some of those cultures that did have writing, the Catholic Church burned all the documents. It wasn't enough to accidentally kill them with disease and then deliberately kill and enslave them with weapons; had to erase the whole culture too.

But back to the (rather thin) originally linked post, it bugs me because it's so simplistic. The reversal of perspective trick only works if the perspectives are meaningfully reversable. Native American History and European History are completely different disciplines because of the difference in magnitude and quality of the historical record.
posted by Nelson at 5:05 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think that's the point though, Nelson. To be aware that the Native American history is as poorly represented by what we teach as the European one would be by the text in the post.
posted by KathrynT at 5:09 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


So wait, why not asian history again?
posted by flyinghamster at 5:11 PM on June 2, 2013


If I remember correctly, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong had a segment where they do the reverse-perspective history exercise.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:12 PM on June 2, 2013


Almost all of America's societies were illiterate

Mesoamerican glyph codices date back to 900 BC. Kipu usage goes back 3x longer.
posted by elizardbits at 5:19 PM on June 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Well, first of all, you would be Cochise In Sweatpants.

I learned about him from The Warriors! Which is an adaptation of a Greek war story!

I feel like we're not taught enough history in general; I'm just starting to get into Roman history and that's amazing and completly influenced America, but we don't here much about it.


Well, we kind of get inculcated with the idea that history started about 2300 years ago with the Greeks. When I first arrived in Egypt (the first country I ever visited that was not part of The West), I soon became aware that the pharaohs had been princes of the earth when the Greeks were still living in mud huts. But even so, we get our view through a lens. If you ask someone in the west to name three things they associate with Egypt, you will quite likely hear pyramid, Sphinx and camel, which are three Greek words.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:20 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


What about incest, mummies, and plagues though.

FUCK NOW I HAVE DAYENU STUCK IN MY HEAD AGAIN
posted by elizardbits at 5:23 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


So wait, why not asian history again?

Define 'Asian history'? China's been a world power for as long as the West, so I imagine there's lots of that history taught.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:24 PM on June 2, 2013


On the other hand, native american history from the 16th thru 21st centuries — where we've got a startlingly good written historical record — is still taught in this same weirdly nameless, faceless way.

I mean, yes, okay, they burned most of the Mesoamerican codices, to pick one example. But we've got great written sources on the conquest of Mesoamerica, and on all sorts of important historical shit that went down since then. And even still, if the region comes up at all in a history class, it's as a "fun" "cultural" extra. (They eat different foods! They wear different clothes! Their ancestors built some pyramids! Anyway, back to the white folks...)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:30 PM on June 2, 2013 [18 favorites]


I really wish they'd teach American history more like European! I once met a very earnest German leftie who was enraged when I mentioned the many wars fought by Native American tribes against each other, complete with enslavement of the conquered. He loudly insisted that war and slavery were Western inventions, and Native Americans lived in peace until the white man came and ruined things.

What I find so frustrating about that view is that pre-colonial American history is fascinating---a continent full of warring nations, their civilizations rising and falling and interacting, all of it completely separate from the Greek/Roman lineage or the Chinese empire. But a lot of people on the left and the right want to treat it as a timeless idyll, which is both wrong and boring.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:38 PM on June 2, 2013 [14 favorites]


Huh, I thought this was going to be Body Habits Of The Narcimeians again, web BLEW MY MIIIIIND in middle school.
posted by The Whelk at 5:40 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you ask someone in the west to name three things they associate with Egypt, you will quite likely hear pyramid, Sphinx and camel, which are three Greek words.
"Camel" is a Greek word in the sense that it passed through Greek on its long journey to English. But it's of Semitic origin, not Greek.
posted by Flunkie at 5:47 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


But even these detailed, scholarly (if accessible) works are very limited in what they can say with certainty. And it's the history of a destroyed people.

A "destroyed people?" Native Americans are not extinct. We don't approach the history of Italy going "Well, the Roman Empire collapsed and all the Romans are gone now, it's very sad and historical."
posted by nicebookrack at 5:51 PM on June 2, 2013 [20 favorites]


The comment about telling it from the point of view of Mongol history was great, too.

