Friday, August 12, 2016

Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong - A Review


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." - Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson

"The vast majority of those who fought and died for the Southern Confederacy had little in world goods and comforts. Neither victory nor defeat would have greatly altered their lot. Yet, for four long years, they waged one of the bloodiest wars in history. They fought for a principle: the right to live in a chosen manner. This dedication to a cause drove them to achieve a moment of greatness, which endures to this day." - Beverly M. Dubose, Jr,.

"They came with a Bible and their religion. They stole our land and crushed our spirit and now tell us we should be thankful to the 'Lord' for being saved." - Chief Pontiac

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." - Frederick Douglass

Loewen, James W. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

        What is history? Is history what actually happened, or is it what people say about what happened? Many people can say many different things about events that occurred and call it history. In Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, James W. Loewen argued that history is what people say about what occurred. Despite the fact that many different people can say many different things and pass them off as history, this is exactly what history is. What actually happened is the past; what people say about it is history, and with time and proper study, he argued, our understanding of history can change. Loewen opened his book with some explanatory essays that tell why historical markers are so important. He then went into a lengthy but effective survey of historical sites across the United States, in which, he pointed out omissions, poor language, and straight lies. Loewen concluded the book by pointing out that history does change and that by asking some educated questions, people can help to improve the way that history is presented to the public in this country. This would hopefully, he argued, with informed lessons and developed education methods, help along the process of developing a more inclusive and complete story of the American Historical Experience.
        In the first section of the book, which consists of five short essays, a few things stood out. In “In What Ways Were We Warped?” Loewen pointed out that the public’s understanding of history is skewed in a couple of ways. These are, mainly, poor presentation in public schools and inaccurate historical sites. He argued that the "We Won" syndrome drastically effects public school students understanding of history. For the historical markers, he offered an example whose absence should be considered a travesty. There is not one site in all of the state of Utah that makes mention of the fact that Native Americans were kidnapped, treated like, and indentured as slaves in Utah, right up until 1863, coinciding with the deliverance of Abraham Lincoln's 'Emancipation Proclamation.' In “Some Functions of Public History,” the two most interesting points that he argued were that most all historic sites have served to maintain the civic status quo of the time and place in which they were built and placed. He also argued that they will never likely challenge the government's interpretation of the past. He argued that this an unfortunate reality, and that historic sites can intentionally distort the facts of the past and negatively affect the future by perpetuating lies and disinformation.
        In “The Sociology of Historic Sites,” Loewen mentioned local boosterism, in which multiple locations have claimed to be the site of the first occurrence of some event or action, in order to draw tourists and tourism dollars. This, of course, takes away from the real historical value of what actually happened. The most interesting point gleaned from “Historic Sites are Always the Tales of Two Eras” is that every history marker or monument never tells just one story. It tells the story of the person or place that is being commemorated, but it also speaks volumes about the people that placed the historical commemoration, as well as, the social conditions of the times in which they lived. In “Hieratic Scale in Historical Monuments,” Loewen discussed issues of power display at monuments and pointed to the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. This statue has Roosevelt astride a horse high above a Native American and an African American. Such a presentation, whether done intentionally or not, has created the image that one race is has more power and is of more importance to history than another. It is a form of historical racism, and it too, can have negatives affect on the future by establishing an institutionalized understanding that certain people are jut not equal with the white ruling class.
        In the next section of the book, Loewen began his review of the multitudes of historic sites that dot the American landscape. Interestingly enough, he began his review in the West, which contradicts the modern story of American History, which begins in the East. He pointed this very fact out earlier in the book and stated that this approach recognized that the Americas were, in fact, first settled by migrants from Asia, directionally, from west to east, long before Europeans ever arrived. The section is divided into ‘The Far West,’ ‘The Mountains,’ ‘The Great Plains,’ ‘The South,’ ‘The Atlantic States,’ and ‘New England.’ This an important reality to make known in American history, as it puts most standard tales of America's journey towards its 'Manifest Destiny,' of a 'coast to coast bastion of liberty,' on their back.
