Past Silences

Virginia Indian Program

Most of us began to learn what we know about the past in grade school, not through history courses, but through a hybrid discipline called social studies. Social studies are defined as the “integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” The assumption is that social sciences, because they’re called sciences, are based on objective observation and facts rather than subjective interpretation. In the same way, we often imagine history to be an objective analysis of the past. But the truth is, our stories about who we are, and who we were, are grounded within a Western frame of reference.

Stories are made of silences. What the writers of stories—of history—believe to matter becomes the narrative, and what they think doesn’t matter is excluded. Those who construct the story, therefore, exercise tremendous power: the power conferred by academic authority, or by a state or national agenda. In the U.S., our national historical narrative centers around the story of European arrival and westward movement. It tends to include peoples and events that are seen as integral to the preferred story line and to exclude or minimize those who aren’t . What we’ve gained, as most of us know, is an intimate understanding of the lives of Europeans and subsequent Americans who were male, white and wealthy, for the most part. What we’ve lost are the stories of almost everyone else: women, children, poor people, people of color, indigenous peoples. The majority.

Mythologized version of Pocahontas saving John Smith. Based on the engraving “Smith Rescued by Pocahontas,” by Christian Inger, 1870, Virginia Historical Society.

Other kinds of stories emerge from the cultures of traditional American Indian communities: stories that show how people came into the world, how to avoid mistakes of all kinds, how to find beauty, how to reciprocate, how to think in balance. These stories are rarely linear: tribal peoples often construct time as cyclical and believe that human beings do not progress but repeat. They imagine themselves in relation to the world around them, not as separated by a man vs. nature dichotomy. In societies with strong oral traditions, people have always valued their orators and storytellers—the keepers of wisdom, faith, and law—those who were careful not to omit what they themselves had been taught by their elders. Within these societies, civic responsibility was embedded and codified in oral narrative, transmitted from one generation to the next.

When Europeans arrived on this continent, they brought their assumptions with them. They named things that already had names, writing over the existing indigenous story, transforming the oral narrative with their “discoveries,” creating categories in which indigenous and enslaved people became “Others.” They called inhabited land “virgin wilderness” and created the Doctrine of Discovery, which justified their claims to land. They interpreted humanity in terms of a dichotomy: civilized vs. barbarian, and they applied the theory of social Darwinism to human evolution. The stories of tribal peoples began to appear in museums of natural history, with dinosaurs, animals, and insects rather than in history museums, with stories of human beings. Another dichotomy delineated the beginning of history as the moment of European arrival, preceded by “pre-history.” Because pre-history has no written narrative, thousands of years of Native presence was minimized. We can think of history in this case as the covering of ancient (oral) texts by writing over them, the burial of historical sites by building on top of them. Call it the Americas.

Stephen Adkins, VFH Board Member and Chief of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, presenting at NMAI on the differing experiences of European-Native contact. Photo by Katherine Fogden, National Museum of the American Indian.

As a result, the majority of Americans became invisible, and the national narrative was constructed without their perspectives and experiences, or their consent. The notion of objective history created a narrative in passive voice. Words were manipulated, often unconsciously, when applied to people who were considered Other. Words like extinct. Disappeared. Vanished. Anthropological notions about cultural isolation and contact inserted identity markers like authentic and full-blood, suggesting that Native peoples are now not as “real” as they were in the past. Euphemistic language celebrated European accomplishments: discovery, not conquest. Battles, not massacres. Other forms of linguistic manipulation simplified tribal peoples and their lifeways: villages, not towns; gardens, not agriculture; survival skills, not science; legends or myths, but not history. Words like savage. Like lore. Indigenous peoples appeared in past tense: they lived in wigwams, hunted buffalo, wore buckskin…as though all of the indigenous people had died or a Native person in a suit and tie couldn’t be a “real” Indian. The overall effect suggested that some people are naturally superior to others—more civilized, smarter, more successful—and resulted in race-based ideologies from which American society is still reeling today.

If the purpose of social studies is to create civic competence in American students, then we must ask ourselves to what degree we’ve succeeded. Are we educating a public that remains unaware of the experiences of most of the people who populated America’s past? How can we change those stories we think we know, to make them more inclusive, more complete; and what will we lose if we don’t? We can ask ourselves who decides what is momentous and why. Does an imagined national destiny foreshadow the sequence of events? Who invented democracy, free enterprise, cultural pluralism? Did these ideas exist before Europeans arrived, and if so, in what forms? What kinds of American myths do we package for public consumption? Pocahontas, the first Thanksgiving? Who “owns” the story, and who has a stake in its telling? How do sites that interpret our shared history communicate to the public? Was it really a New World? To whom?

The past is not history. It is all of what happened, not some of what some have said happened. For all of us, truth lies not in being faithful to a view of what mattered but in confronting the present as it re-presents the past, and in examining current injustices. If we want a history that is closer to the truth, we need to create and recreate our stories in the present. We must suffuse them with new layers of meaning. We must revise our narratives, inserting absent voices. We must seek words that resist erasure.

Karenne Wood is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation. She directs Virginia Indian Programs at VFH and is a PhD candidate and Ford Fellow in anthropology at the University of Virginia, working to revitalize indigenous languages and cultural practices. She has worked at the National Museum of the American Indian as a researcher. Karenne held a four-year gubernatorial appointment as Chair of the Virginia Council on Indians. She is the author of Markings on Earth, which won the North American Native Authors Award for Poetry in 2000. She is the editor of The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, now in its third edition; and she recently contributed a chapter on Southeastern Indians for National Geographic’s Indian Nations of North America.

This article was also published in Indian Country Today ».