As an aside, does anyone else, on encountering a comment which begins with "Let's face it", reflexively scroll to the next one without reading any more of it?
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:01 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


That actually is a pretty good three paragraph summary of pre-contact European society.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:03 PM on June 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


If your textbook of North American history goes into the details of the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Renaissance, the Silk Road, and European monarchies

I'd like to see the North American history textbook that describes the Silk Road in detail.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:06 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, that was fascinating.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:06 PM on June 2, 2013


elizardbits: Almost all of America's societies were illiterate

Mesoamerican glyph codices date back to 900 BC. Kipu usage goes back 3x longer.


Hence, "almost".
posted by spaltavian at 6:07 PM on June 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


In other news, today is Native American Citizenship Day. On this date in 1924 all Native Americans born in the United States were granted American citizenship.

1924.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:10 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


On the other hand, native american history from the 16th thru 21st centuries — where we've got a startlingly good written historical record — is still taught in this same weirdly nameless, faceless way.

Yeah, it's incredible bullshit. I grew up about an hour away from where Kateri Tekahkwitha grew up, and I never learned about her in grammar school. Never. Not a single mention. She's an incredibly good lens for really important things that happen in colonial North America- shifting alliances between different Native American nations and settler groups, conquest and conversion narratives (Kateri was nearly blind after surviving a smallpox epidemic that killed her parents), the way that settlers and Native Americans understood each other. Her life is well-documented by Western standards. She's an important cultural figure to many Native American people today, so there's a lot you can do with the power of stories and heroes. And she was local! But nothing. I'm still pissed/bummed about it, apparently.

I think we did go visit a reproduction longhouse in middle school, though. That was excellent.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:14 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


One of the arguments in favor of a Eurocentric history curriculum is that it is supposed to be culturally and politically continuous with our modern culture in a way that Native American history is not. But it's really not quite that simple...
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:18 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the arguments in favor of a Eurocentric history curriculum is that it is supposed to be culturally and politically continuous with our modern culture in a way that Native American history is not.

That honestly makes sense to me. So much Roman history jibes with modern political insitutions, laws, and even things like celebrity culture.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:20 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


elizardbits: Almost all of America's societies were illiterate

Mesoamerican glyph codices date back to 900 BC. Kipu usage goes back 3x longer.

Hence, "almost".


Using that standard, almost all of Europe's societies were illiterate.
posted by feckless at 6:21 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the arguments in favor of a Eurocentric history curriculum is that it is supposed to be culturally and politically continuous with our modern culture in a way that Native American history is not.

That honestly makes sense to me. So much Roman history jibes with modern political institutions, laws, and even things like celebrity culture.


But it makes a lot more sense to include the ways that European and Native American cultures (and African cultures) informed and altered each other to give an accurate history of the last 500 years in the Americas. Manifest destiny makes a lot more sense when it's taught in tandem with the expansion of slavery and territorial wars against Native American nations on the US's western border. The way most public high school history is taught, manifest destiny is just this idea some white people had one day that it might be nice out there on the prairie! It's kind of a thing that just...happens. But it's not; it's driven by really complex interactions with black people and Native American people.

Leaving out Native American history leaves an incomplete picture of history that is really kind of nonsensical.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:36 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Native American history was often always oral and much of it has been lost. It's not quite the same. My great-grandmother used to tell her kids stories but even in a single generation most of it is gone.
posted by Malice at 6:55 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


1924

In fairness, you should look at context. In 1924, Arizona and New Mexico had been states for only 12 years. Oklahoma, which had been partially known as Indian Territory, was granted statehood in 1907. Even today, some Indian reservations are not legally considered to be entirely part of the U.S., and even sport their own legal and court systems, which creates some really interesting cases when casino money gets involved.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:00 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, at least part of the reason is that there aren't good records, but just as big a part is that if we told the true story we'd have to admit that we, the Europeans, basically slaughtered most of them not long after we arrived and destroyed the culture and heritage of the rest.