        The most interesting story in the first section, ‘The Far West,’ was “Downieville, California: Killing a Man Is Not News.” In this essay, Loewen told of a woman, Josefa or Juanita (two different names were given), who, after a confrontation, in which her home was invaded, and she killed a white man, was lynched and actually ended up putting the noose around here own neck and jumping to her death. Her ‘last words’ are memorialized on the marker dedicated to her, “I would do the same again, if I was so provoked.” Loewen argued that the event that happened is clear evidence that at the time that it occurred, a man's life was worth more than a woman's, and even more, a White person's life was worth more than a Mexican American's life. Further, he argued that many people may still hold themselves to this arcane philosophy. However, he also argued that even though the marker commemorates a very tragic event, it does something else unique. In a strange way, it represents self-ownership for women. This woman proclaimed that she did what she did because her home was invaded, and under the same circumstances, she would have the right and would gladly do it again. Then, she did not give her would be lynchers the pleasure of stringing her up. She did it herself. She was not going to going to let a mob of men punish her for doing something that she was happy to do, even though, as an ardent Catholic, she knew that she had committed a mortal sin. For some, this would also stand as a testament to the strength of her faith.
        In the next section, ‘The Mountains,’ one will be most struck by “Almo, Idaho: Circle the Wagons, Boys – It’s Tourist Season.” The first thing that one will notice is that this site makes Native Americans appear savage and evil, and Loewen pointed that out. More interesting, though, is the fact that the site commemorated an event that as evidence has shown, never took place. The townspeople were also extremely defensive when the Idaho State Historical Society attempted to remove the inaccurate monument. This just goes to show the damage that a false marker or monument can do to the future. The site has the story so intensely ingrained into the locals sense of self and community identity that solid proof that the event never, in fact, took place is still not enough to convince them that it never happened. Just imagine what would have happened if the Idaho Historical Society tried to remove the monument by force. There is also the reality, which Loewen also pointed out, that the site generated a lot of money during tourist season. Taking it down would likely do a great deal of damage to the town's economy, so they are likely to continue to resist efforts to remove it.
        The most interesting story in ‘The Great Plains’ is “Brookings, South Dakota: American Indians Only Roved for About a Hundred Years.” A marker entering Brookings County states, “You Are About to Enter Brookings County – Home of roving Indians until 1862.” As Loewen effectively pointed out, this sign completely ignores the fact that Native Americans only began their roving lifestyle after they were forced to find ways to adapt to new conditions that resulted from incursions into their territories by Europeans. Most all native tribes before this time were settled. Loewen offered the Mandans of North and South Dakota as an example. A number of other tribes were forced into this lifestyle by European incursions, as well. Just consider the Lakota and the Dakota peoples. These were two tribes closely related to another not just by blood, but by language and geography. They were, originally, one people, and they lived in the forested regions of north-central Minnesota. After the United States subdued the tribes of the Great Lakes Region, in what Americanized history refers to as "Pontiac's Rebellion," the refugees from that conflict pressed westward. This brought them into conflict with the peoples that would become the Dakota and the Lakota upon their refugee style move further westward, their names roughly translating into "The Allies," and "The People." They were both part of what would become a confederation of seven plains tribes, which who would be collectively known as the "Sioux." The same would later happen to the Pawnee, who became the Sioux Confederation's mortal enemy, once white settlement evicted them out from their new home that had been vacated by the Dakota and Lakota not long before.
        The most interesting story in ‘The Midwest’ would be that of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, “Hodgenville, Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace Cabin – Built Thirty Years after His Death!” The title of this story is almost entirely self explanatory; the city of Hodgenville presents a cabin that is younger than Lincoln, as the man’s birthplace. What makes it more humorous is that the house that stands is actually a hodgepodge of materials from the original fake birthplace house and another such fake house that was actually supposed to be the birthplace of Jefferson Davis. How exactly are people supposed to take the site seriously with such a glaring set of contradictions? The answer is to just lie. Tell the people that it is what you say it is, and don't tell them it is really nothing more than just a cheap false replica. This way, much like the site in Idaho, people keep coming, and the people, in the town where the fake house stands, keep the tourist money rolling in and retain their jobs. This also requires the ability to not care that false knowledge is being spread to the population. Wait! This sounds a lot like propaganda!
