Monday, February 1, 2010

Howard Zinn: On the Native American Perspective

When Howard Zinn lectured in Houghton in 1994, his remarks included stories about his well-known book, A People’s History of the United States. One such story involved the first chapter of the book, a chapter that examines the arrival of Columbus in North America from the Indians’ perspective.

Zinn didn’t tell this story until nearly the end of his lecture, but something in his tone suggested – at least to me -- that he wanted to emphasize it, to leave us with this so we would remember.

He had good reason to do this, if in fact it was his motive. “The really crucial distortions in history come not from lies,” he had told us, “but from omissions.” One of the most significant of these omissions has been the neglect and even suppression of the Native American perspective in history.

In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn addressed this omission head-on. Here’s what he said about it to the audience at Michigan Tech.

Howard Zinn:

“I’ll say one more thing. It has to do with Native Americans, with Indians. When I began to write my book, A People’s History of the United States – and I knew already what my point of view was, I knew I was going to write American history from the standpoint of people who I felt had been ignored mostly in American history. …. I knew I had to start the book with Columbus, because there it is at the beginning. …. And I had learned about Columbus just the way every American has learned for generations about Columbus, the same story. About Columbus the adventurer, Columbus the brave man, Columbus the intrepid sailor, Columbus the discoverer of the New World, one of our heroes. ….

“What about the point of view of the people he encountered when he arrived, the Native Americans, the Indians? What would their point of view be about Columbus? And so in looking into that I learned – I’m a little ashamed to say this. Here I was with a PhD in history, and I was learning about Columbus things that I absolutely did not know. About what he did. About Columbus as a person who kidnapped Indians, who enslaved them, who mutilated them, who killed them, and who was driven by greed, by profit, by the need to send something back to his financiers back in Europe. And how a whole Indian population on Hispaniola, on this island that Columbus and his other Spanish conquerors spent time on, how a whole Indian population was wiped out on that island. And so I started my book that way.

“I found that when my book appeared, and I began to get mail from around the country about the book, almost all of the mail was about the first chapter of the book. About Columbus. …. It seemed that the reason was that this was the most startling thing in the book. Because Americans have not been given that information. ….

“If you begin to look at American history from a Native American point of view, lots of things look different. The whole ‘noble’ history of American expansion – which I remember in high school making me proud, as I looked on the map that the teacher put up there showing how we grew -- ‘grew’ as if it were a biological thing, just ‘natural’ in our genes to grow – from this straggling bunch of colonies along the Atlantic across to the Pacific. At whose expense? How many people did we kill? How many tribes were massacred? How many civilizations were destroyed by that great triumphant expansion?

“If you look at the Civil War …. during the Civil War, more land was taken from the Indians in the West than in any other period of American history. During the Civil War, while some armies were fighting the Confederates, other armies of the United States government were out west destroying Indian tribes in order to gain more territory. In 1863, the very time that the Emancipation Proclamation had just been issued, an Army out in Utah was massacring a Shoshone tribe of peaceful Indians to get that territory. In 1864, another massacre [took place] at Sand Creek, Colorado. Now, in how many historical accounts of the Civil War do we learn about that? ….

“If we don’t want … to repeat those horrors, then it seems to me that it’s absolutely necessary … to get away from that nationalistic narrow white male elite point of view which is given to us in our history books.”

During Q&A after Zinn’s remarks, an audience member made this comment:

“You brought up the Native perspective of history …. An example in 1934 is the Indian Reorganization Act. Reservations were supposed to be sovereign nations [but] the Indian Reorganization Act forced Natives to change their governments to resemble ‘democratic systems.’ Another example would be the supposed ‘freedom of religion’ … where they took native children off the reservation and took them to a boarding school, and if they practiced their religion or spoke their language they were beaten and whipped. The last boarding school closed in 1987. You could just dwell on Leonard Peltier still being in prison. That’s a whole other realm of the Native perspective, and Native issues not being [included in] history. It’s still going on today.”

Zinn replied:

“What you’re saying of course is important, and this is a huge gap in our knowledge of American history, something that’s passed over very very quickly. I think one of the important things that’s passed over is the kind of civilizations that Native Americans developed on this continent before the presumably ‘advanced’ civilization of the white man came in to replace it.

“The example that you cite is part of that, where – in the 19th century they decided at a certain point that they’ve got to take young Indians out of the tribal atmosphere and send them to boarding schools so they could be acculturated in the American way – an attempt, really, to destroy Indian culture. Senator Dawes, the author of the Dawes Act – which had as its motive the sort of turning of the Indians, well, into little capitalists, little individual owners of land – Dawes at one point visited a Cherokee tribe, and came away saying, ‘Really, these people, I don’t understand them, they sort of own everything in common, they share things. They don’t understand what is at the root of civilization: selfishness!’ That’s the word he used, really.”

Again, thanks to Howard Zinn and to everyone who helped bring him to Houghton in 1994.