I read something Chomsky wrote the other day, where he points out that United States calls their weapons things like Apache and Comanche, which would be rather like the modern-day Luftwaffe calling a plane "Juden". I'd never thought of it before - it was quite a shock.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:01 PM on June 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


> But a lot of people on the left and the right want to treat [pre-Columbian history] as a timeless idyll, which is both wrong and boring.

Hmm... references pls? Certainly the people on the right don't want to treat it as an idyll...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:03 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Note also that the Crusades seem to always be taught from the English perspective.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:03 PM on June 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Nelson: I appreciate your comment being made in good faith but I think in some ways that's still part of the problem. We lost a huge amount of history but there's a large gap between what we know and what is covered in mainstream education. Simply covering a summary of what e.g. 1491 covered would be an almost unrecognizably different curriculum: native Americans as varied, complex societies with dramatic cultural differences, far more ambitious agriculture, civil engineering, etc. than we usually hear, etc. Then you get into the really juicy stuff about the way the Europeans acted, became involved in local customs and, particularly, made and broke promises.

If ever there was a case for perfect being the enemy of the good, wishing for more history before questioning popular mythology would be it.

As an aside for the people wishing for more Asian history: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genghis_Khan_and_the_Making_of_the_Modern_World is a provocative book, particularly for highlighting how much of the developments we associate with later European expansion likely had roots elsewhere.
posted by adamsc at 7:18 PM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Here's that link again, since it got left out when my earlier comment was quoted, which sort of made it appear that I was saying the opposite of what I intended: Iroquois Constitution; A Forerunner to Colonists' Democratic Principles.

What got me looking for that was this comment in the OP:
[...] our democracy itself likely came about because of the example of the Iroquois/Haudenosawnee. In the 1600s, people were not sure you could even HAVE a country without it being governed by church-blessed Royalty. Cromwell and the Puritans were very nervous about that. But in North America, we found examples (which at the time Europeans approached as sovereign nations, and made alliances with them) which showed that a commons-based government WAS possible. When the Constitution was written (over a hundred and fifty years later) the Founders openly acknowledged taking many precepts from the Iroquois Confederation.
I was intrigued by this rather well-phrased comment, as I knew some vague things about the confederations of the Northeast but was unfamiliar with their being cited as an overt source of inspiration of the US's founding principles. Which may in turn speak to precisely the point of the OP...
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:18 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


we just don't know a whole lot about it.

Weeeellll there are a number of ways to look at that. At least part of the problem is the Western construction of the discipline of history, which requires things like a linear conception of time and an insistence on a written documentary record. Indigenous people do have histories, but they often take shapes and forms that make Western-trained historians throw up their hands and walk out of the room. The kinds of knowledge that inform the ideas of indigenous people about cause and effect and what Western thinkers call "the past" are often just plain dismissed as impossible for the discipline of history to work with. Indigenous historians are often engaged in a battle to assert the knowledge they have access to as legitimate, an endeavor that Western historians often make humiliating (intentionally or unintentionally), and indigenous historians are often driven off into related fields whose biases are not so strong, such as anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, etc.

I got into a huge discussion with an American History professor friend I know about this piece on Facebook. It was pretty sad, though. He began by just plain asserting that there would be no point to this, because American history is basically the history of European ideas and actions and projections taking place on a continent, with native people being at best minor players who never could and never did influence culture, politics, structure, or broader world history. That's just where he started. There is still a profound amount of illiteracy among American historians about Native history - how much there is, what kinds there are, how integrated it is into American cultural history. And that's before we even begin to wrestle with the difficulty of melding linear/empirical methods with the oral history approaches, survivals and archaeological indications that indigenous historians consider to be legitimate documents.