        There are two titles in ‘The South’ that compete with one another for the label of most interesting. They are ""Gainesville, Texas: 'No Nation Rose So White and Fair; None Fell So Free of Crime'" and “Woodbury, Tennessee: Forest Rested Here.” The marker in Gainesville completely ignores the strong Union sentiment that was present in Cooke County at the time and justifies what was probably the largest mass lynching in US History because it was done in the name of Confederacy. Cooke county was, in fact, a very strong Union county, at least amongst the poor and small land/business owners of the county. The ruling elite of the county, however, the large plantation owning slave owners, were deep Confederates. When rumor spread to these ruling elites that some of their workers, combined with some of the small business owners in Gainesville and some of the small land owners from around the county, were planning on organizing a battalion for the Union, they called them all to a town meeting, under the guise of putting the issue to a county vote. They had a catch; though, everyone had to come unarmed. What would one think happened once this meeting gathered? If you thought, they all had a beer and a vote, you thought wrong. Five hundred or so union voters showed up to the town square in Gainesville, where they were immediately surrounded by the Confederate supporting slave owner's men, who had been hiding inside buildings. The Cooke County Judge, also a large slave holding land owner, then, immediately commenced to holding a massive treason hearing on behalf of the Confederate States of America. He, of course, found all the Union supporters guilty. They were then ordered shot. Those that were not shot, because the shooters ran out of bullets, were hung by the neck until dead on makeshift gallows or bludgeoned to death with the buttstocks of pre-Civil War era hunting rifles.
        The marker in Woodbury, Tennessee honors the man that founded the first nationwide incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which in all rights, earned the right to be called a terrorist organization, as it participated in the persecution of thousands of people across the country, in both the North and the South. The organization was founded the day before Christmas, in 1865. Nathan Bedford Forrest, and a number of other disgruntled Confederates, not satisfied with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, the previous April, banded together to continue the fight against "Northern Aggression." They, however, chose to employ methods that Lee had refused to employ, Threats of Violence, Guerrilla Warfare, and Domestic Terrorism. After the war, a great many northern businessmen, keen to take advantage of the need for stable supplies of basic survival stuffs, came to the South to strike it rich. If they did not do business the way that the native white southerners wanted them to; however, they could find themselves woken up in the middle of the night to a burning cross in their front yard, and a shotgun barrel in their mouth, warning them to get in line. There would be no second discussion. Also,when they were able, bands of masked men, almost all former Confederates, would engage Union Army patrols, whose job it was to patrol the countryside in former Confederate states to ensure that the African American population was able to travel without fear of reprisal from vengeful Confederates. The strongest social memory, however, is what they did to African Americans who worked with the Union Army, the Freedman's Bureau, and other agencies whose aim it was to equalize life for the freed slaves now looking for steady work.
        There were two problems with this situation, however. First, not all of the Union Troops actually cared about defending African Americans because they were just as racist as the former Confederates were. Second, the Union Army was not all seeing. They had to sleep sometime, and when they did, the KKK, with chapters sprung up all over the old South, commenced to hanging, burning, beheading, torturing, pulling apart with horses, drowning, shooting, beating to death, and many other things, every African American they could find that dared to even try to take advantage of the federal programs that were established to help them restart their lives. Eventually, President Ulysses S. Grant put the first incarnation of this terrorist outfit down, but not before, thousands of innocent men, women, and children lost their lives. Worse, very few of the leaders of this group were ever actually brought to justice for their Crimes Against Humanity. Now, here's the kicker. Nathan Bedford Forrest was not from Woodbury, Tennessee. He never lived there, he never slept there, and even more interesting, he never once even got off his horse there. He just happened to ride through the town whilst on a hanging mission one night, and the town has honored him for that for over a century. This, however, does not even taken into account the life size sculpture, on horseback, that idolizes him, even now, in Brentwood, Tennessee. This is what happens when hate is commemorated. People ignorantly qualify, take pride in, and glorify the actions of heartless, bigoted terrorists.
        The most interesting story in ‘The Atlantic States’ would be “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Remember the “Splendid Little War” – Forget the Tawdry Larger Wars.” The marker on the USS Olympia, the ship that served as the flagship of Admiral Dewey’s fleet in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, honors the ship’s service during that 'minor little' conflict but then ignores or minimizes any further service. It ignored, entirely, the ship's involvement in the United States’ war against the Philippines, which began almost immediately after the defeat of Spain in 1900. This "forgotten war" resulted in the conquest and subjugation of a sovereign people by the United States, which took the lives of approximately two-hundred and twenty-five thousand Filipino nationals, including Emilio Aguinaldo, the revolutionary leader in the Philippines who had helped the United States defeat Spain. It also skewed the ship’s role in the United States’ involvement in the Russian Civil War. The Olympia was involved in the deployment of troops into the Russian homeland, north of Moscow, and Eastern Siberia, north of Vladivostok. They were there to assist in an international effort whose purpose it was to assist the anti-Bolshevik 'White' Russians to defeat the Soviet 'Red' Russians, led by Vladimir Lenin. The White Russians were fighting a losing effort to regain control of what would soon become the Soviet Union. This United States' effort to assist, of course, was an abject failure that got very little news coverage in the United States. This was so because of the recent victory over the German Empire slightly westward, which looked a lot better on the front page of the The New York Times.
         In ‘New England’ one will find “Concord, New Hampshire: “Effective Political Leader”” to be extremely interesting. This story speaks of the marker dedicated to a man, President Franklin Pierce, who was involved in countless attempts to spread slavery. The most notable of his offenses were his involvement in the Ostend Manifesto and 'Bloody Kansas.' The Ostend Manifesto, aka Ostend Circular, was a document written in 1854 that described the rationale for the United States to purchase Cuba from Spain while implying that the United States. should declare war if Spain refused. The marker conveniently forgets these events. Cuba's annexation had long been a goal of U.S. slaveholding expansionists, and was supported by a faction in Cuba itself. Pierce supported this proposed action, though it never manifested itself because of Abolitionist opposition to the proposal in the North. Also in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, which some argue is the real beginning point of the American Civil War. The act left the decision for the two states to be free or slave up to whomever managed to settle the most people in the state, whomever had the most guns, and whomever had the most political support. This was another measure supported by Pierce, whose hope it was that both Kansas and Nebraska would vote to become slave states. They, of course, did not. Though, comparatively few people died in the 'Bloody Kansas,' or 'Border War,' conflict, as has been stated, it foreshadowed coming events. The marker dedicated to Pierce conveniently failed to mention these facts, as well.
        Following these essays, and the many others that tell of inaccurate or outright false history, are two essays that serve as a conclusion. These two essays, “Snowplow Revisionism” and “Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape,” show that public history is beginning to make progress. More and more sites are beginning to alter their historical presentations of the past, or at the very least, add on to them to tell more accurate stories. They also point out, however, that much work has yet to be done. They argue that it is the presents’ responsibility to ensure that the past is made accurately available to all persons in the future through an educated presentation of the past. They argue that this can only be achieved through mature public discourse. A lot can be gained from a book like this. First, and probably the most obvious, is that one can learn about places that they were previously unaware of. Second, one can gain a better understanding of the things that help to maintain the tense racial relations that exist in this country, to this very day. Third, this book may encourage a person to go visit certain sites for themselves, which would broaden their perspective on this country, it's past, and it's mixed history. Finally, one may also be encouraged to crusade for a local historical site, which has been previously ignored, to receive local, state, or federal recognition. They may also help to correct the record at historical sites where the facts have been presented inaccurately. In both cases, one can be sure, there are plenty of sites across the country that warrant such considerations.