This is quite an old piece now but is a good place to start understanding some of the real issues in telling American history with an honest attempt to incporporate indigenous perspective, and the footnotes are good references still. Just a couple days ago I had a conversation with a young Native anthropology scholar who emphasized to me how much new work has come out in just the last five years. It's possible to say that there is a serious conversation about what we know of Native history and how we know it, but not possible to say there's not much to know. And it's an excellent point that we have at least 500 years of thoroughly documented history that still gets short shrift. If this piece is enough to get people having just that conversation, it's successful.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on June 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


And it's the history of a destroyed people.

I'd say "almost completely destroyed people", although I think that discounts the lives of the people who do exist now. But yes, the genocide was pretty thorough.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:22 PM on June 2, 2013


I'd like to see the North American history textbook that describes the Silk Road in detail

My North American Public School history textbook described the Silk Road in detail, that was prior to NCLB.
I'm all for it. Off to convince Texas. See ya real soon.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 8:31 PM on June 2, 2013


So wait, you guys actually got more information about medieval Europe in school than this? I learned that the world was created in about 1490 at which time three ships were built and a guy went on a trip and then then they made another right before 1620 and then, 150 years later, there was a war. At the other end of history class, I know we beat that Hitler guy, but I'm not so sure about the Japanese what with all that island hopping. Then it was the next school year and the world was created in 1490....
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:36 PM on June 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


. . . er, how do all you folks saying that we know very little about Native American history explain all the very specific relationships, wars, trade routes, etc. mentioned in the article itself? I don't know enough about the subject to be able to say anything about it myself, but the author certainly makes it sound like there's something to be said about "Haudenosaunee-Algonquian relations" or "the Woodlands, trans-plains, and southwestern trade systems."

Not to mention that we undoubtedly know some things about internal developments in Native American culture after contact, but if it doesn't involve white people, it doesn't get taught. A textbook that teaches about the Shakers and the founding of the Mormon church should also address the Ghost Dance movement (in itself, not just as the catalyst for some important political events), but somehow they never do.

And I just Googled Teotihuacan and found that, according to Wikipedia, "Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Nahua peoples." Which is (a) utterly fascinating and (b) totally at odds with the way I learned about Native Americans in school, where we learned about each tribe as an isolated entity whose only important outside contact was with white people. I really should not have been surprised that pre-Colombian Mesoamerican society was that cosmopolitan, but I am, and that's exactly the problem that the article is pointing out.
posted by ostro at 8:55 PM on June 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's kind of like a colonialism-focused version of the Bechdel test: if you never ever see [the oppressed group] talk to each other, your portrayal may have a problem.
posted by ostro at 8:59 PM on June 2, 2013 [19 favorites]


I think part of the issue Ostro, is that because of the type of information we do have, the prehistory of Illinois class I took in college would not have made it as a high school history class. We know more very precise trivial crap about Europeans which makes for great multiple choice, fill in the blank and matching questions. When you lack that kind of stuff you have to resort to short essays and pretty soon you're teaching critical thought and the state of Texas throws a yellow flag.

I mean, using medieval Europe as the counter example, I've been called upon to be the medieval materials culture guy at a lot of schools over the years. The kids generally have an idea of when the middle ages were and knights and castles and the three field system and Charlemagne and William the Conqueror and all of that fill in the blank type stuff. I doubt any of them had clue one about scholasticism or how the black death made the middle class a thing or how the three field system caused the crusades.

Not that I'm saying any of this is good, but I can see why it happens.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:29 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I see nothing about the trees they decorated with corn foodstuffs.
Or the more modern history about the magic box in the chipped potato eating room.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:42 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, first of all, you would be Cochise In Sweatpants.

I learned about him from The Warriors! Which is an adaptation of a Greek war story!


You have not experienced Xenophon until you have read him in the original Chiricahua.
posted by homunculus at 10:50 PM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


lupus_yonderboy: ... where he points out that United States calls their weapons things like Apache and Comanche, which would be rather like the modern-day Luftwaffe calling a plane "Juden". I'd never thought of it before - it was quite a shock.

Hey, me too.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:36 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I once met a very earnest German leftie who was enraged when I mentioned the many wars fought by Native American tribes against each other, complete with enslavement of the conquered. He loudly insisted that war and slavery were Western inventions, and Native Americans lived in peace until the white man came and ruined things.

For some odd reason, Germans are deeply invested in a fantasy West, a lot of playing Cowboys and Indians goes on, and a lot of investment in the Noble Savage.

I don't know what this is about, but I'd love to know
posted by C.A.S. at 2:17 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the tragedy of history is there is so much of it that we only really get a flavour of it in school. In the UK at least there is a lot of focus in teaching the ability to understand how to read sources and to try to question the veracity of what we are told about historical events (a neat case study of this was the gunpowder plot: was Guy Fawkes framed? Probably not, but theres an argument to be had).

The result of this was that I got to know some history in detail, and not be aware of some history at all. I could tell you a fair amount about the history of the medicine, but history even in Europe was pretty hazy, other than how it related to the UK. I wasn't really aware of the holy roman empire until fairly recently, or the extent of the Chinese state, or the devestation caused by Ghengis Khan to the Chinese people.

Obviously the breadth of history doesn't necessarily excuse exclusions from people's knowledge, but can have an impact on choices. Educators make a decision on what history is "important" for a student to know, which probably boils down to what they can get away without teaching without being embarrased by the newspapers (students don't know who Lincoln/Churchill/Charlamagne is depending on nationality).
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:50 AM on June 3, 2013


Pre-Roman British history pretty much is described in this way, except with a lot more emphasis on beakers, sun worship and woooooooooo.
posted by Summer at 3:15 AM on June 3, 2013


Never mind the absence of written sources for pre-contact history . . . I teach Native American studies courses to mostly fairly privileged college kids who have had mostly decent primary and secondary educations in better school systems. The students in my classes mostly self-select for an interest in indigenous issues. But even so, I find a rather appalling lack of familiarity with *modern* Native American history, and most especially with the history of genocidal government policies and NA resistance thereto. You say "Trail of Tears" and folks briefly nod in recognition. But you say "Andrew Jackson was a genocidal monster, and he's on your 20 dollar bills," and many people have no idea what you're talking about. You say "casinos" and everyone has a story and an opinion, but if you say "allotment and assimilation" back come the blank stares. "Wounded Knee" evokes some recognition, but not the hundreds of other military massacres of Native American civilians that are quite well documented, or even that there were hundreds of them (and thousands more by civilian settlers).

Gee, I wonder why America's schools don't teach that history in any detail.

On the other hand, I routinely find myself in gasping annoyance at the fact that even America's better public schools don't teach much history at all, and ok, you'd think that was because there were more important subjects, but even very bright undergrad students from wealthy school districts, in my experience, tend to be quite in the dark about economics, brain science, and information architecture, to name three really important contemporary subjects (and admitting my classes self-select for humanists a bit). I don't know what they are teaching in America's hight schools, and it probably wasn't any better in my day. But I am amazed at how many times I have to stop my lecture and do a sidebar on something I thought everyone knew.
posted by spitbull at 4:10 AM on June 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't know what this is about, but I'd love to know

Yeah, really hard to figure out why Germans would want to talk about someone else's history of genocidal military conquest and ennoble the victims of that genocide in utterly romanticized ways.

Of course it's also really hard to figure out why American schools wouldn't teach a shameful history of theft and genocide on our own continent, but we learn tons about the bad things other countries did and how brave and righteous America rode to the rescue of benighted Europe and Asia.
posted by spitbull at 4:16 AM on June 3, 2013


I soon became aware that the pharaohs had been princes of the earth when the Greeks were still living in mud huts

Greek mud hats are pretty old ;) Actually, Egypt is regarded as a major power of early times in Greek textbooks. All major empires in the area conquered Egypt afterwards because of its massive agricultural production.

Note also that the Crusades seem to always be taught from the English perspective.

In the US I guess. People involved in this map probably teach it according to their perspective.
posted by ersatz at 4:46 AM on June 3, 2013


Using that standard, almost all of Europe's societies were illiterate.