        On a Refuse to Cooperate note, please now turn your attention to the photos at the top of this post. The first photo, moving from left to right is, of course, Mount Rushmore. Presented in this 3-D Mural, carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota, are the faces of, in order by dates of service, Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Two of these men are founders of the United States, one is the Champion of Civil War, and the other was the quintessential Republican Progressive of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The second photo is Stone Mountain in Georgia. From left to right, these men are Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Stonewall Jackson was a popular Confederate General, Robert E. Lee was the Senior Commander of the Confederate Army, and Jefferson Davis was both the first, and the last, President of the Confederate States of America. They were all three slave holders and traitors to the United States of America; yet, to many people in the American South, they are heroes that 'deserve' to be honored in this grotesque manner. Notice the disgusted sentiment that arose from the heroic presentation of these Confederates, who in any normal country, upon their defeat, would have been either shot up against a bloody wall or hung by the neck until their feet stop dangling for the crimes that they committed. Here is a weird paradox in history and how it is presented publicly. While Stone Mountain is only likely to elicit loyal annual supplicants in within the borders of the 'Old Confederacy,' the men represented on Mount Rushmore are likely to receive the adulation of citizens nationwide. Unless, of course, you are a Native American.
         Now, turn your attention to the fourth photo, which depicts the faces of four historically important Native American Chiefs.You cannot see it because of cropping, but they are floating like spirits above Mount Rushmore. They are Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, and Red Cloud. There have been other names suggested over the years. What was wantonly named Mount Rushmore, after a minor New York City investment banker, after he asked what the name of the monument was going to be, and the answer came back as, "Why not Mount Rushmore?" is, in the Lakota, Dakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa family of languages referred to as, "The Six Grandfathers." The Black Hills have been considered sacred for millennia to many Native American nations from around the United States and Canada. This geographic area contains some of the oldest mountains in the world, in addition to, several of the longest caves in the world, as well as, steep deposits of the precious metal, gold. The Black Hills in South Dakota were a Native American sacred area where many tribes conducted ceremonies such as the vision quest and the Sun Dance, which are used for making contact with the spirit world and obtaining spiritual power. For thousands of years, hot mineral springs were used for healing purposes. It was here that various tribes gathered the sacred medicines, the plants, that they needed for healing and for ceremonial use. Admittedly, a great deal of progress has been made in repairing relations over the theft of the Black Hills. In 2004, Gerard Baker, of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, was the first Native American Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Park. He had previously been Superintendent at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. When he was offered the position at Mount Rushmore, he called the elders of local tribes and asked their advice. He was expecting them to tell him not to take the job, but instead was told that this would be a good place to start the healing. Despite this progress, imagine how entire generations have felt, and whole generations to come will feel, looking up to "The Six Grandfathers," and seeing the faces of white men who led a nation that murdered their people, collapsed their economy, destroyed their religion, raped them of their identity, and stole their most sacred holy lands?
        Now, very quickly, go back to the third photo. Recognize what the chains on an African's hands means, and then equate that to how tight of a chain grip is kept upon the the American story. Be ready to loose that grip. Now, let's do our best to look at all of this as objectively as is possible. Each of the mentioned in these photos actually existed. There is no denying the lifetimes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, and Red Cloud, or any of the other people that have been mentioned in this review. They are all part of the past. Nor can one deny the things that happened. There was a Revolutionary War, Slavery did exist, the United States did steal what is now the American Southwest from Mexico, there was a Civil War, the KKK did and still does exist, the United States did kill off an entire people, subvert their religion, and steal their land, in Native America, and the Philippine-American War, among many other things, did happen. They, too, are all a part of the past. The question that has to be asked and answered here is, "What kind of history is this, and how is it going to be told?" Is it all going to continue to be the kind of history that is told to stroke the egos of individual sections of society, or is there some way to synthesize the story of these past events into a single comprehensive history that tells the world who we are and what we have been through to get where we are today? To be frank, there is already a term that is sufficiently inclusive to encompass each of these past events and historical figures without compromising the significance of their individual stories. It is called American History. The problem with the term, as it stands now, however, is that in its present connotation, it reflects the history of the White Man's America, and how great the White Man is, and how America would not be the America that it is without the White Man. This has got to go, and as quickly as is humanly possible! What must replace it is an American History that includes every American and every event; but only this time, it has to be accompanied by the dirt. This thing happened, these were the people involved, this is how people were hurt, this is how people were benefited, some people got the advantage over others, we are not proud of it, but we are working together, as Americans, to fix it and make it look a lot better. Would you like to join the team?

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