Many, though not all, European societies left a written record of themselves and the history of their kingdoms and societies. However, we can point to a few that were "illiterate" in the sense that their language never (or rarely) appears in written form (The Celts and Albanians come to mind as a good example). And these are precisely the societies that we can only speak of in terms of generalities and whose history is essentially faceless until "post-contact" when others start writing about them. Meanwhile, their histories very much follow the conventions mocked in the FPP-- focus on migrations, clothing, and religious practices which can only really be divined from the archaeological evidence.
posted by deanc at 6:43 AM on June 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


The old saying is "History is written by the victors." Emphasis on written. True for Europe as well (cf. E.P. Thomspon).
posted by spitbull at 6:49 AM on June 3, 2013


their language never (or rarely) appears in written form (The Celts and Albanians come to mind

The Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Bretons might have something to say about that.
posted by Summer at 7:07 AM on June 3, 2013


What would be some suggested reading or resources for someone interested in learning about pre-Columbian native history, particularly groups in the sub-Arctic region?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:29 AM on June 3, 2013


Yeah, really hard to figure out why Germans would want to talk about someone else's history of genocidal military conquest and ennoble the victims of that genocide in utterly romanticized ways.

The German interest in America's Old West mythos predates World War II.
posted by Rangeboy at 7:50 AM on June 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Bretons might have something to say about that.

In context, I was referring to them as examples as civilizations that didn't have a written history until later. The Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and Bretons, like the Albanians, all developed writing and a written history and chronicle "post-contact" with larger civilizations with a written language! Only then to we get historical accounts, but this is based on account from neighboring civilizations or in other languages. Written documents in Irish didn't appear until the 6th century AD! (nothing written in Albanian until the 15th century) Which was precisely my point-- and we discuss Celts in precisely those terms of "their homeland appears to be in place X. The migrated to their current location during era Y. They had these certain dress habits and this is what their gods and religion were like."
posted by deanc at 8:17 AM on June 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


> there is almost no pre-Columbian American history, in the proper sense of that term

The problem with the "proper sense of that term" is that strictly relying on written accounts has the intrinsic problem of necessarily omitting crucial aspects of history (in the broad sense) and thereby biasing interpretation of those events. So we end up with a historical account that is largely "civilized" societies writing about their interactions with "savages," be they marauding Germanics, barbarous Africans, or simple Native Americans. Those histories are necessarily prejudicial and incomplete because they are one group writing about another group from an intensely outside perspective; they're just giving their own etic perspective.

This is why a conquistador account, like that of Diaz del Castillo, is actually less useful in understanding Pre-Columbian Mexico than accounts compiled decades later by people who actually spoke Nahuatl and lived in that culture, such as Duran and Sahagun. Diaz may tell an exciting and bloody story while Sahagun drones on about the featherworking industry, but ultimately the former tells us more about the writer of that text than it does about the people about which it is purportedly written.

The other problem with strictly relying on historical texts, is that while the written word may be the most efficacious way to record the juicy details of past events, it's also the easiest way to tell a fib. So we get "records" of people with heads in their chests, Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa, Amazons, and a pair of twins being suckled by a wolf. All of those stories, at best, may have a kernel of truth, but are so buried under their own myths and desire to make a point about contemporary life as to no more useful in interpreting history than using an oral history tradition (which is basically what they were, just written down).

Histories (in the narrow sense) may give the juicy details, but history (in the broad sense) is about interactions between peoples. So while potsherds and post-holes may not be quite as sexy as Caesar writing home about his genocide in Gaul, they are no less important in understanding past events and groups. Moreover, a polychrome fragment or an arthritic acetabulum can tell us things about the profoundly unsexy ways that most people actually lived, particularly the kind of people who don't get written about in history. So I don't find the argument that non-literate societies have no history to be examined particularly compelling. If students (and just curious people) want to really know about history, then they're going to have to delve into a midden pit eventually. If they just want a good story, they can keep reading the Iliad.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:24 AM on June 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


So wait, why not asian history again?

Why not where? My mid-Atlantic state middle school child has spent most of this year getting Asian history.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:43 AM on June 3, 2013


For some odd reason, Germans are deeply invested in a fantasy West, a lot of playing Cowboys and Indians goes on, and a lot of investment in the Noble Savage.

It's almost like a bunch of Americans rolling around in a big pile of sanitized middle ages every weekend.

No, I don't understand it either.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:58 AM on June 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's weird — all of my public schools were really heavy on Native American history, but only the local history. I can tell you a lot about the Hurons, Potowatami, Algonquins, Wyandots, Iroquois and their various bands, so long as they were in Southeastern Michigan. Outside of that, the amount of education decreased exponentially with distance — I know who the Navajo or Apache were, but outside of that broad swaths, I couldn't tell you anything.

(Ironically, one of the reasons why the Hurons were upset to be removed as my college's mascot is because there was a lot of rah-rah Hurons stuff that surrounded it that also focused on their history.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2013


This isn't exactly a history book, but I recently finished reading Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence and found it to provide a really good overview of some different native perspectives, historical contributions, and technologies. One of the points made in the book is that the way native knowledge was integrated into their societies and passed down has led to its being overlooked by western scientists. In addition, the exploitation of Indigenous knowledge (not to mention resources) has also led some tribes to be wary of sharing with people who have not always treated them with respect or been fair in their dealings. In any case, it's a great book, and I'd recommend it if anyone is interested in native American cultures. It was written by Dr. Gregory Cajete, who is a Tewa Indian.
posted by nTeleKy at 11:12 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's weird — all of my public schools were really heavy on Native American history, but only the local history.

I know about the Lenni Lenape and other "Eastern Woodlands" people for the same reason. Usually this is because state curriculum standards have long placed Native American topics in the 3rd/4th grade or so for decades, on the long-held theory that children learn history and social studies best from the local outward. So at K-1-2 there's family, neighorhood, city/"helpers", then by 3rd/4th state history (including Native often), and by 5th early American history. Broad strokes, but this has been generally true for a lot of state standards for a long time.

That doesn't mean all teachers were well prepared to teach Native American history, though. Just that they were expected to.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on June 3, 2013


Almost all of ours were field trips, and we had tribal elders come in and talk at least through middle school. High school, it all disappeared, but pretty much everything we saw from 4th through 8th was Native American trail/nature craft or Underground Railroad/don't do slavery.

(We took pretty much the same field trip every year — I still remember the guy's name that would lead 'em. Bill Browning. I still feel like the poor couple my girlfriend and I tricked into taking a parody tour of Ann Arbor would have enjoyed it much more if they had that context.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:07 PM on June 3, 2013


Sounds like yours was really exceptional, especially having elders talk to you.

We had a lot of the Holocaust in 7th and 8th instead.
posted by Miko at 5:50 AM on June 4, 2013


Huh. Like many things I do as a straight white male, I totally assumed that it was normal and everyone got that sort of stuff.

(We did the Diary of Anne Franke in 5th grade, as a read-along thing; we did the same thing in 8th grade with the Autobiography of Malcolm X.)
posted by klangklangston at 9:44 AM on June 4, 2013


So I am kind of starting to think there were a lot of college professors in your school district?
posted by Miko at 11:46 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Heh. Yeah, Ann Arbor's a college town.
posted by klangklangston at 2:27 PM on June 4, 2013


lupus_yonderboy: "just as big a part is that if we told the true story we'd have to admit that we, the Europeans, basically slaughtered most of them not long after we arrived and destroyed the culture and heritage of the rest."

Maybe things have changed, but when I went to high school in Texas (early 90s), that was pretty much the only thing we learned about Native Americans, so it definitely wasn't a reason for not teaching Native American history.
posted by Bugbread at 3:50 PM on June 4, 2013


klang, my jaw was really dropping as you described your experience, until the "A-ha, Ann Arbor!" moment. In my school (California) we learned that Indians lived on missions, and that models of missions could be made out of sugar cubes.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:35 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


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